Sunday 1 April 2012

What do you think of phonics,Michael?

Someone has written to me and asked me my views on phonics.

I've replied with this:

" For my own views: I'm not against the teaching of phonics.

I'm against :1. Trying to kid teachers and children that the phonics packages are only teaching phonics. They're not, they're also teaching 'look and say' ie through 'tricky words' 'red words' or 'high frequency words'.
                 2. Schools which neglect the reading of whole books, telling stories, hearing and reading poems, doing plays in the years they're doing phonics.

I would add:
3. There is a clear problem emerging of some children 'barking at print' ie they 'can read' but seem not to understand what they're reading. This suggests to me that the move to get children to learn how to 'decode' has run ahead of reading for meaning - which is why we read anyway.
4. Many of us learned how to read without a specific phonics education. How did this happen? Why have the government brought in a universal method when many children didn't learn to read that way? It's now emerging that some children can read quite well but aren't very good at phonics. Such children may well be penalised or stigmatised as 'not good at reading' or who even 'fail' their phonics test at the end of year 1. (Families will have to be told that their child has failed the test ie not read outloud perfectly 32 out of the 40 words in the test).
5. Free schools will not have to teach synthetic phonics and will not have to do the Year 1 phonics test. Why is that?
6. Research by Dr Charles Hulme has shown that comprehension with Year 4 children is not improved with more phonics teaching. It is improved with more 'talk' ie children's discussions. However, reading skills in years 2-6 are being treated more often than not as problems with phonics ie 'catch-up'.
7. The government is investing a good deal of effort and money through subsidising phonics schemes, training and re-training teachers etc into phonics teaching. Why hitherto has it not invested the same kind of effort and money in 'reading for pleasure' even though it is now acknowledged by the Rose report, PISA, PIRLs, the major 'social mobility' study from the University of Nevada (Mariah Evans et al), and now most recently Ofsted 'Moving English Forward') that reading for pleasure is a crucial component of success with reading and success with school?
8. My position is that 'phonics is not enough'.  It isn't 'enough' because reading is much more than 'decoding'. You cannot rely on a notion that children understand what they decode.  It's not 'enough' because decoding English cannot be done by phonics alone. It isn't 'enough' because the written language in its extended prose form is a different 'mode' or 'dialect' from the spoken one. It not only has be 'decoded', it also has to be learned in its 'phrasing' or 'wording' or 'cadences' ie in the way words, sentences and paragraphs are put together in ways that are not like the spoken mode. This too has to be learned if we are to become readers."