Reading lessons: why synthetic phonics doesn’t work

Andrew Davis:

Current government policy concerning reading favours synthetic phonics (SP), where children learn to recognise letters with their associated sounds – and how to blend those sounds to “read” the “words”.

The revised national curriculum, coming into force from September 2014, requires reception and year 1 students to be taught SP. Students aren’t meant to get help from clues such as context, meaning or illustration. It’s difficult to gauge how rigidly this will be enforced, but the situation certainly suggests there’ll be a significant increase in pressure on schools and teachers to conform.

The existing universal imposition of a phonics check on all five and six year-olds reinforces SP. Students are tested on isolated pieces of text – half of them are pseudo-words, such as “vap”, and all of them can be blended from conventional letter sounds.

Much of the current documentation around SP gives the impression that phonemes are sounds from which spoken words can be constructed. For example, the “cat” sound can be made up from |k|, |æ| and |t|. But the term “phoneme” doesn’t mean “sound”; it actually refers to sets of sounds in speech that distinguish one word from another. For instance, /æ/ and /a:/ are separate phonemes in English. /æ/ can be heard in the middle of “hat”, while /a:/ is heard in the middle of “hart”. The change in the middle sound gives us a different word.