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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.

mathanxiety Thu 12-Jul-12 23:07:15

'The only worrying thing in this country which should be addressed is the number of parents don't read to their children or buy them books.'

I agree and I think for those children the benefits of even SP will be short lived.

MerryMarigold, there is also the paragraph showing that people can read fluently even if letters within a word are jumbled, as long as the first and last letters are in the right place:

'I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.'
(There was no study -- the paragraph was just a thing that started floating around the internet)

maizieD Thu 12-Jul-12 23:10:44

The reality is that most children arrive at reading through mixed methods even if their schools do nothing but SP.

They may do in the alternative universe you live in, math, but in the world in which mrz and feenie and all the other teachers on here, and on the TES forums, live most children arrive at school being able to recognise their name, if they're lucky.

I asked the question on TES a few years ago:

community.tes.co.uk/forums/t/315203.aspx?PageIndex=1

You could try it again.

mathanxiety Thu 12-Jul-12 23:13:09

What MerryMarigold described is also known as reading Hebrew.

maizieD Thu 12-Jul-12 23:16:36

BINGO!. I wondered when that 'Cambridge Research' would surface.

These 'debates' are so predictable that I now have a Full House of mantras and claim my mystery prize! (only if it is a copy of Frank Smith's seminal work 'Understanding Reading', from which a great deal of the idiocyrhetoric emanates, don't bother. I've already got it)

mathanxiety Thu 12-Jul-12 23:17:26

Alternative universe? I would say that about 80% of children live there with me. They are the ones who will learn to read using whatever method is preferred by their teachers, and they will be supported in their efforts by parents.

lorisparkle Thu 12-Jul-12 23:20:47

I am very much with you Vickisuli. If English was a purely phonetic written language then teaching it purely phonetically would make sense. Unfortunately there are 44 sounds in the English language and 26 letters and even more unfortunately our words have been taken from many different languages over the years so some of the letter combinations can mean many different sounds.

Phonics is a great way to get the majority of children to start to read however my problem is when they are sent home with exceptionally phonic based books which don't follow the normal story language that you would expect. In fact I am confident in using phonics to read but found even my tongue was getting twisted in knots trying to read some of the books my DS has had.

History has shown us that becoming obsessed with one method of learning to read ie 'look and say' or 'real books' does not help every child to become a reader. It is as if someone tells a pentathlete that hey only need to focus on the swimming.

One of the most powerful ways we read new words is 'onset and rime'. Once you can read ball you can read call, hall, tall, fall, etc For that skill you need to know phonics, sight words and the generalisation that often words that end the same rhyme. You also have to know that this is not always the case and the words has to make sense in the context you are reading it.

rabbitstew Thu 12-Jul-12 23:21:24

People can't read the sentences if the words are jumbled, but it slows them down no end, because they have to rearrange all the letters in their head, first and they are particularly slowed down by certain letter combinations which make a particular sound that is not found in the unjumbled word - eg it took me longer to work out aulaclty because my mind was slowed down by the au resulting in my initially looking for a word with that sound in it, not the word actually. So I am scanning for phonic sounds and if my eyes see them in the wrong place it does send me off on the wrong scent when some idiot has put them in the wrong place.

OscarandLulu Thu 12-Jul-12 23:27:40

This is a very interesting thread, and I'm by no means sufficiently informed to keep up with some of the technicalities, but I do intuitively agree with Vicksullis post above, that a love of books and a desire to learn has to come from a culture of reading in the home, and as we as a society choose from an increasing variety of entertainment sources in the home, reading and books is obviously becoming less of a priority for some households, and receives less mindshare in all homes than it once did. I am sure that this in turn can be linked through research to current literacy rates, as can a cultural relationship with education in developed nations.

My uncle is a retired primary headteacher who spent the first couple of years of his retirement setting up education training programmes in Pakistan, until the security risk became too great for him to remain. All very noble, but his key observation was the difference in cultural attitudes to education, children with nothing, schools that were little more than a corrigated shack, have a far greater aspiration for literacy and numeracy than their counterparts (same age) in the UK.

I suspect that both arguments put fwd are in fact right, I'm nervous about any suggestion of there being only one best way, because it most certainly will exclude someone and no-one deserves to be excluded from the delights of literacy, especially not at such a young age. I am however very cautious about the mechanism of testing at such a young age, many parents will not have the time to fully understand why their child is being tested like this and what the meaning of this is, likewise testing creates behaviours in teachers that focus too much on outcomes rather than the methodology and art of inspiring children to learn. The issues we have with over analysing the examination process in our society are at the root cause of children's failure to learn. Today bright children with great GCSE results forget what they have learned when it comes to applying it in the workplace, why? because they learned it to pass an exam and not as a process of learning, understanding and applying knowledge.

