An increasing number of New Zealand schools are now moving away from ‘whole language’ theories of how children learn to read and spell and re-introducing phonological awareness programmes instead.

This shift is not actively promoted by the Ministry of Education as it applies to writing and spelling skills as exemplified by its recently issued PaCT materials on writing, but by schools acting on their own initiative as they are entitled to do.

The switch back to phonics in reading and spelling acquisition is an international trend and is actually mandated in the UK and most recently by the Federal Education Authorities in Australia.

The Ministry did publish through Learning Media a resource entitled ‘Sound Sense’ as early as 2003 on phonological awareness training for decoding skills but do not seem to be actively promoting it, along with other similar New Zealand programmes, such as the well-marketed Yolanda Sorryl handbooks.

There are pitfalls in requiring students to ‘crack’ the standard spelling code by learning to spell a word “just as they hear it sound”.

For as long as the phonetic structure of the word corresponds exactly with its conventional or standard spelling structure there is no problem.

Many of the simple CVC high frequency words children encounter in Year One are of this nature, as in ‘big’; ‘it’;  ‘bag’ and ‘on’ among many other examples.

But this is true also of words at a more advanced level of difficulty as in ‘de-liv-er’; ‘con-un-drum’, ‘mis-print’ and ‘re-form-ist’.

So, for one word in three following phonological cues does work but what about the other two in three that are not as predictable as in ‘who’; ‘true’; ‘threw’ and ‘too’ all making the same sound but which are spelt differently so that confusion sets in early on whether the student tries to spell the word ‘just as it sounds’ or tries to remember that it ‘looks like’ in order to spell it correctly.

Conversely there are many vowel blends which are spelt differently but make the same sound.

Another difficulty for most blends is that only one of the two blends can be clearly heard whereas for consonant blends each sound can be distinctly heard.

If we stop struggling along with our students and talk about the fact that the phonetic spelling code does exactly what the standard (correct) spelling code does, in that both codes communicate meaning from print and are therefore, ‘understandable’ spellings, then it is logical is it not, to permit students to use the phonetic spelling of a word instead of the correct spelling if the word cannot be visually recalled.

This is achieved without students needing to worry about the 43 vowel blends when a single short regular vowel sound will be sufficient to convey the words meaning. So we don’t have any unrealistic expectation that by introducing children to phonological awareness and training activities that these activities are going to have, as a direct outcome, the generation of a correct spelling of all words, the student requires apart from the one-in-three which are spelt exactly as they sound.

If a word is spelt almost as it sounds, the outcome is likely to be a spelling closely approximate to the correct spelling! The same principle applies to simple and also more advanced and difficult words as in ‘serplis’ (surplus); ‘exhibishin’ (exhibition); and ‘imbarising’ (embarrassing).

In the final category are those words where the correct spelling has no close equivalent relationship to its phonetic counterpart as in ‘jirarf’ (giraffe), ‘nolij’ (knowledge); ‘erj’ (urge) and ‘reseev’ (receive), which are still ‘decipherable’.

Furthermore, on any brand of the latest smart phones their spelling app has the same capacity to electronically convert phonetic spellings into correct spellings, thus rendering as obsolete, earlier generations of hand-held electronic spelling calculators as featured on the fonetik website. Craig is a retired educational psychologist who developed his ‘fonetik’ remedial spelling system back in the mid-1990s.

Although endorsed and distributed by the now defunct Special Education Service, once that service was absorbed into the Ministry of Education it was declared incompatible with its whole language theories and that it did not support the New Zealand curriculum.

Craig Jackson’s website www.fonetik.org.nz was developed largely at his own expense with a small financial grant (since withdrawn) from the Ministry of Education when it conceded that it was not a commercial venture.  It is periodically updated and expanded in view of the rapidly evolving I.C.T. word processing technologies.  It is free to access by teachers, tutors, parents and older intermediate and secondary level students.