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A 40-year gestation

In 1972-73 I took the MA in Applied Linguistics course at the University of Essex. A year or two later, reflecting on that course and hoping to do a doctorate, I identified two possible topics: an attempt to specify the relationships between the graphemes of written English and the phonemes of spoken English as a set of TG (transformational-generative) rewrite rules (this being my preference), and phonological coding in silent reading.

In 1976 I visited the University of Essex to consult Tom Gorman on those topics. He advised strongly against my grapheme-phoneme idea (‘It would require a large computer and a lot of programming’, he said, accurately, in terms of the machines available then), and strongly in favour of the phonological one, which became the subject of my PhD at the University of Leeds (Brooks, 1985), on which I worked full-time in 1977-80, then in my spare time.

Meanwhile Tom had become head of a department at NFER, which I joined at the beginning of 1981. I was still interested in my grapheme-phoneme idea, but able to work on it only sporadically, even after completing my doctorate. Then in early 1989 the Director of NFER, Clare Burstall, passed on a query from Keith Joseph (who had been Secretary of State for Education and Science, 1981-86): ‘He asked whether information was available on the book or books most commonly used in Initial Teacher Education in courses relating to the teaching of reading’ (Gorman, 1989: 3). In his report Tom cited Christopher Brumfit (1988) who, in a ‘study of the teaching of language in teacher education in the UK … note[d] a lack of books explicitly on the description of language’ (Gorman, 1989: 3), and Tom himself concluded that predominant approaches to the teaching of reading at the time ‘underplay the amount of knowledge teachers need to have about the sound system and the written system of English in order to intervene strategically to assist children to understand the relationship between these’ (Gorman, 1989: 7).

In 1991 the Secretary of State for Education and Science, Ken Clarke, asked the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (CATE) to undertake a much larger, systematic enquiry into the preparation of teachers to teach reading. As part of this the DES commissioned a team at NFER to conduct the research that CATE would need. We produced both a summary report (Brooks et al., 1991) which formed Part B of the official report (CATE, 1992), and a volume containing our working papers (Brooks et al., 1992). In the summary report (p.13) we repeated Tom Gorman’s ‘underplay’ statement (above), and concluded it still held; and bemoaned (pp.11-12) the absence of any teaching of the phonetics needed to underpin accurate teaching of phonics. In the Working Papers volume, specifically in our analysis of the ITE institutions’ reading lists (p.41), we said: ‘No books dealing in any detail with the complex relationships between the writing system (the orthography) and the sound system (the phonology) of English … are to be found among the 30 most common reference books.’

The last point was picked up by Roger Beard of the University of Leeds, who saw that there was a gap in the literature, not because there were no relevant books – see those by Albrow, Gimson (early editions), Venezky and Wijk in the references – but because they were all far too technical. He was then a commissioning editor of books on language and literacy, and invited me to Leeds to discuss what a book ‘dealing with the complex relationships between the orthography and the phonology of English’ should contain, and who might write it. We agreed that it should cover comprehensively both grapheme-phoneme and phoneme-grapheme relationships, and provide information of use to teachers. I was too busy to write it, but Roger already had John Mountford in mind. John’s book (Mountford, 1998) took a while to appear, and even in early drafts was clearly rather different from the book Roger and I had envisaged. So I began to work in earnest on my own.

The need for ‘a large computer and a lot of programming’ that Tom Gorman had once warned me about was obviated by the work of others who had those resources: first for frequencies of phoneme-grapheme correspondences by Carney (1994), and later for frequencies of grapheme-phoneme correspondences by Gontijo et al. (2003). (Carney’s book also contained grapheme-phoneme frequencies, but in a form unsuited to my purposes.) However, the more I delved into the intricacies of English spelling, the larger my comprehensive lists and analyses became – hence the size of this book.

Along the way a teacher-friendlier spin-off was possible. When Laura Huxford and Jenny Chew were drafting the Letters and Sounds materials (DfES, 2007), they consulted me on details of correspondences (both directions), and I provided them with handy phonics-friendly tables of the main ones which (slightly modified) appeared in Letters and Sounds. In 2008 I also provided them to Roger Beard, who was then chairing a panel evaluating phonics schemes. He has commented (personal communication, 2013) that they ‘proved to be succinct, easily accessible and linguistically accurate’. Further versions appear in Appendix B here.

However, the battle to convince policy-makers and others of the need for teachers to understand the phonetic underpinnings of phonics has yet to be won. When I was on the Rose Committee, Maxine Burton and I submitted a paper (Burton and Brooks, 2005) to the committee putting the case for using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) in teaching teachers about phonics, but this was ignored, as was my attempt to convince Laura and Jenny to use IPA symbols (rather than those of their own devising) in Letters and Sounds. I have argued that case into an apparent wilderness again (Brooks, 2007, 2011), but Maxine’s book Phonetics for Phonics (Burton, 2011), which also contains the eight tables of correspondences included here in Appendix B, appears to be having some impact. We will fight on, and I hope the uncompromising use of IPA in this book will support that.