STEPH JONES considers whether phonics means learning to read but not necessarily reading to learn

IT COULD be argued that one of the most important and fundamental elements of early school life is the process of learning to read. Without the skill of being able to recognise certain phonemes and decode new words, every other subject in school would be somewhat meaningless. Due to this fact, it is no surprise that the teaching of reading has been at the heart of educational policy and debate in recent years and has resulted in the development of the ‘phonics’ versus ‘whole book’ debate.

Phonics provides a structured approach to reading. After the publication of the Rose Review in 2006, schools were set strict guidelines to follow regarding the teaching of reading and the delivery of phonics lessons (Gooch and Lambirth 2007). This ensured that schools delivered a phonics lesson to their Key Stage 1 pupils for between fifteen and twenty minutes each day. By providing this structure, children are taught phonemes in a way which begins with the easiest sounds and progresses through to the most complex, which is described by the Department of Education as the most successful way to teach reading.

However it could be argued that phonics takes away the fun of reading. A survey carried out by the National Literacy Strategy (2012) explained that there is a strong decline in the amount of time that young people spend reading for pleasure. Although phonics teaches children how to sound out words, it does not teach them the skill of reading a book. It could be said that even children who perform well in phonics lessons, may have poor comprehension levels when actually reading a story. People read for meaning and to gain an understanding of whatever they are reading about. Without this level of comprehension it is understandable that children are not choosing to read for themselves as they may be able to recognise the phonemes used however may not actually understand what they are reading.

Can one method really be used to teach reading for the entire population of Key Stage 1 pupils? Surely each child should be looked at as an individual and a method adopted which will be best suited to them? The fact that mostly this is not the case, could suggest that phonics is a rigid approach which is impersonal and relies on the assumption that every child in England will be able to hear, see and have the ability to recognise the phonemes being taught to them. Featherstone (2013) claims that tuning in to the sounds of the English Language is essential for understanding phonics and this can make life difficult for children who have not been exposed to spoken language in their earliest years. In addition to this, phonics would not be accessible to children who may be deaf and according to the current policy in place, there would be no alternative method delivered to them.

Although phonics ensures children are taught the skills needed to sound out words in order to decode those they may not have seen before, it would make sense for phonics to be delivered in addition to providing children with an environment enriched with books and other reading materials. This would ensure that they are able to put their phonemic awareness into practice by successfully reading a book and understanding the meaning.

STEPH JONES, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Department for Education. (2013) Learning to read through phonics: Information for parents [Accessed 21 October 2013]  Available at:  

Goouch, K. (ed.) & Lambirth, A. (ed.) (2007) Understanding phonics and the teaching of reading: Critical perspectives. Berkshire: Open University Press.   

Featherstone, S. (ed.) (2013) Getting Ready for Phonics: L is for Sheep. London: Bloomsbury Publishing. 


MEGAN IRVINE asks: ‘Can we blame texting for a decline in literacy?’

TEXTING, since its advent in 1992, has become well rooted in our daily lives. It started as a useful communication tool, as well as a bit of fun, being used between friends and writing in ‘secret code’. But now fears of a decline in literacy have become more prominent, and a lot of the blame has been attributed to texting. Is this really fair?

It is common to adapt our language when texting or communicating via an electronic device, also known as CMC (computer mediated communication). When people send texts to friends they may write something like ‘wuu2’ instead of ‘what are you up to’ or ‘c u l8r’ for ‘see you later’. Texters usually want to send messages quickly, and shortening words or purposely misspelling for ease does this. This is also done to fit in with peers who text this way too. There is the fear that this ‘new language’ may replace Standard English and young people will become unable to use our language ‘properly’.

So, is this really a problem? Woronoff (2007) thinks so. He describes texting as a “habit forming menace [which] can influence kids to spell incorrectly”. There has been evidence to support this claim. For example, The Daily Telegraph (2004) published an article entitled “Pupils resort to text language in GCSE exams”. It explained that some teens misspelt words and used textisms in their GCSE papers. Despite this, The Daily Telegraph then later published an article in 2011 supporting the opposite point of view. The heading read “text messaging ‘improves children’s spelling skills”.

