Sunday, March 11, 2012

Synthetic phonics

It could be said that the biggest irony in our current obsession with phonics teaching is in the naming of the brand - 'synthetic phonics'. For most people, unless they happen to be Hegelian philosophers, the word synthetic connotes with an artificial imitation of the real thing. In fact the Oxford Online Dictionary has 'not genuine', 'insincere' as well as 'imitation' in its definition. Of course, when that's paired with the word 'phonics', now synonymous with the direct teaching of sound-letter correspondence, we might end up with teaching routines that lack a genuine sense of what reading is all about. The current interpretations of synthetic phonics are an interesting illustration of how a particular interpretation of evidence-based practice impacts on policy and how this policy gets translated into training and eventually plays out in the classroom. Knowing the creativity of teachers, I suspect that some are making the best out of this - and all credit to them. But I've also been hearing some of the concerns. Here are just two. Firstly, there is the notion that in order to make progress in sound-letter correspondence children have to learn to speak 'like Southerners' - ie: imitate the accentual features of RP. This, of course, simply recycles the old North-South divide, replays the old asymetrical power relationship, and subtely undermines the way many people speak English. Let's hope the regional features that give distinctivenes to the voices of Jarvis Cocker, Tony Harrison or Arthur Scargill (to name but a few), and their future successors, are not compromised! Secondly, and this a much more fundamental classroom concern - it seems that success in synthetic phonics, as it is currently conceived, may not necessarily transfer into authentic reading and writing contexts in the classroom - and if this is the case the whole synthetic phonics bandwagon might come off the track. The whole initiative could well end up being a costly error in policy implementation. Only time will tell. My contention is that skill-teaching routines will always look as though they are synthetic (not genuine) unless they are fully integrated into an informed model of reading and learning to read.

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