Is phonics the best way to teach children to read?
Last month the phonics pilot was rolled out across England, and all Year One children in English primary schools took the phonics screening check. But is phonics the best way to teach children how to read? Education Minister Nick Gibb explains why the government thinks phonics is the way forward, and children's author Michael Rosen argues that there are better ways to help children start reading.
Nick Gibb: "Research shows phonics is the way forward"
Being able to read fluently is the essential building block for everyone’s education. Yet, after seven years of primary education, one in six 11-year-olds still struggles to read. GCSE pupils' reading is more than a year behind the standard of their peers in Shanghai, Korea and Finland. This problem is reflected in the skills of England’s workforce, with employers reporting that young entrants to the labour market often lack the basic literacy skills to work effectively.
Phonics is a method of teaching reading, which ensures that virtually all children can learn to read quickly and skilfully. Children are taught the correspondences between letters and sounds (‘phonemes’), and how to blend the sounds together. For example, a child would be taught to pronounce each phoneme in shop /sh/-/o/-/p/ and then blend those phonemes to produce the word. This helps children to take the first important steps in learning to read and also to master spelling.
Research from around the world shows that phonics is the best way of teaching children the mechanics of reading. For example, the US National Reading Panel assessed the effectiveness of the different approaches used to teach children to read. For two years, until it reported in 2000, the panel held public meetings and analysed research into teaching reading. It concluded that systematic phonics instruction produced significant benefits, including for those pupils who had difficulty learning to read. The Clackmannanshire seven-year longitudinal study showed how children taught to read using systematic synthetic phonics in the first ten weeks of school had, on average, a word reading age of 14 and a half by the age of 11.
Despite this evidence, many schools still teach children a mixed-methods approach to identifying new words, in which children are also encouraged to memorise whole words or guess unfamiliar words from the context or pictures. Using phonics, children learn a relatively small number of letter-sound correspondences, which gives them a clear way of approaching new words. Of course as they see words they already know they will no longer need to sound them out. The purpose of phonics teaching is to ensure they know how to sound out words fluently and effortlessly early in their school careers.
In his review of the evidence in England in 2006, Sir Jim Rose said: “‘A model of reading which encourages switching between various strategies… risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers.”
Of course, reading is about much more than phonics. The goal is for all children to learn to read so they can then read to learn and develop a lifelong love of books. Once children can ‘decode’ a word using phonics, they need other knowledge to understand the meaning and follow the story. Comprehension and phonics are both crucial components of reading.
The Government recently introduced a check at the end of Year 1 to see if each child has grasped phonics. The check identifies which children need further help to secure this vital skill. Children read a list of 40 words to a teacher. Reading one-to-one with a teacher is an activity children are familiar with and enjoy, and the children should not realise they are being assessed.
Schools will tell parents whether or not their child has met the expected standard for their age group in the check. This is an important piece of information for parents. Schools should report the result in context; they might also tell parents how close their child was to the expected standard, what type of support the school will provide to their child, and how parents can help at home.
If a child has not met the expected standard this doesn’t have to be a cause for concern. The result simply tells the school that the pupil might need some extra help to master phonics. With some carefully tailored teaching, most children will catch up very quickly, and go on to become confident readers. Parents can help children to improve their phonics, too.
Michael Rosen: "Phonics can't teach children to read for pleasure"
Reading is complicated: we have to turn squiggles and shapes into meaning. Anyone reading this will have learned to do so in a variety of ways. Your parents and teachers helped you by: teaching you the alphabet, teaching you simple words like 'go' and 'run', getting you to write your name and labelling things, telling you where the street name was, reading you stories and rhymes, getting you to read 'readers' - books from 'graded reading schemes’, giving you picture books from the library and reading them to you, with you, pointing out words and sentences...and so on.
While you were learning to read, some people didn't learn to read well. Some didn't learn to read at all.
Amongst these poor or non-readers was a percentage who didn't grasp the fact that most of the letters and letter-combinations in English do similar things over and over again. This 'principle' that letters make sounds is called the 'alphabetic principle'. Some children who didn't become readers hadn't grasped the alphabetic principle.
So a scheme was devised which analysed the sounds we make when we speak English, and the letter-combinations we use to indicate those sounds. This scheme is 'systematic synthetic phonics' (SSP), and making the right sounds for the words we see is called 'decoding'.
There are now several government approved SSP schemes. If schools use the approved schemes they will receive up to £3,000 match funding to pay for them. It is now a requirement that all schools spend time every day using the phonics method with children in what has been called 'first, fast and only'. At the end of Year 1, the children have to do a 'Phonics Screening Check' (PSC) where they 'decode' 30 real words, and 10 nonsense words. This year, the pass mark was 32 out of 40. If the children didn't reach that level the school had to inform the parents carers.
I have problems with this system. This is a scheme that is compulsory for everyone, but it was devised first as a way of dealing with children who hadn't grasped the alphabetic principle. It seems odd to apply a method (SSP) for everyone, when most children learned to read using a variety of methods.
We find, as teachers have done this June, that children who are good readers, and who will turn into perfect readers, are 'failing' the Phonics Screening Check. Why should such children be told that they are failing anything? This is a strong way of making life harder for children at precisely the moment we should be encouraging them, when they are in fact successful readers. This is pointless or worse.
Secondly, the 'first, fast and only' rule has led some schools to prevent children from seeing 'non-decodable texts' in the classroom. For a while, children are prevented from looking at books they can't decode using the principles of SSP. I think this is short-sighted and silly. Variety is very important. Some of the world's most beautiful, funny, sad and amazing books are designed for our youngest children. Part of being educated is letting them discover such books.
Thirdly, ‘decoding’ is not the same as reading. When we read, it is only of any use if we are reading to understand or 'reading for meaning'. If I were to put a word in front of you, which you thought you couldn't decode, you would try and guess its meaning from the words and sentences around it. SSP experts regard this as preventing children learning to read and yet many of the successful children at the PSC are children who read for meaning.
SSP has been shown to be the most effective way of teaching children to decode. What it cannot do is deliver 'reading for meaning'. Tests of older children who have been taught solely with phonics show that it’s no more successful at producing readers who read for meaning than learning to read by mixed methods. However, teachers are reporting that some children become very good at decoding without being able to read for meaning. This is a backward step. What really matters is what produces young readers who read for meaning and want to read more and more and more, now and for the rest of their lives.
As research all over the world is showing, reading for pleasure is the most powerful motor for school achievement we know. When you read, this pleasure principle is teaching you about spelling, punctuation and grammar; it's teaching you vocabulary, sentence structure, paragraph and chapter structure; it's teaching you about plot, argument, debate. So schools that rigorously and systematically work hard at getting everyone reading for pleasure are schools which equip its pupils with the key skill we need for life: reading for meaning.
I am not against the teaching of phonics. However, I think it should be part of a variety of methods. Focusing on phonics has led some schools and some experts to overlook the importance of reading for pleasure - in terms of how much money they spend on the two activities, and the amount of time they spend thinking about the matter. This is a mistake, or worse.