Tagliamonte & Denis suggest that “computer-mediated-communication […] is not the ruin of this generation at all, but an expansive new linguistic renaissance” (2008: 27).  They are suggesting that this new variety of our language is an exciting development.

Crystal (2008: 162) also claims “children could not be good at texting if they had not already developed considerable literacy awareness”. Being able to write in text language comes after mastering standard writing. We should therefore see texting as an addition to our language, not a replacement.

There have also been studies conducted on the topic over the years. Varnhagen et al. (2009) studied 40 adolescent texters between the ages of twelve and seventeen and measured their spelling ability. In conclusion to their study, they “are optimistic that spelling ability is not adversely affected by instant messaging” (2009: 731).  They suggest that those who used more abbreviations and other features of texting were better spellers.

So, what is the answer? There may always be a divide in opinion, but the evidence is there. As long as it is made clear that text language is not to be used in formal contexts, and is simply an addition to our language, there will not be a problem. Perhaps texting has become an easy target to blame for the decline in literacy. If we look closely, texting and computer-mediated-communication provide additional practice in reading and writing and help children to learn the relationship between spelling and sounds. Although texting has taken off, it will never take over. As far as I can see our language is safe.

MEGAN IRVINE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2008) Txting: The gr8 db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Henry, J. (2004) Pupils resort to text language in GCSE exams. The Telegraph [online] 7 November [Accessed 3 November 2013], 1. Available at:

Paton, G. (2011) Text messaging ‘improves children’s spelling skills’. The Telegraph [online] 20 January [Accessed 4 November 2013], 1. Available at:

Tagliamonte,S. & Denis, D. (2008) Linguistic Ruin? LOL! Instant Messaging and Teen Language. American Speech (83) 1, pp. 3-34.

Varhagen, C K et al. (2010) LOL: New Language and Spelling in Instant Messaging. Read Writ 23, pp. 719-733.

Woronoff, P. (2007) Cell phone texting can endanger spelling. Retrieved 23 October 2013 from:

ðə greɪt fɒnɪks dəbeɪt: KEELY UNSWORTH takes no nonsense from the latest literacy screening tests

THE ‘GREAT DEBATE’ about teaching phonics to primary school children (Chall, 1967) has been an ongoing battle of Context vs. Code for many centuries. Since the adoption of the Phoenician alphabet in the 12th Century BC, letters have been changing from pictographic symbols to more consonantal letters which the Greeks then adopted and injected vowel representations to form the current alphabet that we use everyday.

In the present day, children as young as four are taught to learn letter sounds and names. This can be confusing for children, as they then have to learn that some letters have multiple ‘sounds’. For instance the ‘c’ in ‘cat is not the same as the ‘c’ in ‘circle’ (Lewis & Ellis, 2006: 35). This is a very basic part of teaching phonics and is one of many small dilemmas that phonics advocates do not address when encouraging teachers to continue to use the decoding method of teaching children to read.

As of September 2012, children in Year One of primary school took part in a compulsory ‘Phonics Screening Test’ consisting of ‘a short, light-touch assessment to confirm whether individual children have learnt phonic decoding to an appropriate standard’ ( However, in my opinion, the test has many flaws. Watching the training video on the Education website, which is aimed at primary school teachers, we see that there are some words that could be questioned in relation to ‘correct’ pronunciation. For example, one child is given the non-word ‘roopt’. He successfully sounds out each individual phoneme, but then doesn’t ‘blend’ the final two phonemes correctly and fails in this instance. Surely there should be some leeway when it comes to blending consonants, as I myself would have failed this section of the test as I personally find it difficult to blend the consonants /p/ and /t/, as the point of articulation of these two plosives are difficult to move to and from in some cases. Surely the fact the word ‘baff’ was considered a correct alternative for ‘bath’, as it is ‘a common feature of six year old speech’ is worse than a child not being able to ‘successfully blend’ two phonemes. If using /f/ in place of /θ/ is acceptable in the phonics screening test, then surely it would be acceptable the other way round, so the /f/ in ‘phonics’ could in fact be pronounced /θ/ by a six-year-old, as this is a ‘common feature’ of their speech? Shouldn’t we be teaching children to speak correctly, instead of picking them up on a minor pause or stutter when speaking?

