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What would Shakespeare have said?

In a way that is at least unusual in world education, the technique known as ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’ or SSP is now prescribed by law in Britain for the teaching of reading and writing. SSP is zealously advocated by Rhona Johnston, and Joyce Watson (2005). There are other approaches to phonics, but these are all rubbished by the proponents of SSP. Increasingly, as noted by *Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury (2022), the belief is growing that nothing other than SSP techniques are allowed. Wyse and Bradbury’s article has aroused vigorous and lively discussion involving members of the goverment and others.

By some mysterious mechanism, publishers in this area are ‘approved’. But the more strictly SSP canons are followed, the less likely it is that children will have access to the treasure trove of existing literature. This contradicts many commitments in the National Curriculum. The effect of SSP on story telling and literature seems to me uniformly dire.

Shakespeare would have laughed at SSP. George Bernard Shaw would probably have written a play about it, like he wrote Pygmalion to poke fun at the way the early proponents of phonetics sought to bury their most notable predecessor, Alexander Melville Bell. Shakespeare and Shaw would have thought it bizarre to suggest that the text of literature. theatre and poetry is no more than a sequence of letters. Epic poetry like Beowulf and the first known text in formal grammar, Panini’s Ashtadhyayi, were first written to be recited aloud by memory. The recitalists would have considered what they were reciting far more important than any of the letters used to write it down.

SSP ignores

  • The difference between the content words in cat, dog, big, get, and the functors in a, the and the n’t in couldn’t. The content words and functors are spelt by by two sets of principles. They overlap. But they are not quite the same. The functors can’t be used on their own or shown with pictures, are standardly unstressed, have a simpler sound structure, mostly single consonants and vowels, no clusters of more than two elements, often contract, losing some of their sound structure, and ‘cliticise’ or get stuck to other elements. Because of the contraction and cliticisation, functors are often said and written as something less than a complete syllable, as in don’t can’t, couldn’t, shouldn’t, in a way that never happens with content words. TH at the beginning of the, this, these, though, then, is voiced. TH at the beginning of thin, think, through, three, is voiceless. The vowel written as E in the and as A in a is pronounced as ‘schwa’ so long as it is not followed by a vowel, the only such cases in the language. Of is a functor in a pint of milk, which was routinely pronouced A PINTA MILK with the V sound left unpronounced. There are almost 100 functors in English. 
  • Over 500 relations between letters and sounds or ‘graphemes’ – a lot more than SSP proponents care to admitWith only five single letters for six short vowels, in hit, red, hat, hut, hot, and hood, there is no logically possible way of consistently representing the short vowel in put and foot, and the long tense vowel in food. One work around is to vary the boldness of the type, using OO in food, and OO in foot. But this is a publisher’s trick, never used other than in educational text focused on this point. The ‘homophones’ bury and berry both begin B and end with Y. But the relation between the Y in these words and the sound is lost by calling the letter a Yer (pronounced like the second syllable in sawyer or you as in Y’know). Just berry has the characteristic doubled letter between a short stressed vowel and a final unstressed syllable.
  • The asymmetric structure of the syllable as reflected not just in English poetry, but in the poetry of many languages. Consider the sort of rhyme common in poetry between two structures, both with stressed and unstressed syllables with only one  consonant sound sandwiched in between, as in fiddle and middle, doubled accordingly. But this cannot be captured in principle by the notion of a continuous sequence of speech sounds, as espoused by SSP. There are many other such cases.
  • The basis of rhythm both inside words and between them – the raw materials of poetry, along with meaning – from right to left, two syllables at a time, giving primary stress the first time, and then secondary stresses, Between words, in expressions like To be or not to be, where the only content word is be, the stress depends partly on the contrast between content and function. The doubling and special pronunciation of the T in little, the different pronunciations of TR in triangle and triangulate, all depend on the way stress defines the rhythm.
  • The original logic of using non-words in assessment. When in 1958 Jean Berko developed an experimental methodology using non-words the motivation was to see if children understood how different phonetic realisations of English word-structure, like the differences between the plurals in pans, pats, pads and patches, extended to non-words. Berko strongly emphasised the importance of making sure that the children all understood what they were being asked to do. This is obviously not practical in a whole class test where it is not clear how children will interpret the task against any background knowledge they may have of the sound structure. Approaching the same issue from a different direction, in 1976 Carol Chomsky discussed the case of children spelling buried as berried. She suggested that such ‘creative spelling’ provided “valuable practice in phonetics, in dealing with phonological abstractions and in the principles of alphabetic writing.”
  • The fact that there is no non-arbitrary way of determining which graphemes should be treated as exemplary and which as exceptions. Conventional spellings mostly show dipthongs and other long vowels by two characters, either adjacent or separated by a consonant where the rightmost vowel of the root is the so-called ‘silent’ E, as in take, complete, like, rope, puke. But this principle has exceptions in might, fight, night.
  • The negative effect of whole class teaching on what is essentially an approximation, making it impossible to  differentiate between children and to ensure that the limitations of the approximation (in the large number of exceptions) are correctly understood. On average, each letter is involved in 20 or so graphemes. The first and last sounds in agenda can be spelt in at least 36 different ways. SSP proponents are coy about the number of these. Only the vowel in am has just just one spelling. The problem is magnified by the fact that English disdains accents, other than in some spellings of French façade and café.
  • The history of the alphabet in Greece and Italy in the ancient world, when there is every reason to assume there was one character for every sound. But as the system was pressed into service for languages for which it was not designed, the fit got less and less exact, first for Etruscan and Latin in Italy and much later for English. Without some of the sounds of Greek and with other sounds not part of Greek, more and more of the origial logic was lost. But not completely.

