March 13, 2015 @ 10:45 PM

Our little grand-daughter started school this year, and as part of her preparation for reading we’ve been playing some entertaining word games with her. You know the sort of thing: big coloured cards or blocks with letters, and putting them together to form whole words. CAT, DOG, SHIP, HOLE and OAR.

“What about this one ore that one, Grandpa?” “No dear, it’s spelt this one or that one.” “Why Grandpa? They sound the same.” “I know, but different spellings help us tell the different meanings of similar-sounding words.” “Awesome, Grandpa.”

Yes, without mentioning other variations of the “or” sound as in TAUGHT, SOUGHT and Court? Not that I went into that just yet with the little one. But it did lead me to reflect on the rather silly – but nonetheless quite heated – debate taking place in Australia and other places between varying advocates on methods of teaching children to read.

It’s been a circulating argument these thirty years or more between those who adhere to the school of phonics – that is, the ability to distinguish the individual sounds of the letters D O G to form meaning – and those who insist on a whole word recognition approach, through which children learn by experience that this particular combination of letters does indeed signify a dog, with all that suggests for improved skills of comprehension.

If one can believe the newspapers, it would seem some schools have been adopting word recognition to the exclusion of phonics – and this, it is argued, accounts for a noticeable drop in reading and literacy standards over these past few decades.

Personally, I doubt that it’s practicable to exclude either phonics or word recognition from any reading class … and impossible to learn to write without knowing, for example, that the letters DOG make the sounds “d o g”. But what about DO? And when you come to the former Venetian ruler DOGE, then of course phonics go out the window and you have to rely on recognising the word within its context and your own cultural understanding.

How else, given the vagaries of English words and conventional spelling, can one learn to distinguish between There, Their and They’re? Bear, Bear and Bare? How and Hound? Low, Hoe, Cow, Bow, Bow and Bough?

It’s not either/or. It’s BOTH. Phonics and word recognition. A synthesis between the two approaches, to use a term from classical dialectics. And if we are to look for reasons behind the apparent fall in literacy standards in some western countries, it seems to me the electronic revolution, with its increasing emphasis on a visual and abbreviated linguistic culture, is probably as good a place to start.

Not that I expect a diminution any time soon in the shrill and single-minded determination with which the proponents of phonics or whole word recognition frequently conduct their arguments.

After all, the democratic ideal is usually to be found in a compromise between competing points of view – in the vigorous public contest of ideas that J.S. Mill analysed and from which he suggested truth, or at any rate a broadly acceptable way forward, will emerge.

Even so, I do sometimes wish the public debate wasn’t conducted in such absolutist terms. Either/Or. Black and white, with very few shades of grey (to use a now somewhat debased literary term) in between?

When it comes to reading, acquiring the skill is often a matter of child’s play. A bird. Simple as A B C.

Edith and Ethel Dillon with their Floral Alphabet Blocks c.1884. National Library of Ireland, Wikipedia Commons.