The phonics argument

It is sad but true. Publishing has been as guilty as everyone. The crucial first step in a child’s schooling is to learn to read, but we have been misleading them.

It is now accepted that the key to reading is to be able to blend together the letter sounds, the building blocks, so as to read the spoken word. The problem is that we have been giving children the wrong building blocks. Go into any children’s bookseller and there are any number of alphabet board books. Go into a reception classroom and there is an alphabet poster. Go into the house of a young child and there are any number of alphabet knick-knacks. But when a child starts to use even the first letter of the alphabet, the problems begin. The word “c-a-t” becomes Kate, a girl’s name. The word “m-a-t” becomes mate, and so on.

What children need are the letter sounds, including those such as “sh” in ship and “ee” in tree—42 in all. This is the basis of the synthetic phonics revolution, a change that is still in progress.

All very well, but does this make a difference? Indeed so. Children taught with letter sounds and blending learn twice as fast as those taught to memorise words, the fall-back method. After one year they have a reading age that is 12 months ahead. Not only that, but it “lifts all boats”, as seafarers say of the rising tide. When all else is the same, children from poorer backgrounds, or who do not have English as their first language, keep up with the rest, while boys do as well as girls.

The story really is that good. But the gap for parents is those early board books. Which is why we have just launched the Jolly Phonics My First Letter Sounds, the first book for young children with them all. It is all part of enabling children to access books and develop an enthusiasm for reading.


Christopher Jolly is the publisher of Jolly Phonics.