I don't see the universally applied phonics approach as a bad idea (as long as children are still exposed to lots of other reading/words based sources of learning too) but I suspect that testing it could prove to be catastrophic for some children and not only the under performers but the brighter students as well.

rabbitstew Thu 12-Jul-12 23:28:36

When you teach children something, is it normal to teach them a bit of everything at once?

rabbitstew Thu 12-Jul-12 23:32:03

Isn't there a difference between exposure, experience and formal teaching?

nymac Thu 12-Jul-12 23:36:46

I'm sorry mrz, I thought I was referring to the early stages of reading where cloze procedure and rhyme is an accepted method and illustrations would be a help to the child.
Hickory Dickory Dock
Eg." The xxxxx ran up the xxxxx" Picture of furry character running up a big time piece.
You don't need to decode 'mouse' or 'clock'

MM. I am not suggesting that phonics are redundant, just that they should not be exclusive, like reading wearing blinkers.

learnandsay Thu 12-Jul-12 23:38:38

I don't think that there's any need to teach them everything at once. I wasn't taught any applied maths in primary school.

There may be differences in many things. But it's likely that you can ask questions about what you've experienced. This is one of the reasons why I was unsettled by the accounts of a Reception child who had had maths tutoring and was unable to discuss his lessons in class. Provision should be made for such children, otherwise what is the point of a school?

rabbitstew Thu 12-Jul-12 23:42:45

Isn't giving a child maths tutoring sending a very clear statement that you have already questioned the point of the school?

lorisparkle Thu 12-Jul-12 23:47:24

You could think of it as learning to drive a car. At first you would learn some of the key skills in a very 'safe' environment so you would not come across things you hadn't learnt yet but eventually you are in the real world and if you come across something you have not learnt then your instructor helps you by explaining, demonstrating or taking over completely. Similarly you might start to read by learning the most common phonics and then having simple books with only words that can be spelt with those phonics. The problem is that if you only have simple regular phonic words you have very unnatural reading material. You have to learn words that are not spelt using common phonetic patterns quite quickly or have a supportive reading partner who will tell you what that words says or use the phonic skills you do have and the context of the sentence to read it. Phonics makes up the backbone of reading and learning increasingly complex phonetic patterns is important but I do not think that you should restrict the words that children come across in reading books to those that they can read using the phonic rules they know.

learnandsay Thu 12-Jul-12 23:47:51

Maybe, but not in this case. The child had some clear difficulties, and responded beautifully to the tutoring, and perhaps less well to some aspects of the school.

OscarandLulu Thu 12-Jul-12 23:54:40

So what about the testing, what do all you teachers out there think about that, what will be the impact/outcome of that on individual children?

maizieD Fri 13-Jul-12 00:01:19

I'm sorry mrz, I thought I was referring to the early stages of reading where cloze procedure and rhyme is an accepted method and illustrations would be a help to the child.
^Hickory Dickory Dock
Eg." The xxxxx ran up the xxxxx" Picture of furry character running up a big time piece.^
You don't need to decode 'mouse' or 'clock'

And you don't learn to read the words 'mouse' and 'clock' either. Neither of which are difficult to sound out and blend...

LEARNING TO READ THE WORDS ON THE PAGE: THE CRUCIAL ROLE OF EARLY PHONICS TEACHING.
(Professor Morag Stuart. PhD; Professor of the Psychology of Reading.)

Jackie Masterson, Maureen Dixon and I carried out a training experiment (Stuart,Masterson & Dixon, 2000) to see how easy it was for five-year-old beginning readers to store new words in sight vocabulary from repeated shared reading of the same texts. It turned out to be much harder than we expected!

We tried to teach the children 16 new words, which were printed in red to make them identifiable as the words to be learned.

There was one of the red words on each page. After the children had seen and read each red word 36 times, no child was able to read all 16 of them, and the average number of words read correctly was five. We were quite shocked by this, because we had made a database of all the words from all the books the children were reading in school, and so we knew how many different words each child had been exposed to in their first term reading at school. This ranged from 39 to 277 different words, with a mean of 126. Hardly any of these words occurred frequently in any individual child’s pool of vocabulary: on average fewer than four words occurred more than 20 times – yet 36 repetitions had not been enough to guarantee that children would remember a word.

