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To Schwa or not to Schwa?

This week is a really significant week for five and six year olds up and down the country, a week that will most likely determine their whole future. Pass the phonics screener and academic success is ensured, a university place guaranteed – because phonics is the key to being an effective reader. Each child in Year 1 will sit with their teacher, read a range of real words and sound out some made-up words like groimp, thunk and slured, often lacking a capital letter because, according to the children, these are proper nouns – the names of aliens.

Apparently, having a good grasp of phonics, or the sounds (phonemes) that letters or groups of letters (graphemes) make, enables children to crack the code. Last minute revision of ar, ou, oi, and ng can make all the difference, as can spotting the modifying ‘e’ to change a short vowel into a long one in a split-digraph. ‘Say my name, say my name’ (think Destiny’s Child) is a song our teachers use to remind children that the e at the end of ‘smoke’ changes the ‘o’ (as in smock) into an ‘ow’ as in bow.

Your children, who are all by now experts in the subject, will no doubt have pulled you up on your ‘schwaing’, the quite shocking act of adding a random mid-vowel sound to the end of a phoneme. The verb, to schwa, is now commonplace: I schwa, you schwa, he schwas… It is now easy to age someone by whether or not they schwa.

The tihng is, yuo acn aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I hrve wittren hree bceause it dseno’t atcaluy mttaer in waht oderr the lteters in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. Which of course brings into question the significance of phonics.

Regardless of typeface, each word has its unique shape that we become familiar with. When I started teaching, flashcards were the order of the day and developing children’s word recognition was a key priority. As a learner with a very strong preference towards the visual, this approach worked for me and is my go to strategy for reading.

And there are other ways in which we gain meaning from text; clues from the syntax, context and meaning, and for me, as one who will always look at the pictures first, clues from photographs or illustrations. Never cover up the pictures!

The point is that reading is a complex process. People use a range of different strategies when they read, some of which will be more dominant for some than for others. Having a good knowledge of phonics is without doubt an advantage for reading, writing and spelling – and taught well, learning about phonics can be both fascinating and fun. But keep its importance in perspective. After all, ‘ghoti’ is a phonetically plausible spelling for fish: gh pronounced ‘f’ as in enough; o pronounced ‘i’ as in women and ti pronounced ‘sh’ as in nation.

William