Phonics or whole books? This argument about learning to read and spell has been around since the 1950s and is still no closer to being resolved nearly 70 years later. Phonics is a teaching method made compulsory by the Government, which leads many to question both the validity of the method and whether the whole book approach would be more suitable.
Phonics requires the children to recognise the sounds that each individual letter… [and] different combinations of letters make and blend[ing] these sounds together” (DfE, p. 1). This results in the ability to “de-code new words” (DfE, p. 1). In theory, this process should always work but it is, of course, much easier said than done when it comes to the English Language, a language which is known for its inconsistences and irregularities. The well-known rule ‘i before e except after c’ has many exceptions. How can a child expect to know, for instance, that the digraph <ou> can be pronounced as /ʌ/ in ‘rough’, /aʊ/ in ‘pound’ and /u:/ in ‘you’?
The alternative to phonics is the whole book approach. This way of teaching focuses on words being taught as a whole with the accompaniment of pictures in books for context. This allows the child to put the words they are learning into their everyday life, giving it meaninghus cementing it in the child’s vocabulary. The approach also means that the process of learning the rules of language and irregularities are avoided, allowing the child to focus on the actual words whilst maintaining their morale.
A source of major controversy in this debate is the phonics screening check. The synthetic approach to phonics, which is the approach taught in schools, is now accompanied by a test that is used to monitor reading ability. The check is done at the end of the school year and uses 40 words, 20 real and 20 pseudo (made-up words). The child is tested on whether or not they can correctly sound out both the individual phonemes and then the word as a whole. It was introduced in 2012 and has since become a highly controversial topic, with countless parents and teachers questioning the effectiveness of the check. If teachers spend all year with a class of children, do they really need test results to know if any child is struggling?
The screening check tests children aged six which, according to many, myself included, is far too young. A six-year-old should be playing games and having fun. Although primary schools are adamant it is not stressful – “[t]he assessment will be age-appropriate […] and an enjoyable activity for children” (Etchells Primary School) – those in the field think differently. A statement from the National Union of Teachers describes it as “a test which examines unrealistic skills in an unrealistic context” (NUT), as the words, especially the pseudo words, have no meaning to the child. The thought of disappointing teachers, parents, or even the school can add huge pressure to an already stressed child. Devine (2015) reiterates this, saying how “the negative feeling [the pseudo words] would give the child and their parents who see a failed test at the age of 6” (p. 136) would be devastating. Why would anyone want to put a six-year-old through all of this?
This being said, the whole book approach does have two main issues. One is that it does not teach a child to truthfully read, only to remember. The other problem is that when children encounter unfamiliar words, they are unequipped with the knowledge they need in order to overcome it. This is due to the fact that the whole book method refrains from teaching the individual rules like phonics does. An example of this could be the diagraph <ph> which, excluding compound words, is generally pronounced with an /f/ sound, such as phoneme, phonics and photograph. Unless explicitly taught this, as they would be in phonics, a child is unlikely to remember this.
Although I do consider myself on the side of the whole book method, I am aware that the phonics approach offers essential knowledge that whole book does not provide. Furthermore, considering that the English Language is shaped by rules, I do think that the phonics method has a place in the Year 1 curriculum, just as long as the check does not follow it.
VICTORIA ANDERSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK
Department for Education. (2013). Learning to Read Through Phonics. Retrieved November 9, 2015.
Etchells Primary School. (2014). Year 1 Phonics Screening. Retrieved November 17, 2015.
National Union of Teachers. Phonics: Too Young to Fail? Retrieved November 17, 2015.