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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Synthetic phonics

Not a phrase to grab you by the heartstrings, is it? But these are the words to listen out for if you want your child to learn to read properly. “Synthetic phonics” tells you that this is probably being done properly. If, on the other hand, they tell you that they’re using “eclectic” or “a mixture of” methods, watch out. “Dyslexia” looms.

I also put “dyslexia” in inverted commas, because what we have here is that very common modern phenomenon, a damaged brain diagnosed as caused by its own inherent damagedness when actually it is a brain that has been damaged by having damaging signals thrown at it from outside. The mental radar screen registers muddle not because it is muddled, but because it has been muddled.

The situation is actually a little more complicated than that, or the problem would probably not have got as bad as it has. There is just enough physical basis for the notion of “dyslexia” for the false claim to persist that dyslexia and dyslexia alone causes all reading difficulties, and for a multi-billion pound industry to spring up to fail to solve the problem. The reality is that good teaching automatically gets around almost any inherent, genetic predisposition towards reading difficulty, and teaches virtually all children to read successfully. Bad teaching, on the other hand, is something that the majority of children can hack their way past. They do it with difficulty, but they do it. The become literate despiteall the muddle they are subjected to. But not so the “dyslexics”. They don’t “crack” reading. They don’t get its inherent nature, because they have not been explicitly taught it.

And the explicit nature of reading that is not taught to an appallingly huge number of children these days is that each letter has a name and makes a sound or sounds (the name and the sound(s) not being the same! – obvious point but frequently overlooked), and that when you are confronted with a word, that is to say with a string of letters, the way to spell it out is to spell it out, one letter (or letter group like “ch”) at a time. Don’t guess. Don’t read only the first letter and then guess. Don’t look for the pattern of the “whole word”. Read. That’s synthetic phonics. Dee Oh Gee spells duh- o- guh- DOG.

Why don’t they teach that in all schools? Because they are ess tee you pee eye dee? Because they are mostly parts of a N-A-T-I-O-N-A-L-I-S-E-D I-N-D-U-S-T-R-Y? Both, and much more that’s far too complicated to explain in a posting that would keep anyone’s attention.

So what brought all this on? Partly of course, I’m getting into the swing of having arguments that will eventually find their proper home in ‘Brian’s Education Blog’. But the particular provocation was a really good article in last Sunday’s Observer (Review Section, cover story).

You can also chase up the synthetic phonics story in more detail by going to the website of the Reading Reform Foundation.

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