Following a 2006 report by the Department for Education and Skills, a system known as ‘synthetic phonics’ has been recommended as the “prime approach” to teaching children how to read, write and spell in the UK.
Phonics, if you’re not familiar with the term, involves teaching what letters sound like; for example, the letter W would not be pronounced ‘double-yoo’, but simply ‘wuh’. The idea is that by teaching kids what letters usually sound like, you can help them learn how to spell full words by piecing these sounds together. Pupils might often be asked to spell made up words like ‘vab’ or ‘horp’, or presented with these words and asked to pronounce them.
The system is now in widespread use, but is not without its critics. In 2014, academic Andrew Davis argued in a Guardian article that it confuses ‘sounds’ with ‘phonemes’ and the two are not the same thing. More recently, an article on teachers’ resource TES.com discusses an experiment where children misspelled words like ‘good’ and ‘trapped’ because they understood phonics, but had a lack of understanding of word structure.
Myself, I side with the critics. I was a pretty good reader and speller from a young age, and I feel as though this was from reading widely and recognising words. Phonics were occasionally used (I remember people referring to C and K as ‘curly kuh’ and ‘kicking kuh’ respectively), but teachers generally used the proper names of letters, as did TV programmes like Sesame Street. We were taught to spell words, not how letters sound, and if we couldn’t spell something, we were told to look it up in a dictionary.
As a kid, I think I would’ve struggled with phonics. It seems like learning a whole form of spelling, then finding out that this form is incorrect and you have to learn a whole new one, because English is not a phonetic language. The very fact that ‘phonetic’ begins with P tells us this. With Romantic languages like Spanish and Italian, once you’ve learned how the letters sound, you can more or less work out how words are spelled, but English has very few consistent spelling rules.
An understanding of phonetics is certainly useful in gaining literacy, but teachers and syllabuses that are overly reliant on this system are just teaching young people a crude, robotic form of spelling that doesn’t exist in the real world. It’s for this reason that I say forget phonics and just familiarise yourself and your children with words. You didn’t learn colours by understanding what their hex codes or where they are on the spectrum, you learned them by seeing them every day and coming to recognise them. Words should be just the same.