- What is it?
Synthetic phonics is an approach to teaching reading which seeks to consolidate letter sounds first, before blending these sounds together to achieve full pronunciation of whole words.
s (as in ‘sun’)
mm (as in ‘comma’)
ai (as in ‘brain’)
rh (as in ‘rhyme’)
dge (as in ‘bridge’)
eigh (as in ‘weigh’)
ough (as in ‘dough’)
- What are the potential benefits?
a) This method demands explicit, discrete teaching of each individual sound within the English alphabetic code; not just the 26 letters, but the 45(ish) sounds – (additions include extras such as: oi, or, er) and 150+ spellings (e.g. r, rr, rh, wr). Synthetic Phonics provides a comprehensive toolkit for readers of all abilities, to be able to decode unfamiliar words rather than trying to teach endless individual words or to pick up clues around the word, which can often lead to multiple errors or guessing attempts.
b) EAL students often show rapid improvement through this approach, and therefore unlock access to the rest of the curriculum. Since EAL is an entirely different ballgame to SEN, it’s no surprise that these pupils make obvious gains very quickly once they’ve grasped the core patterns of the English language.
c) In comparison to its shifty cousin, ‘analytic phonics’, this approach does not rely on a learner being able to understand the context of the sentence it resides in, in order to decode (read) the word itself.
- What are the potential drawbacks?
a) Some fail to acknowledge the necessary bridge between teaching the sounds and reading fluently. Unless you commit to modelling how to blend sounds within a word, learners will take much longer to read with increased fluency. Demonstrating how to blend sounds, e.g. in ‘b-r-i-dge’ and ‘ch-oi-ce’, will develop stronger readers.
b) Our beautifully rich English language is bittersweet. We’ve conquered, stolen and borrowed so many words from so many places, cultures and eras that our alphabetic code is now a picture of perfectly ordered chaos.
What this means in reality is that spelling feels impossibly difficult for weaker readers. While synthetic phonics has done wonders for reading in KS1&2, unless teachers are persisting to teach spellings explicitly and frequently, learners will employ their decoding knowledge to attempt encoding (spelling) words. It feels comfortable to the novice writer To do so but, until they’ve had repeated exposure to high frequency words and phrases such as the example in the image below, and have been taught root patterns of specific sounds*, those wonderful phonic skills that enable one to read doesn’t always directly translate to spelling.
*See root spelling video of the word ‘one’ here.
- What about older students who’ve not succeeded with phonics previously?
I view this from a pair of rather binary binoculars. If synthetic phonics works for so many in so many places and with so many contributing factors to their learning journey, I can’t subscribe to the notion that this method would work with the majority but not the remaining few. I’ve taught synthetic phonics for a number of years to students with a wealth of different learning needs, and not once has this approach been unsuitable. Considering what we know about the learning process, (e.g. that VAK is RIP) it seems counter intuitive to suggest that some suit this method and others don’t. The pace and dynamics of the group may change, but the key here is to ensure that older students are included in the conversation, with transparency around why this is not a ‘baby-ish’ concept and how vital it is for learning and life. Greg Ashman’s post, ‘Phonics is like a vaccine‘ articulates this point brilliantly.
- What about comprehension?
This aspect of the eternal phonics debate is widely and wildly misunderstood. Skeptics, haters and change-dodgers use this as an excuse to abandon synthetic phonics. In my experience, the practice of phonics does not directly improve understanding, except that it absolutely does.
1. Learn sounds
2. Decode whole words
3. Increase fluency to read whole sentences, passages, pages, chapters, books…etc.
4. Greater exposure to text – repeated exposure to new vocabulary
5. Increased comprehension. For me, this area is a non-argument. A parallel claim would be to argue that learning to walk does not improve dancing. Until you’ve put one foot in front of the other on repeated occasions in a number of different settings and on a number of different surfaces, moving at different speeds, there’s no way you’d be able to seduce with a steamy rumba or master the Macarena.
- How is it embedded?
Just as you wouldn’t take dancing lessons without a regular chance to dance, or attend football training sessions without frequent opportunities to play in a match, synthetic phonics won’t get you very far unless you have plenty of opportunities to read. And it’s both the interest level and the quality of text that really matters. Doug Lemov’s work on choosing rich texts full of challenge is comparable to none – see here. Early readers (at whatever age) will benefit from easily decodable books, moving onto simple chapter books and then increasing the difficulty level beyond that. Investing in the daily habit of reading will maximise the impact of synthetic phonics. Class readers, group reading sessions, parental engagement in reading at home and independent reading opportunities are crucial in cultivating enthusiastic readers.
