Is phonics the best way to teach kids to read? Nick Gibb and Michael Rosen debate

(1000 Posts)
ElenMumsnetBloggers (MNHQ) Tue 10-Jul-12 12:38:12

Last month all year one children in England had to take a phonics screening check, and phonics is being rolled out across the country as the way to teach children to read. But is this too prescriptive? We asked children's author Michael Rosen and Education Minister Nick Gibb to debate phonics. Read their debate about phonics as a tool for children to learn to read here and have your say. Do you agree with Nick Gibb or Michael Rosen? Is phonics the most effective way to teach children to read? Should we use several ways of teaching reading, or concentrate on phonics? Join the debate.

BarryShitpeas Tue 10-Jul-12 12:39:30

oooh marking place.

Feenie Tue 10-Jul-12 12:39:56

I can't. I have read lots if Michael Rosen's views on the subject, and he just make me cross.

Have gone right off him.

littleducks Tue 10-Jul-12 12:50:33

Hmm, whilst I really like Michael Rosen as an author and his section is a far more interesting and lively read than Nick Gibb's bit, I really dont agree with his points.

DD learnt how to read using phonics, at the very early stages I would endeavor to provide books that were designed to read using phonic knowledge, so easily decoded. After age 5 (the end of reception) this was no longer required, she is now able to read any 'normal' books and asks if she struggles on a word. Throughout that time I also read to her, so I really think she didn't miss out. If she had learnt using another method she would also have been restricted at the earliest stage to books containing words she knew etc. That is the point of reading schemes, you need easy books for early readers, they can then progress on to children's literature.

I'm not sure if I agree with the phonics test, dd took it and enjoyed it. I havent had the results yet.

learnandsay Tue 10-Jul-12 12:50:53

Michael Rosen seems spot on to me. He's saying that he's not against phonics, just that decoding and reading, (what he calls reading for meaning,) (that's redundant because all reading is for meaning, but anyway,) aren't the same thing and that attention should be paid to both. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

rabbitstew Tue 10-Jul-12 13:17:50

The problem with Michael Rosen's argument is that he claims that some schools have forgotten to teach reading for meaning and trying to make reading something that is viewed as pleasurable - but he produces no evidence whatsoever that this is happening. Which schools have forgotten to ensure children are reading for meaning and enjoying a variety of texts? Are these the same ones which were producing a huge proportion of children who couldn't read by the end of year 6 and who didn't enjoy reading, for meaning or any other reason (ie very bad schools) or are new schools suddenly popping up which have forgotten how to teach anything other than decoding????? It seems like a crass and silly argument to argue against something if it hasn't actually had the effect he appears to fear on schools which weren't already failing their children.

ATOmum Tue 10-Jul-12 14:05:17

I am concerned about this change in approach - because I think any 'one size fits all' approach to something as fundamental as reading, is going to leave some kids behind, and I don't think any child should have to be.
From my point of view, my eldest read fluently at 3, because he really wanted to, and I found that at that age phonics didn't make a lot of sense to him, and actually 'look and say' which is how I learnt, worked much better. Developmentally, at that age, children are looking to make connections and rules, so with 'look and say' they develop their own internal system of how language works and the sounds that letters make in particular contexts. At 6, he now has a reading age of over 10, but because he has an intuitive understanding of language rather than one learnt through phonetics it's likely that he'll not do particularly well on the phonics screening tests (quite frankly, when the teacher showed them to me, I don't think I would either!).
The difficulty with this system is that English isn't an entirely phonetic language, so focussing exclusively on phonetics and not using a variety of methods seems innately problematic. I also fear that it may leave behind those that do well with the current system. The research Nick Gibb quotes said focussing on phonetics was particularly helpful for those that were struggling, but what about those that weren't? Does it really solve the problem if it's just different children struggling?
As an aside, the research he quotes is from the US, which is actually a more phonetic language than UK English is, both in some of the spelling differences and the pronounciation. I remember once having to learn an American accent and being amazed at how many more letters you had to pronounce!
I understand the desire in any education system to simplify and use a 'one size fits all' approach to teaching, but actually different children learn different ways and surely the system should support teachers in finding the best way for each individual child to learn, rather than dictating that they all have to learn one way? Surely reading's too important not to give every kid the best chance they can at it, not just the kids that happen to suit the method of learning currently in government favour.

nickelbarapasaurus Tue 10-Jul-12 14:12:27

i agree with Michael.

i didn't learn to read by phonics, i learnt to read by word recognition and context.

i learnt phonics later when i was reading much harder stuff (by coincidence, not by actually setting out to learn it).

still don't quite understand the whole alphabet as phonic sounds.

