Friday 13 December 2013

Gordon Askew tells teachers about phonics. I reply.

These are the powerpoint notes of a presentation on phonics given to teachers.
I have put my comments in italics alongside it. 

Achieving high literacy standards through phonics implementation

Gordon Askew

Independent education consultant Literacy and Phonics Adviser to DfE

At the heart of everything

“Books crow-bar the world open for you.”

Rooftoppers, Katherine Rundell

Nationally . . . .

at the moment, everything is not ‘all right as it is’ with reading and writing.

Our writing system . . .

 involves no pictograms or ideograms

 does not use symbols to represent whole words or


This is true if the only kind of reading we did was alphabetical. But it isn't. So in our daily lives we come across other symbols which are a kind of reading too. Some of these symbols are integrated into the alphabetic code, the most famous and widespread being @ but also there is £, $, &. * and even the very symbols being used here: squares or bullet points. 

 splits spoken words into their constituent sounds in pronounced order 

 represents each sound in turn with a symbol, working left to right 

The difference between 'hue' and 'sue' (as I pronounce them) is that I say 'hue' as if it has an 'i' or a 'y' between the 'h' and the 'ue'. There is no letter to indicate this. Similarly, in the word 'debt' , the fairly regular 'b' is of course silent. It is only  there for obscure historical reasons put there by an 'etymologist' saying that the word's Latin origins should be shown in the word. This has nothing to do with sounds and symbols for sounds. 

Again, the letter 'h' does something with vowels that follow it. Phoneticians sometimes describe this as 'colouring' the following vowel. This shows us that we do not pronounce words evenly laying down one sound after another and the distance between the letters does not represent the distance between the sounds as we make them. 

 uses symbols based on the ‘Roman’ alphabet 

The letters 'j', 'u' and 'w' were not in the Roman alphabet. 

 is an alphabetic code

Our system of writing is 100% phonic. It has no other basis whatsoever. 

I'm not sure what the point of saying this is. With 'debt' I have given one example of the system not being 100% phonic. The reason for the 'b' being there is not phonic. The same goes for the 'b' in  'subtle' and the first 'c' in 'arctic' and the absurd spelling of 'delight' which was falsely spelled that way because it was believed that it owed its origins to a Middle English word 'delichte'. It wasn't. 

We also have the problems of the preserved spellings of 'knock' and 'gnat'  where the 'k' and the 'g' are not voiced. Of course the phonics experts like to get round that by saying that the first 'n' sound of 'knock' is made by writing 'kn' but this is absurd. The 'k' is there because it wasn't every removed once the pronunciation changed. The 'k' is not 'phonic'. 

Issues with our alphabetic code

 44 sounds (phonemes)

 26 letters

 Therefore some graphemes (alphabetic symbols) involve 2, 3 or 4 letters, e.g. /sh/ ‘ship’; /igh/ ‘night’; /or/ (/aw/) ‘caught’


 many phonemes represented by more than one grapheme; e.g. different representations of /ai/ - ‘ai’, ‘ay’, ‘a_e’, ‘ey’, etc.

 same grapheme can represent more than one phoneme, e.g. /k/ is ‘c’ in cat but ‘s’ in circus

So we get . . .

 44 phonemes

 One ‘simple’ grapheme representation of each

 About 56 more very common grapheme representations

 About 96 other rarer grapheme representations (but some of these occurring in frequently-used words) 

Another classic phonics absurdity: 'rarer' but 'frequently used'! This is referring to words like 'was' or 'of' or 'come' or 'women' with 'rare' but 'common' representations. And we know how phonics gets round this: by calling them 'tricky' words or 'red' words and doing what they say they are against - getting the children to learn them as 'look and say' words. 

All of these are a ‘regular’ part of the system – but some are much more common that others 

Why confuse us with saying that less regular usages are 'regular'?! The pronunciation of 'was' as 'woz' is not found elsewhere. So it's 'irregular'. It just happens to be very, very common. 

