Wednesday 18 October 2023

The Joy of Phonics

 He used to condemn me for putting Newbery's books into their hands as too trifling to engage their attention. 

     "Babies do not want to hear about babies; they like to be told of giants and castles, and of somewhat which can stretch and stimulate their little minds." 

When in answer I would urge the numerous editions and quick sale of Tommy Prudent or Goody Two Shoes: 

   "Remember always that the parents buy the books, and that the children never read them.”

  • Hester Thrale-Piozzi, Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson had a great many opinions about books that seem surprising when coming from one of literature’s greatest figures. He treated the physical objects appallingly and he rarely finished anything he read. Some of the few books he actually read from cover to cover were trashy tales about knights, giants and castles, books he had loved as a child.

When it came to the recommendation of books for children, he strongly recommended that the children choose what interest them and the parents support them. In the above quote, he denigrates all of children’s literature as it was (mainly chap-books and the output of Newbery) with the little zinger about how it’s the parents that buy the books, not the children.

For the past twenty years or so, the British government have been heavily supporting synthetic phonics as the primary way to teach children to read. That the children are taught how letters and combinations of letters (called graphemes) produce certain sounds (called phonemes). Personally, I think this is a solid strategy when used in combination with others but phonics have become in the be-all-and-end-all in education. Now the government has stated that only phonics should be used to teach children to read and as a result, they should be taught in books that are told in words that are phonetically decodable up to the reading level of the book.

I have many problems with this - principally that the English language is in no way phonetically stable and the various schemes tie themselves in celtic knots to try and avoid this problem. I could go on about this aspect for pages and pages, but here I just want to bring up a problem with the books.

They have no content.

Samuel Johnson declared that children want to hear stories that ‘stretch and stimulate their little minds’, these books do nothing of the sort. Reading is far more than turning marks on a page into sounds and those sounds into words, it’s about accessing and making use of the meaning of the sentences.. if there is no real meaning, it’s pointless.

My school has purchased a set called ‘Collins Big Cat Phonics’. At five pounds a pop, they consist of 8 printed pages and a cardboard cover loosely stapled together. They are frequently poorly designed, using stock photos or cheap illustrations. They rip, tear and come undone with the slightest pressure.

At the simplest level, the books only use words using the sounds ‘s a t p i n’. This doesn’t include sounds using ‘ai’ or consonant clusters like ‘st’. Because of this, a book at the earliest level consists of words like ‘pat’ ‘sat’ nap’ and ‘nip’. The following is a direct transcription of one of these books.

‘pit pat pit pat tip tap tip tap pit pat tip tap pit pat pit pat tip tap it pat pat it sip sip nap nap’ - this is a non fiction book about the weather.

In later books, greater varieties of sound can be used, as can ‘tricky words’, words that don’t follow the more basic phonetic structures but are essential in telling even the most basic story, words like ‘the’.

Another strange result of these limitations, is that the non-fiction books frequently include factual errors because the correct information is not phonetically decodable. The books also include what is simply the wrong choice of word. There’s one with a picture of a game of whack-a-mole where the words say ‘pat pat' - it’s whack-a-mole, not pat-a-mole. Another book  describes a girl stealing and eating a gingerbread man with the words, ‘nip a man’. The girl is nicking a man, nabbing a man, nibbling a man but in no way is she nipping it.

There’s an element of risk, me talking about this, even on a blog as out of the way as this. I’m not certain that complaining about the school’s (and indeed the government’s) phonics programme is breaking the school’s code of conduct a little - even if I am not naming the school. But one book broke me.. it was this one.

The writer, Samantha Montgomerie seems to specialise in these phonics books for many different schemes and she doesn’t do that bad a job. In ‘King of the Kicks’, she manages to tell a charming story about a kung-fu cat who foils a robbery with his moves. ‘It’s fun to think’ gives me physical pain though and I am about to break copyright and reproduce the whole book - remember, this is flimsy and badly put together and costs £5.

My big question… what is it about? Is it about taking time to think? Then why is 15% of the book about bees and another 15% about running? Why is there are complete non-sequitur about the texture of moss or the movement of a fish? Why does the picture labelled ‘We sit and think’ show children laying down? 

Even if you argue that the book is about children enjoying the countryside, why are they different children each time? This book is simply a number of stock images with phonetically decodable captions put in a random order in some pages. There’s no ‘there’ there. If Newbery’s books are trifling (and two of my favourite authors Kit Smart and Oliver Goldsmith wrote some of those books) then what are these? This book is pap, not even pap because pap is broadly nourishing. No-one is being stimulated by this, nor are they gaining a love of reading.

The fact is, that not only does a phonics only approach ignore the fact that English is barely phonetic, not only does it tie itself into knots about the six ways of making an ‘ay’ sound but it reduces reading to a dull mechanical act. Where’s the joy in ‘It is fun to think’? Where’s the pleasure? Where’s the reward? As a lover of the written word, it simply hurts.

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