The phonics v whole books debate is a thought-provoking dispute that has caused a lot of controversy. It is particularly interesting because of the vast number of opinions on how to teach children to read and improve the literacy skills of young children. Some believe that using phonics is superior, and should be the one solitary method used in schools. Others see it as a beneficial method when incorporated into a variety of teaching systems, and some believe that phonics is simply not a suitable, or strong enough process to teach children to read.
With education being considered high on the political agenda, as evidence displays that ten-year-olds in other countries such as Russia and Germany are racing ahead of children in England, is phonics the best way to improve the literacy skills of children?
Phonics can be described as the correlation between sound and symbol in an alphabetic writing system. By simply looking at that definition, it becomes apparent that a number of problems may arise here. Henrietta Dombey (1999), for instance, explores the complexity of the English orthographic system. Spoken English has 40-44 phonemes, the exact number dependent on your accent. Words made up of these phonemes are represented by the 26 letters of our alphabet (Dombey, 1999). In short, we cannot have a system where one letter stands for only one phoneme. Maintaining this argument means that due to a lack of a one – to – one correspondence between sound and spelling in English, this approach may be dysfunctional (Brindley, 1996).
A further issue that has arisen with the phonics approach is the method of testing each child’s reading skill. During the test, children are asked to sound out a mixture of real and made up words such as ‘drall’, ‘halp’, and ‘snope’. This method has been criticised by teaching unions who suggest that this will confuse and infuriate pupils who are expecting that what they will read will make sense. The results of the test, which took an average of four to nine minutes to complete showed that only 58% of six year olds reached the expected standard; the mark of 32/40, – 80%. However, independent evaluation of the test by the Centre for Education disagreed with the criticisms, and displayed a positive response, stating that 43% of pilot schools identified pupils with reading problems of which they were not previously aware, and 83% of the teachers said the number of words was suitable, including the non-words. Overall, there was a positive response to the test (The Guardian, 27 September 2012).
A variety of views have been considered whilst looking at this debate. There is the understanding that overemphasis on phonics may deprive children of other reading strategies, but it has become clear that the general consensus is that phonics is a valuable way to teach children to read when included into an assortment of systems, although some of the methods may be questionable.
AMELIA SHEPHARD, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
The Guardian [online] 2012. http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2012/sep/27/phonics-test