Are phonics the best way to teach children to spell?

Ellen's daughter - she believes phonics have held back her spelling

Ellen's daughter - she believes phonics have held back her spelling - Credit: Archant

You might expect the offspring of two professional writers to have little trouble when it comes to the English language, says Ellen Widdup.

But none of my kids – the ones old enough to hold a pen – are likely to win a spelling bee.

I blame phonics, a system of teaching letter sounds that helps children as young as three to read.

Sure, it sounds good on paper. It just doesn’t look so good on paper.

It’s my opinion that phonics actively discourages children from spelling correctly.


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They are congratulated for writing “wot” instead of “what” and “yoo” instead of “you” and, although they can write more-complicated sentences using the phonics theory, much of it is lost in translation to those of us who never learnt the code.

Now that my kids are older – and have weekly spelling tests – their ability to remember the difference between “there”, “their” and “they’re” is limited, because up until recently “ther” has sufficed for all.

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Of course, it would be easy to say “enuf is enough” with the phonics, but perhaps taking a more lenient approach to spelling is not such a bad thing.

After all, the English language is a changed and changing landscape.

And to argue that this is a bad thing is to deny the very flexibility that makes language useful.

Just look to the guy who probably added more words to the dictionary than anybody else ? William Shakespeare.

Mind you, I am not sure what the Bard would make of the rise of the SMS ? “2b or not 2b” doesn’t quite cut the mustard.

But texting is arguably the biggest thing to happen to language since the first dictionary standardised spelling.

This year we will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the first text message.

It was sent by Neil Papworth, a 22-year-old technician who was sitting at a computer terminal in Vodafone’s Newbury HQ, where the company was having their Christmas party.

Imbued with festive spirit, Papworth sent the telenote message “Merry Christmas” from his computer to technical director Richard Jarvis’s Orbitel 901 phone.

Little did he know that 25 years later trillions of these missives would be sent on a daily basis and that absolutely nobody would text “Christmas” when “Xmas” would do.

Text messages have dramatically altered the way we write, obliterating conventional punctuations and replacing properly-spelled words with abbreviations, initials and smiley symbols.

These days no celebrity sex scandal or political revelation is complete without embarrassing and incriminating text evidence.

Not many major news events go by without instant text commentary either.

“A crazy man is shooting here” was sent at 5.10 on July 22, 2011 by Norwegian teenager Julie Bremnes, trapped on Utoeya Island while Anders Breivik went on his killing spree, shooting 69 victims.

Sure, texting has been blamed for the downfall of written English. But if you ask me, the proper response to that is LOL.

Much of the disdain is perpetuated by older generations still clinging to the language of their youth.

It’s true that the teens of today tend to be creative and efficient with English.

But – much as we wouldn’t address the Queen the same way we would our mates – they know when to use it and when not to.

Well, most of them do.

Last year a 13-year-old Scottish schoolgirl handed in an essay written completely in text message shorthand, much to the bemusement of her teacher.

One extract said: “My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 :- kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc.”

No. I can’t understand all of it either.

But her peers certainly would – which suggests that whether we like it or not, there is a new generation of English speakers who do not place as much importance on correct spelling, pronunciation and grammar as we have in the past.

Their mode of communication is quickly becoming the new norm, too.

Just take a look in the dictionary. LOL, BFF and OMG were added to the lexicon in 2011.

So is every stupid thing kids put in their texts going to become a word? Of course not.

I don’t think for one moment that the future of job interviews will consist of CV statements that say: “OMG, IM totes rite 4 ths j0b!”

But there is certainly something to be said for the brevity of an SMS – or a Tweet which originally was 140 characters or fewer.

Eliminating superfluous words is something of an art form.

Something that I, as a journalist, pride myself on.

You see, cramming a verbose thought into a succinct sentence requires the ability to manipulate language.

And isn’t that all writing is?So does texting make kids terrible spellers? No more so than phonics.

In fact, such skills mean our children are well-versed in more than one form of communication.

Perhaps writing in an abbreviated fashion could be considered a separate language entirely, rendering our offspring effectively bilingual.

After all, I recently had to use an online tool – Transl8it – yesterday to work out what a note from my eight-year-old daughter said.

It read: “I h8 spellin. Wotz d point innit NEway?”

@EllenWiddup

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