I have two children, both of whom are working their way through the first few years of primary school. This means, of course, that phonics is a hot topic, from my daughter practically sneering at the phonics test (“why do we have to read these silly words?”) and my son most recently sounding out the names of Star Wars Lego characters with varying degrees of success (most amusingly one character with a major cult following has been renamed “Baby Fat” as a result.)
This exposure to phonics has been illuminating. I’ve been able to see phonics at work in a way that I have never really been able to apply with adults, and get involved a little with the debate about the draconian insistence on synthetic phonics as the primary measure of a child’s reading ability that reduces the joy and complexity of reading to a series of facile “tests”.
So, phonics. Basically this is developing reading skills through identifying words through shape-sound combinations. It comes in two flavours: synthetic and analytic. Synthetic phonics appears to be sounding out the letters with their appropriate phonemes, and then “synthesising” them. This is a fine way to work if you are dealing with simple regular patterns. Thus my son has no major issues with both Batman and Robin, but struggled a little with The Joker. Analytic phonics, on the other hand, appears to recognise that English is a bit weird with spelling (blame the French, the priests and the first printers, basically.) Children look at whole words, analysing patterns and making inferences from there.
As with all such things there are arguments in favour of both sides, usually voiced loudly by a minority who believe that one or the other is best. The rest of the world, meanwhile, acknowledges that the benefits of the one generally offset the shortcomings of the other, and that a bit of both is probably the best approach.
But what about adults, in particular adults whose first language is not English and who have little or no literacy in any language? Synthetic phonics, sounding out the letters, is initially quite tempting. The simplicity of the approach is appealing, and the quick win nature of being able to sound out and read words is very motivating for learners. First language learners of literacy can do especially well, focussing on the various familiar CVC words like pop, did and had. For adult ESOL learners this is, very quickly, where synthetic phonics runs out of steam a little.
Adults come to class with a different set of expectations to children: often the motivation is integrative or at least extrinsic in some form: learning practical English as a tool to achieve some wider, adult, real world goal. They need, or at least definitely want, to be able to use something. Even the most manic adherent to the cult of the ILP will want their learners to come away from a diagnostic / target setting / planning learning type session with something practical. Thus the language they encounter in class needs to be applicable beyond that context, not to the extent of the tediously functional at all times. The language needs to represent a skill transferable out of the classroom.
Put simply, there are not enough adult words that fit into the neat sounds-spelling universe of synthetic phonics. To be fair, there are barely enough words full stop.
Things are further complicated here, of course, by the language of the learners beyond the written form. Writing is an extension of speaking, and both historically and personally, speaking develops first. Children arrive at phonics lessons with their key grammatical structures more or less formed, their vocabulary possibly already in the thousands, and phonological systems more or less established. That is a whole chunk of pre-literate language learning, some three years, possibly more, with little or no direct instruction in literacy. Adults get nothing like that, and the learning processes are very different. Children get to focus purely on learning, for ESOL learners learning is just one, admittedly useful, aspect of the messy business of living. Adult ESOL learners who are beginning to write do not necessarily have access to the vocabulary and the grammar that a native speaker does, adult or child. They are learning to make sense of the whole word: the denotations, the connotations, the collocations, the grammatical functions and parsing, the pronunciation, and, of course, the written form. Suddenly simple CVC words like jug, lip and dog become fairly hefty bits of learning, and a whole bunch of “friendly” onomatopoeia which appear in children’s stories and phonics learning are, well, simply childish. (Incidentally, many children’s picture books actually rely on some fairly tricky grammatical and lexical structures. A mouse took a stroll through the deep, dark wood… for example, involves a past simple verb, a specific verb-noun collocation, a slightly unusual synonym of “walk”, with a tricky prepositional phrase as an adverbial, including a relatively low frequency preposition, and two adjectives in a particular order – never “dark, deep wood” – with the meaning of “deep” being a fairly low frequency use of the word.)
So there are some challenges with a teaching methodology used for small children being applied to the practices of adults. Like any good teacher, of course, we pick and mix from the various things around us. My own approach to beginner reading is very much a blend: I want learners to be able to recognise key words, decode the word from the overall shape, be able to understand the shape of the text, recognise text types and so on. So sometimes I focus on relatively straightforward phonic combinations, for example, working with CVC words, and more complex spelling/pronunciation rules, including invoking the magic ‘e’ idea of my own childhood. The magic e rule, incidentally, also provides us with one of the more challenging elements of these kinds of rules. Typical beginner sentences in an ESOL class is “I come from ….” and “I have…”which immediately run counter to the magic e rule, or at least demands a modification of the rule. At other times a more analytic approach is more useful, building up whole word recognition skills from context, spotting patterns and so on. Indeed, this, for many adults, is likely to be a more useful skill in general, with support from the synthetic approach to sounding out words. Adults are exposed to the written word all the time, and may need to have the skills to hand to make quick sense of fairly tricky words like “post code”, “date of birth” and “arrival in the UK”.
Indeed, guessing from context and spotting patterns is something which is useful for adult ESOL learners as a general cognitive skill as well: it’s how they can best make use of their day to day exposure to English to develop grammar skills in all contexts, for example. (I don’t need to tell you that grammar isn’t purely a writing skill, do I?)
Ultimately, that whole synthetic/analytic phonics debate is something which really doesn’t affect adult ESOL learners, and indeed probably wouldn’t affect children if there hadn’t been a clear policy driven suggestion that the practice of synthetic phonics was best practice, a concept which would appear to exclude the use of analytic phonics. This is, of course, the problem with labelling anything officially as “best practice”. In real life ESOL learners, first language literacy learning adults and children all benefit from developing a range of skills with which to tackle a text, and this should, and does, inform what happens in the classroom.
Just don’t ask my daughter to read stupid non-words.