Phonics Ireland - An Online Synthetic Phonics Course

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Frequently Asked Questions


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1. What's special about your method on this course?

What is special is its clarity, accessibility and thoroughness. The principles at the heart of our course have been recognised in some form since formal reading education was introduced in the mid nineteenth century. However, the history of education is such that various camps set up for a prolonged literacy 'war'. Whole language, onset and rime, look and say and, of course, traditional phonics all have their 'armies'. Recent research has confirmed the most effective way to teach reading is by the synthetic phonics method and this has been endorsed by the UK government through the Rose Report. The literacy 'war' should be over. When properly trained, we believe that well-trained, conscientious adults can bring people of any age to their full reading potential.

2. Hasn't it been tried before?

In the congested and bewildering world of literacy methods, you'll find elements of the various approaches in many programmes (which are sometimes called 'balanced' or 'eclectic'). So, yes, in a sense it has been tried before, but never in this clutter-free, focused way which provides an understanding of the principles which underlie the teaching of reading. People trained in this are able to assess for themselves the effectiveness of the programmes they will undoubtedly encounter. What is new about our approach is the attention to linguistic principles you will encounter and the finite nature of each aspect of the course.

3. Will your approach conflict with methods used in my child's school and won't teachers object?

This is a frequently expressed and understandable worry. What we have found is that learners go with what works. Our approach, which provides logical, accurate and instant access to the English code, is readily adopted by students because it works. We find that teachers are only too delighted that their charges are making wonderful progress and, in fact, some have been so impressed by the progress that they have asked to be trained.

4. How can you help pre-school and very young children?

There are opportunities from a very early age to introduce, gently and informally, the skills, understandings and awareness that will, in later years, be more methodically established. Knowing what needs to be taught, you will recognise all sorts of moments when the sounds can be played with. The quiet confidence in and love of the sounds thus generated will provide a strong platform for future development.

5. Surely adults need to be taught differently?

All readers, especially emerging ones, need to know how language works. With adults, the same understanding, skills and awareness are required but they can be taught in a manner that makes them more digestible. For instance, when working the code you can use material that is of direct and practical use to the individual student. This helps with motivation as they can see an immediate use for the work they are doing. It also helps to be open and complete in your explanations as to why you are doing certain activities.

6. Could I use what I'm taught to set up a private reading clinic?

What you are going to learn is needed by many, many people so the more places that provide the service, the better. The course provides you with all you need to know to be a highly effective teacher of reading. With an understanding of what needs to be done, you'll even develop materials of your own as you gain in experience. Naturally you need to be sure to comply with any regulatory requirements for your area, re insurance, registration, etc. and we would strongly advise that if you are working with children you must insist that parents or guardians are present at all times.

7. You say your approach is research based. Where can I see this evidence?

We would direct you to the Reading Reform Foundation website (www.rrf.org.uk). There you will find a vibrant general forum, links and archived newsletters which consider the issues and refer to research completed and ongoing. In particular, you should become familiar with the Scottish Clackmannanshire study.

8. I need to be able to teach spelling. Is this course going to show me how?

By doing the course you'll learn that writing/spelling is the obverse side of the reading coin. As the students come to understand the workings of the code, they'll have an approach which is much more effective than trying to commit a sequence of letter names to memory.

9. How long does the course take to complete? Is there a time limit?

It is up to you how long you take but as with many learning situations, the more briskly you can work, the more effective the learning. Generally it is good practice to establish and maintain some momentum. Try not to leave big gaps between modules. Most students take about a month unless there are extenuating circumstances.

10. Why do I need to do an assignment at the end of each module? Is the final assignment very difficult?

It is vital that you master each module as you progress. We will be marking and, if necessary, commenting personally on each assignment to ensure that you understand the material covered. The final assignment covers the whole course and provides a comprehensive check on your progress.

11. I have never progressed to higher education. Could I take the course?

Many parents and education assistants who have not moved on the further education have been trained by us and become very effective practitioners. We believe that if you are determined and act on the advice given, you'll succeed. User-friendliness is important to us in the devising and refining of the course.

