Wednesday 11 July 2012

Phonics - worth the millions being spent or not?

1. Teaching phonics is better than not teaching phonics if you want children to read phonically (ie 'decode' ie make the appropriate sounds on seeing letters and letter combinations in phonically regular words eg 'top', 'grid' , 'shut', 'wish'). In other words, if you do intensive phonics teaching over the first two years of schooling one clear result is that those children will be better at applying phonic principles to the single words (which have been chosen for their phonic regularity)  than children who are not given two years of intensive phonics schooling. To be crude about it, phonic teaching is good for phonic reading.

2. This costs a good deal of money and the government is subsidizing schools to help them buy the schemes that will enable schools to do this intensive phonic teaching (systematic synthetic phonics, is the favoured method in this country).

3. The 'phonics screening check' at the end of year 1 does what it says on the tin: it tests to see if children can decode phonically regular words and phonically regular nonsense words using the children's phonic awareness.

4. A full and useful reading test, though, is one which tries to make assessments as to whether the reader understands what he or she is reading. - a 'comprehension' test. Put that another way, simply being a fluent reader of any kind of words or passages does not guarantee that some, a lot, or most of the text is being understood. So a test that simply tests children for reading single words out loud or even one which 'hears' children reading whole passages out loud, tells us comparatively little. What's more, we need to know if the passage is artificially high in regular decodable words ie more than one would expect from a piece of real writing.

So check number 1: in any claims made for any kind of reading methods, for succeeding or failing, we have to ask: what was being tested? Decoding single words? Decoding single decodable words? Decoding passages of writing using decodable words? Comprehension of single words? Comprehension of passages of writing which included the usual spread of words across English - decodable and non-decodable?

5. We are hearing over and over again, that teaching systematic synthetic phonics  (SSP) helps children to 'read'.

So check number 2 The question we need answers for is:  do tests show that children learning to read through intensive SSP in the first two years of schooling helps children to read with understanding any better than the 'mixed method' or indeed better than any other method? It is essential that we ask that question at different ages: eg at 6, 8 and 11. 

6. If the reading with understanding with the SSP children is a good deal better than the non-SSP children, then the money is well spent. If it's more or less the same as, or worse than other methods, then the money is wasted.

7. I have read summaries of some research which claims that because the common kind of 'reading' test is indeed a 'phonics screening check' that is why SSP teaching  gets good results. However, if  you test the same children with a real piece of writing full of the usual proportions of non-regular words, the children perform no better than children being taught to read with 'mixed methods'.

8. I have read summaries of some research which claims that children who receive intensive phonics education do not perform any better than children educated by mixed methods when it comes to comprehension tests given when the children are older.

9. If the previous two points (7 and 8) are correct, then the money being spent on phonics is a waste.

9. I think this blog is read by many different kinds of people. If anyone reading this has research evidence to show that the above points: 7 and 8 in particular are false, then I would be very grateful to see it. You can contact me through twitter, facebook or my email