Another instance where a child fails part of the test for not ‘correctly’ pronouncing the word is with the non-word ‘vead’. The video shows three children ‘correctly’ pronouncing the word in the two ‘acceptable alternatives’ – ‘vead’ as in ‘feed’ and ‘vead’ as in ‘red’. However when the next child pronounces the non-word ‘vead’ as in ‘great’, the child fails. Who is to say what all of the acceptable alternatives are when it comes to sounding out phonemes?

Many people, including myself, believe that phonics should be part of the national curriculum, but should be taught alongside other enriching literacy activities, without a national screening test in order to balance out the code/context argument. The screening test puts additional pressure on a young child at a time where making friends and fitting in is a crucial part of the child’s development, not to mention the test not being watertight.

 KEELY UNSWORTH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Chall, J.S. (1967) Learning to Read: The Great Debate. New York: McGraw Hill.

 Lewis, M. & Ellis, S. (eds.) (2006) Phonics: Practice, Research and Policy. London: Paul Chapman.

Is phonics testing a sound idea? KATIE NOKES examines the latest literacy controversy

THE PHONICS debate is one which has caused controversy amongst not only linguists and politicians but parents and teachers. An argument that Cove (cited in Lewis & Ellis :2006) identified was sparked as early as 1850,  was reignited in 2012 with the introduction of mandatory testing of five and six-year-olds nationwide on their ability to read both real and nonsense words. Examples given by the Department For Education (2012) include, ‘start’ and ‘grit’ as well as ‘thazz’ and ‘tox’.

The phonics approach involves a child applying a sound to symbol correspondence and then assembling each individual phoneme to form a whole word ,often what is intended when instructing a child to ‘sound it out.’ The systematic teaching of phonics has been widely investigated to ascertain whether or not it is the most effective way of learning to read. Jean Chall (cited in Hempenstall: 2005) conducted a study which concluded that a phonics approach produced better word recognition, spelling and vocabulary in all children including those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This study is also supported by a much smaller investigation by Johnson and Watson (cited in Dombey:1999 ) who again found that the greatest improvement in reading individual words came from those whose learning was principally that of synthetic phonics. The problems came when analysing the comprehension of words by those who were taught mainly by synthetic phonics. For instance, in Johnson and Watson’s study the improvement in comprehension of words was significantly lower. Dombey (1999) illustrates more problems with a phonics based approach by highlighting that the English language is one which is not written in a constantly phonic way as, dependent upon accent, it contains between 40 and 44 phonemes assigned to 26 alphabetic symbols. The lack of one to one letter / phoneme correspondence poses a problem highlighted in words such as ‘bat’, ‘bar’ and ‘bathe’ whereby the vowel sound differs but the alphabetic symbol remains the same.

In contrast, a method commonly known as the whole word approach, or look-say, would involve a child becoming familiar with a word by the way it looks rather than the individual phonemes it contains. Goodman (cited in Hempenstall: 2005) describes this method as a teacher aiming to provide ‘a proper environment to encourage children to develop their skills at their own pace.’ The whole word approach is further explained by Frith (cited in Dombey: 1999) as children recognising words as whole entities and where the letters are situated thus allowing children to recognise spelling patterns in words. Dombey continues to argue that key findings in the last 20 years have indentified that children find the units of onset and rime much more accessible that that of the individual phonemes which make up a word. The whole word approach emphasises that learning to read should be enjoyable and involve reading stories and having pictures for reference. However similar problems to that of a primarily phonetic approach arise in that the capacity to retain the number of words and symbols that could arise is simply not possible leaving unfamiliar words and spelling patterns not accessible.

It is not possible to expect a ‘one method suits all’ approach to cater for every child. It is clear that neither method as a primary basis for a child’s learning will produce an autonomous reader. However, as Dombey (1999) claims, ‘a combination of both methods enables a child to not only master the mechanics of reading but make sense of written text.’

KATIE NOKES, English Undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Cove, M. in Lewis, M. & Ellis, S. (eds.)  (2006) Phonics: Practice, Research and Policy. London: Paul Chapman. 

Department For Education. (2012) [Accessed 24 October 2013]. Available at:

Dombey. H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 27(1), pp.12-21.

Hempenstall, K. (2005). The Whole Language‐Phonics Controversy: an historical perspective. Educational Psychology. 17 (4), p400-408.


MELISSA BADDLEY explores whether ‘phonics’ or ‘whole word’ are the best early literacy approaches

THE DEBATE about ‘phonics’ testing is perhaps one of the most controversial topics surrounding modern education at the moment. It raises the question of what are the most suitable and beneficial methods in teaching children to read – the ‘phonics approach’ or a method such as the ‘whole word approach’.

So what do these methods involve? Well, the Oxford Dictionary describes phonics as “A method of teaching people to read by correlating sounds with symbols in an alphabetic writing system”, in other words, a code that turns written language into spoken. This approach features two methods of teaching: Synthetic and Analytic phonics. Dombey (1999) informs us that synthetic phonics involves “learning individual sounds and assembling the words children read from sequences of phonemes”, allowing children to learn new words by recognising phoneme sounds and using these to break down new words. Analytic phonics refers to the recognition of certain combinations of letters and sounds, e.g. ‘hat’, ‘rat’, ‘cat’ to help pronounce new words. However, the arbitrary nature of the English spelling system and rules of the English language cast doubt on the use of these methods.

In comparison the ‘whole word approach’ recognises words as whole entities and focuses on “[…] the shape of a word and the presence of particular letters”, where they are situated within the word (Frith, 1985). This theorises that the more you read the more you learn, but does not consider the idea that if you do not recognise a word or pattern you will not be able to pronounce the new, unknown word; a consequence this method faces. These various approaches to teaching children to read have caused a national debate, as we wonder which methods suit learning best? Is there a one-size fits all solution? And if you were a parent, which method would you want your child to be taught?

The use of various methods however is not something that is new. As Cove (2006) shows there have been a range of methods used to teach children to read for over a hundred years; alternating from phonetic approaches and “sounding –out” phonemes, to later in the 20th century where “[…] understanding the meanings of words and sentences though careful questioning” became an important factor in children’s reading processes. Recently the phonics method has received further controversy since the introduction of the phonics-screening test in 2012 in UK primary schools, questioning the competency of the methods teachers are currently using to monitor child progression in learning to read and questioning the child’s actual ability to read at the age of 6.

So why are the government favouring the phonics approach to literacy learning instead of others? It could be suggested that this method operates as a ‘quick-fix’ in boosting the percentage of children that successfully pass the phonics test and therefore imply greater literacy development. However, it has to be considered that although the skill of physically reading what has been written on a page may be increasing, the comprehension and enjoyment that children should get out of this activity is being lost; and as Dombey (2009:10) states it is important that children have a “rich experience” when learning literacy skills to become fully competent readers, suggesting a combination of systems is more favourable and valuable in a child’s educational development.

MELISSA BADDLEY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


 Cove, M. in Lewis, M. & Ellis, S. (eds.)  (2006) Phonics: Practice, Research and Policy. London: Paul Chapman. 

Dombey. H. (1999) Picking a path through the phonics minefield. Education 3-13: International Journal of Primary, Elementary and Early Years Education, 27(1), pp.12-21

Dombey, H. (2009) ‘The simple view of reading’ – available at

 Frith, U. (1985) ‘Developmental Dyslexia’, in Patterson, al (Eds) Surface Dyslexia. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates: Hove.

