Phonics #1: RRF and Government Policy

At a recent major conference on the teaching of synthetic phonics I found myself engulfed by an interesting array of synthetic phonics gurus as well as Nick Gibb Minister of State, Department for Education since May 2010 and ex tax inspector, but now synthetic phonics advocate; quite a scary place to be.

As messages of ‘…this must be our avowed core purpose’ sang from the stage, so members of the audience sprang to their feet in support. This is a seriously committed group which has been fighting its cause for a very long time and now finds it has political support from the very top. Carpe diem…

The absolute importance of teaching young children to understand the alphabetic code in order for them to decode, segment and ultimately to be able to access the rich and diverse world of reading for enjoyment and for learning, is a given. I believe we owe it to the children to share the facts about the alphabetic code. Phonics works for most and to work it must be systematic – all teaching needs a master plan and a consistency for children to benefit. No argument.

But ironically, I think the government focus may work against this body of expertise and its cause. The experts are under no illusion that phonics is but a very small, quick and necessary part of a young child’s language teaching. It is a means to an end and not an end in itself. Most programmes offer a possible route for teachers to follow – it is after all not a science. It’s not which sequence you follow or which rules – it’s having a sequence and having rules to share that counts; not least so that you can explain the anomalies. And there always will be some because that is both the joy and the nightmare of the English language.

Amongst cries from this government of ‘freedom for teachers as professionals’ lurks the truth that in this area of early reading skills – the most fundamental of areas – experts, teachers and parents alike are being constrained and manipulated. Censoring, vetting and BOGOF deals on commercial synthetic resources and training will not guarantee good results –it’s naïve at best. Presenting a teaching approach which still allows for some creative interpretation as the Holy Grail – the dogma – is counterproductive.

So, I’m with the phonics experts; indeed I consider myself to be one of sorts. I’m addicted to cracking the code and finding helpful and creative ways to present that for children and teachers in the context of a rich and engaging curriculum. My plea is to avoid bullyboy tactics but rather to invest in longitudinal research and quality initial teacher training. Keep the market open and teaching creative to essentially ensure the very best for all young children.

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