Phonics is not the only way to teach children to read, argues LAURA VAUGHAN

Synthetic phonics is the government approved method of teaching children to read. However, this is a very controversial subject as not everybody is a big phonics fan. One advocate of old-school teaching methods is Andrew Davis. Having previously taught as a primary school teacher, he believes that what works best is a series of different methods which they were informed of ‘by continual appraisal of their students’ (Davis 2014: 8). Davis argues that there are many useful methods for teaching children to read which don’t simply teach them to decode like phonics. Such methods include the whole-word method, which promotes reading for meaning by looking at words as a whole, and the searchlight method, which does involve some phonics teaching alongside looking at context and sentence structure. He admits that phonics has its place as long as it is ‘offered in the context of reading for meaning’ (Davis 2014: 26).

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has revealed that the majority of members admitted in a recent survey that the compulsory phonics screening checks (reading tests for five-year-olds) introduced in 2012 ‘told them nothing they didn’t already know’. Marlynne Grant conducted two studies to discover whether phonics really is helping children to learn to read. Her studies both showed that all children in reception were successful in learning to read and spell, even those considered ‘slow-to-start’ pupils (Grant 2014). So what do we believe? Should phonics be the enforced teaching method, or should teachers be able judge which method they use based on which method they feel will benefit the children more?

I would have to side with Davis in the phonics debate. Synthetic phonics teaches that there is a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence. We know that this is not the case. One obvious issue is accent. We teach that there is one sound to go with one letter, but is this really the case? Take the word ‘bath’ into consideration. If you’re northern, you’re to be taught that /æ/ is the phoneme to use, but if you’re southern then you should pronounce it /a:/. Now, this may be taken into account during the screening check but it still doesn’t explain to the children that there are several pronunciations of many phonemes. Davis describes the screening check as ‘weaponry’ (Davis 2014: 33) and I think this is quite a fitting term. The test itself includes a hoard of neologisms given to children with no surrounding context whatsoever. They are then expected to be able to pronounce these ‘words’. It’s unfair to ambush children like this and then to insist on them being retested should they ‘fail’ this check. Many authors are also concerned that teaching in this way ‘threatens children’s reading motivation’ (Davis 2014: 9).

According to Davis (2014: 5), the Government is ‘no longer telling teachers how to teach’ yet synthetic phonics is still being enforced in schools everywhere. Let teachers think for themselves. Who knows the children better than the teachers? Why should the government get to decide what is best for their education? Many parents have also left public comments on articles such as those on the BBC website expressing their concern. So here’s my question: If the teachers don’t agree with it, and the parents don’t agree with it, then isn’t it time for a change?

LAURA VAUGHAN, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK

References

Davis, A. (2014) To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Impact: Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy (No. 20)

Grant, M. (2014) The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading, Writing and Spelling.

National Union of Teachers. Phonics. [Accessed on 16 November 2014] Available at:            http://www.teachers.org.uk/phonics

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15 thoughts on “Phonics is not the only way to teach children to read, argues LAURA VAUGHAN

  1. Hi Laura,

    You said in your posting:

    “I would have to side with Davis in the phonics debate. Synthetic phonics teaches that there is a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence. We know that this is not the case. One obvious issue is accent. We teach that there is one sound to go with one letter, but is this really the case? Take the word ‘bath’ into consideration. If you’re northern, you’re to be taught that /æ/ is the phoneme to use, but if you’re southern then you should pronounce it /a:/. ”

    You are mistaken in your notion of ‘synthetic phonics’ when you state that ‘there is a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence. I often wonder when I read or hear criticism of synthetic phonics teaching if the critics/detractors are sufficiently knowledgeable about high-quality synthetic phonics programmes and practices in which accent is taken into account in the teaching and learning.

    Sadly, in Davis’s papers, there are a number of points he raises which would be answered for him if he knew more about reputable systematic synthetic phonics and linguistic phonics programmes.

    As a programme author and SP consultant, I work hard to try to clarify the issues raised by those who are unhappy about Government promotion of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and the benefits of beginners and strugglers of cumulative, decodable reading material.

    I provide free downloadable Alphabetic Code Charts to support general knowledge about the complex English alphabetic code including one for student-teachers:

    http://alphabeticcodecharts.com/free_charts.html

    Some universities are including one of my generic Alphabetic Code Charts in their literature for student-teachers.

