I’ve rolled my eyes many times over pontificating politicians confusing ‘systematic’ and ‘synthetic’ when discussing phonics.
But it’s more serious when the Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, does the same.
In the first of his monthly commentaries, Sir Michael says:
‘The emphasis on high-quality, effective synthetic phonics teaching from the early years onwards is an integral part of the Teachers’ Standards guidance published 4 years ago.’
But later he says:
‘Surely nobody can still convincingly argue that systematic phonics isn’t the most effective method of teaching children to read.’
Which one, then, is Sir Michael supporting? Is it systematic phonics - the structured teaching of any method of teaching phonics? Or is it just one – synthetic?
The evidence supports the use of systematic phonics in teaching reading but much of this same evidence warns about relying on its sole use. It needs to be incorporated in a rich literary environment which encourages comprehension as well as decoding. Wilshaw understands this. He writes:
‘As well as developing their [phonic] skills, many primary schools are taking active steps to instill a sense of joy and enthusiasm for reading among their pupils.’
That is exactly as it should be. Sir Michael praises Buckden CofE Primary School for its school’s library. As author Anthony Horowitz observes, every school needs ‘a well-stocked library.’ But as funding cuts bite, school libraries are threatened. Perhaps the now-closed phonics matching scheme which schools were slow to take up (but has made a lot of money for those whose books were Government-approved) would have been better targeted at allowing schools to purchase more library books.
Sir Michael implies primary schools now have more ‘focus’ on hearing children read aloud. I’m puzzled by this. I have never known a primary school where children didn’t read aloud. It’s impossible to judge a child’s reading proficiency if s/he doesn’t do so.
The commentary descends into Daily Mail parody in parts. Sir Michael writes:
‘Generations of adults have had cause to lament the fact that they were never taught the basics of grammar at school. Thankfully, the misguided ideologies of the 1970s and 80s are now being successfully countered.’
But English grammar – the order of words and making of tenses – is picked up effortlessly by young children. Even when they make mistakes such as ‘My dog swimmed after the stick I throwed into the sea’, they are showing they've learned the rules of English grammar.
That’s not to say learning the vocabulary of language isn’t important. It’s difficult to discuss how authors use language effectively without knowing about alliteration, onomatopoeia and similes. But this is not grammar. Asking children to spot parts of speech in tests doesn’t increase appreciation of the English language. The opposite is true – such exercises kill enjoyment of English stone dead.
If Sir Michael is correct, then we’d expect those educated in the 1970s and 80s to be talking in monosyllabic grunts and reading while moving their fingers along the line. But they aren’t. They are as articulate and literate as generations before and after. Rather than ‘lament the fact’ they weren’t forced to do grammar exercises they might be relieved to know they aren’t expected to identify the subjunctive mood. But the sample Key Stage 2 grammar test shown in the Mail asked pupils to do just that:
3 Complete the following sentence so that it uses the subjunctive form: ‘If I …. to have one wish, it would be for good health.’
Does anyone really speak like this nowadays? The correct answer surely would be to cross the sentence out and write something like ‘If I had one wish, I’d ask to be healthy’.
That’s not to say discussing the subjunctive mood can’t be useful in context. Perhaps after singing along with Topol although it would rather diminish enjoyment. But as subjunctive use in English is declining it’s surely not necessary to enforce it on 11 year-olds just so they can pass a test.