Phonics: failing or flying?

Before I found my way into the world of publishing I toyed with the idea of becoming a primary school teacher. I knew that I loved working with children and that I was passionate about their education. It took me a while to work out that although I loved teaching, I really wanted to be at the centre of creating books rather than on the receiving end of the magic they could inspire.

The year I spent with the Faculty of Education in Cambridge was incredible. I learnt the ins and outs of how to be an outstanding practitioner (even if I rarely, if ever, met those heights). I met children whose faces and stories will stay with me forever, and other teachers whose dedication to their profession and to the children in their care was absolutely inspirational. I could happily have stayed in the classroom sharing the joy of reading and of exploring learning with those children, probably forever, were it not for one thing.

I really took issue with the impending tidal wave of bureaucratic tests and examinations that the 5 and 6 year olds that I cared, very deeply, about were facing. A recent government initiative has not only made it a daily requirement that children spend an hour on ‘phonics’  (the methodical decoding of words through ‘segmenting’ and ‘blending’ sounds – find out more here), but has recently introduced statutory tests that require 6 year olds to decipher lists of nonsense words.  It was bad enough that by the time they had finished higher education they would have gone through 6, or even 8, consecutive years of examinations, but for these children who were barely able to tie their own shoelaces?  Michael Rosen’s recent Letter from a curious parent raised some fundamentally important questions. Directed at the Education Secretary Michael Gove, Rosen asks, what do we want of our children?

Do we want to reduce them to statistical anomalies? To measure their success and potential through an arbitrary and subjective test – so that their failings can be used to support or undermine political policy? Or do we want to encourage them to risk failure on their own terms in an attempt to discover a new and more complex understanding of the world?

Should we be teaching our children to read books like they might maps – with systematic deconstruction and impassive logic? Or should we be encouraging an emotional investment in characters and narratives?

If a child fails to decode a random nonsense word without the context to suggest meaning and intent – but can write fluent and richly woven (but badly spelt) stories, should they be classified as a less successful learner?

From personal experience I can vouch for those enthusiastic little storytellers, who believe in the power of books and of reading, but haven’t quite got those as, is and es sorted out yet. I’m so glad my teachers encouraged my voracious reading and writing, confident that the spelling would come, once the rush to get these pressing ideas out in wobbled sentences had abated. What’s more, being diagnosed as dyslexic a few years later made sense of my inability to string a legible sentence together on the page – proof I think that phonetical deconstruction is not necessarily the first rung on the ladder of reading. Bad spelling is not an impediment to the process of reading as an entirety.

Ultimately phonics is one single stilt in the framework of reading. It’s very, very useful in helping children begin to decode, and to build confidence in their reading and writing abilities. But alongside the systematic deconstruction of the English language rests the skills of empathy, imagination and vision. Phonics is one way of learning to read that works for many children, but not by any means, all of them.

Reading requires children to be a little bit brave – they need to jump into the unknown with every unfamiliar story and book, aware that within any narrative they are opening themselves up to the peculiarities of an author’s imagination. Death, loss, failure, misery – these are themes that children meet alongside magic, fantasy, joy and love. We should be encouraging our emerging readers to make that leap into the unknown through encouragement and independent exploration, rather than throwing them blindly into the canyons of failure as throwaway statistics. Reading is not about failing, it is about flying.