    If you have any specific questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    Kind regards,

    Debbie

    • Matt Davies says:

      Dear Debbie
      I wonder what your views are on what seems to be a large groundswell of opposition from primary school teachers to the compulsory phonics screening check? I’ve read many reports of how teachers respect synthetic phonics as part of a broader set of literacy strategies, but who also feel frustrated at what they see as an over-focus on phonics to the detriment of other methods. Do you think the government should listen to the views of these teachers more, or is it just a case of failure to adapt to change?
      Thanks
      Matt

  2. psmith1975 says:

    If phonics uses a one-to-one letter-sound correspondence, how does this help a child with a hearing impairment learn to read if they are unable to hear how the letter should sound?

  3. Andrew Roach says:

    Hi Debbie,

    As you have said :

    “I often wonder when I read or hear criticism of synthetic phonics teaching if the critics/detractors are sufficiently knowledgeable about high-quality synthetic phonics programmes and practices in which accent is taken into account in the teaching and learning.”

    As you are a programme author and SP consult, would you like to expand on this? What is it which you know that you believe Laura does not?

  4. Joe Hurst says:

    ‘Who knows the children better than the teachers? Why should the government get to decide what is best for their education?’

    In your piece, you emphasised the importance of pupil specific teaching strategies over the blanket employment of synthetic phonics. Much like yourself I disagree with the use of phonics as the sole method of instruction, but I do feel it has its place in a balanced education system. I also agree with the fact that teachers know their pupils on a much more personal level than any Government led survey possibly could. In an ideal world a teacher would be able to create and employ student specific learning strategies, but the reality of the situation is that this simply isn’t practical. The importance of ‘letting teachers teach’ is pressing, but do you not feel government involvement is wholly necessary? For the most part teachers are fantastic at what they are trained to do, but what they are trained to do is teach, not delineate a curriculum. I am all for the removing of politics from the classroom, education should not be a matter of party-specific methods, but the result of carefully considered investigation. Until it is, there is no doubt that dissatisfaction will reign supreme in the UK education system. However I would argue that allowing teachers complete control would be much worse. The result would be a patchwork of confused curricula, with no national standard, no teacher evaluation, and no internationally recognised qualifications. Surely you can’t want this?

    • Many of the arguments against the promotion of systematic synthetic phonics are based on the premise that teachers know their children best and therefore they should be able to choose, as individual teachers, how to teach their children, as individuals. The arguments against SSP refer to surveys of a number of teachers and others, and opinions of members of the public, against what is described frequently as a political ‘imposition’ of a methodology and against national assessment of phonics at the end of Year One.

      What Sir Jim Rose pointed out in his independent national review of beginning reading in 2005/6 was that regardless of the learner, it is the SAME alphabetic code and phonics skills that needs to be taught, and learnt, and that children should not have to ‘ferret out’ the alphabetic code on their own.

      What many teachers and members of the public don’t appreciate well enough is that alphabetic code knowledge and the phonics skills of blending for reading and oral segmenting for spelling, allotting letters and letter groups, and word chunks, to account for the sounds in words, are necessary for lifelong knowledge and skills that may be so sub-consciously applied that people aren’t even aware of their application of, and dependency on, phonics of one form or another!

      Where children have not been taught phonics at all or in a systematic way, many adults now don’t even realise that they have ‘ferreted out’ or deduced, or intuited, the phonics code for themselves and that they apply phonics routinely in one form or another to read new, longer and more challenging words and to write or type longer words at least.

      The ‘perception’ of ‘phonics’ is often extremely limited especially, it appears, of the most ardent critics (who should know better such as teaching union leaders who seem to be vociferous in their criticism of the Year One phonics screening check). So, alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills are life-long features of literate adults reading and writing – but how ironic that so many of those adults, even in the teaching profession and teacher-training profession, don’t fully appreciate this.

      Our duty as teaching and teacher-training professionals is not to leave the level of alphabetic code knowledge and the phonics skills of the pupils to ‘chance’ and for them to ‘ferret out on their own’ – regardless of ‘learning styles’ or ‘individuality’ or ‘preference’. The profession should be truly up to speed with their professional knowledge and skills for teaching phonics systematically – and up to speed with their knowledge of global research into reading instruction. The perception of phonics needs to change from it being perceived as ‘baby stuff’ to it being understood as ‘adult stuff’ and it needs to change from the idea that is optional for some learners or that teachers can opt to teach something different. We should be way past these misperceptions by now but clearly we are not.

