Few education subjects provoke such a reaction as the reading debate. For years teachers were given freedom to use their own techniques until recently when a government enforced phonics-only literacy scheme was implemented, sparking controversy across the country. Phonics is by no means the only method which will successfully teach children to read and write, so why is it that the government chose phonics as their focal point?
Research both in the UK and overseas has proven synthetic phonics to be a valid way of teaching literacy. Synthetic phonics works because it allows children to learn to segment words into their constituent sounds and link these sounds to letters in order to spell them (DSF Literacy Sources, 2013). As Gibb (2014) explains, “A child would be taught to pronounce each phoneme in shop /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blend those phonemes to produce the word.” Teaching children with phonics will, in theory, allow children to progress with reading quickly and independently.
Phonics testing doesn’t take regional accents into account, which can be problematic at times. Teachers across the country will all have different accents so how can we determine if a child is actually pronouncing the word properly? As Davis (2014) explains, “the concept of a phoneme is abstract; changing the sound may or may not change the word. A northerner, for example, is likely to use /æ/ when they say “fast”, while their counterpart from the south will probably use /a:/.”
Grant’s longitudinal studies are often used to prove the benefits of teaching infants with phonics. Her most recent study, taking place from 2010-2013, found that children from a variety of social backgrounds can “acquire a firm basis of English” using Phonics. Results showed that boys reading in particular drastically improved, challenging the national findings of the Boys’ Reading Commission who found that the reading gap between boys and girls is increasing (Grant 2014).
It must be noted that there isn’t an abundance of pro-phonics research. Goouch (2012) states that, “phonics information is something that can be tested easily and it provides short-term results. Governments often look for easily measurable options, so that they can tick boxes and say they have successfully raised standards.” Pairing this information with the fact that Grant used her own ‘Sound Discovery’ phonics program I can understand why some people believe the research isn’t 100% reliable.
Henrietta Dombey’s thoughts also oppose the ideologies of phonics advocates. She believes that the phonological complexity of English and the lack of consistency between spoken words and their written forms make it hard for English-speaking children to acquire the necessary phonological awareness which the phonics learning scheme promises (2007).
Phonics has proved itself to be one of the top ways to teach children literacy skills. However I personally agree with Grant’s notion that “phonics teaching is not an end in itself” (2014). I believe that it is simply narrow-minded to teach phonics in isolation and disregard the success which children may have if taught phonics in conjunction with other literacy methods.
The coalition has shown great initiative to imprint a strong literacy identity across the nation in an attempt to improve literacy standards but as McNeilly (2012) explains, “no child learns in the same way”. “Whole language teaching produces about the same results on standardized tests as does traditional skills-oriented teaching, including teaching that has emphasized phonics” (Heinemann Online Resources).
Although the government have had success so far with phonics, it is still not clear to me why this literacy scheme was singled out as a solution to the nation’s literacy problems. Yes, phonics is a very viable way to teach the nation’s children, but is it the best?
ANDREW ROACH, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Dombey, H. (2007) The Simple View Of Reading. [Accessed 9th November 2014] Available at: http://www.ite.org.uk/ite_readings/simple_view_reading.pdf
DSF Online Resources. (2013)[Accessed 5th November 2014]. Available at: http://dsf.net.au/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Synthetic-Phonics.pdf
Gibb, N. (2014) Mumsnet bloggers network. [Accessed 5th November 2014]. Available at: http://www.mumsnet.com/bloggers/guest-blog-phonics-debate
Gouuch, K. (2012) BBC News. 5 things about phonics. [Accessed 17th November 2014]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18493436
Heinemann Online Resources. (2012) [Accessed 11th November 2014. Available at: http://www.heinemann.com/shared/onlineresources/08894/08894f2.html
McNeilly, I. (2012) BBC News. 5 things about phonics. [Accessed 17th November 2014]. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18493436