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

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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.

HumphreyCobbler Tue 10-Jul-12 15:25:24

I just don't get the argument that a phonics check = only teaching phonics to children.

HumphreyCobbler Tue 10-Jul-12 15:27:22

I also think that a lot of the general public conflate the terms 'phonics' and 'phonetically'. This leads to the perception of phonic teaching meaning spelling words wrongly.

Mashabell Tue 10-Jul-12 15:38:18

Debates like this are futile, because they take no account of the nature of English spelling, which is only partly phonic.

If English spelling was phonic, children would learn the pronunciations of the following graphemes and would then be able to apply this knowledge to the decoding of all other English words and nobody would dream of using anything but phonics for the teaching of reading:
A, a-e, ay (cat; plate, play) air; ar (car); au, -aw (sauce, saw);
b (bed);
C, ck, k (c/at/ot/ut, crab/ clap, kite/kept, comic, pick, pocket, seek, risk)
Ch, -tch (chat, catch); d (dog);
E (end); ee, --y (eel, funny), er (herb),
F, G, H (fish, garden, house);
I, i-e, -y (ink, bite, by);
J, -dge, -ge (jug, bridge, oblige); L, M, N, ng (lips, man, nose, ring)
O, wa, qua, (pot, want, quarrel), O-e, -o, ol (bone, so; old),
Oi, -oy (coin, toy), Oo (food, good),
Or, -ore, war, quar (order, more, wart, quarter),
Ou, -ow (out, now); P, Qu, R (pin, quick, run),
S, -ce, -cy (sun, face, emergency);
Sh, -tion, -tious, -cial, -cian (shop, station, cautious, facial, musician),
T, -te (tap, delicate), Th (this thing),
U, u-e, -ue (up, cube, cue)
V, -ve, -v- (van, have, river – no doubling),
W, -x, Y (window, fix, yes);
Z, -se (zip, wise),
-si-, -su- (vision, treasure)
+ 8 endings: doable, fatal, single, ordinary, flatten, presence, present, other
and 2 prefixes: decide, invite:
and the consonant doubling rule (bitter - biter)

Those basic graphemes above are frequently disobeyed for spelling (fun photo). Because 69 of them have different pronunciations too, phonics is an essential but not exclusive way of learning to read. Children need to practise word recognition as well:
a: and – apron, any, father
a-e: came – camel
ai: wait – said, plait
al: always – algebra
-all: tall - shall
are: care - are
au: autumn - laugh, mauve
-ate: to deliberate - a deliberate act
ay: stays - says

cc: success - soccer
ce: centre - celtic
ch: chop –chorus, choir, chute
cqu: acquire - lacquer 19

e: end – English
-e: he - the
ea: mean - meant, break
ear: ear – early, heart, bear
-ee: tree - matinee
e-e: even – seven, fete
ei: veil - ceiling, eider, their, leisure
eigh: weight - height
eo: people - leopard, leotard
ere: here – there, were
-et: tablet - chalet
eau: beauty – beau
- ew: few - sew
- ey: they - monkey

ge: gem - get
gi: ginger - girl
gy: gym – gynaecologist
ho: house - hour
i: wind – wind down ski hi-fi
- ine: define –engine, machine
ie: field - friend, sieve
imb: limb – climb
ign: signature - sign
mn: amnesia - mnemonic

ost: lost - post
-o: go - do
oa: road - broad
o-e: bone – done, gone
-oes: toes – does, shoes
-oll: roll - doll
omb: tombola - bomb, comb, tomb
oo: boot - foot, brooch
-ot: despot - depot
ou: sound - soup, couple
ough: bough - rough, through, trough, though
ought: bought - drought
oul: should - shoulder, mould
our: sour - four, journey
ow: how - low

qu: queen – bouquet
s: sun – sure
sc: scent - luscious, molusc
-se: rose - dose
ss: possible - possession
th: this - thing
-ture: picture - mature
u: cup – push
ui: build – fruit, ruin
wa: was – wag
wh: what - who
wo: won - woman, women, womb
wor: word – worn
x: box - xylophone, anxious
- y-: type - typical
- -y: daddy - apply
z: zip – azure

The above inconsistencies make learning to read and write English exceptionally difficult. With any difficult skill, there tends to be a higher failure rate than with an easier one. That is why all English-speaking countries have higher literacy failure rates than comparable ones with better spelling systems.

Until this is more widely understood, we will continue to have futile debates about how best to teach children to read and write.

The information I have posted above is head-spinning, but that is what children have to cope with, why learning to read and write English proficiently takes a very long and why many children never manage it.

Bonsoir Tue 10-Jul-12 15:47:38

I read each point of view (it is not a "debate"). Frankly, neither Nick Gibb nor Michael Rosen have grasped what phonics is, so their respective points of view are pretty hard to adhere to!

I am a great proponent of phonics, when properly understood and used, for all children as part of the initial teaching of literacy.

GoodPhariseeofDerby Tue 10-Jul-12 16:02:47

Mashabell, you do have a good point. I think it would be better if the debate were framed how to begin teaching reading to give a foundation rather than 'the best way to teach kids to read'. Right now, the discussion is framed in what is done in R-Y1, maybe into Y2, but really getting reading firmly and confidently for most children is going to take longer than that and is going to go beyond just learning phonics or whatever. It takes a lot of practise and the discussion should be how to build a framework throughout the years in education but the debate in public (I know it goes beyond with people actually teaching) is what do we do in Reception to teach kids to read and write. It's often ignored how much beyond that needs to be done to get to a good level, that there is more to reading and writing than phonics v whole word. Let alone discussing that there will be a failure rate in these skills and how to help those people.

misdee Tue 10-Jul-12 16:20:38

I have 6 children, 3 of whom are at reading ages and above my eldest struggles with phonics. She learns by sight, figuring out what's going on by the words before and after tc.

2 learnt well wih phonics.

I have 3 younger ones, will be interesting to see how they learn.

TheSmallPrint Tue 10-Jul-12 16:48:34

I agree with Michael Rosen, my DS1 is a fabulous reader and at age 7 had a reading age of 12.5 and loves reading for pleasure, but he was not a fan of phonics and was very much a sight reader or read by recognition. My DS2 is not the same and is learning by phonics and seems happy with it. I think if DS1 had not learnt to read pre school and had been forced the phonics only route he would not be the same confident reader he is today.

Vagaceratops Tue 10-Jul-12 17:05:43

I feel like I fall somewhere in the middle of the two camps.

DS1 learnt to read by sight recognition, as I did at school. He didnt like phonics.

DD loves Jolly phonics and is starting to decode. She breaks words down phonetically.

I suppose its what works best for the child. In Maths they teach several ways of doing addition/subtraction etc. Why is it not the same for reading?

rabbitstew Tue 10-Jul-12 17:06:49

Did your ds1 like flash cards and coming home with word lists to memorise, then, TheSmallPrint? Or do you mean he was never the sort of child who needed to be taught how to read? And what was his spelling like when he was younger?

MerryMarigold Tue 10-Jul-12 17:07:05

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

You can certainly read a book without being able to decode at a 32/40 phonics past rate. You can use other methods - recognition, context, first letter etc. The debate is whether these methods have are any use or not. The problem with relying SOLELY on phonics is that some kids don't get to read books fluently for ages. My ds1 is one of them. He had a year without reading a book, not 1, in Reception because he hadn't got past quite complex sentences. Methods been amended this year - phonics plus other things - and he is reading! At last!

Sittinginthesun Tue 10-Jul-12 17:10:52

I can only go with my own experience. I was a 70's child who was reading before starting school, entirely through "look and say". At 5 years, I had a reading age of 9 years, in the back of my old school dictionary (a present on my 7th Birthday), I have my attempts at writing the word "snow" - I tried;


etc etc. Not a clue! I now have a good law degree from a Russell Group Uni, and am pretty literate, but cannot spell, and struggle to read words which I do not see regularly. My reading age is probably still around 11 years!

My youngest (Reception) is learning through the current scheme. I just asked him how to spell "snow". He said ""S" "N" "O", and I think the "O" is an "O" and a "W".

I will soon be getting him to proof read my posts.

