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Phlipping phonics

Everyone seems to have an opinion on the levels of literacy in our children and young adults. Apparently our schools are failing their pupils left, right and centre. This accusation is nothing new. If you trawl back through the archives there has always been criticism thrown at our schools. All I can say as a teacher in an East London school, with over sixteen years of experience, is that schools are often the scapegoat to deeper rooted problems.

I will concede that there are some teachers out there who aren’t stepping up to their responsibilities in the classroom. And yes, tragically, there are children who ‘slip through the net’ for a number of reasons. Some arrive mid-phase with little or no English and/or schooling; some are unlucky with the teachers they have (an unacceptable situation, which I am hoping the new OFSTED guidelines will help to eradicate), some have learning difficulties which are not supported, some are disaffected and disengaged in their own learning. These are not excuses, they are the facts, plain and simple.

The government, in its infinite wisdom, has resolved to tackle this issue. How? Surely they will be allocating more funds to poorly resourced schools, or ensuring that all schools house a library run by a qualified librarian or committing to high quality library services. No, none of these seemingly logical options have been adopted. Instead they have introduced another test. A test for our year 1 (aged 5-6) pupils, which will gauge their understanding and application of their phonic knowledge.

As a teacher and a parent, I do not object to the premise of the test. It should go a long way to ensuring that our children are systematically taught phonics. I do object to the submission of results to Local Authorities. Not because the data shouldn’t be shared, but because it is flawed. Because, if taught in isolation, phonics will not make you a reader. It will make you a decoder of symbols; someone who can bark at a text. But what of their understanding? What connection is there?

A reader is created through the oral tradition of communities and through the immersion in good books. The more children read, the more they develop as readers. And the more we read to our children, the greater their love of books becomes. Books open their minds to new worlds, they expand vocabulary, making children more articulate and confident in this ever-competitive world we live in. This test of real and ‘pseudo’ words will be an indication of a school’s ability to play the game. If this remains the case, I’m not playing anymore.

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