Newsletter 184 - Phonic and Reading - DBE
Newsletter 184 – Phonics & Reading
Synthetic phonics: the mainspring
When we read, we retrieve and put together information that has been set down using the alphabetic system, and when we write, we use it to represent, in order, the sounds that we would otherwise say. This is synthetic phonics, or word-building. Teaching schemes based on synthetic phonics have these points in common:
The most important point is that they require children to blend sounds from letters to read words, and the next most important point is that they do this in a systematic way, beginning with the most straightforward combinations of vowelconsonant- vowel words, and gradually introducing more complex patterns. This approach has the long-term benefit of preparing children for advanced reading, when they will meet regular letter combinations in prefixes and suffixes.
Synthetic phonics enables readers to extract and use the information represented by letters, and, with practice, to build up a store of words that are read so quickly that they seem to take almost no time to work out. Teachers sometimes refer to these as ‘sight vocabulary’ or just ‘words recognised at sight’, though the most sophisticated tracking systems (Bald 2003) have provided evidence that we are, in effect, tracking the contours of the letters with our eyes in order to distinguish one from another. This process is so fast that words are fed into our mind virtually instantaneously, and we are then able to group them together into meaningful phrases.
Synthetic phonics in spelling is easily integrated with reading. Children can build words using plastic or magnetic letters as they learn to read them. This avoids them having to write each word by hand in the early stages, allowing all their attention to be focused on the sounds and letters so that they have maximum opportunity to understand and reinforce the connections. The research in Clackmannanshire (Johnston and Watson, 2005) was particularly successful in promoting spelling. The emphasis on the language rich curriculum, initially through games, songs and stories, is important. Some children have very limited experience of language outside school, and are totally dependent on their school or nursery both to teach the basic skills of using language for communication and to liberate their imaginations. Rose’s (2006) recommendation that phonics lessons should be ‘discreet’ means that teaching needs to be specific and systematic, but not that phonics should be taught in isolation from everything else – on the contrary, children should be encouraged to see patterns and apply sounds and sound patterns in a wide range of activities, including nursery rhymes, poems, puppetry, telling and retelling stories.
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