Look and say

Giving up all hope of extracting any logic from the English spelling system, a technique known as Look and say just pairs words and pronunciations. Every word has to be learned as an item, with no relation to any other word begining or ending with the same consonant or the same vowel. Look and Say is defeatist. It misses the obvious generalisations across  pin and pan, nip and nap, tip and tap,  sit and sat, that each member of the pair begins with the same sound, they alliterate, and the generalisation across pan and ransit and knit. house and mouse, that each of the pairs rhyme, both principles extensively applied in poetry. It offers no way to compute the sound of an unfamiliar new word. It has been unceremoniously abandoned.

Babies and bathwater

But as a reaction against Look and Say, SSP throws out the baby with the bathwater. SSP assumes that words consist entirely of sequences of elements known by a characteristic sound, giving each letter a name from what is taken to be its sound. A, B, C-type names for letters are effectively forbidden. SSP focuses entirely on the realisation of  letters as sounds and what it calls the ‘blending’ of these in more complex structures, including words. Turning letters into words is called ‘coding’. Breaking down words into their sounds is called ‘decoding’. This is represented as a discovery in the theory of education. But abandoning letter names in favour of what is taken to be their sounds is a step back from logic rather than an advance. The greater the chaos in the system the greater the reason for the one bit of consistency, namely the letter names.


This is not to undermine the principle of phonics, going back to the ancient Greek creation of the alphabet or absurdly to disinter Look and Say. But the proponents of SSP tend to view any criticism as both of these. Shakespeare would have been shocked at the disingenuity.

Two alternative approaches to phonics are known as ‘Analytic’ and ‘Embedded Phonics’. Analytic Phonics seeks to allow children to discover for themselves alliteration and the commonality between rhymes. Embedded phonics teaches these pricinples as they come up in stories and other literature. But both approaches are random in terms of which alliterations and which rhymes are encountered.

The problem is complex. SSP pretends to solve it bureaucratically. It can only be solved by honesty and imagination, and, yes, thoroughness. But pretending that there is a simple bureaucratic solution is a non-solution. It lessens he probability of children actually enjoying literature.

Moving forward

In her 1982 book, Lada Iosifovna Aidarova sets out the basis of a way forward – by giving each child a book of their own to in which to write and investigate, and not just practise. The book can be about anything, a favourite celebrity, sports star, team, the child’s own life, a story. But it is also a record of the child’s investigation of language. The writing can be in felt tips, crayon, ink or paint, or printed from a computer if there is one available and the resources to print the work out and stick it into the book, The book should look, and BE, important. It should bring up principles and categories, as evidenced in bobble, jabber, hammer, whammy, and so on. As shown by Aidarova, allowing children to discover for themselves the effect of structures in language as spoken and spelt is a powerful way of helping with their reading and writing. The technical terminology is less important than the investigation and resulting understanding. Starting from her studies of Gottlieb Frege and Bertrand Russel, Aidarava sets out the basis of a child-friendly notation.

Applying Aidarova’s insights to English, there are many principles to be discovered. In the case of the and a, the two commonest words in English, they don’t just ‘say’ the words, they also DO something which no other words in English do.  They change if the next word begins wih a vowel. This can open a discussion of the difference between vowels and consonants.

The double B in hobby and the double M in hammer are there for a reason. They belong to both syllables – as the end of one and the beginning of the next. The second syllables could not be words on their own.

There are many other such principles in English spelling. There are just more of them than SSP proponents care to admit.

At more or less the same time, Carol Chomsky, Noam Chomsky’s wife, was developing almost the same idea as Aidarova that EXPERIMENTING with writing helps the development of reading. If the child writes knowledge as NOLIJ or many as MENNY, they are generalising in a sensible way, something to be applauded even if the result is not correct in either case. But divided by the Cold War, there was no way for either Aidarova or Carol Chomsky  to know of the other’s work.

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