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Crack the code for young readers with phonics

The divide over teaching children how to read has long existed between those who support the ‘whole language’ approach and proponents of the ‘phonics’ approach.

The ‘whole language’ approach refers to exposing learners to language in context and letting the context guide.  The ‘phonics’ approach takes a view informed by phonetics and phonology, and is aimed at mapping the relationship between phonemes (the smallest units of speech sound) and graphemes (the letters – graphic representations – of the sound).

Between 2000 and 2006, Australia, the UK and the US all conducted studies into literacy teaching, and subsequently advocated for inclusion of systematic phonics in literacy teaching practice.  In the UK, the edict was stronger. Systematic phonics was advocated, and schools were directed to implement a synthetic phonics approach.

Synthetic phonics refers to the process of creating a whole from it parts, like a synthesiser blending elements to create music. Phonemes are blended to create words, which are then used to construct meaning.

We have reached consensus; phonics matters, but discussion continues about how to teach it.  Opinions vary: synthetic phonics, analytic phonics, a mixture of both. Are tricky words lists ok?  Should we use decodable readers? Many educators are proponents of a mixed approach, but as John Hattie would say, “it must have an impact on the learning lives of students”.

For some perspectives from the field, read on…

Industry views

Codify great teaching and make an impact

Get Reading Right co-founder Jo-Anne Dooner told School News she is passionate about teaching children to “read well”. She says oral language should be developed before a child arrives at school, because “to read well, children need robust oral language first”.  Literacy teaching is made up of oral language, reading and writing. Reading is made up of phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Each element is equally important, but the emphasis on each skill shifts, depending on the age of the child.

Australian schools are embracing synthetic phonics, and Dooner suggested that the recent movement is due to a new generation of teachers who may themselves have been failed by the sight word and picture cues system – and have not been adequately trained in how to teach phonological awareness and phonics. These teachers are seeing results and they are excited.  “Students make immediate progress and teachers are blown away by the success. It doesn’t matter what your theory about reading is,” she added, “as an educator, if you see success, you want more!”.

Looking for meaning (cues) in the picture, what’s the problem? The concern is that the message is contained within the word, not the picture. Dooner said searching for meaning in the picture is like playing ‘Where’s Wally’. “You can graduate year one using picture cues, but what about when you get to year four and the pictures disappear?” 

“Our language is an “alphabetical principled language,” she said.  “We have phonemes that are represented by various combinations of 26 letters; there is a code, it just needs to be taught. The words contain the message.”

Decodable books: Ms Dooner explained that a decodable book is one that a child can decode completely, with the tools they have; that is with the phonemes they already know. “We don’t expect novices of other areas to operate at expert level, so why are we doing this with our reading students?”

While “some experts say, ‘decodable words only’”, Dooner favours inclusion of carefully selected high frequency words that the children have been taught, and are keen to use, such as ‘the’ and ‘was’. 

Making an impact: A supporter of John Hattie style ‘teaching for impact’, Ms Dooner is concerned about “slippage in schools”, where things are done, not because they have an impact, but because they have always been done that way. Dooner insists, “all reading teaching must have a measureable effect”. Students must acquire deep knowledge of the alphabetic code; spelling capability, and the ability to decode new words to get meaning from what has been read.

The Australian Professional Standards for Teachers underpin Dooner’s work, and she noted that “while many teachers see it as another hoop, I see it as a way to ‘codify’ great teaching”.  “You don’t need expensive resources to teach children to read well, you just need knowledge about how the language works, and to be a great teacher.”

The rules of engagement for learning

According to teacher trainer, school teacher and author of THRASS, Denyse Ritchie, literacy programs must be engaging to learners – and “as phonemic awareness is the undisputed predictor for reading and writing success, it must provide for excellent phonemic awareness teaching”. 

THRASS Literacy
Photo: THRASS Institute

A reading program “must immerse learners in the sound system of the language they are learning”. In the case of English, this must “provide access to the all 44 sounds of spoken English”.

“The rules of engagement in learning require that what is taught is both correct and sustainable for future learning. It should also allow for differentiation within the same teaching process.”                                    

Ritchie expressed concern at “a call for a ‘back to basics’ phonics approach where initially the letters of the alphabet are taught as sounds or are assigned a specific sound”.

“Good phonics teaching does not teach letters as sounds but teaches letters by name. This allows the teacher to explain spelling choices in words, for example, the ‘oo’ in moon or the the ‘ue’ in glue.” Ritchie said that without teaching the letter names, the teacher lacks the shared vocabulary labels to indicate the different grapheme composition of these phonemes.

Adamant that a good program should include “no tricky words, sight words or learning left to chance”, Ritchie said we write to express our feelings and thoughts, and to communicate information.  Comprehension and spelling are vital so that “written language can mirror oral language”. 

Ritchie’s view on decodable readers is that they are restrictive when they do not include real and extension words for reading students. She said all reading material is decodable, “otherwise we wouldn’t be able to read”. “This contrived restrictive language hinders the development of comprehension skills,” she concluded.

Ritchie also issued a caution on the teaching of ‘rules’ for spelling: “English spelling does not have rules but conventions, which is why so many words break common rules.”

Ritchie said, “the best thing a teacher can do is to not use worksheets, but instead get children to write whole words and whole sentences using exercise books”.

“To learn to write, spell and construct sentences requires practice. Filling in missing parts of words or sentences is counterproductive to this process.  To understand punctuation requires learners to construct sentences from the beginning to the end.”

Ritchie said assessing writing is “easier than people like to make out”.  Her parting advice? “Look at learners’ writing samples. They are gold. The spelling choices learners make, their attempts at constructing words, the language they use, their attempts to use grammar and punctuation; and reading back their work, will give teachers an in-depth understanding of a learner’s language acquisition and development.”

Suzy Barry

Suzy Barry is a freelance education writer and the former editor of School News, Australia.

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