Since the introduction of the phonics screening checks in 2012 by the UK Government, primary schools in England have been encouraged to favour a ‘synthetic phonics’ approach to teaching their pupils how to read. Whether this is the best method to use is highly contested and up for debate.
Synthetic phonics focuses on individual (or combination) letter sounds within words (Willingham, 2015) – learning these sounds gives children alphabetic code which they can utilise to decode any text given to them. According to the then UK Schools Minister Nick Gibb, writing in The Telegraph newspaper (16 July 2014), support for the phonics approach is substantial, with advocates praising its ability to increase a child’s reading age by up three years. Gibb claims that the increase in reading age is illustrated in a study by Dr Marlynne Grant, which took place in a catholic primary school in the southwest of England. In the study, a phonics scheme was adopted in reception classes to see what effects it had. A year later Dr Grant returned to find the children had an average reading age of 8 years and 2 months, which was 22 months above the average reading age of 6 years and 4 months (Gibb, 2014). Not only does phonics appear to increase a child’s reading age, it also teaches other skills simultaneously. Debbie Hepplewhite (2011) points out that phonics teaches reading and spelling from the outset. Children are taught to read through the process of blending the individual speech sounds, and spelling skills come from segmenting the spoken word.
Previously, in his government report in 2006, Jim Rose observed an insufficient focus on an essential component of learning to read. This component was the promotion of listening skills to ensure that children “built up a good stock of words, learnt to listen attentively and spoke clearly and confidently” (Rose, 2006:3). This is a skill that could be built upon with the introduction of a synthetic phonics approach, according to Rose. So on the face of it the phonics approach seems to be an adequate way of teaching children to read – it can considerably increase a child’s reading age and teaches effective listening skills at the same time. But is total reliance on a phonics approach really the way to go?
Advocates of the ‘whole word’ approach would warn against the over reliance on phonics. The whole word approach involves the learning of words as wholes, through methods such as repetition, working out and focusing on meaning, context, pictures and other clues (Willingham, 2015).
Whole word supporters criticise phonics because it does not equip children with the tools to draw meaning from a text. Lyle (2014) gives a concise critique of phonics which points out the dangers of confusing “decoding” with “reading”. In her words “decoding has nothing to do with the whole purpose of reading – making meaning” (Lyle, 2014:1). So while there is no disagreement that phonics provides children with essential skills, there is an argument that it doesn’t teach children the meaning of what they are reading. It could be said that the absence of meaning makes reading rather futile.
With a grasp of meaning comes a knowledge of comprehension across sentences. Willingham (2015) shows how writers often omit certain parts of information in their text for literary effect. Children therefore need a knowledge of context and comprehension to be able to fill in the missing parts of information. If children do not have this skill then the meaning of the text can be lost. Supporters of the whole word approach say that the learning of individual words in context gives children a chance to grasp meaning.
Some supporters of the whole word approach point out that English is a very irregular language, which makes learning certain rules for certain words even more important. English is characterised by its irregularities (Lyle, 2014) and this is one of the reasons why relying on just a phonic approach can become misleading for some children. For example phonics doesn’t work for all CVC (consonant, vowel, consonant) words, of which there are plenty in the English Language. Children are often taught to sound CVC words such as <cat> in the phonics approach. However what happens when a child is faced with a word like <sir>? If they use their phonic knowledge will they know that the <r> changes the pronunciation of the letter <i> in this example? (Lyle, 2014:1). Lyle argues this could confuse children.
It is clear from the opposing arguments that both strategies have their merits and downfalls, but in my opinion we should be adopting a mixed methods approach, using the most effective parts of both strategies. We should be looking for a middle ground between the two methods. This would eliminate the “one size fits all” argument that may seem practical on the face of it, but just doesn’t work when put into practice.
CHELSEA EATON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester