How should we teach children literacy skills? Is there a definitive approach? With crowds of parents, politicians and PhD persons shouting for their favoured contestant like supporters at a boxing match, it is difficult to make sense of such a boisterous discussion.
Simply put, the argument centres over two main methods: synthetic phonics or the whole language / ‘look and say’ approaches to teaching literacy.
These latter approaches tackle learning to read by teaching children to recognise whole word shapes and through this method they learn to read by way of association. For instance, an image will be shown to a child and then they will be asked what the word underneath says. As a result of this, the children learn that the spoken word corresponds to particular word shapes.
The synthetic phonics approach works differently. It attempts to teach children the sounds (phonemes) that each letter (grapheme) makes. For example, they will be taught that <t> makes the sound /t/ as in <tan> or <pot>. As they learn the 44 phonemes of the English language they are also taught to ‘blend’ their sounds to make words. It is here where <t>, <a>, <n> will be formed into the single sound /tan/.
An enthusiastic promoter of this approach is the UK government’s Department for Education. In 2012 they dictated the implement of phonics screening checks in all primary schools within the UK for school pupils aged five to seven. Under their infallible authority they declared phonics as: “the most effective way of teaching young children to read” (Department for Education, 2013).
However, despite the governmental assurances, each adversary has its weaknesses and no punches have been pulled. For example Dombey (2009), previously argued against phonics to insist that “[t]he difference between spoken and written language, and between the processes involved in listening and reading, coupled with the overlap between decoding and comprehension (particularly noticeable in English with its problematic orthography) indicate that to teach children to read English effectively, we need to do more than teach them synthetic phonics and careful listening.”
Dombey points out two main things here. You need context to read a word correctly. For instance, the word <read> can be decoded in two different ways – /ri:d/ and /rɛd/ dependant on context. And decoding and reading are not necessarily the same thing. A child may be able to decode a word correctly, just as I may be able to decode German, but that does not mean we would understand the words on the page. For this reason she calls to those in the middle for solutions.
In the middle there are those who call for an end to the tensions between the two sides, to put aside their differences and work together in order to resolve the debate and compromise with a balanced approach. Children should be taught the skills to decode words accurately and with understanding. In this idealist community, children would learn to decode the words phonetically, in context within interesting texts, and without the pressure of standardised tests.
The findings of the University of Sheffield (2006) suggest that this may not be the best solution. Their Systematic Review of Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling concluded that, “phonics instruction within a broad literacy curriculum appears to have a greater effect on children’s progress in reading than whole language or whole word approaches”. Therefore those who support phonics-only teaching, such as the Department of Education, and the Reading Reform Foundation may be correct in asserting that it is “the most effective for teaching everyone to read” (2016).
On the other hand ‘everyone’ may be a broad statement on the part of the RRF, because there are findings which suggest phonics teaching is not suitable for all students. Marshall (2013) has claimed that those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, can “resist progress even under the highly intense and careful phonics teaching”. With this in mind perhaps it should be considered that ‘one size does not fit all’ and there that a mixed approach would be more beneficial to more children than the ultimatum of phonics or whole language.
The debate may continue as those passionate enough search for definitive answers but for the meantime: where do you stand?
SHANNAN KELLY, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK