Thursday 3 January 2013

Phonics: a summary of my views

Phonics summary

Some people have asked me to summarise my views on phonics.

1. I have no complaint (why would I?) with children being shown how to use phonic cues when reading and writing.

2. What has been brought into schools in England is exclusive, intensive systematic synthetic phonics (EISSP). This has come in under the umbrella of simple slogan 'first, fast and only'. This has been interpreted by some school managements as meaning that the first encounters with the written word taking place in Reception and Year One classes are the texts and exercises of a government approved phonic scheme. These are introduced 'fast' and other texts are 'forbidden'. Not all school managements have implemented EISSP in this way.

However, whatever takes place by way of phonics teaching in English schools, it is tested by the Phonics Screening Check (PSC). For those who don't know this is a list of 40 words, 20 of which are 'real' words, 20 are 'nonsense' words. The pass mark was 32. The first full implementation of the text took place last academic year. A full analysis of the results has not been put up on the DfE website.

3. My observations: teaching children to read by phonics alone is in essence a means of teaching children how to read out loud. That is the process that is being taught. That is all that phonics on its own can do. This acknowledged by phonics enthusiasts in two ways: included in all phonics programmes are words that can't be 'decoded' phonically. They are called such things as 'tricky' words or 'red' words. These are learned as whole words. The other way is that most phonics enthusiasts I have met advocate a rich diet of rhymes and stories for children in Reception and Year One. These are read 'to' the children rather than read 'with' or 'by' them. However, there is in that an implicit understanding that reading involves an 'internalising' of the whole code of written language and that one way to do this is to hear written language being read. Allied to this of course is the idea that reading is not just a matter of making appropriate noises but a matter of 'making meaning'.

4.  There is a clear problem for commentators and even some educationists to distinguish between different senses of the word 'reading'. To be fair to phonics enthusiasts, they avoid confusion by talking about 'decoding' and 'reading'. However, I see over and over again there is a 'spread' of the word 'reading' into the territory of 'decoding' as if the two are synonymous.

To be clear a total or holistic sense we all have of 'reading' is doing something which involves deriving meaning from squiggles on the page. It is quite clearly possible to read some, many or most words in a text, out loud without deriving meaning. I can do that with Italian and German. Some children in English schools can do it with texts written in English.

I understand that the objective of teaching children to read is not necessarily to 'read out loud' but it is to read for meaning. I thought that's what we're in education for.

5. Even within the terms of 'reading out loud', it is clear that there are differing levels of success between children who have only had a diet of approved phonics schemes (eg children who come to school with no experience of other texts), children who have been exposed to a good deal of texts before getting to Reception and Year One classes. However, we should also distinguish between what is being tested. Here are possible versions of what is or could be tested:

Reading out loud of:
a) lists of phonically regular words
b) sentences of phonically regular words
c) a mix of phonically regular and non-regular words
d) sentences made up of phonically regular and non-regular words
e) whole 'real' texts with no pictures ie published texts with no immediate intention for them to be used in tests.
f) whole 'real' texts with pictures again without a reading test function.

Clearly, if children are to be tested in one or other of these, we are testing very different things. To date, as I understand it - and I'm prepared to be corrected on this - it seems as if children being taught by EISSF are not so good as children being taught by mixed methods in testing for c, d, e and f.

If this is the case then it matters quite a lot because we are interested in children becoming readers of real texts.

6. But the real crunch comes when we look at what children can do in trying to understand the texts they read. According to Professor Stephen Krashen, the sum total of tests across the world aimed at proving that EISSP works (or other kinds of exclusive intensive phonics teaching) all test for versions of a and b in my list. In other words they test for phonically regular language (though I wouldn't call lists of words 'language' as such!). To which he and I would say, so what? Of course, a phonics regime aimed at teaching children how to read phonically reading out loud (as an end in itself) will produce good results! But that is such a limited objective and also an insufficient objective. How do we know?

From the very results that are coming out of schools in relation to the Phonics Screening Check. Many more children are failing that test than would fail to read by using the 'old' mixed methods of teaching to read.

So, children who would learn to read anyway, are being diagnosed as 'failures' (and labelled as such) and being dubbed as being low on 'phonological awareness'. Remedy? More phonics. However, low phonological awareness may not be the reason why they have failed the phonics test. And they may well learn to read using other methods.

Does this matter? Ask teachers who teach this age of child. A school day, week, term and year is of a finite length. No matter how central and important literacy is, schooling is also about (of course) other forms of knowledge, and the crucial matters of personal and social development. Spending hours repeating something which may not be the cause of failure is debilitating and misdirected - particularly as some of those children will not be failures anyway!

7.  Further on Krashen's studies. His argument is that there is to date no evidence that teaching EISSF or other exclusive, intensive phonics schemes produces any better results than the 'old' mixed methods, when you test for irregular texts or even more importantly if you include in the tests 'comprehension' ie reading for meaning.

This is a devastating critique. Billions of pounds are being spent implementing programmes of study for 4,5 and 6 year olds that have no evidence to support their implementation when we widen the testing to include irregular texts, real texts and comprehension.

8. Is it possible to integrate reading for meaning and phonics? Yes. Parents and carers have been doing this for centuries. We sit with our children reading whole books, talking about them, sometimes pointing at whole words, sometimes at letters. We sit with them writing shopping lists, labelling things in their rooms, doing texting on phones, planning holidays looking at pictures and reading out the names of places. When we walk about with them, we point at the names of shops, labels on foods, names of places we visit, names of stations and so on. We might play with magnet letters and other kinds of letter and word games. This is not EISSP. However, these are ways in which many people reading this will have learned in part or whole how to read.

Many such children are arriving in schools in England and are being told to do some other kind of reading: 'sounding out'. They are sometimes being told they are wrong. Some of these children have 'failed' the Phonics Screening Check. Some are being told that they can't advance to real texts because they must carry on in Year Two with more EISSP.

9. This is a mess. It is causing real distress to some children and some parents and some teachers. The cause is obvious: a one-size-fits-all to children with very different experiences of texts and very different personal and social outlooks and behaviour. It is a totally unsatisfactory way of proceeding.

10. There is also an issue around 'Reading Recovery'. This is flexible system, backed by evidence, which tries to help children aged around 6 years who have not learned how to read. It is flexible because causes for not being able to read are various and because children have varied exposure to texts. Reading Recovery is under attack. It is losing funding. For a variety of reasons, the one-size -fits-all of SSP is being implemented as the remedy. Again, I believe this to be misguided and mistaken.

refs :

Stephen D. Krashen 'The Power of Reading' (Libraries Unlimited/Heinemann)
Stephen Krashen 'Free Voluntary Reading' (Libraries Unlimited)

PS from Pat Stone posting on Facebook:

 " I am convinced that the reason RR is being done down is because it is copywrited and is not open to any sort of profit making. It is not for sale. Reading Recovery is concerned only with teaching children to read and write. There is more than 40 years of analysed evidence from New Zealand, Australia, USA, UK and other countries that shows and proves that Reading Recovery 'works'. Our government knows this very well. Another proven fact, very well known to our government is that RR is cost-effective in the long run - some detractors complain that it is too expensive because it is taught by trained teachers and not cheaper teaching assistants. When I say, 'Known to our government', I mean that they know because they have been told repeatedly by the various and sundry research projects that have been undertaken, paid for from public funds. "