 Oxford Dictionaries. [Accessed 21 October 2013]. Available at: 


Txt msg n literacy. GEORGIE LAWRENCE explores whether textisms are ruining literacy skills

IN RECENT times a moral panic surrounding text message language and the alleged effects it is having on literacy skills has arisen (Crystal 2008). This comes as no shock when it has been reported that approximately ninety-nine percent of young adults in the United Kingdom, aged between sixteen and nineteen, use a mobile phone (Ofcom 2008, cited by Durkin, K. 2011). Approximately one in three of these young adults send more than one hundred text messages a day (Skills Development Scotland 2010, cited by Durkin, K. 2011).

The debate, whether text messaging harms literacy skills, has surfaced due to accusations from critics such as Woronoff (2007), who assumed that “exposure to texisms will inevitably affect children’s memory of the correct form” (Wood et al 2014:23). He argued that children are more prone to commit errors due to their minds still being in the formation stage, a stage which adults have already past. However, theories conflict with one another. Wood (2014) argues that studies such as Brown (1988) and Dixon & Kaminska (1997) reveal that when adults are exposed to an incorrect spelling of a word it can result in a decline of their ability to spell the correct form, thus suggesting textisms have the ability to affect all.

Conversely, there are many opposing arguments against the claims of negative effects of textisms. Plester et al (2009) argue that there is no negative relationship between text abbreviations and spelling ability. Crystal (2008) even claims that there is a significantly positive correlation of the impact textisms have on literacy skills. This is due to a good phonetic awareness being required. He also pointed out that ‘text language’ has been noted long before mobiles were invented. Rebuses were used in the Middle Ages where pictures and letters would represent sounds (Barry, 2002). This is supported by Coe and Oakhill (2011) who claims that the better the reading ability, the greater the text abbreviations used.

So, assuming that phonological awareness is required for the construction and decoding of textisms (e.g. Adams, 1990, cited by Wood, 2011), what about people with a learning disability, such as dyslexia, who have trouble with phonemic awareness and phonics?  Veater, Plester and Wood’s (2011) findings suggest that people with dyslexia tend to avoid text abbreviations which require phonological processes and in turn use more initalisms and symbols. Durkin, Conto-Ramsden and Walker (2011) noted that adolescents with an SLI (specific language impairment) are less likely to respond via text messaging and when they do respond it tends to be shorter than those without.

Nevertheless, Wood (2014: 32) states that “young people with language impairment may benefit both linguistically and socially from support in becoming more fluent in producing and reading text messages”; consequently the saying ‘practice makes perfect’ seems very applicable within the field of literacy. Crystal (2008: 157) agrees stating that “additional experience of writing [is] a help, rather than a hindrance”.

Thus, there seems to be a sufficient amount of studies which give evidence to back up the argument that text messaging has a positive effect on linguistic skills regardless of whether they have a SLI or not. Could this evidence be a step towards teaching this ‘text messaging language’ in schools?

GEORGIE LAWRENCE, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Adams, M.J. (1990). Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning About Print. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Barry, J. (2004), Richard Stanihurst’s De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis. Renaissance Studies, 18: 1–18. Accessed on: 02/11/13. Available from

Brown A.S. (1988). Encountering misspellings and spelling performance: Why wrong isn’t right, Journal of Educational Psychology 4: 488–494.

 Coe, J.E.L. and Oakhill, J.V. (2011), ‘txtN is ez f u no h2 rd’: the relation between reading ability and text-messaging behaviour. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27: 4–17.

Crystal, D. (2008) Texting: The Gr8 Db8. Great Britain: Oxford University Press.

 Dixon, M. & Kaminska, Z. (1994). Casting a spell with witches and broomsticks: Direct and associative influences on non-word orthography,European Journal of Cognitive Psychology 6: 383–398.

Durkin, K., Conti-Ramsden, G. & Walker, A. J. (2011). Txt lang: texting, textism use and literacy abilities in adolescents with and without specific language impairment. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 49–57.

