I’ve just been watching Michael Rosen on Matthew Wright’s show 'The Wright Stuff', broadcast on October 6th. After talking about the plight of the independent booksellers, he was asked by one of the guests on the show what he thought about the government’s support for phonics.
What followed had me howling with laughter. For a chap who knows what kinds of literature children find exciting and funny and whose books and poetry, not to mention the Radio 4 programme ‘Word of Mouth’, are so good, when it comes to talking about how to teach children to read, he is appallingly ignorant.
On ‘The Wright Stuff’, Michael began by saying that phonics is ‘sounding out’, a travesty of a description if ever there was one. Phonics is a proven and effective means of teaching all learners an explicit awareness of the sounds in English and how these sounds map to the spelling or writing system, the write stuff, if you like! The disparaging 'sounding out' is of course calculated to trivialise what is in reality a skilled pedagogical approach.
He gave the example of the word ‘bed’, which he said would be dealt with in phonic terms as ‘buh’ ‘buh’ ‘buh’ ‘e’ ‘e’ ‘duh’ ‘duh’. [It might seem a small point but even the way he says the sounds is part of the rhetoric he employs to caricature what phonics teaching actually is.] The ’b' 'b' ‘b’ would be put together with the ‘ed’, which he described as being one sound (!), after which one would read the word ‘bed’. This is, it is true, one particular (and rather discredited) phonic approach. It is commonly known as ‘onset and rime’, an approach Diane McGuinness reports as correlating very poorly to learning to read and spell and which has now been largely abandoned.
Rosen claimed that children wouldn’t be able to decode the word ‘would’. He says that when, for example, they try to read the word ‘would’ by saying the sounds , ‘wuh’, ‘oe’, ‘l’, ‘d’ , they’d get something like ‘wold’. And, of course, he is playing around with this nonsense to a studio audience who have terrific respect for him as a children’s author but don’t realise that, when it comes to knowing anything about good quality phonics teaching, he clearly hasn’t a clue.
Any well-trained phonics teacher would teach words like ‘would’, ‘could’ and ‘should’ with words like ‘bush’, and ‘cook’ (as said in most southern accents of English), where the sound ‘oo’ as in w’oo’d is taught as being represented by the three spelling alternatives oo, oul and u.
Michael goes on to give further examples, such as ‘was’, which he describes as a ‘tricky word’ and suggests that a phonic strategy would lead a child to say ‘w’ ‘a’ ‘s’, instead of ‘woz’, which is how it sounds.
I don’t know where Michael has got his information but this is poppycock! Words like ‘was’ are perfectly decodable. What’s more, such examples form part of very common patterns in the language: after the sound ‘w’, we often spell the sound ‘o’ with the letter a. Think about it! There’s ‘want’, ‘swap’, ‘what’, ‘wallow’, wasp, etc., etc.
So, he concludes, a single strategy doesn’t work. There is, he states, another one, which he says phonics people secretly admit to using: Look and Say. [Actually, Michael, here’s one who doesn’t!] Because, he says, twenty-five per cent of words are ‘tricky words’, which in Rosen-speak means ‘un-decodable’, children need a Look and Say strategy. Of course the truth is that all words in English are decodable. All words are comprised of sounds and all sounds can be represented by spellings even if some of those spellings are less frequent than others. What Michael doesn’t seem to understand is that the writing system was invented to represent the sounds in the language. So, when he says that the two letters ‘e’ and ‘d’ (actually Michael, they are sounds not letters) make the ‘ed’ sound, he's just plain wrong. Letters do NOT make sounds. They represent sounds made by people and there are a finite number of sounds in the English language. However, because the relationship between sounds and spellings is not transparent as it is in many other languages, English is harder to teach and takes more time.
Telling people that the spelling system in English is complex and that it takes time and patience and that teachers need proper training in how it should be done isn’t as entertaining as sitting in front of a television audience ridiculing phonics with cute and erroneous jokes.
Phonics advocates are just as passionate about children enjoying books and having access to books as people like Michael Rosen. The marvellous thing about phonics advocates is that they are the ones with a truly balanced approach: they encourage children to read and they also teach children to read.
My thanks to Susan Godsland for drawing my attention to the programme.