Friday, December 02, 2005

More On (Moron?) Phonics

I see today an illustration of spectacular, almost divine, clarity of the correctness of my decision to drop the Times from my regular reading matter in favour of the Torygraph.

Following on from my little rant yesterday, both have letters and both have Leading articles, but only the Telegraph seems to make any sense, so I shall start here.

From the leader, the money quote is:
"the life-chances of up to four million children could have been harmed by the abandonment of synthetic phonics as the means of teaching reading."
FOUR MILLION CHILDREN. I think we deserve to know how this came about. Who recommended dropping phonics? Why?

From the letters to the Editor:
Having a non-photographic memory, I could not have learnt to read using the "look and say" method. If I had been born later, I could have ended up illiterate.
A recent visitor at my manifesto would be delighted to see the subjunctive mood used correctly here.

All good stuff. Now let's look at the Times. The Leader is generally OK:
"... it has permitted a “pick and mix” approach in which rather too many teachers have plumped for the fashionable but flawed “whole word” or “look and see” formula. As its critics have noted, “sit and hope” would be more accurate."
"Look at the pictures" might be another passable description of this method.
This is admirably followed up with:
"One in five children is falling short of the level desired. Only 60 per cent of children obtain these scores in each of the modern “3Rs”. A sharp gender gap is becoming embedded, with boys falling behind girls at a young age and never quite recovering. [My emphasis]"
We will return to this, but there is more that is laudable in this leader:
"One of the many mistakes that the “whole word” lobby makes is in insisting that children be allowed to learn to read at their own pace and that it should be a labour of love, not a chore. This is patronising, destructive nonsense. Children need to learn to read as soon as is possible. Until they can, they are left in a state of academic limbo. To teach them to break words into key sounds is not to return to Victorian schooling. It is to liberate them to enter a world of learning."
Nicely put.

But then the ball is dropped. That which is given with one hand is deftly taken away with the other. The Letters Editor must be having an off day. I shall, naturally, take the second letter first:
Sir, It is a big mistake to order all children to be taught to read by the phonic method. Much research has shown that the method is best suited to girls, while boys, with superior visuo-spatial skills, are best taught by the look-and-say method because of their ability to recognise the shapes of words.
"Much research", indeed? Doesn't really fit with the Leading Article, does it? If boys have such an innate "ability to recognise the shapes of words", why does that not apply to individual letters?


But then we have to deal with this moron:
Fifty years ago the battle raged in the opposite direction. The phonic synthesis method used by most teachers was decried as “barking at print” by proponents of look-and-say (whole word recognition) and the Sentence method.
The "Sentence" method!!!!

He [David Bell, Ofsted Chief Inspector] is equally right to insist that it should not be the sole method, since it does not get one very far with a word such as “laughter”.
Quite so. English is indeed full of irregularities. So what? A child of two is able to cope with this irregularity - the verb "to be", the plurals of "man" and "sheep" - with little difficulty: you just don't expect them to deal with it before they have burbled "dada" for the first time.

What our correspondent does NOT tell us is that he is talking total tosh. A child taught with phonics WILL be able to decode
Try doing that with "look and say". Indeed, if the same child came across a picture of our intrepid letter writer in a newspaper, he would be able correctly to decode the caption that reads
and will understand the full force of the meaning of the word to boot.


ninme said...

Okay, I don't mean to come across as the dim bulb in the PG's comment chandelier, but I really don't get it. The look-and-say problems would be resolved by learning the alphabet, which presumably precedes all this, right? Wouldn't learning the alphabet and then learning to read by relearning the alphabet just teach a person to be a slow reader, and more likely to be the sort of person whose lips move when he reads?

I mean, if a child can be flexible enough to remember that laughter isn't pronounced as it's spelled, then wouldn't he also be flexible enough to know that when he gets to antidisestablishmenarianism he should slow down and apply the alphabet?

The Pedant-General in Ordinary said...

Ninme, you have hit the nail on the head.

