Chief Inspector confuses ‘systematic’ with ‘synthetic’ and slips into Daily Mail parody

Janet Downs's picture

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.

Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 14:15


Have you seen this?

Primary teachers ordered to take grammar lessons in schools shake-up
TEACHERS are to be given lessons in English grammar because many lack the skills to help children.

Research by University College London found that more than half of undergraduates have such a poor grasp of grammar that they cannot recognise that “and” is a conjunction, “in” is a preposition while “technical” serves as an adjective.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 14:35

Barry - thanks. The Express article is very similar to the Mail one which gave the 'subjunctive' questions. I notice the research cited was done in 2009. The course, which the Mail and Express imply is a new one, was actually inspired by the review of Key Stage 3 grammar teaching done by the DfES in 2007. And it's dispiriting. I don't know how I managed to teach English and Eng Lit for nearly 20 years without knowing what 'collocates' were.

It is possible to write clear, accurate English without knowing all these linguistic terms. It's possible to enjoy literature in English without knowing how to identify 'participial clauses'. It's possible to be moved by prose, poetry and drama without identifying 'non-defining relatives' (are they people related to us but we're not sure how?).

But even this ghastly course doesn't mention the subjunctive.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 14:45

Seems history is repeating itself. Or perhaps the Mail is just regurgitating old copy: 'Thousands of teachers go back to school to learn basic maths and grammar so they can deliver tough new lessons'

Daily Mail, 12 June 2012

Michele -Lowe's picture
Tue, 27/10/2015 - 14:55

Janet - a timely post for me as I am reading with kids twice a week. I can't say I've ever completely understood the difference between synthetic/systematic phonics. And I can't say I've ever really wanted to know. I was steeped in grammar as a languages graduate and learnt via German and French more about my own language than I would ever have thought. This was because I had a point of contrast. I understand that the phonics system I have come across (Read Write Inc mostly) was developed in order to teach reading to children whose first language wasn't English. I imagine it would be good in that context. But the majority of our school children are monolingual English speakers.

I've observed teachers teaching phonics, read phonics books with kids and whilst I can see how useful they are as a basis, I also notice how dull the supporting literature/stories are. The children seem to find it boring. Added to which, any story constructed around phonic patterns is necessarily phonics focused, not narrative focused. So my estimation of phonics teaching is that it's useful, but by no means the key.

The thought of kids identifying the subjunctive is a rather strange one. My daughter's A level group are grappling with this in French currently and at 17/18 are about ready for the concept. Be that as it may (see what I did?) the subjunctive is at least alive and well in the French language, whereas in English it's mostly confined to set expressions. My eldest is also studying English and so much of what she has learnt about the English language has come from reading for pleasure.

This is purely anecdotal, but I know 3 G.P's via book group - women in their mid 40's - who report to me that they have to be very careful about reading large print prescription instructions to their elderly patients. They say that their literacy is poor and they make sure they understand what is written. I asked them if they thought the younger generation were any better and they tell me their impression is that they are. This is in no way scientific, but then the comment about generations educated in 70's and 80's isn't either.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.