The best approach to teaching children how to read has divided opinion. The government urge systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as the “first, fast and only” way to teach reading (Rosen, 2014), so that phonics screening checks (tests) for five to seven year-olds have been compulsory in England since 2012. However, this ‘one size fits all’ approach “simply does not work” according to Sue Lyle (2014, p.68-74).
Children are taught the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and letters (grapheme) correspondence and how to blend sounds together .For example, “[shop] would be pronounced as /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blend those phonemes to produce [ʃɒp]. This is the first important step in learning how to read and also to master spelling” (Education, 2012, p.6). The National Literacy Strategy (1998) states the English language has encoded “44 phonemes” which represent “26 letters” with “140 graphemes” throughout the written English language. Children are required to identify the phonemes and how they are “spelt, blended, segmented and manipulated”.
According to the former UK school’s minister Nick Gibb, evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics “can boost children’s reading age by an average of 28 months above their chronological age by the time they turn seven” (Gibb, 2016). Dr Marlynne Grant, an educational psychologist conducted a longitudinal study of SSP (2014). Her research demonstrated SSP is an “excellent opportunity to drive up literacy standards. Children picked up reading quickly and become enthusiastic and confident readers”.
Despite this, opponents of SSP challenge this theory, arguing that phonics does not teach children how to read everything. Due to the complex, chaotic and irregular spelling system of English, problems will occur when it comes to reading for pleasure and taking meaning from a text. It is claimed that phonics does not take into consideration homographs (words that are spelled alike, but have distinct pronunciation) or homophones (words spelled differently but pronounced the same) or that combinations such as <th> can be voiced in the, this or that and also be voiceless as in thin, thank and thick. Also an <s> can be voiced, for instance, when in a verb, but voiceless in the noun form of the same word:
The cattery housed the lost cat (verb voiced)
Look at the house” (noun voiceless).
So the pronunciation can differ depending on the context.
Also, as Lyle, (2014, p.70) explains, “we read for meaning and decoding is not reading”. When confronted with a squiggle on paper, we look for meaning and understanding, usually by the context and pictures around the squiggle. The “first, fast and only” approach has led schools into using only decodable texts and preventing children being exposed to non-decodable texts (Rosen, 2014).
However phonics experts claim that English being too irregular to use phonics is just a myth. Hepplewhite (2007) for instances agrees that “the English Language is complicated with its spelling and pronunciation variations”. However, all this means is that “tweaking the pronunciation and examining the irregular parts need to be taught”.
The Department for Education is strongly encouraging schools to follow phonics programmes claiming “a single approach is more effective than mixing different methods”. They explain that “beginning and struggling readers need to understand that they do not have to know the meaning of every word they read. They need to be confident that when they encounter an unfamiliar word, they can decode it, even if it has no meaning to them” (Education, 2012, p.6).
Daniel Willingham (2015) claims that there is an “increasing evidence confirming that children learn better from different activities, depending on their strengths and interests they bring to learning. Therefore there should be a balanced literacy which is the best solution. The best cause of action is to react to the child with different strategies, not to make the child react to just one”.
In my opinion, SSP programmes were devised first to help children who could not grasp alphabetic codes, so it seems peculiar to apply this to everyone, especially when mixed methods worked. I am not anti-phonics, although I do agree it should be used as a method amongst other methods. Fixating on phonics has caused schools to overlook the significance of reading for meaning and pleasure. I do not think phonics alone equips children with these crucial, life skills.
MELISSA TAYLOR, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK