Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Ending the year as we began by looking at phonics...

To an average child, it can often feel like this in your head when you are learning to read
Back in January phonics were a hot topic for us, as Charlotte began to experience the sharp end of early years introduction to phonics and decoding.

At times, it felt like we couldn't dare broach the subject of reading books supplied by school for fear of turning Charlotte off reading books for pleasure altogether. We wrote several times about the 'unnatural' process of decoding and breaking down words, about the way we felt phonics didn't aid a child's recognition of key words, and undecodable 'difficult' words would always be a spoke in the wheel of any programme designed to introduce reading in a bizarre formulaic fashion.

As the year draws to a close I'm compelled to write about phonics again. Only a few short months ago when the sun was shining we described how difficult it was to maintain momentum over the long summer holiday, and that Charlotte's reading fell behind despite our best efforts to mix school books and books read for pleasure together with no distance between the two.

What's happened since then has transformed my thinking on the subject of phonics, and it perhaps offers hope to others who are in similar situations where they feel that literary luminaries such as Michael Rosen and others are right, and that phonics are not the right way to get children reading early.

I agree in part. It is not the right way if it's the only method you use. No programme designed to teach children to read from an early age can ever be as successful as parents engaging with their children and shoring up the 'learning' stuff with the 'fun' stuff (or ensuring that the learning stuff is made fun!)

It's absolutely vital to stress that we soldiered on with our approach of ensuring we read books for pleasure to Charlotte, that she saw us reading for pleasure (and of course being enthusiastic about books and stories), that we mixed in the supposedly 'subversive' stuff like comics, and that we devoted enough time to backing up the stilted phonics and school learning with fun stuff that she could later use in class, stuff that purely came from us.

In just a few short months since she started year 1 in September, her confidence has grown. Stage 6 books are - to put it bluntly - not challenging at all to her, and she breezes through them. My initial doubts about the decoding method, which caused Charlotte to individually spell out words every time she read, have disappeared now her rate of recognition / repetition has gained momentum, and she reads quite naturally.

Some words still catch her out but with a little help here and there, she usually only falls down on those words once or twice before she stores them up and will recognise and read them correctly next time.

Best of all, something that was fairly rare before - Charlotte disappearing off and reading books on her own, and not just the usual phonics or clear print books - but anything she can lay her hands on, in all manner of flowery and complex typefaces and layouts as you'd expect from children's books - are now devoured with gusto and enthusiasm.

The cherry on the cake - and if by now I'm beginning to sound a bit smug, I do apologise but there's a fine line between proud and smug - is that she is constructing and writing her own stories. The foundation of learning built on by a child letting their imagination loose on a page, beginning those first faltering steps towards building their OWN worlds, inhabited by their OWN characters, that's something that schools and the government are sadly missing out on and I guess that is the real crux of what annoys authors (and illustrators) who put so much effort into producing truly wonderful books, if we are treating reading purely as a measure of academic ability, rather than something to build little independent imaginative thinkers with, then I'd have to agree that I'd gladly cast phonics and other unnatural learning methods into the deepest darkest pit. Without creative kids emerging from schools with heads full of wonderful ideas, the world's going to be a horrible, ugly and sterile place to live in.