The Reading/Phonics debate

I wonder what people thought of the recent Channel 4 programmes featuring synthetic phonics as The Solution to reading difficulties?

There is certainly a great deal of evidence to indicate that it can be a most effective method of teaching the mechanics of reading.

 I am, however, perturbed by the implication that there is only one model of literacy acquisition. Most early years and SfL teachers take a pragmatic and eclectic view: ‘If they can’t learn the way we teach then we must teach the way children learn’.  Of course we need to give whatever system the school embraces a good attempt but at some point – and this will be different for every individual – we should explore alternative methods. The most important thing is to engage the learners, to motivate them, to work to their strengths and to ensure they see a reason for reading.

And this is the second area of concern for me about the promotion of synthetic phonics.There is a danger that the mechanics of decoding supercede the real purpose of reading: ‘if we can read, we can live as many lives and as many kinds of lives as we wish’.

 I was distressed to watch the ‘failures’ spend so much of their working day concentrating (or not) on the very areas that they find most difficult. Yes, Benjamin Zephaniah did a wonderful job of turning some of them on to poetry. But placing a disproportionate emphasis on phonic skills could detract from other (perhaps more successful) learning across the whole curriculum.

 There is remote possibility, for example, that I could grasp the concepts of nuclear fission or the off-side rule (or even African drumming thanks to the wonderful Barry Smith! Though that looks increasingly unlikely in this lifetime). But even if I had the inclination, aren’t there more useful and exciting and relevant and motivating things I could work on? At some point we have to make a decision about the most appropriate use of the limited time we have in school. There may be a case to be made to shift the balance of learning to more fruitful areas and enable our inexperienced readers to access knowledge and demonstrate understanding without the barrier of print.

I should be curious to hear what others think.

2 thoughts on “The Reading/Phonics debate

  1. In any other skill based on a human invention, the thought of skipping learning the mechanics of the skill–jumping into full emotional expression without the mechanics–would seem preposterous. No one would suggest that a violinist not be taught how to hold her violin properly or where to place her fingers in order to produce the desired note. No one would suggest not instructing her in how to read notes on a page–that is, sequentially from left to right and what each symbol represents and how to translate that into performance on the instrument.

    The written code is as much an invention of human imagination as the violin or as musical notation. Phonics is the required mechanics of reading instruction. Whether they are taught explicitly or not, it the knowledge and skill set necessary for fluent reading. Ask an adult to read an unusual word and what do they do–slow down and sound it out sequentially from left to right, assigning sounds to letters or groups of letters. Then they adjust till they have something that sounds reasonable.

    The concern for individual learning is important, however, in the case of phonics instruction, it is misdirected. It conflates content with method. The content of synthetic phonics instruction is straightforward: the letter and letter group association with sounds (the code), left to right, top to bottom reading of a page, blending the sounds all the way through the word and segmenting the sounds in a word for spelling. The methods can vary. Whether one teaches the skills and knowledge through games, one on one, as a whole class, using a number of activities and formats, using various types of verbal instruction, coaching and guidance, the same knowledge and skills are necessary. This can all be adjusted to fit the needs of the individual. It does not necessitate a change in the content. The writer states, “The most important thing is to engage the learners, to motivate them, to work to their strengths and to ensure they see a reason for reading.” This does not have to be done at the expense of quality content. No one would suggest that because a child is struggling with addition that they should skip learning it. Addition is the content. It has to be learned. Whether it is taught on the computer, or with games, it still has to be learned. The mechanics of reading are no different.

    The writer states, ” I was distressed to watch the ‘failures’ spend so much of their working day concentrating (or not) on the very areas that they find most difficult.” What else would a person do to get better at a skill? No one would suggest that a person learning the violin not practice placing fingers in the right spot, no matter how difficult.

    I am concerned that people write as though a wholesale usage of the principles of synthetic phonics has been tried and failed. The reality is that it never has. The principles of synthetic phonics are fundamentally different than much of what passes as phonics. It is based, not just on a few studies, but on the growing understanding of the neurological, psychological and linguistic components of reading.

    Alternative methods of approaching a word create a chokepoint for children–is this a word that is read as a whole, should I guess, or is this one of the million words I’ll need to decode all the way through to understand? For a child the easiest road is not the most efficient or the most effective. Guessing, and often guessing wrong, is what leads to frustration. Children know when they do not possess the skills expected of them. No amount of making it easier for them will help them feel better about themselves. What will help is explicit instruction and practice. They will never experience all the lives and dreams referred to by the writer through guessing at meaning. They will only get there through the effort of mastery and being able to explore the written word rather than a preconceived notion of what someone has written.

    Ask any virtuoso violin player–did they get to full expression of their music through skipping the mechanics or through intense practice of the basic skills? We should spend our energies giving each child the information and skills necessary to be virtuoso readers.

  2. I really enjoyed the Dispatches programmes and they caused a very healthy debate in our staffroom about different approaches to teaching reading and their merits. Whilst I have a generally positive experience of using synthetic phonics I still think it is essential to stress it is not the perfect approach for all readers. I would always use it as a starting point, but in my experience as a Support For Learning teacher I believe that there are some individuals who will not learn in this way however many times you go over and over it with them. This is not just my opinion but has been supported by other professionals (SALT, Educational Psychologist, Dyslexia Support Service teacher) working with the individuals I am thinking of. I think it is essential (particularly in the upper primary) to look at the whole child as a learner and work on strategies that will help the child to cope if phonics are not their strength.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.