Stop Making Sense

Inside every word is a tiny capsule of sense. You can sound words out, you can name their parts, but meaning only comes out when you get them into the right context. Suddenly, the sense goes POP! Let me tell you a story …

Shanghai, China. We have just bought a wooden frog. It makes a croaking sound when you rub its back.

A: [excited] I didn’t know Assassia was real!

S: Assassia?

A: Yeah. I thought Assassia was only in Minecraft. I didn’t realise it was a real tree.

S: [puzzled] Assassia? What’s that?

A: It’s the wood that this frog is made from. See. It says so on the bag.

S: Ah. [smiling] You mean Acacia.

It was a perfectly plausible attempt at saying the word. It might even have passed muster in a phonics screening. If you’re not aware of its Greek etymology, then Assassia is as good a pronunciation as any. But I was only able to understand what my son was saying once I could place what he said in context. Meaning is language in context. English has a tricksy nature; a rich historical background all of its very own. Frequently it does strange things, like making the same sound for two different words (hole and whole), or different sounds for the same one (Reading and reading). And let’s not even go near rough, through, bough and cough.

The Year One phonics screening test is not a test of reading, it is a test of a child’s skill at decoding words out of context. It is a test designed to ensure teacher compliance with a government mandate. And it is a test in which children as young as five learn the lesson that, in school, they can pass or they can fail. I don’t know about you, but I am bewildered by these thoughts. Like Winston Smith in 1984, I cannot get them to make sense – the act of doublethink is beyond me. If I was going to name some imaginary monsters, I would not name them pog or queeb or strom. I would call them the Grumblegrowlerator, or the Slimyblobificon, or maybe even the Tssktsskpurrificalt. But then I’m engaged in the creative process of trying to make sense, because that’s what I always thought language was for. How on erath could I be so datf?

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27 Responses to Stop Making Sense

  1. nemocracy says:

    Not only is it a test of decoding out of context, but it is a test of pronouncing aloud a ‘word’ out of context. A knew what acacia meant and had decoded in the sense that he recognised the word when he came across it. All he didn’t know was how it is normally pronounced. For reading silently purposes he could read it, and just needed to hear it spoken to match the written word to its pronunciation. It was like his not knowing that acacia trees really exist; just another aspect of ‘acacia’ he was yet to learn.

    Unfortunately he would not have got a mark in the phonics check because ‘acacia’ is a real word, and the real words in the check have to be pronounced correctly, not just plausibly. This is one of the nonsenses within the check – it claims to be a phonics decoding check but isn’t.


  2. With good phonics teaching – of a parent or teacher who knows the alphabetic code well – it would have been worthwhile to look at the alphabetic code knowledge in relation to the word ‘acacia’.

    Letter ‘c’ followed by letter e, i or y, is pronounced as /s/ whereas letter ‘c’ followed letter ‘a’ will be pronounced as /k/.

    Even if the following letter ‘c’ in ‘acacia’ was pronounced as /s/, the final pronunciation of the word would have been much closer to the accepted pronunciation of the word.

    In some words, letters ‘-ci’ are pronounced /sh/ so knowing this – or being able to describe this to a learner, might have been an interesting and indeed helpful point.

    There was some awareness of the ‘soft c’ part of the code by the pronunciation of ‘Assassia’ – but not quite enough code knowledge to reach a close enough pronunciation of the word.

    The point being, that with good teaching of the alphabetic code, it is surprising how words that seem to confound and generate criticism of English spelling and phonics actually make sense of teaching phonics – well.

    In terms of monster names more creative than merely pog or queeb – you suggest by being longer or more complicated – once again the point of good phonics teaching is that the ‘reader’ could more readily lift even those longer names off the page.

    And, further, the notion that phonics is focused on Government mandate or pressure is a sad and unhealthy detraction from the fact that our school children are very much better served with excellent phonics teaching than being left to pick it up largely for themselves – or left with multi-cueing as the default technique – which may not enable them in the longer term to read those longer monster names – or chemical names, or geographical names, – or any new words come to that – because the ‘reader’ prefers to take a quick stab at the word – or simply skips over the new or challenging word and does not attempt any pronunciation at all.