      Sir Jim Rose recommended the Simple View of Reading model for teachers to understand that being a reader in the full sense is dependent on two main features: ability to decode new words technically (word recognition) and level of language comprehension (spoken language). Systematic synthetic phonics is not taught in isolation. The only ‘only’ about SSP is that teachers should avoid teaching children to guess words from picture cues, initial letter cues, word shape and reliance on context. These multi-cueing reading strategies are discredited by world-renowned researchers such as Louisa Moats and Marilyn Jager Adams (known as the ‘Searchights reading strategies in England and the ‘3-cueing’ system internationally). Teaching children to rely on guessing words to get through a book which they cannot decode fully means giving children the wrong message about how reading works, it detracts from application of phonics knowledge and the blending skill, it undermines phonics teaching – it promotes the kind of inaccurate reading teachers witnessed when some of their ‘better readers’ mis-read some of the pseudo-words in the phonics check. The explanation of this given by many teachers was that the children were trying to ‘make sense’ of the words by turning them into real words. Such children were probably reflecting their reading reflex of having a ‘quick stab’ at words and guessing them – a default or taught method to get through reading books consisting of too many words that they could not decode by a reliance on guessing words instead. Any ‘better readers’ should have been able to read the pseudo-words accurately if they knew the alphabetic code well enough and were efficient at blending. The reality is that literature is full of words which are ‘new’ to children – new in the sense of young children may not have read the actual words before – or new in the sense that the words are not even in children’s spoken vocabulary. It is essential that ALL children are taught the alphabetic code well and the phonics skills for decoding and encoding. This is simply not a matter of phonics suiting some children and not others – with the implication that teachers can pick and choose which method to use with which children. This is a nonsense and the body of research is such that the teaching profession should be far, far more knowledgeable about the research and about phonics provision.

      Further, many of us even as adults will ‘skip’ longer, new words when reading privately and silently because we are too lazy to decode such words accurately. We still get the gist of the text. This ‘word skipping’ state of affairs is enforced, however, when children cannot apply alphabetic code knowledge and come up with a pronunciation. Teachers may consider various children are ‘free readers’ with no appreciation that children HAVE to skip words that they cannot decode. As many words in literature are NEW to the children as in brand new (not in their spoken vocabulary), then the children cannot add such words to their spoken vocabulary if they do not, or cannot, come up with a pronunciation. As literate adults we may choose to skip occasional words but could come up with a pronunciation if we had to, or if we were reading aloud. If young learners are not knowledgeable and proficient at phonics, then they have no choice but to ‘skip’ words and therefore they cannot expand on their spoken language as much as they should be able to. I suggest that there is a silent epidemic of learners who skip words through necessity, but who may still get the gist of the text sufficiently to dupe teachers and parents into thinking the children are better readers than they really are. Our secondary colleagues, however, keep sharing their alarm at how many of their pupils cannot access the texts at secondary level.

      We have a long way to go as can be seen by the series of articles on this forum.

  5. Many of the arguments against the promotion of systematic synthetic phonics are based on the premise that teachers know their children best and therefore they should be able to choose, as individual teachers, how to teach their children, as individuals. The arguments against SSP refer to surveys of a number of teachers and others, and opinions of members of the public, against what is described frequently as a political ‘imposition’ of a methodology and against national assessment of phonics at the end of Year One.

    What Sir Jim Rose pointed out in his independent national review of beginning reading in 2005/6 was that regardless of the learner, it is the SAME alphabetic code and phonics skills that needs to be taught, and learnt, and that children should not have to ‘ferret out’ the alphabetic code on their own.

    What many teachers and members of the public don’t appreciate well enough is that alphabetic code knowledge and the phonics skills of blending for reading and oral segmenting for spelling, allotting letters and letter groups, and word chunks, to account for the sounds in words, are necessary for lifelong knowledge and skills that may be so sub-consciously applied that people aren’t even aware of their application of, and dependency on, phonics of one form or another!

    Where children have not been taught phonics at all or in a systematic way, many adults now don’t even realise that they have ‘ferreted out’ or deduced, or intuited, the phonics code for themselves and that they apply phonics routinely in one form or another to read new, longer and more challenging words and to write or type longer words at least.

    The ‘perception’ of ‘phonics’ is often extremely limited especially, it appears, of the most ardent critics (who should know better such as teaching union leaders who seem to be vociferous in their criticism of the Year One phonics screening check). So, alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills are life-long features of literate adults reading and writing – but how ironic that so many of those adults, even in the teaching profession and teacher-training profession, don’t fully appreciate this.