He also has a love of books, not just school reading schemes, and the whole business has been pretty pain free.

kesstrel Tue 10-Jul-12 17:14:51

Here's a quote from Michael Rosen that illustrates the ideology underlying his position on phonics:

"The teaching of phonics comes loaded with a set of notions about children's consciousness and agency. If you've watched Ruth Miskin at work, you'll see that her phonics teaching is wrapped up in ideas around conditioning and control. Underlying this is the old theory of behaviourism, that children operate on a stimulus-response basis. Now people might agree or disagree with the notion but it's hardly non-political."

In the same paragraph he refers to this as a "master-servant model of learning".

Personally, I think this is a pretty biazrre over-reaction to the idea of spending half an hour a day teaching little kids phonics and maybe another half hour practicing it. I can't help but feel he is letting his politics distort his ideas about the importance of teaching all children to read.

MerryMarigold Tue 10-Jul-12 17:18:05

kesstrel, that's interesting. Ds1 really didn't get on with Ruth Miskin, but he has often been described as a 'free spirit'. Not because he can't behave, but because he is very creative/ imaginative and thinks out of the box. Makes sense that he didn't connect with RWI!

EdithWeston Tue 10-Jul-12 17:21:21

mashabell: all spelling is phonic. No spelling is phonetic. The grapheme/phoneme correspondences in English do take a lot of learning as there are plural options.

Your long list is a good advert for sound phonics teach, which is how children learn to crack that code.

The point on what is meant by "to read" in the thread title is a good one. If you mean "ability to decode print" then it's a total no-brainer as the centuries old phonic approach produces better readers faster.

If you are looking at wider literacy which develops alongside phonics and can positivel leap ahead once the phonic foundations are secure, then the question changes.

There is actually no need to polarise this debate, or set up the straw man of boring phonics lessons. There is plenty of space in the timetable for phonics to teach children to process the written word independently, and wider literacy activities. Incompetent teachers should be dealt with - whether their incompetency is in decoding, maths, spelling, PSHE or any other part of the curriculum - and schools or individual teachers who cannot teach phonics effectively as the key foundation skill which underpins literacy do need to do better.

The 20% or so underperforming children of the 'look and say' and mixed methods era is a scandal, and the sooner firmly behind us the better.

maizieD Tue 10-Jul-12 17:34:12

There are countries all over the world where children are taught to read with phonics as a matter of course and no-one would dream of questioning this or having long debates about 'phonics' and 'other methods'. Nor would they use the phrase 'one size fits all' in a derogatory manner. As far as they are concerned one size does fit all, very nicely thank you. There are a few children who struggle, even with transparent orthographies, but it is notable that, for example, German 'dyslexics' are characterised by lack of fluency, not by their inability to read words.

A key feature of the Whole Word v Phonics debate is the impressive use of rhetoric on the part of the Whole Worders. Phonics is dismissed as boring, reactionary, right wing, anti-creative, replete with stultifying 'drill and kill', limiting the imagination and turning reading into a mere mechanical process. Phonics taught children 'bark at print and cannot read for meaning. In fact the images they create can be neatly summed up in the Sellars & Yeatman portrayal of Cavaliers (Whole Word), Wrong but Romantic, against the Roundheads (Phonics), Right but Repulsive.

Unfortunately rhetoric is all they have to support their case because they have absolutely no concrete evidence that their 'method' is in any way successful. They set themselves firmly against objective evaluation of children taught by their methods with more rhetoric, 'You don't fatten a pig by measuring it', 'It is more important that children 'love books' and think of themselves as 'readers' (never mind the fact that they can't read a bl**dy word). Testing is unfair because it doesn't take into account the feelings and emotions of the subjects. Never mind the quality, feel the width (no, sorry, I said thatwink ).

Whole Language rhetoric permeates the education world and the world at large because that is what has been fed to teachers and the general public for several decades now. It can be found in the rantings of Michael Rosen, in the conclusions of teachers whose 'good readers' have failed to reach the standard in the Phonics Check; 'I know they can read for meaning so why should I worry that they don't know how to read unfamiliar words or try to turn unfamiliar words into familiar ones?' It can be found in Masha's belief that children have to learn 'sight words' and that English orthography is too complex to learn.