When we tested children’s ability to read words they’d experienced more than 20 times in their school reading, on average they could read only one word correctly.

Can't cite a reference as this was given to me. The original research, for anyone who cares to look it up, is Stuart, Masterson & Dixon, 2000 Journal of Research in Reading.

mathanxiety Fri 13-Jul-12 03:24:05

Wrt the matter of doing maths at home -- I have always done maths with my DCs at home. It might not have looked like maths, no times tables, etc., but it was maths. I have also always read to them.

MaizieD:
Why did they use red to mark the sight words?
Did they expect this to make it easier or harder for the children or have no effect, and if so why?

Did the sight words rhyme with or were they in any way related to words the children might have encountered earlier as phonics practice words?
Were they not even able to decode the sight words?

If this research is true, doesn't it sort of undermine your assertions about sight words all being really decodeable words if only you know the code?
Doesn't it say something about the limits of decoding if the children weren't able to decode them after a whole year of phonics?

Fwiw, the US National Reading Panel, so beloved of educational gurus in the UK, identified the development of ‘sight word reading competencies’ as a critical component in developing early reading foundational skills. The NLP held that reading sight words is necessary for young children’s independence and development of more mature reading experiences as they grow older, and that mastering sight words can empower them to tackle more and more reading material with confidence. That is the basis of the practice of teaching sight words in US schools.

mathanxiety Fri 13-Jul-12 03:24:22

*NRP

Mashabell Fri 13-Jul-12 07:27:30

'The only worrying thing in this country which should be addressed is the number of parents don't read to their children or buy them books.'

Those parents are mostly ones who can't read well themselves. If learning to read English was easier and took less time, there would be fewer of them. And although that is blindingly obvious, people like to ignore this simple fact.

If u happen to know any 6-yr-old who has been learning basic phonics for about 6 months, u can test this yourself.

Ask him or her to read the following 20 words spelt phonically
Enny, ar, cum, doo, dor,
for, frend, gon, gro, hav, hed, kee,
liv, menny, wunce, wun, onely, uther,
peepl, sed, sno, thair, thaut, throo,
wont, wos, wer, wot, wair, hoo.

and then spelt conventionally
Any, are, come, do, door,
four, friend, gone, grow, have, head, key,
live, many, once, one, only, other,
people, said, snow, there, thought, through,
want, was, were, what, where, who.

and see how they cope by
ticking the words the child gets right, underlining the ones they take a while to work out and put a cross through the ones which they cannot read is less than 20 seconds.

mrz Fri 13-Jul-12 07:32:40

mathanxiety Thu 12-Jul-12 22:06:55

"Yes you do, Maizie. If you don't then you are an anomaly."

Can you back that up with research Math because I must be an anomaly and so must the people I've asked that question. hmm

mrz Fri 13-Jul-12 07:35:37

nymac Thu 12-Jul-12 23:36:46

"I'm sorry mrz, I thought I was referring to the early stages of reading where cloze procedure and rhyme is an accepted method and illustrations would be a help to the child."
Accepted by who? {shock]

nymac I taught reception for two decades and it was never an accepted method of teaching reading with anyone I know!

rabbitstew Fri 13-Jul-12 08:15:29

I think the conclusion is that there are some teachers out there who are so bad at teaching that they will make a hash of teaching children to read however they do it, will take all joy out of it, but will just about manage to scrape their children through the phonics test. Is it possible to do anything with teachers so bad that they are only capable of teaching to a test? Does removing all tests make these teachers any less useless, or just useless in different ways? And is a phonics check one of those sorts of tests that will really scare off those teachers who actually have a sense of vocation and the courage of their convictions (ie that they can carry on teaching the way they believe is right and still have their children passing a decoding test in sufficient numbers to keep the vultures at bay)? Because I really think it is silly to argue that decoding words is a bad strategy for early reading, so I just don't believe there are truly good teachers out there who refuse to teach any phonics at all.

rabbitstew Fri 13-Jul-12 08:17:00

Can enough children only pass the phonics check if they have been taught phonics first, fast and only?

nymac Fri 13-Jul-12 10:50:17

Mrz During the 20 years you taught Reception, did you never use "rhymes" or
"fill in the missing word" as part of your teaching?
You mentioned "miscue analysis" this was used in the early NL reading tests and was a useful tool in assessment.

mathanxiety I agree with much of what you have said about reading.

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