    Our duty as teaching and teacher-training professionals is not to leave the level of alphabetic code knowledge and the phonics skills of the pupils to ‘chance’ and for them to ‘ferret out on their own’ – regardless of ‘learning styles’ or ‘individuality’ or ‘preference’. The profession should be truly up to speed with their professional knowledge and skills for teaching phonics systematically – and up to speed with their knowledge of global research into reading instruction. The perception of phonics needs to change from it being perceived as ‘baby stuff’ to it being understood as ‘adult stuff’ and it needs to change from the idea that is optional for some learners or that teachers can opt to teach something different. We should be way past these misperceptions by now but clearly we are not.

    Sir Jim Rose recommended the Simple View of Reading model for teachers to understand that being a reader in the full sense is dependent on two main features: ability to decode new words technically (word recognition) and level of language comprehension (spoken language). Systematic synthetic phonics is not taught in isolation. The only ‘only’ about SSP is that teachers should avoid teaching children to guess words from picture cues, initial letter cues, word shape and reliance on context. These multi-cueing reading strategies are discredited by world-renowned researchers such as Louisa Moats and Marilyn Jager Adams (known as the ‘Searchights reading strategies in England and the ‘3-cueing’ system internationally). Teaching children to rely on guessing words to get through a book which they cannot decode fully means giving children the wrong message about how reading works, it detracts from application of phonics knowledge and the blending skill, it undermines phonics teaching – it promotes the kind of inaccurate reading teachers witnessed when some of their ‘better readers’ mis-read some of the pseudo-words in the phonics check. The explanation of this given by many teachers was that the children were trying to ‘make sense’ of the words by turning them into real words. Such children were probably reflecting their reading reflex of having a ‘quick stab’ at words and guessing them – a default or taught method to get through reading books consisting of too many words that they could not decode by a reliance on guessing words instead. Any ‘better readers’ should have been able to read the pseudo-words accurately if they knew the alphabetic code well enough and were efficient at blending. The reality is that literature is full of words which are ‘new’ to children – new in the sense of young children may not have read the actual words before – or new in the sense that the words are not even in children’s spoken vocabulary. It is essential that ALL children are taught the alphabetic code well and the phonics skills for decoding and encoding. This is simply not a matter of phonics suiting some children and not others – with the implication that teachers can pick and choose which method to use with which children. This is a nonsense and the body of research is such that the teaching profession should be far, far more knowledgeable about the research and about phonics provision.

    Further, many of us even as adults will ‘skip’ longer, new words when reading privately and silently because we are too lazy to decode such words accurately. We still get the gist of the text. This ‘word skipping’ state of affairs is enforced, however, when children cannot apply alphabetic code knowledge and come up with a pronunciation. Teachers may consider various children are ‘free readers’ with no appreciation that children HAVE to skip words that they cannot decode. As many words in literature are NEW to the children as in brand new (not in their spoken vocabulary), then the children cannot add such words to their spoken vocabulary if they do not, or cannot, come up with a pronunciation. As literate adults we may choose to skip occasional words but could come up with a pronunciation if we had to, or if we were reading aloud. If young learners are not knowledgeable and proficient at phonics, then they have no choice but to ‘skip’ words and therefore they cannot expand on their spoken language as much as they should be able to. I suggest that there is a silent epidemic of learners who skip words through necessity, but who may still get the gist of the text sufficiently to dupe teachers and parents into thinking the children are better readers than they really are. Our secondary colleagues, however, keep sharing their alarm at how many of their pupils cannot access the texts at secondary level.

    We have a long way to go as can be seen by the series of articles on this forum.

  6. Jo Close says:

    This module is part of an English Language degree and the students writing these blogs are not student teachers. I’m sure they will be interested in your views, although this blog is from last year’s cohort so you might not receive a response.

    I’m not an expert in phonics or the teaching of phonics and am more interested in children’s knowledge of grammar, but one thing you mentioned above did catch my eye:

    “As many words in literature are NEW to the children as in brand new (not in their spoken vocabulary), then the children cannot add such words to their spoken vocabulary if they do not, or cannot, come up with a pronunciation.”

    How important is this? We all have a passive vocabulary of words but in order for a word to make its way into our active vocabulary we must have a certain amount of knowledge about it such as what it means, how to pronounce it and its grammatical word class (although this latter point isn’t uncontroversial). Doesn’t pronunciation have the least importance here? (I’m sure we all have at least one word that we use regularly but pronounce incorrectly.) Phonics seems to address the issue of pronunciation but does not refer to the meaning or the grammar.

