Independent? Only from the truth when it comes to phonics

You know what they say? There are lies, damn lies and press reports about the government’s phonics screening check – especially in the Independent. I think Leveson should be instructed to look into journalistic standards at the Independent.

The latest, penned pseudonymously by ‘Jennifer Jackson’, has got to be one of the most rebarbative fabrications I have ever seen. Shame on the Independentnewspaper for publishing such trash!

According to the author, when it comes to phonics teaching, parents are cowed into silence under threat of ‘retaliation’ from, presumably, teachers. I don’t know what kind of fantasy world the writer lives in but the scenario of terrorized parents meekly submitting before some kind of early years Gestapo is not one I recognise.
And, of course, we have wheeled out the usual ‘concern’ expressed by such ‘experts’ as Professor Joan Freeman, who has probably never taught an early years phonics class in her life.
After inveighing against the introduction of nonsense words into the test, the piece settles, as always, on the word ‘strat’, which, apparently, good readers misread as ‘start’.  I can see how that might happen, though if a child were to lose one mark because of this kind of error, no-one, not even Obersturmbannfuhrer Y1 teacher is going to bat an eye. However, one of the most common errors experienced practitioners see when children, who’ve not been taught through the medium of a good quality phonics programme, are reading and writing is that they look at the first letters or letters and guess the rest of the word. They might also attend only to the outer segments of a word and not pay attention to the internal details.
If a child reads ‘strat’ as ‘start’, they are not processing the word accurately and when children do this frequently, they can’t make sense of connected text. In other words, the check is useful in identifying the kinds of maladaptive strategies some children resort to because they haven’t been taught to decode properly.
To claim also that children are confused by nonsense words is frankly laughable. If teachers are doing their job properly, they are telling children taking the check that some words are not real words. There’s even a cartoon type figure to alert the child to which particular words are non-words.
The next red herring is meaning. Nonsense words, by definition, don’t have meaning. But then many words that children encounter in their reading are unfamiliar to them. They still need to be decoded accurately, as any reader of Roald Dahl or Edward Lear would confirm.

At this point the writer proves beyond all doubt that ‘she’ should have stuck to parenting because ‘she’ sure as hell don’t know anything about teaching reading! ‘She’ tells us next that ‘phonics is all about the sound a letter or group of letters make’. Wrong! Letters don’t make sounds. They represent the sounds of the English language. If young children are taught that letters ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds, then they come to believe, because of the complexity of the code, that letters can ‘make’ or ‘say’ any sound. The alphabet code is driven by sounds. The arbitrary assemblage of squiggles we call letters represent those sounds.

In comparison with other European alphabet codes (Spanish, German, Italian), the English alphabet code is notoriously opaque. But to say that it is complex, doesn’t mean that ‘focusing on phonics gives out the wrong message’. The benighted writer demonstrates her complete ignorance of what phonics is by maintaining that ‘not all words can be decoded’. Oh dear! It is so sad that a newspaper like the Indie can give space to this kind of rubbish. All words are comprised of sounds. The sounds in every word in English have been assigned spellings, otherwise, doh, Jennifer Jackson, we wouldn’t be able to read them, would we? What’s more, the words ‘one’ and ‘was’ make manifest the authors confusion. She says: ‘In phonic speak, the former would read “wun” and the latter “woz”.’ Well yes, they, er, would. That’s because that’s how people (depending on accent) say those words. And, of course, it’s true that in the early stages of teaching children to read, words containing greater complexities present the phonics teacher with a challenge. An answerable challenge, I would add. But language isn’t entirely orderly and there are anomalies. The fact is these anomalies are relatively few and they can be dealt with.

Another specious argument wielded by ‘Jackson’ is that children who can read ‘a fair number of words are being encouraged to go back to basics’. This recalls the oft-made claim that phonics is all about ‘kuh’ ‘a’ ‘tuh’. Actually, it isn’t! Phonics takes children from being able to read and spell ‘cat’ to being able to read and spell ‘catastrophe’, which is a ‘fair’ description of Jackson’s outpouring of nonsense.
However, the most mendacious and execrable part of the article is the utterly untruthful allegation that teachers are teaching children to write words incorrectly. If there is one iota of truth in the writer’s claim that a teacher is demanding that children spell certain words phonetically when they are able to spell them correctly, the teacher should be taken out of the classroom immediately. I suspect there is no such teacher and that the hysterical assertion has been made to create disquiet amongst parents who have no knowledge of what phonics teaching is truly about.
The piece by ‘Jennifer Jackson’ is not journalism. It’s agitprop and it should have no place in a reputable newspaper.