    And ‘readers’ who habitually skip words as their reading reflex are far less likely to be introduced to new vocabulary when reading – which would entail the production of pronunciation linked to meaning.



    • suecowley says:

      Interesting to see that you think the government mandate is “sad and unhealthy”, I’d tend to agree with that. Where a method is worthwhile it should not need external agencies to ‘push’ it onto teachers.

      p.s. ‘A’ is 11 years old and books he’s read recently include Animal Farm, War of the Worlds and The Knife of Never Letting Go, so I think he’s cool with the code knowledge, thanks. 😉


    • littlemavis says:

      I know that “c” followed by “a” is hard & “c” followed by e, i or y is soft, though I have no idea where I acquired that knowledge from because I don’t think we did SP at school, but is that something included in any of the approved phonics programmes? (I’m not being awkward here, that’s a genuine question)


    • Rachel Rossiter says:

      If letter C followed by e is pronounced /s/, what about Celt?


  3. Sorry, Sue, you’ve misinterpreted what I wrote about the Government and ‘sad and unhealthy’.

    The Government was right to take steps to promote systematic synthetic phonics as that is what is needed for the children to get the best possible start to their literacy.

    What is sad is that so many people, possibly like yourself, are so upset by the idea that the Government has taken such strong steps that they’re more preoccupied with that than with the gains for the children themselves.


  4. Hmm….if A was that cool with the code knowledge, he would have pronounced Acacia correctly in the first place would he not.


    • suecowley says:

      Isn’t it weird how sometimes people misinterpret what you are saying, like you did when you read my blog post and you started explaining pronunciation to me? The whole *point* is that meaning exists separately from sounding out and that meaning is what reading is about. Even though I have no personal financial interest in promoting synthetic phonics, or indeed any specific methods for teaching reading, I will continue to make my personal thoughts and feelings on this subject clear. Even using words such as ‘denier’ is not going to stop me, I’m afraid, Andrew, although that rat mask in Room 101 might make me think twice. 😉


  5. Hi Sue,

    I’ve added your thoughts to this thread about the open letter to Michael Gove calling for the abolition of the Year One phonics screening check:


  6. nemocracy says:

    Debbie said, “People …. are so upset that the government has taken such strong steps that they’re more preoccupied with that than with the gains for the children themselves”. In my experience people are not convinced that gains will be made, are unsure about the quality of any such gains, and think it is unwise for the government to side-track professional opinions, such as those expressed in the open letter, while listening to those with commercial interests.

    In short, they are upset that government has taken such wrong steps.


  7. meraudfh says:

    Sue, would you consider adding your views to my hornet-stirring blog post? The others in these comments thread already have, and I’m edging *sloooowly* towards separating people’s concern regarding government diktats from concern regarding the teaching methods themselves. Given your comments on sense and sound, I’d especially value your views on my questions 10-14, relating partly to supporting development of comprehension in readers who are still in the early stages of learning. Thanks!


  8. nemocracy – The people you know clearly have a very different experience from the people I know – plenty of teachers, parents, children – all getting very excited by their ongoing notable improvements with SSP provision!

    Perhaps the people you know haven’t provided good enough provision of SSP teaching yet?

    It’s not a case of ‘gains will be made’ – gains are already being made – and have been for many years in some places and around the world at that!


    • nemocracy says:

      The hard evidence on SSP is inconclusive. The hard evidence on SSP as adopted in England is virtually non-existent. You might like to look at this blog which looks at governmental micromanagement of institutions to see the issues which get thrown up:

      As regards ‘good enough’ provision of SSP, if you are going to throw the charge of “provision not good enough” at every less than impressive SSP result you’re in a win-win position, aren’t you? But this only works if your definition of SSP includes the factoid, “it works”. Most people would rightly be a little circumspect about accepting that.