My special skill is reading. It always has been. I can't do anything else to any decent standard. Reading is my talent.

nickelbarapasaurus Tue 10-Jul-12 14:13:26

rabbitstew - two words "Biff" and "Chip" add "Kipper for 3, if you like.

you can't tell me that that series of books is encouraging reading for pleasure!

FallenCaryatid Tue 10-Jul-12 14:21:32

This Nick Gibb?

'Just days after being appointed as Minister for Schools in 2010, Gibb was criticised after leaked information suggested he had told officials at the Department of Education that he "would rather have a physics graduate from Oxbridge without a PGCE teaching in a school than a physics graduate from one of the rubbish universities with a PGCE'

So he doesn't think teachers know what they are doing anyway, and he has a background in law and accountancy. Just the sort of expert I love to listen to.
Synthetic phonics good, building in other strategies also good, treating each child as an individual and adapting methods where necessary in order to enable progress even better.
Learning to read for enjoyment is essential, otherwise the child will not practise or use the skills they have been taught independently and they will remain poor readers.

EdithWeston Tue 10-Jul-12 14:22:07

Marking place.

Are you going to steer them towards the current (and many previous) phonics threads, so they have seen what is already underway before they wade in?

Is there any particular reason why you have not included with these two a someone who actually teaches children to read and has current first hand experience of what happened in a classroom. For I hope this will do more than make (baseless) comments about fostering the love of reading as if this were incompatible with phonics (it's not) or isn't happening in classrooms across the land (it is).

kesstrel Tue 10-Jul-12 14:25:08

"actually different children learn different ways and surely the system should support teachers in finding the best way for each individual child to learn, rather than dictating that they all have to learn one way? Surely reading's too important not to give every kid the best chance they can at it, not just the kids that happen to suit the method of learning currently in government favour"

But the problem is that individual teachers rarely spend more than one year with any child, so how can they know what method is best for a particular child in the long term? We know from remedial reading teachers that the illiterate older children they try to help are still trying to "guess from the picture clue" and identify words as wholes. We also know that some children who seem to be fluent "look and say" readers early on when the texts are simple and predictable run into serious trouble later when they hit the limits of their memories for whole words.

On the other hand, we do know that when children are taught well with modern phonics programmes in the first years at school, without "other strategies", 95% plus of children learn to read. That's why not only "the government of the day" but the previous government have concluded that the sp method is the best for getting all children to read.

FallenCaryatid Tue 10-Jul-12 14:29:33

'But the problem is that individual teachers rarely spend more than one year with any child, so how can they know what method is best for a particular child in the long term?'

Believe it or not, we track all our children, record interventions and methods that have been tried and how successful they have been. We have an extended hand over to the next teacher with written formal and informal records and verbal observations as well.
Teachers just don't start cold at the beginning of each year thinking 'Ohhh what shall I do?'

rabbitstew Tue 10-Jul-12 14:36:05

Biff, Chip and Kipper are not phonics reading books... which kind of proves my point that bad schools teach badly by whatever method they use.

Rosen's argument hinges on phonics not being enjoyable as well on if something isn't enjoyable and meaningful to start with it won't be so later. Both are nonsense.

There are good, fun phonics systems (my DS1 quite enjoyed piper books - he could read a full book on the first day due to their system), it can be taught in an enjoyable way even with dry material like Phonics Pathways (which is just sounds and syllables practice). Even when teaching phonics, and before, one can give the joy of reading by reading aloud and modelling reading (children are more likely to read for pleasure if they see the people they admire doing it regardless of teaching method).

People get more pleasure out of things they are good at doing. Many find the beginnings of learning any new thing frustrating and dull. Once the tools and skilled are mastered, things can be enjoyed more freely. Good phonics training gives children the tools and skills to do that. Once past the frustration of turning the squiggles into sounds then we focus on turning sounds into meaning without working about the mechanics of it.