  7. Hi Jo,

    I really appreciate your response – thank you.

    I’m not worried, to be honest, about ‘exact’ pronunciation. There are many words that I have no doubt I don’t pronounce according to a dictionary definition and my husband and I often have a discussion about the different ways we pronounce even some common words.

    What worries me is that children will ‘skip’ words when reading silently that they cannot, or do not, even attempt to pronounce because their reading reflex tends to avoid decoding words they do not know or because they simply cannot decode well enough.

    I am concerned that teachers (and parents) will be too reassured that children reading ‘silently’ who demonstrate ‘good enough’ reading ability when reading aloud, or when receiving some support, may read entirely differently when reading silently because decoding and totally ‘accurate’ reading is too much of a struggle.

    I point out that many adults adopt a very lazy way of reading silently (myself included) because we manage the process of reading without coming up with a pronunciation for brand new words which are rather long and perhaps a bit challenging to work out when reading quickly and silently. Nevertheless, we get the gist.

    Many children may also still gain the gist of the text, however, and therefore may give the impression of being better technical readers than they really are. Literature is packed full of new words for children and it is really important that they can decode well – and automatically – to enrich their vocabularies. So please don’t think my comment is referring to ‘exact’ pronunciation because that is not my point.

    If any ‘brand new’ words are not brought into spoken language with even an attempted pronunciation, this will inevitably reduce the potential of the reader to expand on their spoken language.

    Warm regards,

    Debbie

    • Jacqui MB says:

      …pronounce sufficiently well in order to recognise and know (read!) the word in print, is what I think Debbie means above.

      And to add to Debbie’s point, worse, much worse, is that a child will skip over or attempt an approximate pronunciation of what LOOKS like a new word (and so looks like an alien word or pseudo word too) because they don’t recognise it immediately using their engrained habit of sight reading when, in fact, it is a word they know very well indeed.

      I listen to Year 3, 4 and 5 readers who are supposedly beyond phonics but stumble over ‘activity’ (reading it as attractive), ‘wet’ (as went), ‘carry’ (as cry) and ‘quickly’ (as quietly) and there are many, many more examples in my records. The common pattern is that they select a word from their memory that looks similar to the word – first, middle and last letter match. Guesswork instead of accurate decoding often means that scattered words in various sentences are misread, which shoots holes in their full comprehension of the text, simply because they have failed to decode words that are already an active part of their existing vocabulary.

      It’s very sad indeed to see children decode at a level that does not allow them to demonstrate their true level of comprehension. When a Y5 child understands ‘atrocious’, they should be sufficiently skilled to decode and so read it. Our teaching of reading has not fully succeeded if they cannot.

      How can a child devote their full and enthusiastic concentration to the higher level thinking skills of inference and deduction, interpret authorial techniques or appreciate the subtleties of character, plot and theme if they are mired in slow and painful decoding, or if they are reading quickly but misreading vital words (every word is vital, we teach them in literature) throughout the text?

      It is no surprise that our previous patchwork approach to teaching reading has ensured that over 30% of each GCSE year group has been unable to achieve C grade or above in English. That alone is evidence that changes to the teaching of reading are long overdue. How can it be possible that strategic and systematic approaches (SSP) that are based on rigorous research are being resisted – our standards in English at age 16 for previous decades speak for themselves. It clearly hasn’t been good enough for very large numbers of children even if it has, accidentally, been good enough for a majority. A system that allows more than 30% to lead a functionally illiterate life is evidently not good enough.

      It is not possible to argue rationally that children who would have learnt to read well without SSP (as so many did in previous generations – all teachers, presumably!) would not have learnt to be even better readers with it. How could they not benefit from understanding the body of knowledge that is phonics? It is just that – a body of knowledge, not a belief system. If it helps the large minority who have struggled to learn to read using old methodology and benefits the majority too, there is no argument to be had.

      Teach SSP faithfully and well specifically to teach effortless decoding.

      Read all manner of children’s literature, new and old, with and without pictures, with and to children to expand minds and inspire creative thought.

      Encourage comprehension through debate and discussion – the skills of comprehension don’t ‘come from’ texts, they are thinking skills. We test children’s comprehension through reading (and writing their answers) but a student with very high comprehension skills remains one if they are presented with a Russian text, do they not!

      Challenge children to think for themselves, to infer and deduce, with and without texts.

      Extend vocabulary in all manner of exciting ways, but, best of all, ensure all our children can decoded fluently and effortlessly so they can read independently and deduce the meaning of new words from context (deduce meaning of an accurately decoded word from context, not guess word from context!) and so expand their own vocabulary – unlimited!

      In this way, social background should become less of a factor in determining academic success, as a child’s ability to read, equipped with good decoding skills, can rely less on the quality or quantity of parental intervention. Comprehension ability would become less dependent on vocabulary limitations in the home as children are exposed to a much wider vocabulary, a variety of sentence structures, a deeper level of general knowledge and differing and contrasting viewpoints through books, genuinely, thoroughly and more enthusiastically read at school by the very children who previously would have found reading too difficult, too painful to do for pleasure. The books are there to read in our schools for those children who lack them at home, and yet this alone has never been enough.

      Reading has to be effortless for it to be a pleasure.

      Why can’t we all be mature, stop fighting historic and political corners and just agree that guesswork is not and never has been a valid strategy for reading anything!

  8. Jacqui MB – What an excellent post – I’m so glad that I returned to this forum and discovered it! I agree entirely that children will guess words very commonly as you describe – and that this inaccurate ‘reading’ disrupts the flow of reading and undermines full comprehension. What is worse, don’t you find that children reading with all this guessing often ‘carry on regardless’ even when the guessed word does not ‘make sense’.

    • Jacqui MB says:

      Hi Debbie

      Absolutely! I couldn’t agree more.

      They certainly do carry on regardless, making as much sense as they can, which is often enough to answer a few questions moderately well. Sometimes, the children I work with guess a fair proportion of words incorrectly and still manage the comprehension questions with a resultant score that is above average for their age. Of course, they are then deemed to be good readers in our current system. They ARE relatively ‘good’ readers.

      BUT they are NOT as accurate/fluent/effortless at reading as they could be – that is my point.

      If they are misreading words they know, their decoding is still not good enough and it is undermining full comprehension. Fluent, accurate and effortless decoding SUPPORTS full, thorough and accurate comprehension. SSP does not work against comprehension. It is not even separate to it. It is essential if a child is to demonstrate their true comprehension skills at their absolute best – comprehension skills are thinking skills which translate to language skills, not reading skills!

      Michael Rosen talks about the many rich and varied things that ‘reading’ is.

      The skills he describes which he thinks a love of reading develops can be developed very well indeed without any print at all. They are thought processes that can be (and are!) encouraged and developed through conversation (reading between the lines, inferring meaning, comparing and contrasting, following an argument – making one! and so on…), they are called upon when understanding and interpreting a picture or scene, and when watching a play or a football match, for example. In each of these examples, there is no print at play but the full range of comprehension skills is required.

      A story or a poem is a series of thoughts, images, ideas written down. For a very long time indeed, humans told stories and inferred and deduced and argued and debated and cross-examined and … comprehended (!) without print and without books at all.

      This is why I give my Russian text example. I try to explain to my pupils that they have many excellent ‘reading’ skills even if they can’t read a word on the page. I have an English degree and I am an avid reader. I have very high level reading skills – my qualifications prove it! I also have a good general knowledge thanks to my many years on earth. However, if I move to Russia and am confronted with Russian texts, my reading skills cannot be put to good practice. In Russia, I can’t read!

      Of course I can’t speak Russian either, but there are words I know in Russian because they are pronounced in exactly the way we say them in English. This exemplifies how I could ‘read’ the Russian word if only I could decode it: rouble (рубль), glasnost (гласность), bolshoi ballet (Большой балет). These examples when decoded sound exactly the same as the English – p= /r/, y = /oo/, б = /b/, л = /l/ (and ь doesn’t make a sound in its own right). There you have it – if I know the code, I can read (and understand because I know it) ‘rouble’. Without the code, I can still understand and know and comprehend it but I just can’t access the word on the page…I cant read it.

      It’s so obvious.

      Why are teachers across the country unable to see that we don’t teach comprehension THROUGH texts. We test comprehension through texts. We encourage children to use and develop their existing comprehension skills through texts in the short time that we have access to them in classrooms.

      BUT…

      really, actually, comprehension skills are ‘taught’ (though not explicitly, of course) in the home, in the playground, in ballet class, in the car, while skateboarding with mates, with grandparents, at parties, in front of the TV, at a church or mosque, while playing minecraft… The vast majority of the waking day is spent developing comprehension skills and most waking hours are spent outside the classroom and away from books, even for avid readers. Sadly, children’s levels of comprehension develop at different rates, depending on the nature and richness of thinking and language in their home lives.