12. I fear I may have trouble saying the sounds. Will this make the course too difficult?

When people embark on a phonics literacy programme, they often worry unduly about the actual sounds (or phonemes) themselves. These worries can undermine people's efforts because they feel they must conform to some 'standard' version of the sounds, particularly the vowel sounds. (In England, it was known as RP - Received Pronunciation and promoted, sometimes too zealously in schools, in universities and by the BBC as a 'gold standard' to which all should aspire. Happily those days are gone, although there are still some who think that their brand of English is the best. Certain English speakers in Dublin and Edinburgh are of the opinion that their English is best. Both think their speech is superior to London and all think that Birmingham English is down the list - Birmingham, a stone's throw from Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare! And so the harmless banter goes on. Even the Queen's accent has changed since she started her Christmas broadcasts in the 1950's). The very number 44, sounds or phonemes, is not writ in stone. There is general consensus on the number 44 but linguists debate whether certain phonemes are 'in' or 'out'. In the old days the 'wh' sound in what, when, why, where, was treated as a separate consonant phoneme, requiring air to be expelled as it was said. Elocution teachers would hold a lighted candle before the mouth and the student told to extinguish it with the expelled breath of the 'wh' sound. That sound has almost gone from contemporary speech. Should it be included as a consonant phoneme? Feel free. And likewise, the gutteral sound 'ch' as in Bach, loch; is it a phoneme of English? We include it. Do you agree? We are trying to get away from dogmatic, prescriptive approaches. (Many people say 'free' for 'three'. Is 'th' an acceptable spelling for 'f'?). Language is constantly changing. It is our task to make it teachable, and enjoyable, for all. Some people like to get involve in a 'count the phoneme' game. What is really important, is to 'tune in' to the phonemes both in how they are presented here and how they are spoken in your area. The Principles that underpin this programme are what really matter. They provide the 'root system' that holds things together. Sounds vary from person to person, area to area, region to region, nation to nation and yet we manage to 'tune in' to each other. Remember, it is the underlying principles that provide coherence. (See also answer to Q. 16)

13. My child is dyslexic. Can this course help?

We have taught many students to read who have come with such a diagnosis. In our experience when students have the code explained to them clearly, what seemed impenetrable becomes understandable. In those cases where there are other difficulties such as vision, hearing or memory we would recommend that additional, specialised help be sought.

14. Does your course show how to teach writing?

You'll see how each lesson includes a step called 'Writing the Word' and another called 'Dictation'. In these we are reversing the code and using the new skills to 'encode' the sounds. In other words, the two disciplines of reading and writing are taught in parallel with each helping the other to develop. We place a lot of emphasis on the development and promotion of fine motor skills that underpin good handwriting practice and there is a link to downloadable exercises as part of the course.

15. What can I expect once I have enrolled on the course?

We would refer you to the Learning Agreement for details of the commitments we, as providers, make to you, the learner.

16. I don't speak English as my first language. Can this course be of any use to me?

If you already speak one or more languages, you are already bringing a rich background to your language work. This will deepen and inform the ideas you encounter on this course. You will already appreciate the importance of the relationship between sound and symbol and will more readily be able to impress this on your students. The consonant sounds of English are rarely problematic, it is to the vowels we most pay closer attention. Clarity of diction is essential at all times. Children need to hear clear well-articulated words, particularly in the early stages of language acquisition. We hope you will appreciate the grouping of sounds in the Phonics Ireland course. When we deal with the Later Code Vowels for instance, e.g., 'ae', as in able, and the common and less common ways of spelling 'ae', (acorn. aim, gate, day, etc.), we go straight to words which contain 'ae'+'r', as in air, vary, aerial, pear, etc. Our students find this very convenient and we hope you do also. (See also answer to Q. 12)

17. If this approach is so effective why isn't it being adopted universally?

A very good question. The teaching of reading is one that raises considerable passion - and rightly so. It is vital to our children's future that we get this right. We believe that this is an area that is full of unnecessary confusions and that the job can be done so long as you know how. We work on the maxim 'If it is needed - use it; if not - ditch it'. Unfortunately many approaches are not built on first principles and acquire a lot of 'distractions' which are a hindrance to the accomplishing of the task in hand. The vast bulk of the educational world and individual teachers are sincere in their efforts to provide the best for students, but there is a lot of inertia in education systems. We believe that the difficulties have their origins in a misunderstanding of how the English language functions. From this a raft of well-intentioned, but essentially misdirected, methodologies have evolved. In the last number of years alarm over the stubbornly high percentage of people identified as having severe literacy difficulties, has generated an intense examination of just what has been happening. Much quality research has pointed the way to best practice. This, very generally, consists of programmes that proceed from first principles. But beware, many programmes claim to have a phonics approach, but are often a re-hash of discredited practices. We aim to arm you with the knowledge and understanding to allow you to assess the methods that you come across. We want you to be more than mere technicians at the mercy of commercial publishers and ill-informed government agencies.

18. Are there any additional costs involved during, or after, the course?

In this course we are training you to understand language, using synthetic phonics. We provide materials so that the principles and skills can be established: word cards, controlled stories, dictation sentences, word lists and guided exercises. However, you want to be using literature that is of interest to your student as soon as possible. When you understand the workings of the language and know how to provide appropriate feedback, you can take any text and 'work the code' while reading it. Learning and enjoyment are happening at the same time.

19. Does the course provide me with downloadable materials for practical use with students?

As mentioned in the previous response, there is a range of practical materials which can be downloaded onto card and laminated, which you can use as a permanent resource. Some people organise these into storage boxes making them into a handy portable kit.

20. Is any help available if I find I don't understand something?

You may email us. And don't forget that the End-of-Module Tests and the Final Test are personally marked so there will be ample opportunities to clarify points and sort out difficulties.

