Saturday, December 17, 2011

Linguistic versus synthetic phonics

Someone on the Reading Reform Foundation website recently asked what were the differences between linguistic and synthetic phonics. Although some people claim that the differences between linguistic phonics and synthetic phonics are minimal, I would contend that they are enormous and, furthermore, that these differences have profound consequences for teaching and learning.
To begin with, the emphasis in linguistic phonics is teaching learners that the sounds in speech are represented by print, a symbolic system of spellings. The great advantage of teaching from sound to print lies in several factors:
First, the sounds of the language are acquired/learned without any specific teaching: wherever you go in the world, children learn to talk, despite the different views and approaches to encouraging them to talk, such as for example, the use of ‘child directed speech’ (CDS or ‘motherese’ – ugh – as some people call it) people in this country tend to use.
Second, the sounds of the language are finite: there are in English, depending on accent, only (!) forty-four or so. Neither do the sounds of the language change (at least not in the short term): i.e. we don’t add a new sound every now and then or decide to drop one.
Third, the sounds of the language provide the basis for the code (‘The Study of Writing Systems’ – Daniels, P.). All alphabetic writing systems are written to match the sounds: the sounds drive the code; the spellings are the code (to paraphrase McGuinness). In other words, the sounds are what the written language was invented/borrowed (from Latin) for.
Fourth, although forty-four sounds are rather more than, say, Spanish or Italian, if you ground your teaching in the sounds of the language, you simply can’t ever go wrong. And here I’m not saying people don’t make mistakes: there’s no such thing as a perfect speller in English because, if you’ve never seen a particularly complex (in terms of sound/spelling correspondences) before, how would you know how to spell it? Nevertheless, if you are taught how to segment sounds in words and you give a plausible representation of each of those sounds, you end up with something everyone can read and make sense of in the context of text, even if the spelling isn’t orthographically correct.
Fifth, teaching children that the sounds in our speech are represented by the squiggles on the page we call spellings makes, according to Diane McGuinness, perfect psychological sense to them. This is why, in Sounds-Write trainings, we counsel strongly against using imprecise language like letters ‘making’ sounds, because if letters make sounds, then many children have no idea how the writing system works. They think that the sounds are completely random and don’t realise that they are connected to the sounds in their own speech. They don’t know where all these sounds come from and, if they are taught in the way many children are taught, this erroneous idea is further reinforced by the fact that our spelling system is complex. So, the spelling a can be ‘a’ in ‘mat’, ‘ae’ in ‘baby’, ‘or’ in ‘ball’, etc, etc. This would seem to give the appearance that the single-letter spelling a can be anything and, further, that if it can, there’s no point in trying to learn to read because there’s no discernible logic.
Sixth, if you teach from sound to print, you also avoid all the nonsense of ‘hard’ sounds and ‘soft’ sounds, kicking ‘k’ and curly ‘k’, ‘long’ sounds and ‘short’ sounds, and ‘silent letters’, all of which might be a shared code within the teaching community but they serve to confuse many young children.
Finally, if you teach from sound to print, pupils are presented with systemic, domain-relevant knowledge that is organized and structured, and knowledge that is organised and structured can be chunked into recognisable patterns that are much easier to learn.
Teaching from sound to print leaves you with a very simple (from a logical point of view) system: there are sounds and there are spellings, spellings and sounds – simple language that can be understood by anyone, including parents. Admittedly, spelling is more difficult than reading for all the reasons given by Diane McGuinness but complex spelling is always going to be more problematical for the reasons I’ve already stated. However, ultimately and to paraphrase the late Richard Rorty, this is a contest between an entrenched vocabulary which has become a nuisance and a new vocabulary which promises great things.
For more information on what a linguistic phonics programme does and doesn't teach, see also Susan Godsland's excellent website.

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