      I’ve worked with so many children now who have slipped through the net by being just about able enough to not be flagged with any particular special needs. They can do well enough in a comprehension. They often don’t enjoy reading and so I’m usually asked by parents for strategies to encourage them to enjoy reading – all we need to do is find the right author, the right genre, the right non-fiction focus (especially for boys, I’m told!).

      In every case without exception (and I really do mean that honestly), the children I’m asked to work with are reading stories like an English A Level French student might do in French. They are getting the gist, enough to answer comprehension questions but they are skipping over words they don’t immediately recognise. If they genuinely don’t know or understand the words (as an English student studying French A Level might not), that’s to be expected and part of the process. However, if they do know the words, it’s a crime! They are getting the gist when they could be getting a much, much more accurate picture of what the text is all about.

      That is not right.

      Reading more books and loving books alone will not solve this problem unless, by accident, the very words we are talking about in a comprehension paper or in the book the child is reading independently also, amazingly, within a short time frame, crop up in a book being read to them/with them by an adult, or unless the child specifically asks someone to read the word for them. This relies on willing adults being at hand, often.

      It also relies on a very large memory capacity to add whole new words to the memory bank each time a new one crops up.

      For many of our children, willing adults are not at hand, and not often.

      Therefore, the same children painstakingly slowly, or never, learn how to decode these words they actually already know and actively use, let alone acquire new ones.

      If a child knows ‘atrocious’ (the girl I have in mind here who was unable to read the word told me, once I’d unpicked it with her, that her mum said her room was this on a weekly basis!), I absolutely want her to be able to decode it. Taking an SSP approach, I don’t just tell her the word in one go, I highlight the tricky part of the word that we might say is an example of more complex code – the digraph ‘ci’ which represents the sound /sh/ in this case – and teach her to decode atrocious. This would give her the independent skills to decode so many more sophisticated words (as we know, words containing ‘ci’ to represent /sh/ are often formal and sophisticated) when I can’t be there to help her: delicious, magician, malicious, suspicious – the list goes on.

      How exciting that with time spent discussing and unpicking ‘atrocious’, with a focus on the phonic elements of the word, I can enable her to read multiple words that very probably would have stumped her too. While some would probably be new (and so ‘alien’ or ‘pseudo’ in her eyes), some she’d know and understand very well and that is my absolute priority – for her to be able to read every single word she already knows.

      Going back to whether or not exact pronunciation is a goal of SSP, if the girl is unfamiliar with ‘ous’ and tries to decode ‘ous’ as ‘ou’ = /ow/ and ‘s’ = /s/, she would probably end up with a pronunciation that rhymes with ‘mouse’ here. This would not prevent her from decoding the word as the pronunciation would be very close, close enough. However, she really needs to understand that ‘ci’ can represent /sh/ to avoid pronouncing the word as a-t-r-o-ck-i-ow-s which will almost certainly make it impossible to recognise.

      The children I work with understand that ‘c’ represents /k/ but, invariably, they have not been taught that ‘ci’ can represent /s/ or /sh/ and this is a terrible stumbling block for recognising and reading so many words in their active vocabulary.

      This lack of knowledge makes ‘lace’ look like an alien word. Often, just as Michael Rosen discusses in his point by point explanation of his views on phonics, supposedly good readers will ‘correct’ a word like ‘lace’ to ‘lack’ or ‘lacy’ to ‘clay’. This is not a ‘correction’ at all, as he calls it. It’s a misreading, plain and simple. They aren’t correcting the word by turning a word they don’t recognise into one they do. They are simply not decoding it accurately. They are, in fact, adding an imaginary grapheme or re-ordering the graphemes to turn the word into one they recognise.

      The children in question may well be ‘good’ readers. They may make pretty good sense of lots of texts. However, how can any teacher worth their salt argue that if a child misreads lace for lack or lacy for clay (or any of the other long list of examples that I have at my disposal) that they should be left well alone because teaching them to apply phonic knowledge instead of their own self-developed (not taught, by-the-way) ‘correction’ strategy will be negative and demotivating?

      It’s absurd.

      I have to add that to date I have not worked with one set of parents or talked to a single governor or teacher (including those teaching phonics, though I’m sure/hope they are out there!) who has been aware that ‘ci’ can represent /sh/, even though they are able to read ‘atrocious’. They don’t know how they are able to read it. They just can. They can tell a child what the word ‘says’ but they can’t tell them how they know. Moreover, not one has not said, ‘Ahhhhh, really? That’s interesting. I never knew that.’ Even when they didn’t especially need the support because they could read the word very-well-thank-you, they found it to be an interesting piece of information.