21. Would you recommend any useful background reading?

There is an expanding literature on synthetic phonics currently available. As an initial reader we would recommend 'Growing a Reader from Birth' and 'Why Children Can't Read' by Dr Diane McGuinness. The archived newsletters on the Reading Reform Foundation website (www.rrf.org.uk) will provide fascinating leads.

22. What functions, or systems, does my computer require to access the course?

You need to be able to download PDF documents and view video clips as well as listen to audio material. So a fast broadband connection would be best, but apart from that, nothing unusual is needed.

23. How can you be so sure your approach works?

We have remediated several hundred students of all ages. We have introduced this approach to schools and witnessed the dramatic turnaround that occurs when students are taught using these ideas and practices. We want to make this available to as many as possible. See the testimonials we include. What really pleases us is the new enthusiasm for their work that teachers discover having done the course.

24. How much does your course cost?

The course costs £40.00 for individuals.

25. You see the ability to read as affecting more than a child's educational growth. Can you explain?

Reading is crucial not just to progress in education but it affects every aspect of one's personal development. Having a sound grounding in reading and writing techniques allows a student to progress on to higher level literacy skills. So many students struggle because their basic decoding is so inaccurate that advanced comprehension is difficult for them. They also tend to be 'afraid' of words and in turn are not able to develop their personal vocabulary. In other words, without solid literacy skills, the student's prospects and life chances are limited. It is a fact that many who are failed by education find themselves unemployable and on the margins of society.

26. Would your course be a suitable training for a parent wishing to homeschool their child?

Since the primary aim of the course is to provide the participants with the skills and insights needed to teach reading, it would be ideal.

27. Why is your approach called synthetic phonics?

This is a label that has gained wide acceptance in the past decade. The word 'synthetic', as commonly used, has connotations of artificiality, but the meaning in which we use it has to do with the synthesising of sounds i.e. the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

28. The student says s/he doesn't like decoding. What do you do?

Words themselves can become a barrier to progress. If a student, because of previous difficulties with written language develops a resistance to reading, suddenly hears the word 'decode' repeated ad nauseum s/he may very well decide that by refusing to cooperate with the decoding process s/he retains control of the situation. Great sensitivity is required in such circumstances. If the word 'decoding' becomes a barrier, then don't use it. A deeply resistant student can devise a plethora of strategies for non-cooperation. The important thing is to get it across to the student that the 'reading project' is up and running and the question is 'How do we accomplish it successfully?' It is not hard to convince a student that visual-memory reading has let him/her down and that sounds are the way forward. Call it 'sounding out' - don't call it anything - merely point to each spelling and demonstrate that this is the cleverest, quickest, easiest, best way to make sense of written language. Handled properly, it will be OK. The important thing is to have a good, trusting relationship with the student and to be always confirming what s/he already knows and has observed. Children want to read.

29. I've heard that phonics is just 'barking at text' and does not allow learners to enjoy engaging material.

This phrase is sometimes heard from the anti-phonics brigade. It is pejorative and when one hears it one can be sure that an avowed enthusiast for 'look and say', whole language, visual-memory teaching is speaking. If 'look and say' worked, there would be no need for phonics. If 'look and say' worked, the Rosetta Stone wouldn't have presented brilliant people like Champollion and Young with such awesome difficulties, difficulties they could overcome because of their amazing scholarship and knowledge of ancient codes. Children love codes and we should be making use of them, both to deepen knowledge of other writing systems and to deepen appreciation of our own. We have never encouraged children to 'bark', at text or at anything else. We merely wish them well in the sometimes taxing task of deciphering tricky words like 'deciphering'. When we read we are using a complex of skills such as following storyline, comprehending, predicting. The skill that is fundamental to all others, in our view, and upon which all others rely and depend is the basic skill of decoding, deciphering, unscrambling. Without this all the pious hopes of the 'look and say' brigade are so much hot air. Over 20% of students leave school as poor readers. If 'look and say' worked this wouldn't be the case. There is too much evidence that 'look and say' doesn't work and too much evidence that synthetic phonics does work to take the risk of continuing with the former.

30. Do you encourage the development of higher reading skills?

Most certainly. Our immediate concern in the Phonics Ireland course is to ensure that all mainstream students (and many with special needs) gain membership to the Readers' Club. What people do with their skills is their business once they have been initiated into the skills of literacy. There are many people of higher education who, for instance, never read a novel or a poem or a decent newspaper. That's their choice. Our immediate concern is for the many who don't have the choice in the first place. Our prisons are overflowing with people with literacy difficulties. We believe that there is much that schools should and could be doing to assist students to attain higher reading skills, to become faster, more efficient readers and writers. There is little said about these things in most schools. As in all areas of expertise in life, higher coaching leads to better standards. Children are rarely asked how efficient they are at encoding (writing) or at decoding (reading) language. The 'how' of learning plays too small a part in the life of our schools. We are too concerned with content (or 'clutter' as it was once described by a British Secretary of State for Education).

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