In 2007, England introduced synthetic phonics lessons in primary schools following the suggestion of the Rose Review (2006) which claimed success in this style of teaching after a study in Clackmannanshire (Scott, The Guardian). Then in 2012, this systematic synthetic phonics style of teaching was adopted nationally (Sellgren, 2013) and continues now to be the main way children are taught to read. Pupils are educated to recognise phoneme and grapheme relations separately and then they are taught to blend these together to read a word (Lyle, 2014, 69). For instance, the letters (or graphemes) <c> + <a> + <t> when pronounced as their individual sounds (phonemes) /k/ + /æ/ + /t/ should be blended together to make /kæt/. According to Lyle (2014: 69) “[i]t assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading and aims to teach the sounds of individual letters and the 44 phonemes of English”. The Rose Report resulted in drastic changes to the reading scheme. This impact causes a great deal of controversy on how children should effectively learn to read.
The Rose Report (Rose, 2006) stated that the Searchlights model which sculpted the current reading scheme, and first used in 1998 (Dean, 2013, p22-23) must be scrapped and be replaced by the Simple View of Reading model (Glazzard and Stokoe, 2013, p47-48). The Searchlights model placed a clear emphasis on phonics, but also how the knowledge of context, grammar and graphic/word recognition should be reinforced too (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). It implied that decoding and comprehension complemented each other, and that a variety of strategies can be used to teach children how to read (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). It should not rely solely on phonics (Education Skills Committee, 2004-05). However, Sir Jim Rose stated in his report that decoding and comprehension are two distinct skills and should be taught separately (which is shown in the simple view of reading model) and that phonics should be the only focus when teaching how to read. UK Education secretary at the time, Michael Gove, stated that phonics is the most successful way of teaching children to read and the government argued children must be drilled with one single approach that focuses on phonetic correspondence.
Therefore, to test a child’s ability to read, the government introduced phonics screening checks in 2012 which requires year 1s to read aloud 40 words – 20 real words and 20 made-up (pseudo words) (gov.uk). With their knowledge of phonics, they should be able to individually decode each of the words (gov.uk). The argument behind using pseudo words is that they are new to children and if they can decode these words they can decode any unfamiliar words (lcp.co.uk). Also, using a mixture of words can highlight if a child needs extra help. The government screening check teacher training video (gov.uk) demonstrates pupils reading aloud each word presented to them in isolation. At times they do appear to be put under unneeded pressure whilst they are examined to correctly pronounce a word. Whilst it may seem acceptable to judge a child’s reading ability to the government, I and many others disagree with this ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Not all children learn to read at the same pace so why should they be tested the same and feel judged and criticised if they fail the test. Furthermore, some words do not follow the rules of phonics (e.g. ‘who’ and ‘was’) and are not spelled the way they sound (understood.org). This can add even more confusion to a child when tested in this way.
Despite the government’s efforts to convince us all that a systematic synthetic phonics approach is the best, there are still people who favour a whole word approach. This requires children to learn large numbers of words and not break them down into smaller units (Walker-Gleaves and Waugh, 2017, p51). They can then guess a word if they are unsure by using other words in a sentence as a clue and rely on context (Walker-Gleaves and Waugh, p51). Those who support the whole word approach state that it does not ‘drill’ children in letters and it makes reading more pleasurable and authentic (Willingham, 2015, p76). This focuses more on comprehension than isolated words in tests, but it can also be criticised that this way takes longer, and it is not practical with one teacher in a class of 30 pupils.
Since both phonics and whole word styles of teaching can have its pros and cons, why not adopt a new method based on a combination of approaches when teaching children to read? Could this be the solution to suit everyone? As the Searchlights model previously suggested, it is possible to teach children with a variety of strategies (‘cues’) where comprehension and phonics complement each other. The current methods focus directly on a one-size-fits-all idea and the same phonics screening checks to test different children on their different reading abilities can seem unfair. Phonics should not be the only method to teach literacy skills.
ELEANOR HEATON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK