Yesterday’s article in the Huffington Post demonstrates perfectly why reading and spelling are taught so appallingly in the USA and the UK.
In her article ‘The Crisis in Education: Let’s Not Wait for Superman’, Dr Marion Blank talks about the problem of illiteracy in schools in the USA and reports a failure rate of between thirty-five and forty percent. She’s absolutely right! So far, so good! However, this is where it all starts to go downhill. Quoting a line from a Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat - ‘The sun did not shine . It was too wet to play. So we sat in the house on that cold, cold wet day.’ - she claims that only the words ‘sun’, ‘did’, ‘not’, ‘shine’, ‘wet’, ‘sat’, ‘in’ and ‘wet’ can be ‘sounded out’. This is, of course, not at all accurate (I’m being polite!). All of the words in the text can be ’sounded out’ or segmented into their constituent sounds. Thus:
Th e s u n d i d n o t sh i ne. I t w a s t oo w e t t o p l ay. S o w e s a t i n th e h ou se th a t c o l d, c o l d w e t d ay.
There is clearly a problem here and Dr Blank has gone some way to highlighting what it is. The problem with phonics, as it is traditionally mediated, is that it is taught back to front. The words ‘sun’, ‘did’, ‘not’, ‘sat’, ‘in’ and ‘wet’ are easily segmented (and blended). This is because they all combine a simple structure (CVC or VC) with transparent one sound/one-letter spelling - the easy bit, when it’s not so important whether the code is taught from sound-to-print or from print-to-sound. Beyond this level of simplicity, the writing system is far less transparent and more complex to teach. Nonetheless, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be done.
The other words in the passage are not difficult to teach if teachers are using a good quality phonics programme and they have an excellent understanding of the way the writing and the sound systems of the language are related. The most complex words in the three sentences ‘the’, ‘play’ and ‘house’ are easily segmented as indicated above.
We need to teach children from simple to complex and ensure they master the following, which they will need to understand if they are going to be able to read and spell English:
- that spellings represent the sounds in English;
- that a spelling can contain more than one letter: the sound /th/ in ‘the’ is represented by two letters, the sound /i-e/ in ‘night’ is spelled with three letters, and the sound /ae/ in ‘eight’ is represented by four letters;
- that there is frequently more than one way of spelling a sound: the sound /f/ in ‘fun’ can be spelled
in 'fun' as well as in ‘off’, in ‘physics’ and in ‘rough’; or, to give another example, the sound /ee/ can be spelled as in ‘meet’, as in ‘tea’, as in ‘happy’, as in ‘key’, as in ‘brief’, as in ‘ski’, as in ‘he’ as well as as in ‘receive’);
- and, finally, that a spelling can represent more than one sound, so that the spelling , in Dr Seuss's sentences, can spell the sound /oe/ as in 'so', or /o/ as in 'not'.
If we also teach the sound to spelling correspondences in English, starting with the simple one-to-one instances, and the skills they need to perform in order to use this knowledge, it is possible to teach all children successfully.
Most importantly, if you don’t teach the way the writing system relates to the sounds in the language, you end up teaching phonics backwards and falling foul of the kinds of confusions displayed in Dr Blank’s piece.