Beware of Shwaa! – (re)learning to read and write

Today I went to a phonics briefing meeting at my daughter’s school. I joked beforehand that we were going to a phonetics briefing session, liking the idea of working out what all those symbols you see in a dictionary mean, the ones that look like thermodynamics equations. But when you stop to think about it, spelling in English must be equally incomprehensible to the unititiated. I’ve realised that beyond spelling out simple three-letter words and stringing them together to create dull scenarios involving recumbant felines on carpeting, I simply don’t understand how to help my daughter spell out most words.

I am therefore really excited about learning phonics, and unlearning some of the things I was taught in the bad old 80s. I love the idea of stretchy sounds, like ‘sssssss’, and bouncy sounds like ‘t’. And I learnt to beware of shwaa, the tendency to add unncessary extra sounds at the start of a simple phoneme, like an ‘uh’ sound after ‘d’ to make’duh’ instead of letting the letter be short and bouncy. This is probably why I remember thinking that after every consonant there should be a letter ‘u’.

We were shown rafts of creative resources designed to reinforce the discipline of learning to form and spell words using the language of phonics, and lots of creative ways to help our children develop their understanding. It is really exciting. As someone who works in education and training, it is really interesting to see how these resources have been constructed and how the system works, and I am really looking forward to getting stuck in.

I learnt that ‘sat’ is an example of a c.v.c word, meaning that it is structured in the form consonant-verb-consonant. Similarly ‘cat’ and the ‘mat’ beneath. Children will learn five phonemes a week, starting with simple ones. The first group is m, a ,s, d and t. There are accompanying stories made up only of these letters. As mad as sad dad. This, it turns out, is quite hard, and it makes me think of the Oulipo group of French writers who created works using constrained writing techniques (a famous example is George Perec’s book Lipogram, which doesn’t contain the letter ‘e’). Maybe phonics may re-boot this literary movement?

The only thing that tempers my enthusiasm is that this is the first time I have felt my daugher is on a track. Her class will cover all these sounds by Christmas to enable them to cover the next set by Easter. There will be time for review after Christams in case preparations for the Christmas play gets in the way (which I hope it does!). Systems of learning like this are terrific for providing structure but there is always the risk that progress through the system comes at the cost of other joys of childhood. The answer, I think is to keep it fun and meaningful, which, from this morning’s session, I am sure the school is going to do.

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