Greythorne Tue 10-Jul-12 14:54:58

Biff, Chip and Kipper books are whole word recognition! Not a phonics scheme. And yes, they are grim.

kesstrel Tue 10-Jul-12 14:55:40

Caryatid, I am sure good schools do that, (although not sure how many schools use proper tests of reading fluency and accuracy, plus spelling accuracy in Year 6 to measure outcomes accurately). But clearly a lot of schools do not, or we wouldn't have 20% of our children coming out of Year 6 functionally illiterate. Also, I think we have to be wary of how many children have been mis-labelled dyslexic when they would have been fine if they had been taught with phonics-only (plus of course lots of stories, thymes, books read-aloud etc) from the start.

Hulababy Tue 10-Jul-12 15:02:58

Some ORT books are phonics based.

And phonics isn't just about reading - it is also for spelling later.

My DD did learn to read initially through look and say - I know that now but didn't really pick up on it being a problem at the time. Sadly look and say only gets you so far esp once writing and spelling comes into things, and words become far more complex and stories much longer, and where more non fiction comes into play. If a child also subconsciously picks up on the rules as they go along that is great - but many don't.

A good grounding in phonics is, imo, essential for all children for both reading and writing. Once that grounding is gained it will make a huge difference for almost all children.

But then ime most schools do not prevent children from using many methods to help with reading - context, comprehension, etc all occur in schools ime too - just more focus goes on phonics daily.

nickelbarapasaurus Tue 10-Jul-12 15:03:12

I don't know what type of books biff and chip are - they're crap and boring and have no place in teaching children to read for fun.

That comment on them wasn't supposed to be a reflection on phonics, it was a reflection on teaching reading.

the WRI phonics books are no better, though.

I do like the usborne phonics books (thankfully now back in print!)

FallenCaryatid Tue 10-Jul-12 15:04:19

How much has been crammed into the primary curriculum by successive governments, way beyond the aims of literate, numerate and socialised?
Limited time and shallow exploration of what is possible.
For a period of time in my career, just after the Literacy hour was introduced it seemed as if studying books themselves were going to be replaced by a series of extracts, often in poster format. Anyone else remember Letts? Or 100 Literacy lessons for the terminally confused?

kesstrel Tue 10-Jul-12 15:04:49

Michael Rosen has been trying to discredit synthetic phonics for a long time, by trying to associate it with the idea that it denies children access to real books. He has always supported the "whole language" movement with its ideas of "reading as a psychological guessing game" as Ken Goodman, one of the founders of the movement put it, which claimed that learning to read was natural in the same way that learning to speak is (an idea that has not been comprehensively disproven). Whole language has never been against phonics as such, only against teaching it in a systematic way, because its advocates held that children need to "discover" phonics principles for themselves. Quite how he thinks teachers should decide which children need to actually be taught, and which can be relied on to "discover" for themselves, I don't know.

FallenCaryatid Tue 10-Jul-12 15:05:04

I like SP, not arguing against that.

HumphreyCobbler Tue 10-Jul-12 15:08:44

I have never come across a school that uses only phonics in the teaching of reading.

I have come across many schools that teach phonics really badly, thus missing out a vital part of learning to read.

The phonics check does JUST that. Checks phonic knowledge. If a school does not teach phonics properly, or children do not know their phonics properly the teachers need to be aware of it in order to fix it.

This does not mean that the other aspects of reading for meaning and enjoyment are not also taught.

kesstrel Tue 10-Jul-12 15:09:20

Oh, Caryatid, I agree with you about the primary curriculum! It's just ridiculous, especially for the younger children. I dislike this government immensely, but I think they are right about slimming down the mandatory curriculum, and I hope they succeed.

I think we need to remember though that the Literacy Hour was introduced out of government concern over poor literacy levels. I believe they wanted to introduce synthetic phonics then, but there was too much resistance from the education establishment in teacher-training colleges, the education department, and the LEAs.

mummy678 Tue 10-Jul-12 15:21:22

Teaching of reading has fashions. When I was a child it was all phonics. Then in the 70s and 80s Look and Say took off and some other wacky schemes.
Now it's come full circle.

Synthetic phonics is the best way for all children.

The argument that phoincs takes away the pleasure of reading is spurious. If you cannot access the books because you cannot decode- what pleasure is there anyway?

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