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: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1945057/phonics_check_leaflet_2013_.pdf