      Knowledge about phonics is vital for those children who don’t intuitively absorb phonic patterns in our English code. We won’t know who those children are when we start them out in Reception and so we can’t afford to wait to find out! For those children who do absorb phonic patterns, they may not absorb all, they may absorb some but not most, and so all these children too would benefit enormously from explicit phonic teaching of ALL the code, from simple and transparent to complex, not just half of it, as seems to often be the case even today.

      Some children (a much smaller number than the 70% who manage to pass for above average readers, I’m sure) may absorb the full phonic code marvellously but I would still wager a very large sum that these children would, at the very least, find the body of knowledge that is phonics fascinating, engaging and empowering, like so many other important and interesting bodies of knowledge that we teach as part of our curriculum.

      Is there really a good reason not to teach phonics early, quickly, thoroughly and well?

  9. Oh my goodness, Jacqui, it’s as if you are taking the words out of my mouth.

    I am so used to arguing the case for phonics (‘two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching’) and the case for training EVERY teacher in SSP reading instruction (for spelling too), and I’m not used to having such a passionate and articulate person arguing the case alongside.

    What a breath of fresh air!

    Thank you.

  10. This is an important topic as Laura Vaughan and Andrew Davis are not the only ones who think that teachers should have the right to teach what they want and how they want on the basis that they know ‘their’ pupils best. As the interest in this topic has been sustained and added to, I’ve flagged it up via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction:

    http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=500

    Kind regards.

  11. Nancy Young says:

    Chiming in from Canada to support the teaching of phonics in school. I totally agree with Jacqui that phonics can be phonics “fascinating, engaging and empowering.” Many teachers do not realize this – because they do not understand enough about the code themselves. As one is teaching that corresponds to three phonemes (/ch/, /k/, and /sh/), one can learn the phoneme -grapheme correspondence is connected to language origin of the word being spelled. Although corresponding to /k/ (Greek origin) is a less common correspondence, children are exposed to the word ‘school’ from an early age. Children love to learn the clues to the code. It is such fun! It is also a great means of providing enrichment opportunities for advanced readers.

    Certainly, that is not all we will teach. More and more research is indicating the need to teach morphology (see the work of Dr. Marcia Henry). Most teachers have not heard this word (due to lack of training in reading instruction essentials). A morpheme is a unit of meaning in a word. The word “run” has one morpheme. “Running” has two morphemes – “run” + “ing.” Morphology encompasses prefixes, base units (some use the word root), and suffixes. There are so many ways to bring morphology into the teaching of reading, ways that will help build comprehension through the understanding that many words are made of parts – and knowledge that these parts have both meaning and can affect the part of speech the word represents. If one cannot decode accurately and quickly, however, one will be held back in analyzing the morphemes in words (and that is such fun too!)

    We need to build skills and enrich readers through a multicomponent approach – which includes phonology, orthography, morphology, semantic and syntax (see publications written by Dr. Maryanne Wolf and Dr. Virginia Berninger). Phonics is the system by which children learn to connect phonology and orthography. This code system forms the basis for the study of the other areas.

    I was not taught about any of the above in my undergraduate degree. The focus of my BEd was constructivism and engagement in learning. The message was, “If they are having fun they will learn.” Sadly, in Canada (and many other parts of the world), many teachers are still not getting the training they need. They are being “taught” to teach children to guess. Schools are spending thousands of dollars buying more and more books because teachers have been told the books must be interesting for children in order for them to be motivated to read. They do not realize that their struggling readers will never be able to read those books independently unless they learn the code. How can one be motivated to do something when one has not learned the skills needed to perform the task?

    Research indicates that 40% of the population will fail to read unless the instruction is explicit, sequential, and systematic (National Reading Panel, 2000). When I give professional development to teachers, I tell them that the more they know about the English language code the more fun and intellectually engaging the learning process will be for both teacher and students. The words phonology, orthography, morphology, semantic and syntax are usually not familiar to teachers (see publications written by Dr. Louisa Moats). I tell teachers that, until those terms are mastered, they need to remember that all their teaching must delve into the sounds, spellings and meanings of words. Without intentional focus on all of these areas their learners will be missing out on needed foundational blocks for skilled reading.

    As French researcher Dr. S. Dehaene states in his book (Reading in the brain: The science and evolution of a human invention) “There is no point in describing the delights of reading to children if they are not provided with the means to get there.” (Deheane, 2009, p. 219)

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