If you have any knowledge of Quigley, you’ll know how unnecessary it is to build an opposing argument to his. There’s rarely a moment where my own viewpoint is misaligned with his when it comes to teaching and learning – and all things language. And, in truth, 80% of the post I do agree with. However, having lived out the role of a ‘modern-day Sisyphus’ as he describes (that of literacy co-ordinator) for a number of years now, I’m keen to offer an alternative angle on the importance of literacy and language in schools.
To keep it brief, it’s clear we agree on some key fundamentals:
- There is no more important act in education than helping children to learn to read.
- Developing our students as confident readers, writers and speakers is the core business of every teacher, regardless of age, phase or subject specialism.
- The matter of ‘literacy’ really is a boulder of gargantuan proportions, beyond the will and wit of any individual leader (including especially me).
- The domain of literacy is so wide and so complex.
- The education profession has been known to package ‘literacy’ into a small, relatively useless box, which sits on a shelf until Sisyphus gets an hour’s PPA time to shift data around on an excel spreadsheet or photocopy handwriting sheets for tomorrow.
When I consider what it was about this post that fired me up enough to respond, I suppose it’s the knowledge – and driving passion – that underpins my work; one that promotes a different kind of literacy. It’s not the implied bolt-on accessory that I’ve seen countless times in so many schools. Like Alex, I’m fully behind Geoff Barton’s message of clarity in his book, ‘Don’t Call It Literacy!’, where he argues that teachers so often see literacy as an additional burden to teaching; just another box to tick or a passing fad, like so many others they’ve seen come and go before.
I hear exactly where Alex is coming from when he explains the overwhelming responsibility of a role such as this, and he’s right. It’s colossal. To oversee the assessment of literacy and language, ensure students who need additional support (e.g. phonics) receive it, make sure that staff feel fully-equipped to deliver robust teaching around core language within their subject domain and assess the long-term impact of these interventions in offering greater access to the curriculum – it’s almost impossible.
I guess, for me, the wrestle occurs in negotiating the solution to the boulder-up-the-hill dilemma. Having trained in primary teaching before moving to secondary, one huge shock in that transition was the realisation that teachers across the school were expected to apprentice students into effective reading for comprehension, and model extended writing in their subject without any prior training. For me, the solution to raising the bar with language and embedding a deeper knowledge of literacy across the curriculum is inextricably linked to having a key figure in place to drive these vital whole-school priorities forward.
The difference, then, between the Sisyphus analogy and my own utopian ideal, is in the careful appointment of the role, but also in the discernment of building structures that would likely scaffold the creation of robust systems. To me, a perfect candidate for ‘Literacy Co-ordinator’ is someone who is open to the vast complexities of the role, yet understanding of the need to build capacity by establishing focus teams around core priorities. Alex’s list below is a great starting point:
- Reading for pleasure;
- Reading issues(such as poor decoding, weak comprehension, dyslexia, and the readability and accessibility of texts for our students);
- Academic vocabulary;
- Teacher explanations, talk and questioning;
- Improving writing;
- Improving spelling and writing accuracy;
- Speaking and listening;
- Enhancing teacher knowledge and providing training for all of the above;
- Developing parents’ knowledge and understanding of all of the above.
I’d add these three after a quick think:
a) discrete teaching of roots, prefixes and suffixes
b) effective transition from KS2 to KS3, knowing the long journey of language acquisition that students have already taken
c) effective oracy – presentation, communication, assimilation
As I’ve said, there’s much I agree with. Teams are better suited to developing whole-school systems required for long-term positive impact on language and literacy. The use of allocated non-contact time to address literacy targets and data sheets has big potential to do a real disservice to stakeholders, if one is blind to the true needs of students and staff alike. One person alone cannot master this field. FACT.
I just question that the answer, in light of the above, is to admit defeat and remove the role from schools entirely. I’d much rather ensure that literacy co-ordinators have regular opportunities to deepen their own knowledge and understanding of the non-negotiables listed above, supported by senior leaders and cluster teams to ensure that school priorities are mobilised as effectively as possible, all working towards a shared goal. Without a driving force behind these principles, I’m concerned that time constraints in this busy profession would ultimately mean that those schools not yet awakened to the utter importance of embedded literacy and language would witness a decline in this area.
It’s true: the absence of a literacy co-ordinator has got to be better than the appointment of a poor one who demonstrates negative impact. I’m just not prepared to see this role as a dead root in the tree of school life yet; there’s so much more to be done.
And, for me, there needs to be a central force – be it a single person or a couple more – who possess responsibility for carving out the vision of literacy and language, ensuring no student or member of staff on this ever-evolving journey is left behind.
On Saturday 28th March, I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF). The purpose of the event was to highlight the vital importance of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)*. A great variety of speakers with different areas of expertise were asked to talk on the subject and it seemed many fruitful conversations were had by those who attended. I was invited to talk about my decision to use SSP with secondary school students within SEN, which will be available online shortly.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics (or SSP) is a structured, repetitive approach to teaching reading with a total reliance on the smallest units of explicit sounds – in both spoken form (‘phonemes’) and written form (‘graphemes’) – to teach reading. This method usually starts with the most common sounds and moves through to more complicated ones e.g. knowing a ‘dge’ makes the same sound as a ‘j’, and a ‘tch’ makes the same sound as a ‘ch’.
This is in contrast to analytic phonics, where students are often asked to read beyond a difficult word to the end of the sentence, then attempt to guess it using contextual clues. This approach, while helpful in the opinion of some, does not develop the reading skills of a student nor help them learn explicit sounds, since they have simply guessed the word through their understanding of the rest of the passage. This also often has negative impact for those new to English, since their knowledge of vocabulary at entry point to the UK is minimal, so there are flaws in the reliance of a guessing technique.
While I have been aware of the benefits of using a structured approach to reading for a long time, it has made me more sure than ever that this is the most targetted, reliable, efficient and, without wishing to go overboard, moral way to teach reading.
Unfortunately, official governmental guidance does not stipulate that a single methodical approach to teaching reading is key though does advise this. For me, a directive which would acknowledge the necessity of teaching reading through SSP would be a great step towards ensuring that far more students might have the opportunity to learn to read before they leave primary school.
Not to add fuel to the fire in the debate around the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, but I am a keen and outed supporter. Ensuring that any individual has a good grasp of the fundamental skills of reading and writing can surely only be a good thing.
With my SEN head on, however, there seems to be a flaw in the system. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of it is as follows:
The DfE website states that:
… And after that? What happens then?
If, as educators, we acknowledge that children physically grow at different rates, mature emotionally at different times and adopt new knowledge at different speeds, is it okay that we let so many fall off the radar beyond Y2 simply because their learning of our complex alphabetic code has not fit into our man-made termly organisation?
There seems to be a black hole for those students who have not grasped reading by this point and, in my opinion, this could be one key factor contributing to the situation I’m faced with as Literacy Leader of a secondary school, welcoming in substantial numbers of students arriving in Y7 who are still unable to read. Pass at Y2 or branded SEN. Hereth begineth the dreaded ‘gap’.
I have no doubt that schools in the majority do their best to scaffold the learning of students who fail to pass the phonics check at Y2. It is our moral obligation to ensure that our learners are equipped as best as possible for the education journey they walk. However, there are questions we need to be asking here:
- What does the research suggest and how are we applying it to our own classrooms?
- If there are so many students failing to grasp reading across the UK, are we really using the most suitable approach that meets the needs of ALL our students?
- How else can we support students beyond this stage if they haven’t learnt it by the end of Y2?
- Have we done all we can to ensure this student is able to access the curriculum?
Disclaimer: I have been a primary school teacher. I have seen the amazing job that primary school teachers do, day in, day out. This post is by no means an attack on the teachers who deliver phonics to younger students. My intention is simply to verbalise my thoughts on the current situation I observe from a secondary perspective and explore ways we might overcome some of the flaws in the system.
If we are to see illiteracy in the UK reduce by any significant measure, we have a duty to ensure that:
- the most targetted, research-based, fail-proof, methodical approach to teaching reading is employed
- ALL students are supported to a point where they are able to read and write independently as early as possible (and beyond!)
By achieving these two points above, I am almost certain that we would see numbers of those arriving at secondary labelled as ‘SEN’ dramatically decrease, since there would have been no gap (or at least a much smaller learning gap) to close. I’m sure we would begin to witness less students arrive at secondary who are clearly able in many areas of the curriculum, extremely competent in verbal responses, but branded with a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’ in reading. I do acknowledge that there will always be some level of need in this area, which is likely to extend to education in the older years. I do also recognise, however, that we are clearly doing something wrong at present and, until it is addressed and corrected, we are failing a great number of our students.
Saturday 28th March 2015 marks the date of the next Reading Reform Foundation Conference. It’s key focus will be on the use of phonics to teach reading and is entitled “From the Rose Review to the New Curriculum.”
I have no direct link with this organisation in any other capacity than keeping up with their movements on Twitter, but I do hold deep admiration for the work they do in promoting the use of synthetic phonics in the development of language and reading.
Having taught at both primary and secondary school level, and now in my role as Literacy Leader at the large secondary school where I teach, I have witnessed countless times the overwhelmingly positive impact that the systematic teaching of synthetic phonics can have on a weak reader. To be armed with the tool belt of phonics is, in my opinion, the key to unlocking the door of illiteracy for so many children, older students and adults.
Arriving at secondary school as a student unable to read is a sad affair. There is an element of injustice here in that, due to whatever reason – be it difficult behaviour, unstable home life, a physical impairment (e.g. poor vision or hearing), a slower processing speed, poor or inconsistent teaching – students are still failing to access mainstream education at this age. And the truth is that, for some, this obstacle to learning could have been overcome simply through a better delivery of phonics.
On their website, the RRF claim that:
“For too long now the teaching of reading has been affected by the idea that children should learn by discovery, leading to the rejection of systematic, explicit instruction. This idea is deeply ingrained in education and still has a powerful influence on how reading is taught, despite having no scientific validity.”
On the 28th March, my presentation on ‘Phonics in the Secondary Classroom’ will explore the potential drawbacks and advantages of using synthetic phonics with students of an older age. I also intend to give insight into the systematic approaches I have implemented as Literacy Leader at my own school, which have shown to produce real, deep progress for our struggling readers in Years 7-11.
I’m privileged to be speaking alongside some true experts in this educational field and look forward to attending the day myself; to soak up some great teaching from others. More information and the link to book tickets can be found here:
Hope to see you there!
It’s that time of year again when thousands of exhausted teachers find themselves aimlessly pacing up and down the staffroom at 3.30pm, too tired to talk or sit or check their pigeon hole, managing to communicate with colleagues only through a series of synchronised puzzled looks, shoulder shrugs and a selection of appropriate nods and grunts. September welcomes the start of the new academic year; a second chance at a January 1st -esque renewal for both students and teachers.
Where I’m currently based, in the SEN department of a super local secondary school, it’s no different. The buzz in the air around the new baseline testing data and information from feeder schools offers a welcome sense of optimism, as we work as a team to number crunch and meet with students to identify those needing additional support. Aware of debates around data and levels and ways to effectively measure progress, I agree that there are huge drawbacks in the over-assessment of our students and the over-reliance on data. There are clearly flaws to be found here. However, for us it is crucial.
In order to best scaffold the learning for our students who need additional support on entry to this daunting brand new world of secondary school, at least until we know individuals within the new Y7 cohort better, we have to rely on our baseline data and historical information sent up from our feeder primary schools. It is through the initial testing and then further investigation into particular scores that we can identify students who have learning weaknesses in particular areas of the curriculum – be that in literacy (e.g. in reading or spelling), in speech and language, or in maths. I’m confident we have a strong assessment process in place that prevents students slipping through that all-important metaphorical ‘net’. It is from here that we then stream pupils into the most appropriate targeted support to meet their specific need(s), be that at Wave 1 (in class support), Wave 2 (group intervention support), or Wave 3 (1:1 support).
As Literacy Leader, it is naturally my priority to scrutinise the testing results of our students’ performance in reading, writing and spelling. Through the standardised tests we have invested in since I have been in post, we identify those performing at a level significantly below that of their peers and address needs on an individual case basis. Our tests provide a detailed breakdown into reading accuracy, comprehension, reading rate and processing speed. The method we have followed this year has remained much the same as previous years. However, something has changed. And it’s something I predicted might happen a couple of years ago.
While the reading accuracy scores at the point of intake of our new Year 7 cohort seem to be rising year on year, comprehension scores are dropping. I can only talk of my experience where I work so this may not be seen among other schools across the borough/region/country. However, it’s a consistent change and one that is worth exploring.
At this point, I’m keen to declare my support for the teaching of synthetic phonics* in primary schools. I have seen, both through classroom experience (at primary and secondary) and through data analysis that this strategy for teaching reading accuracy works. I am an advocate, as outlined in a previous post here, so please be clear that this post is in no way a concern around the teaching of synthetic phonics itself.
‘Analytic phonics’ = the teaching of a word within context (i.e. analysing what the word as a whole could be based on the words around it)
‘Synthetic phonics’ = the teaching of individual sounds, irrelevant of context (e.g. ai, ee, aw, igh)
I am confident that phonics works. I personally rely on it as a method of teaching many of our intervention groups or 1:1 sessions, working with students who reach us at KS3 and still cannot read. I am concerned, however, that as educationalists in both primary and secondary, we need to recognise the many demands that reading brings and should therefore not only explicitly teach reading accuracy, but comprehension strategies also. My fear is that in improving reading accuracy across the nation through the implementation of synthetic phonics, we may be masking an issue around reading comprehension.
Phonics was introduced to schools as statutory in September 2007 following the Jim Rose review in March 2006. His ‘Independent Review of the Early Teaching of Reading’ in the UK was revealing and its impact great in changing the national pedagogical approach to teaching reading. Rose insisted that the government’s rejection of phonics in 1997 as a valid method of teaching reading was a very bad mistake and, in light of his findings in this 2006 review, succeeded in influencing those in power to change their minds.
The diagram above shows the interdependence between two key features of reading:
a) word recognition processes
b) language comprehension processes
The act of reading is simply impossible without the ability to:
- read words accurately
- understand the meanings of words
If a student shows poor reading accuracy and poor comprehension processes, they will undoubtedly struggle to read a text. Similarly, if a student possesses a good reading accuracy ability but poor comprehension around the words they are able to read, they will still struggle to grasp the meaning of a text. Take the word ‘comprehension’ itself. Phonetically, it is a word that can be decoded relatively easily = com/pre/hen/sion. However, since there are not many semantic clues within the word itself, without the direct teaching of what this word actually means, students may be left confused.
In his review, Jim Rose explains,
“Comprehension occurs as the listener builds a mental representation of the information contained within the language that a speaker is using. The comprehension processes that enable the mental representation to be built up occur at the word, sentence and utterance (text) level. Individual word meanings are identified from phonological input. Parsing of the language occurs. This ensures that meaning is mediated through grammatical structure. A number of inferential processes are also used. These all happen simultaneously and the resulting information interacts with the listener’s general knowledge to enable as accurate a mental representation of the spoken message as the listener is capable of at any particular stage of development. It is important to bear in mind that the extent of the listener’s general knowledge and level of cognitive development will have a bearing on the comprehension of the message. To generate an accurate mental representation of this the listener has to process the language and the concepts.”
Rose reminds us that learners need to be able to assimilate new words that are suitable for their own personal level of cognitive development. He goes on to advise that,
“Teachers also need to be brought up to date with research into reading comprehension. As reading comprehension has now been shown to depend crucially on language comprehension, teachers also need to have good knowledge and understanding of oral language development, and of ways to foster language comprehension.”
Rose acknowledges that language comprehension (ie. the explicit teaching of words and their meanings) needs to be taught within the classroom. I see this as vital in both primary and secondary, since language acquisition takes place at any, and every, age. There is great enjoyment to be had in sharing this depth of knowledge with students, hopefully stirring an interest in language and word etymology in the process.
If students are able to access language at a more advanced level since their accuracy is improving, teachers of all key stages should bear in mind that even though a student may sound fluent and can read more challenging texts, their comprehension of what they are reading may not match up. It is therefore essential that teachers continuously check students’ understanding irrelevant of age, key stage or ability, through the use of targeted questioning and regular low-stake formative assessments.
This diagram from the Rose Review demonstrates, quite obviously, the importance of a learner’s general knowledge and language system in the acquisition process of any new vocabulary encountered. Rose states,
“It is widely agreed that phonic work is an essential part, but not the whole picture, of what it takes to become a fluent reader and skilled writer, well capable of comprehending and composing text. Although this review focuses upon phonic work, it is very important to understand what the rest of the picture looks like and requires. For example, nurturing positive attitudes to literacy and the skills associated with them, across the curriculum, is crucially important as is developing spoken language, building vocabulary, grammar, comprehension and facility with ICT.”
Students should be actively and constantly engaging in the process of reading. In my opinion synthetic phonics is, without a doubt, essential for students to develop an independence in reading accuracy but, of equal importance, there needs to be an explicit teaching of vocabulary to students within the classroom too. This is a responsibility of primary teachers and secondary teachers too, across the broad spectrum of curriculum subjects taught. As a result, students will not only be able to phonetically decode an unfamiliar word, but will know the deeper semantic significance behind the words they read too. Language development begins at an early age but has no limits to its growth. A love of vocabulary is something we need to nurture in the learning environment, and the explicit teaching of new words is one way this can be achieved.
“Phoney Phonetics” by Vivian Buchan, NEA Journal 1966/67, USA
|One reason why I cannot spell,
Although I learned the rules quite well
Is that some words like coup and through
Sound just like threw and flue and Who;
When oo is never spelled the same,
The duice becomes a guessing game;
And then I ponder over though,
Is it spelled so, or throw, or beau,
And bough is never bow, it’s bow,
I mean the bow that sounds like plow,
And not the bow that sounds like row –
The row that is pronounced like roe.
I wonder, too, why rough and tough,
That sound the same as gruff and muff,
Are spelled like bough and though, for they
Are both pronounced a different way.
And why can’t I spell trough and cough
The same as I do scoff and golf?
|Why isn’t drought spelled just like route,
or doubt or pout or sauerkraut?
When words all sound so much the same
To change the spelling seems a shame.
There is no sense – see sound like cents –
in making such a difference
Between the sight and sound of words;
Each spelling rule that undergirds
The way a word should look will fail
And often prove to no avail
Because exceptions will negate
The truth of what the rule may state;
So though I try, I still despair
And moan and mutter “It’s not fair
That I’m held up to ridicule
And made to look like such a fool
When it’s the spelling that’s at fault.
Let’s call this nonsense to a halt.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
A bold claim, I realise.
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.”
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…
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.
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
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:
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:
DfE Phonics Screening Check Information:
This is the first of a two-part post.
‘Part 1: ROOT PLANNER’ outlines the ideology behind the new vocabulary stream I’ve designed in connection with the launch of our new English Curriculum.
‘Part 2: ROOT MAP’ will offer a more detailed sketch of the vocabulary map we will be working from, exploring ways to engage students with the importance of language and the art of how to use it.
1. FIND THE KEY
It took me four attempts to pass my driving test. I’d like to say it was the fault of the innocent-looking woman waiting at the zebra crossing, for showing no obvious signs she was about to step into the road as I zoomed past (at quite an impressive speed). Or I could blame that thoughtless trio of examiners I had for endeavouring to engage me in polite conversation during the journey, despite it being glaringly apparent I had a lot going on. But really, I knew.
It was only after the third walk of shame up the garden path back to my parents’ house where I was living at the time that I consciously took a moment to gather my thoughts and reflect. I realised where I’d been going wrong. It was not, in fact, those dreaded manoeuvres that were my downfall after all, but more my hazard perception in built up areas. If I’d had the sense to identify my specific weaknesses, noticing a pattern earlier on rather than seeing each test as just another ghastly event independent from the others, I’m sure I’d have cracked the code sooner.
How is this relevant?
Well, apart from offering you a rare opportunity to indulge in a moment of healthy schadenfreude, for me, the development of literacy is a bit like learning to drive. The challenges embedded within complex processes such as being able to recognise written letter combinations (graphemes) and being able to decode them, spell spoken sounds (phonemes) accurately – within both familiar and unfamilar vocabulary – and grasp the full meaning of a rich text at its various different layers can sometimes be a little overwhelming.
Gear in neutral, check. Start the engine, check. L foot on the clutch, check.
Gear into 1st, check. Position mirrors, check. Control the wheel, check.
R foot gently on the gas, check. Remove handbrake, check.
Final blindspot check. Turn the wheel, check.
L foot off the clutch, check.
Having felt quite secure in my knowledge of the English alphabetic code growing up, I never considered the possibility that I’d only been exposed to a minute proportion of the key principles underpinning our language. I could read, write and spell with ease but it was really not until I began teaching reading and vocabulary acquisition myself (primarily to younger students, then older ones with reading difficulties) that I became fully aware of our diverse and creative language.
In Art, we take time to appreciate intricate patterns. As Mathematicians, we make it our business to hunt for them. In Science, we continually look for patterns in results, consequently making crucial predictions based on these. So why on earth do we not naturally think to do this with our language – the single most important communication tool we rely on day in, day out?
A very real but healthy challenge secondary schools must acknowledge is the sheer scale of subject content covered across the different departments. Unlike primary education where a closer environment lends itself to more regular teacher collaboration, working in isolated departments is possibly one of our biggest obstacles in guaranteeing a holistic approach to learning. And yet, on the flipside, this very hurdle could be our greatest friend. Language spans across all curriculum subjects and, without wishing to be melodramatic, across every other aspect of life yet we fail to use it in its magnificent entirety. This ‘tool’ contains hundreds of patterns just waiting to be identified in order to help make our acquisition of language easier, be that in reading it, spelling it or understanding it.
2. KNOW YOUR ROOT
The oxford dictionaries website claims,
“…there are, at the very least, a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary, of which perhaps 20 per cent are no longer in current use. If distinct senses were counted, the total would probably approach three quarters of a million.”
Excellent. As a proud and ‘outed’ logophile, I rejoice in the knowledge of this. If the above estimate is true, that’s somewhere between 250,000-750,000 words floating around for us to explore. Wonderful. So how do we propose to teach them all?
Simply put, we don’t. That would be ridiculous.
I am confident, however, that we’re missing a trick (where ‘a trick’ means ‘a simply great way to teach vocabulary’). What we are in a position to do is employ strategies that offer the most time-effective, cognitively engaging methods to ensure words are taught and embedded in the long-term memory, drawing on research-based assessment methods to consolidate learning.
I am without doubt that language needs to be taught explicitly. While it is obviously pleasing to see students reading texts for their own enjoyment and, usually as a result they broaden their knowledge of vocabulary, this is not the only way to encourage language aquisition. It’s not the only way and it’s not the best way, either.
In his excellent book, ‘The Secret of Literacy’ (2014), David Didau suggests that, while ‘wide reading’ is fine, we are mistaken to believe that this is the best way to develop vocabulary. He explains,
“Written language is a far less effective medium for building vocabulary than spoken language.
Typically, pupils only learn between five and fifteen of every 100 new words encountered in
written texts.” (p173)
While engaging and helpful in the process, this kind of exposure to new words is never going to move mountains. Didau goes on to cite the great English teacher and education blogger, Joe Kirby, who suggests that we should be teaching root words as our default rather than isolated words divorced from others possessing the same root. “In that way, instead of just teaching one word, we’re potentially teaching hundreds of words.” (p174)
I suppose, in likening this aspect of literacy to maths, it would be comparable to teaching every single number independent from all the others, rather than teaching the decimal principle which relies on the use of hundreds, tens and units etc.
Language has a clear structure and as educators it is our responsibility to scaffold students’ learning by ensuring we provide the necessary foundation blocks for them to be able to continue building on this independently.
An understanding of what root words, prefixes and suffixes are is the first step to solid language development, in my opinion. Following that, a consistent, direct teaching which targets the most common roots in our language will undoubtedly give students greater freedom to explore vocabulary.
Take the root word ‘chron’. ‘Chron’ means ‘time’.
During one of my regular Sound Training sessions (a literacy programme we use and rate highly – designed to support both reading accuracy and knowledge of root words to aid learning), I was asked:
“Miss, so if ‘chron’ means time, why does my Dad say he gets ‘chronic’ back pain?”
I couldn’t answer this with any conviction as, until this moment of realisation, had always misunderstood the term to mean ‘severe’. On researching it’s etymology with the group of Year 9 students we learnt it actually means ‘continuing for a long time’.
I’ve also welcomed conversations with questions like this…
“Miss, so if ‘photosynthesis’ means […] does that mean ‘sis’ means
‘the process of’ like ‘tion’ does?”
To be able to explore such an intricately-woven tapestry like the English language, investigating roots and their meanings with students who clearly show an interest is the kind of precious learning time I relish.
I really do believe there are huge merits to teaching vocabulary in this way and, working in partnership with a great colleague of mine, Phil Stock, plan to pilot this approach from September with the launch of the new English Curriculum. (See his post on the broader new KS3 English curriculum here.)
Not only do root words have invaluable benefits on students’ comprehension of unfamiliar vocabulary, they also significantly aid spelling. Once the meaning and spelling of a single root has been learnt, by utilising the other essential ‘tools’ taught alongside roots (such as: counting the number of syllables in a word, learning both common and akward graphemes, having an awareness of confusing homophones & homographs etc.), it is anticipated that students will be able to spell with far greater confidence.
WREWTS MEEN VARY LITUL UNLESC YEW CANNES WREED AN RITE
I have no desire on the final leg of this marathon blog post to steer us in another direction but it would be ludicrous not to briefly mention another equally important aspect of literacy – the ability to decode isolated sounds (phonemes) and spell them accurately (graphemes). Within the vocabulary stream of our new English curriculum model, we intend to build in tried and tested methodologies to teach spelling and decoding in the mainstream classroom, alongside the comprehension aspect of roots.
phoneme = e.g. the sound you hear when you say ‘f’
graphemes = the written representations of the sound ‘f’ = fun, phone, cough, puff
grapheme = e.g. the written representation of the sound ‘ch’
phonemes = the different sounds you hear in the words: chips, chef, chorus
As a result of including this element in the model*, it is expected that students will benefit from having a greater handle on vocabulary and an increased confidence to use words more freely.
*Part 2 of this post will outline the model in greater detail.
(As an aside: I should say here that, while we are very eager to launch this model in September, we have no intention to reduce our intervention support for students who face barriers to reading. There will inevitably always be a need for support at Wave 1 (in class), Wave 2 (group support) and Wave 3 (1:1 tuition) for students who require further alternative support to help close the gap between them and their peers. For these students, we will continue to use the synthetic phonics-based programmes we currently use, such as: Read, Write Inc. Fresh start and Toe by Toe etc. We also intend to deliver Sound Training – a phonics and roots-based literacy programme – with each student in our new Year 7 cohort.)
3. PREPARE FOR OBSTACLES
One reason why this approach to teaching vocabulary may not have been so ardently pursued before could be due to the cocktail of possible misconceptions that lie within the model.
Take these words, for example:
Here, we have two very different words, though their beginnings are identical. It is quite common for students to mix up the roots ‘bi’ and ‘bio’, since it is not always clear to see where one morpheme (root) ends in a word and the next begins. The best way to tackle this is to ensure students are made fully aware, right from the onset, that there are likely to be confusions like this within some words. It is at the point of uncertainty as in the example shown above, that we would then use the learners’ knowledge of roots in combination with their understanding of the word in context to make an educated guess around its meaning. Once the context has been established, it is then possible to dissect the constructed word into what would simply revert back to its original collection of root meanings.
Other anticipated confusions include…
a) there can be more than one meaning for a root
b) there can be more than one root for a meaning
c) there can be words without any helpful clues
However, by disclosing these potential misconceptions with students at the beginning of the year, we hope to significantly reduce the potential margin of error surrounding what is, largely, a reliable and precious resource.
4. BROADEN YOUR HORIZONS
(Click on the image above to appreciate its comedic value.)
It is a small but worthwhile point to make that, when expecting students to use lexical jewels in their writing, we need to be mindful that some will have had greater opportunities and life experiences than others, giving some an inevitable advantage over their peers. Similarly, if students are not choosing to read challenging texts for pleasure at school or at home, they are inhibiting their chances of language development, thus reducing the likelihood that they will ever recreate the extravagant use of vocabulary we see in challenging texts within in their own writing. While this point may be partly out of our hands – unable to influence some home life factors contributing to this – we may be able to support students both within and around the classroom environment by helping them select ability-appropriate books (with a welcome level of demand) that they will enjoy.
5. TEST YOUR THEORY
As previously mentioned, Part 2 of this post will outline in greater detail the systematic approach we will adopt to teaching vocabulary from September 2014. Included in this post, there will be an outline of our proposed method of assessment, discussing the frequency of these and suggesting why formative assessments throughout the year are just as important as the direct teaching. Each term, students will have the opportunity to demonstrate their level of understanding through the use of short, regular, purposeful tests that will be used not only to assess understanding but to embed knowledge too.
6. GET YOUR LICENCE… and GO!
While I love words and am excited to drive this stream forward, I’m not naïve enough to think that through this approach, all teachers and students will magically become fellow logophiles too. What I do hope, however, is that through employing the best evidence-based teaching methods that support memory retention in the long-term, students will be able to look at language in a refreshed way, seizing opportunities to explore language deeply.
The vision is not only for students to benefit from what will hopefully be an improved confidence in reading, spelling and selecting vocabulary for their writing, but for them to develop a genuine enthusiasm for words too, recognising the incredible impact language can have across all areas of learning and life.
Part 2: ROOT MAP to follow soon…