“Say what you see!” Is Phonics Really Necessary?

“Say what you see!” Is Phonics Really Necessary?

For safety’s sake, I’m going on the assumption that there may be some readers arriving at this post who would appreciate a simple definition of some of the key terminology used around this topic. I’ve listed these in an A4 document which you can download by clicking here: Glossary of Phonics Terms JM.

If you don’t need it, skip it. Any terms in the post that are in bold are listed in the glossary.

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The legendary debate regarding the best approach to teaching reading has been around for as long as I can remember. It has particularly been warming up over the past few years, however, not least because of its heightened publicity in the media around the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. (I’ll briefly touch on this to conclude, though pedagogy is my primary focus here.) There are a number of different camps that plausibly offer their own valuable ‘fuel’ to keep the metaphorical ‘phonics-or-no-phonics’ fire aflame though, for me, a couple of these camps have their tent pegs more firmly hammered into the ground than others.

 

In this post, while I’d like to think I have the burning magical powers to unite all parties involved, successfully luring both phonic-lovers and phonic-haters to join hands and chant ‘Kumbaya’ (or ‘mm’, ‘igh’, ‘ah’ if you like), beneath a starlit sky through the irresistible offer of a simple but decadent s’more (Google it – you’ll want one, and then ‘s’more’…), leading all to unanimously accept that my way of thinking is the only way, it won’t happen. Call me a pessimist (or preferably, a realist) but there are some firm roots beneath the feet of those who are used to their own familiar way of teaching reading to take a risk just yet.

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Until then, I’d like to make the case that synthetic phonics is invaluable in teaching students how to read and is unparalleled in its ability to teach the various explicit phonemes (heard sounds) and graphemes (spellings) within the English language. While I stand firm to this, I’d also assert that this single method, while incredibly powerful, is not sufficient on its own without its partners in crime analytic phonics and embedded phonics, though am confident they should only come into play as a means to apply the synthetic phonic knowledge learned.

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Historically, a number of different approaches have been trialled in the teaching of reading, including the alphabetic code where students learn the sounds of each letter of the alphabet in order, learning the capital and lowercase symbols at the same time as the sounds. Students would first learn letter names, subsequently being taught their sounds. This, interestingly, was the method used in schools at the time when I was taught to read so, while it must have worked for me, I’m not sure it is the best-fit model across the majority of students in this country. Other approaches include the ‘look and say’ method and the ‘whole word’ technique, both of which encourage the repetition of a single word until it is learnt.

In recent years, the government has pushed for a ‘phonics-only’ approach, which teaches children to decode words through knowing the make up of individual sounds, rather than recognising the whole word at once (the “Say What You See” method, if you like). This method of synthetic phonics relies on words being broken up into the smallest units of sound (phonemes). So, for example, in the word ‘church’, there are 6 letters but only 3 phonemes: ch / ur / ch and, in ‘dough’, 5 letters but 2 phonemes d / ough.

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There are, undoubtedly, many benefits to teaching reading using the phonic principle. If a student has mastered a sound correctly, e.g. knowing that the combination of ‘p’ and ‘h’ will make a ‘f’ sound, the scope for using this knowledge is mammoth. Phonics is invaluable. The application opportunities of this approach are great, with students being able to use this newfound awareness to break down a wide range of both familiar and unfamiliar words. Once learnt and embedded, the 44 phonemes (sounds) created by our 26 letters of the English alphabet, offer readers the freedom to decode hundreds and thousands of words that follow the same pattern.

Tim Shanahan, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Education at University of Illinois, Chicago has written a short series of four articles on Literacy, entitled ‘Teaching My Daughters to Read’. In his third post, which focuses on phonics, Shanahan suggests that:

‘Memorizing some words is always part of beginning reading, but reading is more than memorizing words.

Phonics both reduces students’ reliance on word memorization and makes such memorization easier. It accomplishes the former, by allowing students to sound out words that are yet unknown. Phonics allows the young reader to approximate the pronunciation of a word from nothing but the letters on the page, a liberating tool.

But phonics instruction also sets students off on trying to figure out and use the spelling patterns in text. Those patterns are not usually used to “sound out” words in any obvious way (except initially), but learning them does seem to increase how quickly and easily students come to “remember” words. Initially, children struggle to remember words, but as they learn the spelling patterns and sound-symbol relations the words get stickier—they seem to stay in memory with much less work.’

 

In line with my comments above, Shanahan agrees that, while memorising words is one technique that would eventually transfer knowledge into the long-term memory, it is not the most thorough approach to teaching reading or the most efficient. In the same way that I argue that teaching root words and their meanings is the best way forward for teaching vocabulary in a recent blog post (see here), I also believe synthetic phonics can have an incredibly powerful impact on students’ ability in the decoding and spelling of words. By learning the 44 phonemes of the English language and the various ways to spell them (which reaches up to the heights of over 150 variations!), we are giving students a ‘tool’ to be able to tackle any word they might encounter. To my mind, when I consider the students I currently work with in KSs 3 & 4, this approach has resulted in a reduced anxiety for so many as, like any individual approaching a job they are uncertain about, if they are well-equipped to complete the task, they can tackle the job feeling adequately prepared. The weaker readers I work with are presented with multiple opportunities to rehearse blending the isolated sounds they have already been taught. It seems to be this, rather than memorising individual words, that gives them far greater confidence in reading as, through this approach, they find themselves armed with the skill set to be able to decode both familiar and unfamiliar words.

 

Shanahan’s full article can be found here:
http://www.shanahanonliteracy.com/2014/07/teaching-my-daughters-to-read-part-iii.html

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If there is one thing that remains certain while the debate continues, it is vital that whatever method is being used to teach reading must be regular, consistent, and systematic in its approach. I feel a little uneasy when I think there may be schools delivering phonics in a way that isn’t supporting memory retention, e.g. not recognising the benefits of repetition and offering frequent opportunities for application. I would even go so far as to say that, I suspect for those schools where phonics has not had a significantly improved impact on student learning, additional obstacles could include the consistency of delivery perhaps not being as regular as required, or there may be an underlying lack of confidence around the teaching of phonics, possibly due to staff members not being supported with adequate training. I say this only because I have seen the immensely positive effect that synthetic phonics has had on students across KS1, 2 (ranging from the very weak to the very able), and weaker readers at KS3 & 4. While wholly aware that every student brings a different attitude and context to the learning environment, as a pedagogical approach to teaching reading I cannot see why synthetic phonics would not work for the majority of our students.

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A bold claim, I realise.

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In December last year, the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE) published a paper looking into the view on phonics of teachers within the classroom. The report, ‘Phonics instruction and early reading: professional views from the classroom’, offers a critical analysis of current approaches to the teaching of reading, making use of government documents and professional literature, drawing on the views of respondents to the 2013 NATE survey on phonics instruction and early reading. In its discussion, it states:

“No respondent to the survey regards phonics instruction in early years education as unnecessary, and there is significant support for the view that phonics should be the prime focus of teaching beginning readers. Several people agree with the assertion of the DfE evidence paper (DfE 2011a) that the ability to decode grapheme/phoneme correspondences is the first requirement for success in reading. Some respondents who work with children with special learning difficulties believe that early phonic instruction is particularly important for the progress of such children. A large majority of both infant and junior teachers report positive effects on their pupils’ writing and spelling, and about a third of each group report positive effects on pupils’ comprehension and higher reading skills.”

Click here for the full paper.

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The findings of the survey, completed by educationalists whose business it is to teach students how to read, clearly support the notion that synthetic phonics should be the leading approach employed within the classroom. The collossal benefits to outweight the drawbacks.

Those who oppose synthetic phonics assert that this method alone is not enough to enable a student to read. For example, if looking at the word ‘row’, one would not be able to tell whether they should read it as in the sentence ‘I am sitting in row 4’ or ‘There were two people on the bus having a row’. Similarly, with the sound ‘ough’, there are about nine variations in total…

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Critics of synthetic phonics suggest that an additional element of whole sentence context is essential in teaching pupils how to read, in order to overcome issues around fluency and understanding. The NATE report goes on to say,

“But the view of more than two-thirds of respondents is that, while phonic decoding is an important part of learning to read, other strategies are also vital. More than a quarter of respondents emphasise the importance of reading for meaning, and there is much concern that an overemphasis on phonics leads to an unbalanced reading curriculum in which other reading skills such as prediction and contextual information are not taken into account.”

To me, synthetic phonics is the most foolproof approach and the best-fit model for the majority of students, so long as staff are given sufficient training and sessions take place regularly and effectively. However, perhaps anticlimactically, I agree with the findings of the survey outlined above, arguing that the grapheme-phoneme correspondence alone is not enough to teach the art of reading. Opportunities for application are a must, including having a range of books accessible to students that still generate a love of reading and maintain an interest in the exploration of our diverse language. Scaffolding student learning is important of course, especially in the very early stages, but I see this freedom to read books of interest alongside the teaching of phonics as a necessary chance to apply knowledge to real-life situations. A text that provides the reader with both a challenge but also the chance to achieve mini successes too sounds like a healthy balance to me.

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ONE WORD OF WARNING: DON’T JUDGE A STUDENT BY ITS COVER.

A strong ability in decoding and fluency does not necessarily equate good comprehension too.

These more refined skills still need to be taught and rehearsed with students. There is often a level of inference and deduction that is written into the most simplest of story books and students need to begin to learn how to identify the different layers of a text in all its glory. However, this should come secondary to the explicit teaching of the isolated sounds. At least from this point, students then possess the necessary foundation on which to develop more advanced tools when looking at a text.

It is a fair point to raise that in recent years, since the Government’s push for phonics in KS1, we have seen growing numbers of students entering KS3, identified through our thorough baseline testing who, while they may be able to decode words accurately, they fail to grasp the full meaning of what they are reading. This is why I believe that the whole phonic picture – the synthetic (isolated sounds) and the analytical (teaching sounds within context) and, indeed, the opportunities for application, need to be intertwined when teaching reading to our students.

Unsure of which has been going on longer
– the phonics debate or this blog post –

I’ll end here
…nearly.

I have one concluding comment that I’m conscious may ignite the rousing flame once again over the ‘Should the Y1 phonics screening check be scrapped?’ debate, but my simple answer is:

“No.”

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Following the open letter that was addressed to Nicky Morgan, requesting for the Phonics Screening Check to remain (see links below), I have researched heavily around the test. On reading the opposing views which highlight concerns around teachers teaching to the test, a heightened student anxiety, the use of nonsense words, undetected comprehension issues etc. I would still support the screening check. Having seen students enter KS3 unable to read (and even some in the first year of my role reaching Year 11) and seeming so demoralised that they cannot sufficiently decode even the most common of words independently, I’m convinced that any early assessments that provide an indication of how students are performing in comparison to their peers can only be a good thing. Many of the students I talk about here are incredibly bright students, held back throughout their education only by their inability to read and spell, not having been identified earlier.

Looking at the guidance sent out to schools, administrators are directed to ensure that students do not see their ‘screening’ as a test in any way (though I recognise is difficult when you have multiples of 30 children to listen to). While there will always be inevitable drawbacks to a national test, I would propose that for this purpose, a standardised measure might be the best route forward for identifying students for concern. However, it will only have a positive impact if schools actually make use of the information, informing their future teaching based on the results of the screening check. I would also claim, in line with comments made previously in this post, that an assessment which measures not only decoding but comprehension too would be the best way to identify a weakness in reading. This, I believe, would allow us a greater chance to catch those students who tend to fall through the net when they are younger, thus reducing the number of students who have to battle through their education years with underlying difficulties around reading and comprehension, liberating those who possess all the other learning skills to succeed.

 

If you’re interested and want to know more, here are some links you might like to explore:

Open letter to Nicky Morgan:

http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/07/30/open-letter-to-nicky-morgan-39-why-the-year-1-phonics-check-must-stay-39.aspx

News articles:
http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/jun/16/phonics-children-education-research

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10901099/Children-taught-to-read-using-phonics-two-years-ahead-by-age-seven.html

NATE review:
http://www.nate.org.uk/cmsfiles/papers/Phonics_and_early_reading.pdf

DfE Phonics Screening Check Information:
https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/phonics

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6 thoughts on ““Say what you see!” Is Phonics Really Necessary?

  1. And here are some others:

    https://theconversation.com/phonics-is-not-a-fix-all-drug-that-will-get-all-children-reading-28868

    http://news.tes.co.uk/b/opinion/2014/06/26/open-letter-to-michael-gove-why-the-y1-phonics-check-must-go.aspx

    http://community.tes.co.uk/reading_theory_and_practice/b/weblog/default.aspx

    http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/2048-416X.2013.12000.x/abstract

    Where there are 26 letters used to represent 44 sounds, and 150 variant spellings (your figures) it is inevitable that words cannot be reliably read or spelt through synthetic phonics alone. Pupils have to recall words as wholes automatically before they can be said to be fluent. Synthetic Phonics contributes to decoding and learning the words, as you have suggested, but there is a lot more to reading than being able to approximate the pronunciations of the words seen.

    I don’t think you’ll find many denying that letters and groups of letters represent sounds and that this is important to reading. That would be a bit crazy. So there’s no need to have a ‘phonics or no phonics campfire’. It would be nice to have a pow-wow about the part that synthetic phonics and the phonics check can and should reasonably have in our education system.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for giving the time to leave a comment. I’ve had a look through the links you have listed.

    In response to your first comment regarding decoding being only one part of learning to read, I agree entirely and actually make the same point in my post.

    I recognise there are some drawbacks to the Phonics Check (such as students earning a mark if they read a nonsense word in a variety of ways and a real word in only the correct way), but I am still certain that there needs to be a measure across the board, to identify struggling readers early on in their education so that we don’t continue to see some enter secondary without the ability to decode the simplest of words. Equally, as mentioned, I think there needs to be a greater awareness of comprehension and how to detect hidden issues around this. If the phonics check needs to go, we will need to replace it with something and I’m not sure what that would look like.

    Thanks again,
    Josie

  3. I agree that you say that decoding is not all there is to reading. However my response was specific to your statement that “By learning the 44 phonemes of the English language and the various ways to spell them (which reaches up to the heights of over 150 variations!), we are giving students a ‘tool’ to be able to tackle any word they might encounter.” This at least sounds as if you believe that SP is reliable for decoding words, although I may be interpreting incorrectly. In which case please say. One of the main points made by those who, despite an advocacy of appropriate use of SSP, do not regard it as wise to over emphasise its value, is that it is essential that children attend to the meaning of text as they decode it in order to pronounce the words correctly, match them to their existing lexicon, and understand what they mean.

    As regards the phonics check: passing this check does not guarantee that children will be able to read effectively when they go up to secondary school. This depends on their understanding of text. The NFER report on the phonics check found that “In contrast to the phonics scores, there were no significant associations with school typology on the results for children at the end of key stage 1. Thus attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check, and by their approach to the teaching of phonics.” There is no doubt that teachers should be checking that children are progressing with reading and comprehending and judging, where progress is not being made why that might be the case. I think most teachers, especially working together, are capable of devising ways of looking into this (which might involve some use of properly devised nonword checks.)

    1. Ruth,
      Thanks again for your comment.

      Perhaps what I failed to communicate clearly in my post is that when teaching a grapheme that possesses more than one possible phoneme, we would ensure that students are taught all the possibilities. So, for example, with the ‘ch’ grapheme, I would be teaching three different phonemes that correspond with this pair of consonants – the ‘ch’ in ‘chips’, the ‘ch’ in ‘chef’ and the ‘ch’ in ‘chorus’. In this way, students are ‘armed’ with the necessary options to select from when blending the sounds together to decode familiar and unfamiliar words. The independence I’ve seen students gain from this strategy has been immense and I can’t see any reason strong enough to switch to another approach. Of course, there is the key element intertwined in all of this regarding comprehension, as outlined in the post already.

      Regarding the phonics check, I respect your view and see why you may prefer to adhere to a more school-centred approach to assess student reading. However, I recognise the benefits of measuring where students are at in relation to their peers, early on in their reading development to reduce the possibility of them moving through the school years without being identified as struggling and perhaps for some schools, not all(!), this offers and assessment opportunity that they otherwise would not have had in place?

      Josie

  4. Thanks Josey, I respect your view as well. Meanwhile I can’t help seeng that children faced with a group of alternative pronunciations of graphemes would have to match the resulting alternative words against their vocabulary. So this involves vocabulary knowledge and understanding of text. And while older children, with large vocabularies, and schooled in methodical approaches, might be efficient with this process, younger children may be less likely to find this method congenial.

    I take your point about comparing schools results in the phonics check but think these sorts of comparisons are well-served by curriculum benchmarks and teacher experience. EYFS is moderated at the end of reception class and SATs at the end of Y2. While not perfect both these measures embrace a wider range of literacy skills. I’m afraid I think the phonics check is an instrument for checking schools are conforming to the required SSP route.

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