The anti-phonics crackpots have been out again this weekend. On Saturday, Mike Lloyd-Jonesmade me smile when he pointed out the spurious logic of one anti-phonics writer of a letter to the Guardian newspaper. The writer attempted to discredit phonics by using the kind of invented spelling that phonics advocates have by now become used to: ‘fonics’ and ‘krazie’.
As Mike points out so cogently:
“What is actually amusing about this attempt at humour is that it concedes the very point it’s trying to attack. We can understand this letter because we know that letters in words are used to represent the sounds we hear in those words and we can use our phonic knowledge to read it because it is written using phonemically plausible spelling…”
Yesterday (Sunday) saw a similarly crude attempt to invalidate the reasoning behind phonics teaching, this time by the BBC. Paddy O’Connell introduced the piece on ‘Broadcasting House’ by saying that ‘teachers and parents have been poring over the first results of new reading tests for half a million year 1 children. The tests in England and Wales involve phonics in which six-year-olds are encouraged to spell words on the basis of sounds rather than recognising just the letters in the written word.’
To begin with, other than their own children’s results, ‘parents certainly are not ‘poring over the results’ because they have not been made public. Secondly, the ‘tests’, as he referred to them, were not taken by any children in Wales. Thirdly, the children were asked to read the words and not ‘spell’ them, as O’Connell stated. This is, of course, a typical example of the kind of shoddy journalism we have come to expect from people writing or broadcasting on the subject of phonics.
The programme went on to invite listeners to send in sentences made up any of the following nonsense words: dar, veng, quoam, yurk, doit, ploob, spunch, grint, pronk, gax, zort, koob, zog, vot, jound, terg, jape, snemp. Naturally, there was no effort on the part of the programme to contextualise this nor to state clearly that nonsense words constituted only a part of the phonics screening check brought in by the government last year.
At the end of the programme, someone proffered the following contribution: ‘Michael Gove is a terrible terg. Fancy calling a phonics decoding test with made up words a reading test. Yerk! What kind of pointless pronk is that. I’d like to spunch him.’
As Mike pointed out in his response to the Guardian writer, this kind of thing ‘concedes the very point it’s trying to attack’. Any literate person, for which read any person who is able to decode the words on the page, will be able to read what is written and will, from the contextual clues in the sentences, interpret the terms ‘terg’, ‘yerk’ and ‘pronk’ to signify the writer’s disapproval of Gove and of the check.
Despite the fact that children as young as six-years-old are, on average, understand the meanings of as many as 10,000 words* (many more words than they are able to read at this point), there will often be many words, real or made-up, they don’t recognise. Some of these words may be of the kind favoured by Edward Lear or Roald Dahl. (It’s ironic, isn’t it, that many of the anti-phonics fanatics are the most fervid champions of Carroll, Dahl, and Lear.) Adults will also come across unknown words in the writings of, amongst others, Philip Dick, the great science fiction writer. Nevertheless, to understand words in print, the first thing a reader needs to be able to do is decode – translate spellings into sounds in words. If then a word is not within the individual’s vocabulary, the reader can ask someone who is more likely to know the meaning, consult a dictionary, or guess from the context.
What anti-phonics campaigners are ideologically blind to is the fact that to be able to derive meaning from print, a person has to be able to decode. English is much more complex than most other alphabetic languages and thus harder to learn. It must, therefore, be taught systematically from simple to more complex by well-trained teaching professionals. When that doesn’t happen, we have what we have been left with for the best part of the last century, a long tail of people who aren’t able to read the kinds of things that everyone in such a print-rich environment as ours needs every day.
*William O’Grady in How Children Learn Language (Cambridge Approaches to Linguistics) says that the figure is nearer 14,000 words and that, from around that time, children learn as many as twenty new words a day.