A question that arises which proponents of phonics have to keep coming back to challenge over and over again is whether the writing system is truly phonic. Many words, it is alleged, contain ‘unphonetic spellings’. A moment’s pause for reflection will persuade any right-thinking person that this is baloney. As I never tire of reminding anyone who confronts me with this nonsense, all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. Ergo, there are no ‘unphonetic’ words; however, complex they might seem to the layperson.
Daniel and Bright’s strictures on the subject are illuminating. From the outset, their scholarly tome The World’s Writing Systems, makes explicit that experts on the subject of the writing systems of the world’s languages are in total agreement about one important fact: that writing systems represent the sounds in languages.
Furthermore, Daniels maintains that writing, or ‘the marks that record the languages of the documents produced by civilizations…must be studied’. Moreover, and despite claims to the contrary, while all human infants learn their own language(s) naturally, ‘no infant illiterate absorbs its script with its language: writing must be studied’.
To claim, therefore, that some people learn to read and write as naturally as they learn to speak is simply a fiction. People who make such a claim are suffering from amnesia – and I’m not being flippant. It is a fact that, after the age of seven years or thereabouts, our memories of early childhood rapidly deteriorate to the extent that we can remember very little of what happened in the early years.
At some point, whether it is simply that someone reading to a young child slides their finger under the words – thus, of course, making explicit, in some way, that the squiggles on the page represent sounds and words – or, more likely, the other thousand and one interventions that take place in the life of a child growing up in a literate society, a child needs to learn the alphabetic principle. If the interventions are insufficient or incoherently presented, it is highly unlikely that a child will become literate; whereas, even in the teeth of a degree of inconsistency of presentation, given adequate resources, another child may well scramble through the complexity of cracking an opaque code.
Of course, it is much better for everyone concerned if the child is presented from the off with a coherently structured system showing how the sounds of the language are related to those squiggles on the page, which Daniels defines as ‘a system of more or less permanent marks used to represent an utterance in such a way that it can be recovered more or less exactly without the intervention of the utterer’. He also, from the outset, dispenses with the idea that pictograms, the representation of things through the medium of whole images, were the precursors of writing systems. They were not and, what is more, there is no evidence to support such an idea! This is because, among other things, writing systems have to include numerous things that cannot be embodied by pictures. These would include not only such things as abstract nouns and verbs but also the complexities of the language, such as verb inflections and morphophonemic elements of the language. ‘It is,’ Daniels asserts, ‘thus necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of a language.’
Most scholars also agree that numerous early lexical texts unearthed by archaeologists and studied by philologists were manuals for the teaching of writing. This would ensure the structured transmission of the system from generation to generation and that the method of instruction was passed on along with the practical knowledge of the script. It would seem that this would constitute an excellent idea to return to en masse within the teaching profession.
Daniels and Bright are in no doubt: ‘It is … generally agreed that strategies for teaching reading that do not incorporate the study of phonics (correspondence between spelling and sound) are at least inefficient, and probably ineffective as well.’