On a phonics training I ran on Tuesday for graduate teachers on the GTP course, I had a most interesting conversation with one of the trainees. The trainee has been asked to teach some phonics lessons in a Buckinghamshire primary school and showed me a list of spellings that were to be sent home each week.
I should say from the outset that the pupils were working in the Initial/Basic Code. The first list appeared to focus on the spelling ss at the ends of short words. The words included ‘grass’, ‘brass’, and so on. However, one word in particular stood out. The word was ‘ass’, meaning of course ‘donkey’. Now, anyone speaking English with a ‘northern’ accent would not bat an eye at the list. However, in accents of the children in the area of the country in which the school is situated, the spelling a in all of the words in the spelling list, with the exception of the word ‘ass’, represented the sound ‘ar’, as in ‘father’.
The spelling a in ‘ass’ represents the sound ‘a’, as in ‘mat’. What this leaves the graduate teacher with is having to explain the fact that the spelling a is ‘a’ in the word ‘ass’ but ‘ar’ in all the other words. This, when the focus of the exercise was really on the spelling ss at the ends of short words!
Not that the focus was made explicit to the graduate teacher. The lists are handed out and it is assumed that the graduate teacher will know how they are to be mediated. Neither are the parents of the children told how the children are to learn the spellings, nor what the focus of the exercise is.
You may think that this list an anomaly? Sadly, not! The next list introduced the same kind of confusion. This time between sounds represented by the spelling oo. In this list, all words represented the sound ‘oo’, as in ‘book’ (‘southern’ pronunciation), again with one exception: the word ‘cool’, in which the oo spelling represents the sound ‘oo’ as in ‘moon’.
You might think that these are after all rather trivial examples. I wouldn’t agree. It is this kind of sloppy or just plain ignorant mediation of phonics teaching that causes such confusion in the minds of young children who need systematic, explicit and, above all, clear instruction.
The teachers at the school who produced these lists have, by the way, been ‘trained’ in phonics, using a well-known phonics programme. Unfortunately, the training didn’t extend to the teaching of how the alphabet code works in relation to the sounds of the language, nor how to teach the code.