D is for duh

A note was sent home in my son’s schoolbag today.

It advised that teachers will be finalising their assessment of the children’s ‘phonic knowledge’ over the next week and asked parents to revise the sounds the kids have been learning throughout the year.

With no little menace one line in the note stated baldly: ‘Some children are struggling to recognise sounds which had previously been identified.’

It went on to advise that the ’42 sounds need to be consistently reinforced each weekday as part of homework’. This will lead them towards having a ‘solid phonic foundation’.

For the uninitiated this may sound like a terribly complicated and woolly business. In reality it’s teaching P1 children to read.

And more specifically it’s about implementing the ‘Jolly Phonics’ system as a method of easing that process.

Phonics is a method of reading where children learn by sounding words out. B is not ‘b’ but rather ‘buh’, L is not ‘l’ but ‘luh’ and so on. There are also accompanying actions, images and songs for each sound. My son has been learning it with mixed results for the past six months or so.

Up to now I’ve avoided passing any comment on phonics for a couple of reasons.

First because I don’t think there is any one universal system which works for all when learning children to read. Phonics may work well for some kids, whole word reading or using memory will be better for others.

The second reason is that I wasn’t entirely sure my wee man was ready for it at the start. He’s young in his class and didn’t seem to get the gist straightaway. Now, as he comes to near the end of P1 he’s maturing quickly and picking up techniques and methods with more success. It seemed fair to wait.

So this afternoon we sat down for a study session ahead of the assessment.

The consonant sounds were fine, he recognised them all without hesitation and was able to give examples of words with each one. He was even able to identify most of the vowel sounds successfully.

It was when we moved on to the single sounds which use double vowels that things started to get tricky. For him and me. Ai was tricky, as was ie and ou. Luckily I had downloaded the Jolly Phonics app onto my phone and had to refer to it several times when I struggled to identify the sounds I was supposed to be teaching him.

At times it seemed like the system had been devised by a sadistic pedant. The logic of trying to explain to a five-year-old that the oo sound in ‘book’ is an entirely different phonic than the oo in ‘too’ was utterly lost on me.

My son tried hard but after a while I could see he was becoming tired and restless. I was struggling also so I decided to call a halt. We’ll have another go tomorrow.

I’m not certain that I’ve managed to ‘consistently reinforce all 42 sounds each weekday’ as dictated by the school’s note, but there you go.

I’m not sure how my son will fare in his assessment. But I’m not too bothered.

He has always loved books and reading, his speech and vocabulary have always been splendid and his imagination works without bounds. I have no doubt whatsoever that he’ll be perfectly literate, with or without the help of Jolly Phonics.

The point that the system seems to be missing, in my opinion at least, is that much of this knowledge about sounds is intuitive. Kids often know things before they can explain what they know. I stopped today because I was getting the strong sense that the only thing I was achieving was confusing my son. Education is so much wider than being able to point out the difference to the ear between er and ar. It’s just too bloody abstract and, at times, without logic.

I’ve worked as a writer all of my adult life. I also do occasional public speaking. I’ve even learnt a form of written communication which is entirely based on phonics – it’s called shorthand.

But, in truth, I struggle to find a clear path between good written or verbal communication and the system they are being taught. The process is immediately undermined by the lists of words which are sent home in my boy’s schoolbag every week to be memorised. We are told they are special cases which are to be learnt by sight and not by sounding.

I don’t want to be overly critical because, as I said earlier, I’ve no doubt that phonics has its place as an aid to literacy, just as learning by context, meaning and illustration do as well. But the curriculum currently favours phonics. The debate over the best way to do this has been going on for decades and will continue for many more.

In the meantime my wife and I will continue to cuddle up with our son and a book in bed every evening, we’ll point at the words and he’ll tell us what they are. I don’t know about his solid phonic foundation, but along the way he’ll certainly learn to read.

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