Unfortunately the rhetoric is threadbare. Reading researchers (proper ones doing good, quantative research) have been showing for as many decades that skilled readers use letter/sound knowledge and decoding and blending as their prime method of identifying the words on the page; that more phonics taught children learn to read effectively than their Whole Word taught peers. In the world of cognitive psychologists and neuroscientists there is very little disagreement with the proposition that phonics is the most effective method we know of at present for the teaching of reading. They at have the same time demolished the concept of reading as a 'psycholinguistic guessing game' and they have done it by rigorously investigating the the way skilled readers process the wordas on the page.

Historians of writing have demonstrated very clearly that our alphabetic writing system has been developed by the representation of the phonemes in a word by a letter or group of letters. To think that reading can be taught with minimal reference to this key feature of our written language is sheer lunacy.

BlueberryPancake Tue 10-Jul-12 17:53:23

smile I have just asked my 5 year old, a big fan of phonics, to spell the word snow. S-N-O-W! He did it!!!

I think that our school uses more than one method but focuses mostly on phonics. The children learn to tell stories by looking at the images first, sequencing the stories, and the event, and they try to tell the story as they understand it. Then they learn the basic phonics, practice at school through play, and they also learn some words by sight (some of the high frequency words); and they progressively move on to 'guessing' words that they can't decode. It's not used in isolation, and in my experience with my two boys who are 5 and 6, has worked very, very well. They can 'decode' more complex words such as 'organising' and 'exceptional'. They try to sound it phonetically and fill in the blanks. What I don't understand about Michael Rosen is that he says phonics spoils the enjoyment of books - that doesn't make sense to me. Reading will always be challenging at the beginning, when a child is learning, whatever method is used. Unless you teach them to read single words, by sight, over a long period of time, which is also a controversial method.

Inneedofbrandy Tue 10-Jul-12 18:11:19

My daughter failed the phonics test by 1. She is top of everything and reads extremely well, just not the phonics way due to her pronunciation.

Why cant they just let teachers get on with their jobs teaching and find the right learning way for every child.

maizieD Tue 10-Jul-12 18:16:03

and they progressively move on to 'guessing' words that they can't decode.

Oh dear sad

Why on earth should guessing be taught as a valid strategy?

Abitwobblynow Tue 10-Jul-12 18:19:08

How about leaving teachers alone to do their jobs? Some children learn by phonics, some by word and picture recognition, most probably by a mixture of all techniques.

The best thing parents can do, is incorporate a bed time story every night as part of the routine, read with their kids, and if you have time, volunteer at your local primary school to read with the kids.

mrz Tue 10-Jul-12 18:25:02

Inneedofbrandy your daughter wouldn't fail the phonics test due to her pronunciation.

Abitwobblynow no one learns to read effectively by picture recognition (guessing) and word recognition is extremely limiting

learnandsay Tue 10-Jul-12 18:28:28

phonics has guessing how to pronounce unfamiliar words at its heart.

mrz Tue 10-Jul-12 18:31:54

learnandsay you can repeat it as many times as you want but it is still untrue.

LeeCoakley Tue 10-Jul-12 18:35:51

Those people who learnt to read using look and say methods, do you remember how you learnt to spell?

Systematic phonics enables children to write independently very early on because they understand how to segment words for spelling instead of having to ask because they can't visualise the word they want.

MarysBeard Tue 10-Jul-12 18:46:12

My parents didn't actively teach me to read, I just picked it up from them reading books to me. I remember reading out a newspaper headline to someone when I was three. DD1 didn't pick up reading quite so early, though we always read to her and she knew her alphabet, letter sounds and how to read and write her name before starting school (which I didn't actually), though she whizzed through phonics and was reading within a matter of weeks of starting school.

Spelling seemed to come later though with the phonics system, that was the only thing that concerned me about it. I could always spell really well as I think I just memorised the words as they were on the page - I could literally see the word as if written down in a book in my head.

HumphreyCobbler Tue 10-Jul-12 18:58:32

maizieD Thank you for your eloquent, articulate statement. I agreed with every word.

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