Saturday, 29 October 2011

A Note On Synthetic Phonics

I've just glimpsed this report on the BBC website about criticism from academics and teachers of a reading text based on phonics.

Phonics is where children are taught to recognise the sounds that make up written words, so that they are able to work out what those words are when they look at the combinations of letters and combine the sounds those letters make. There is a very assertive effort by people that sell phonics material to get policy-makers to accept that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read. It is widely claimed that a massive amount of scientific evidence supports it. I see parallels with Applied Behavioural Analysis for Autism and how that has been promoted in North America with the exact same claims, even though the most successful study was Lovaas' et al 1987 which gave children electric shocks, has never been replicated and had a borked control group. It is however a method kept alive without the physical pain-based aversive modifiers by the fanaticism of those selling it and desperate parents that swear by it. So is much the same with Synthetic Phonics.

A lot of schools did used to teach reading almost exclusively with phonics and it's claimed that reading standards were better. It's somewhat more complicated than that. My problem with it is that it is claimed that Synthetic Phonics is the best way to teach reading. It does no such thing and you can not learn to read in English with Synthetic Phonics any more than you can learn to read non-simplified Chinese.

I am Hyperlexic; a fascination with symbols and a compulsion to read anything displayed that I can read. I read extremely fast as a result, faster than I can commit information to memory so I will have actually read a page more then ten times in a few seconds before I grasp the ideas. It gives the outward appearance that I am merely a quick-reader rather than a super-fast reader, but when I was 11 this was tested by having me search for a sentence the first time it appears in a book and I found it in two minutes on page 33, having spent about four seconds on each page. Autistics tend to have good long-term memory but poor short-term memory and if I had better short-term memory I would have a demonstrable savant skill. But I don't, even though I would very much like to glance at a page for a few seconds and then be able to repeat everything I just read without looking again.

My school taught reading with phonics. I did not start reading until I was eight. What was wrong? The thing is that people don't read by decoding words, they read by remembering them and few people would know how to pronounce a word they've not seen before even if it was English. English has a lot of words where the same syllables make different sounds or different syllables make the same sounds and the rules for when this happens are very inconsistent. When we read it's a feat of long-term memory and I am particularly good at it because my long-term memory is enhanced by Autism.

Reading ability is not related to intelligence and this has been supported by many converging lines of evidence. Before mobile phones became prevalent, we remembered many phone numbers without writing them down because we stored them as long-term 'mundane memories' and we had lots of these mundane memories regardless of our IQ. However, the ability to decode words IS based on intelligence; it's a puzzle that starts off simple and gets more complicated. The hope is that a person learns to read by memory before they reach the point where it has become so complicated they start noticing and stressing over how inconsistent and over-complicated the rules are.

Synthetic Phonics didn't teach me to read because my focus was on 'solving the puzzle' that unlocked the secrets of written language. But there is no solution because written words have not come about as a result of logic but history and etymology, culture and customs. Once a child demonstrates a certain ability with reading, they stop being taught phonics but teachers persisted with me and I persisted with phonics. Only once I gave up, with a huge mental blow that ruined my speech forever, did I actually start learning to read and I was self-taught because my Mum bought me the Beano every week and my room was stacked from floor to ceiling with every issue from 1984 to 1997 and I never should have let her throw them all away as they'd be worth something now. The abundance of age-appropriate reading material is what worked for me and made me a super-reader.

Perhaps the problem with Britain's reading is the same?

1 comment:

  1. Mason Dixon,Autistic/ArecBairin/Yorkshire Warrior-
    I am going to have some "respite" from furnishing information etc which I hope has been useful.I am knackered.I encourage you to continue (though I do not think you need such encouragement!)
    A good source of information(apologies if you are already aware) is