Ofcom (2008) Media Literacy Audit: Report on UK Adults’ Media Literacy. Accessed on 30/10/13. Available at: 

Plester, B., Wood, C., & Joshi, B. (2009) Exploring the relationship between children’s knowledge of text message abbreviations and school literacy outcomes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology,27, 145-161

Skills Development Scotland (2010) Skills Development Scotland Research Uncovers Young People’s Communication Habits. Accessed on: 01/11/13. Available at:>

Veater, H., Plester, B., and Wood, C. (2011) ‘Exploring the relationship between text message abbreviations and literacy skills in children with dyslexia’. Dyslexia 17, 65-71. Accessed on: 02/11/13. Available from

Wood, C., Kemp, N., & Plester, B. (2014) Text Messaging and Literacy – The Evidence. USA: Routledge.

Has CMC and texting led to the dumbing down of literacy? ELEANOR WEBSTER investigates

THE EVOLUTION of technology over the last decade or so has been rapid, not only introducing innovative gadgets but also popularising what linguists have referred to as a ‘new language’ among young people. Texting as a form of communication is particularly prominent, with Vosloo (2009: 2) stating that it ‘is the written lingua franca of many youth today.’

Features of electronic language include the shortening of words, such as ‘probs’ meaning ‘probably’ and initialisms such as ‘LOL’ which translates to ‘laugh out loud’.  According to Varnhagen (2010:719), ‘electronic communication appears to have generated a “new language” of abbreviations, acronyms, word combinations, and punctuation.’

Although such textisms are harmless when used in informal contexts, the worry among many is that such language will infiltrate into other forms of language and will become acceptable in our everyday communication. As textisms are particularly popular among children and young adults, the concern is that texting and computer-mediated communication (CMC) will have a negative impact on literacy skills and how effectively young people learn to read and write in school.

The idea that electronic language is detrimental to the development of children’s literacy skills is encouraged by some linguists, with Woronoff (2007) stating that texting is a ‘habit forming menace [and] can influence kids to spell incorrectly or get confused about the correct usage’. However, much academic research suggests that texting and instant messaging (IM) could in fact, be a beneficial aid to learning.

The general consensus among those who believe that texting and CMC are harmful to the development of literacy skills is that the more you communicate in this way, the poorer your reading and writing skills will be. A study carried out by Varnhagen et al. looked at IM communications between adolescents and found that ‘spelling ability was not highly correlated with new language use’ (Varnhagen 2010: 729). In some cases, those with better literacy skills used textisms more frequently than those who were poorer in terms of their spelling ability. These findings relate to the idea that ‘children who are comfortable with writing – those with good literacy skills – will be experimental and use textisms more than other children’ (Vosloo 2009: 3).

So, should teachers and parents be worried about the affect texting and CMC is having on the literacy skills of children? Crystal (2008: 158) claims that ‘any form of writing exercise is good for you’ and also conveys that communicating in a variety of contexts encourages students to understand more about audience and styles in terms of the academic writing that they produce. Furthermore, Crystal (2008: 156) has stated that ‘it is crucial to recognise the various causes of inadequate literacy’ which relates to media representation of texting and CMC as detrimental to literacy learning. Perhaps reports in the press should investigate wider issues surrounding education – are other factors, such as teaching methods, socio-economic background and attitude to learning more entwined in literacy learning than previously thought? Or, is the development of electronic language a ‘new linguistic renaissance’ as Tagliamonte & Denis (2008: 27) have suggested?

Language has always developed according to changes in the society in which it is used and so it is possible that textisms and electronic language are simply a continuation of this.

ELEANOR WEBSTER, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Crystal, D. (2008) Txting: the gr8 db8. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tagliamonte, S. & Denis, D. (2008) Linguistic ruin? LOL! Instant messaging and teen language. American Speech (83) 1, pp. 3-34.

Varhagen, C K et al. (2010) LOL: New language and spelling in instant messaging. Read Writ 23, pp. 719-733.

Vosloo, S. (2009) The effects of texting on literacy: Modern scourge or opportunity? An issue paper from the Shuttleworth Foundation. [Accessed 2 November 2013] Available at:

Woronoff, P. (2007) [Accessed 23 October 2013] Available at: