- 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.
Tag: root words
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…