The morons against we are fighting DON'T BELIEVE YOU SHOULD TEACH THE ALPHABET.

That is what is wrong with "look and say". Pupils aren't really taught that words are made of letters which have sounds first. They are just supposed to "recognise" the words, by some arcane/utopian combination of osmosis and magic.

Does that alter your view?

The Pedant-General in Ordinary said...

"against which" that is

Unity said...


This whole debate - synthetic phonics vs 'look and say' - is simply a debate between common sense and 'idiots who can't interpret research correctly'.

In the interests of pedantry I will state my credentials - I am, for my sins, a trained (but not practicing) psychologist - i.e. I can interpret the research.

The whole basis of 'look and say' is a body of research which demonstrates, amongst other things, that in recognising letters, the upper half of a letter is more important that the lower half, that when reading we recognise words not individual letters and even that the first and last letters of a word are more important to the recognition of the whole word than the letters in between - which explains why people often miss typos where letters are transposed as the brain compensates and causes you to 'see' the word you expect to see, even if its spelt incorrectly.

This body of research provides the basis for the argument in favour of 'look and say'.

Unfortunately there is one minor drawback when it comes to drawing conclusions about the process of learning to read from the research. In order to participate in the research itself, research subjects had to satisfy one basic condition - the already had to be able to read.

The problem should, by now, be entirely obvious to all - except a sizable number of teachers, it appears.

All the research which describes the psychological process of reading is based on assessment of people who can already read - ergo, it tells us quite nicely how people read once they've learned to read but next to fuck all about the process of learning to read itself.

Sadly this practice, which we call in trade 'researching the bleeding obvious' is all too common in academia. Academics will invariably claim that its important to research things we already know so as to understand how and why we know them. Academics will rarely if ever point out the real reason for such reseach which is, of course, to ensure the continuation of steady stream of taxpayers' money into the research sector so as to ensure that none of them suffer the indignity of having to sully their overdeveloped academic brains with anything that remotely approaches a real job.

More often than not such research in relatively benign as the researcher rarely learns anything with which they can do any damage - 'look and say' is an exception to this general rule.

A good example of the norm in such research is the masses of research carried out over the last 25-30 year into printing and typography, so reseachers can understand fully why a well printed and laid out text is more 'readable' than one that isn't so well printed and laid out. This research has generated masses of data, many faintly uninteresting facts and only one real conclusion - that over the space of 400 years or so since the investion of the printing press, printers have succeeding in prefectly successfully figuring out what works best and what doesn't entirely without the unnecessary assistance of a bunch work-shy knobhead academics.

Such a view is, of course, deeply unpopular in academic circles - unless someone is prepared to the offer them a grant to find out why.

dearieme said...

Unity, Attagirl (if girl you be). PG, "against whom"?

MatGB said...

boys, with superior visuo-spatial skills, are best taught by the look-and-say
Hmm. *checks*
Yup, still male.

I was taught to read using phonics, first by my mother and then at the first primary school I went to. I moved school aged 7, the new school didn't use phonics. I was so far ahead of the rest of my class in reading age they didn't know what to do with me. That included the males. Admittedly, my parents spent a lot of time with me reading, but that didn't explaint he whole thing.

I just don't understand look and say at all, makes no sense. Ah well; I reckon Unity is right.

Akaky said...

This has been a major point of contention in American education for years. Look and Say, which I am assuming is the British name for what's called the whole word method here, works fine when you are teaching Chinese kids how to read Chinese; the written language is pictographic, not alphabetic; you have to know what you are looking at in order to understand what is being written. In an alphabetic language, YOU MUST KNOW WHAT SOUNDS THE LETTERS STAND FOR. There is no getting around that reality, much as the whole worders wish to deny it. Children who do not understand the relationship between the individual letters on the page and the sounds they represent, or who are never taught that there is such a relationship in the first place, are trying to run a race with both their legs tied together; it cant be done and no one should express surprise when it isnt done.

ninme said...




Well said!