  9. nemocracy – I don’t agree with your accusations that SSP does not have hard evidence but I am not going to waste my time pointing to that evidence for you as an individual – someone who looks as if you have already made your mind up anyway.

    Clearly you are ‘anonymous’. But I wonder if you could indicate what your slant is on this – what do you do for a ‘day job’ for example?


  10. nemocracy says:

    Uh, no, I haven’t made up my mind, Debbie. The evidence I have read, including much recommended by pro-SSP individuals, is inconclusive (that’s not an accusation, it’s an observation), which means that making up one’s mind is not appropriate.

    It adds nothing for you to know what I do as a day job, and I don’t have any ‘slant’ other than what is evident in my posts. Knowing my real name wouldn’t reveal anything either.


  11. debrakidd says:

    There is fairly convincing evidence that SSP improves the ability of children, in particular, boys to decode. But there is also evidence that the relentless focus on SSP in school is putting them off reading for pleasure. When you then consider the evidence that children who read for pleasure between the ages of 11 and 16 outperform their peers at GCSE right across the curriculum, you start to get a sense that this is a more complex issue than advocates of SSP will admit. Until we accept that, while an important part of the jigsaw, decoding itself is not reading, and until we really imaginatively tackle issues around the desire to read and problems with comprehension, then we won’t have long term improvements in reading. What Sue’s post does here, is highlight the importance of engagement with text and the transference of understanding – far more important skills ultimately than the correct pronunciation of an unusual word.


  12. Rachel Rossiter says:

    Just a thought – was A a Celt ? Could explain why he had difficulties with the code.


    • suecowley says:

      He’s got a Portuguese background, the ‘cia’ makes that ‘sia’ sound, as in ‘policia’. 😉


      • suecowley says:

        And the ‘c’ is soft following an ‘a’, as in ‘acorda’. So he *was* following a code, it was just the Portuguese one.


      • Steve Doerr says:

        It’s ‘açorda’, and it’s the cedilla that makes it soft, not the preceding ‘a’. Words like ‘acabar’ have /k/, not /s/.


        • suecowley says:

          I know, but I don’t think he was looking for the cedilla, I think he just saw the word and took a punt using what he knew of Portuguese pronunciations. (He’s heard it a lot more than seen it written.) I couldn’t find that ‘cia’ sound in the English National curriculum though 😉 I have to say I do find it odd that we’re discussing the pronunciation of unusual words when the blog was about making sense, not making sound.


  13. Debra, if you look at schools like Thomas Jones in deprived part of N.Kensington with excellent SP foundations, you’ll find a tremendous thirst for books with Shakespeare introduced before end of primary. A massive problem is that most teachers are trained in ITTs that are wedded to Whole Language, including mixed methods. Hence we have a stubborn 17%++who aren’t fluent readers by the time they reach secondary school. What good synthetic phonics teaching does is to enable virtually all children to become fluent readers before the age of 7. This frees up time for teachers to concentrate on ‘real reading’ – introducing, inspiring, enthusing, surrounding, children with books…..
    We mustn’t forget those millions who aren’t fully literate, having been denied the foundational practice and understanding of our alphabetic code.


  14. Peter Pan says:

    SSP works. It worked for me and it works for all my children. I left school unable to read and write, as the school I went to used whole word teaching.
    The only real problem with SSP is the advanced phonics where words have Latin, Greek and French phonics for their graphemes.


    • nemocracy says:

      I don’t think there is any dispute, for most observers, that SP is useful. What is disputed is that it works well for all learners, that it is sufficient for decoding English and that it should be adopted in the style prescribed by the government.

      Geraldine uses the word ‘hence’ mistakenly in her post. She also uses her knowledge of one school and extrapolates it to all schools and school situations without defining her terms, describing the curriculum, situation and profile of the school or comparing any other school or teaching method.


  15. annadelconte says:

    Hi Sue,
    I love watching you stirring up the conversations.
    On a completely different note, I would be really interested to hear of your family’s reactions and lessons from being in China as only you can tell it 🙂


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