Plain speaking from ex-teacher Brenda Bullock...
The derisive cheers that greeted the Government's statement that from now on children will be taught to read using the synthetic phonics method was quite understandable and, arguably, well deserved.
After all, millions of us in the past were taught to read that way and most of us acquired the skill early. Even my old granny, born in the time of Victoria, and with no more than an elementary education, read fluently and wrote a neat hand.
As one who lived through the experiments with the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA), which meant that children first had to spell using the ITA, then had to learn all over again using conventional spelling; then the "look and say" method, which involved flash cards with whole words written on them, I have to say this.
Since it is an accepted truth that we all initially learn a language (our own or a foreign language) by listening, it would seem reasonable to suggest that the written word should come as a logical progression from the oral language that the child has absorbed from babyhood.
Think of how you learned language: by listening and copying what you heard. You understood what was said long before you had the confidence and competence to speak. Once you had mastered the sounds of your language, you could then try them out for yourself.
This done, you were ready to try writing the sounds down - writing and spelling.
It seems, from my experience, that to deviate from this pattern leads to problems. I have taught many adult students over the years, who had learned to read by other methods and they invariably had great difficulty with spelling because they didn't know the phonetic value of letters or groups of letters.
Similarly, I have taught many very bright children for the 11-plus exam and been mystified by the fact that so many of them could not pick out two words that rhyme from a list: look, cloak, clock, poke, pluck; often making what, to me, seemed wild errors. They could read the words, they knew what they meant, but they couldn't hear the difference between then when spoken.
I have also taught English as a foreign language and had to concentrate on basic sounds to help the students make progress.
When Mrs Kellerman, in the 1960s, did her experiment in Leeds, teaching French to primary school children, she found that she had to teach the sounds first before introducing the written word because if the children knew how it was spelled, they wouldn't pronounce it properly, because French is spelled differently from how it sounds.
Surely, when so many children in British schools either speak no English or have English as their second language, it is imperative that they learn the sound of the language first, each letter, each combination of letters?
So, when the old fogeys write to the Press to the effect that "I learned by phonics 70 years ago, in a class of 40 and we all learned quickly," it might be a good idea to acknowledge that they have a point.