Complex but . . .

what a good SSP programme will do is provide a systematic approach designed to cover

 basic knowledge and understanding needed by end Y1 at latest (80% English words) 

'understanding' - how is this? Where does the 'understanding' come from? This is the sleight of hand that we keep hearing from phonics people who on the one hand are teaching a system that is 'phonic' ie based on sounds and symbols but claiming that children are able then to understand what they're reading. And yet, of itself, phonics does not and can not teach 'understanding'. Something else has to be going on at the same time. That is because the written code is much more complex than the texts provided by the phonics schemes. This is not just a matter of 'words' or 'tricky words'. It's a matter of the grammar of the written code which is different from the spoken code. We do not speak as we write. This written code has to be learned as a set of sequences and strategies that differ from spoken language with its interruptions, incompletions, repetitions, gestures, unillustrated pronouns and so on. 

 broad knowledge and understanding by end KS1 at latest (overwhelming majority of English words)

But also vitally needed are skills of . . .

 blending for reading
 segmenting for writing

Overall this coverage should be the content of a discrete, daily phonics lesson.

Many schools are already doing this.


Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (‘Rose Review’) Feb. 2006

Digest of research evidence, see:

‘Response to public consultation on Year 1 Phonics Screening Check’

Annex C: What is the research evidence on phonics?

The Simple View of Reading

Different kinds of teaching are needed to develop word recognition skills from those that are needed to foster the comprehension of written and spoken language

searchlight model

searchlight model X

replaced by:

phonics as the strategy for word recognition

sometimes termed:
phonics as the ‘prime strategy’

What does ‘prime strategy’ imply?

first of several alternative strategies.

What does ‘prime strategy’ imply?

When reading unknown words:

 Phonics should always be used to decode first, before any other strategies are used to help unpack meaning. 

This is in contradiction of a) the 'tricky' word strategy of many phonics schemes and b) the means by which all of us who've learned to read over many centuries have used - namely 'mixed' methods of anticipating what's coming, using our knowledge of grammar to predict, working from the meaning of what we're reading, using methods of going back over what we're reading and so on. 

 This approach needs to become automatic and habituated. 

There are different ways for the phonic system to become 'automatic' or 'transparent' - and the pre-pure-phonics-taught population uses these different methods to reach the point at which we can 'read with understanding'. 

 The alternative ‘searchlight’ strategies should never be used for initial word recognition.

Is this not too narrow an approach?

 Evidence shows it works (Rose, etc.) 

The 'evidence' shows that phonics works if you test children to find out if they have phonic awareness ie you test them by asking them to read out loud. However, if you test children for 'reading with understanding' later in their school careers, then those who received intensive phonics instruction, do not do significantly better than those who did not receive intensive phonics instruction. The 'evidence' is flawed. 

 Phonics is the entire and only basis for our writing system 

As I've shown, this is an oversimplified and misleading statement. 

 There are no other reliable alternatives

What are the alternatives? Why are they unreliable?

Remembering words : Learning whole words by sight 

We should remember that the phonics schemes include this method alongside the phonic method. They have to because English is so irregular. 

 Some children (poor visual memory) can remember a few words

 Some children (good visual memory) can remember quite a lot of words

 No children can remember all the words they need to read fluently 

No matter how phonics people wish to describe those of us who learned to read by a mix of methods, they can't tell us that we didn't learn to read! We did. 

What are the alternatives? Why are they unreliable? 

To date, there is no evidence of phonics teaching on its own 'eradicating illiteracy' so quite why the word 'unreliable' is being levelled at other methods, is not clear. 

Using context : pictures, meaning, grammar

Often very difficult and seriously unreliable, especially for young children and those with limited language 

The phrase 'those with limited language' needs unpacking here. There is a good deal of research to show that children are often diagnosed has having 'limited language' on the basis that it is an adult talking to a child, who is determining that it is 'limited', and/or matters of bidialectism and bilingualism are often overlooked. 

This is guesswork – albeit sometimes informed guesswork

This is phonics put-down. If a child can't read the word 'would' proceeding by phonics and/or 'tricky' words, what should he or she do? The best way to read 'would' is grammatically. A native speaker reading the whole sentence, will be able to deduce 'would' partly from phonic cues and partly from grammatical ones. This isn't 'guesswork'. It's intelligence. I've observed this at first hand on several occasions. 

Using context can be very deceptive

 Early readers can sometimes use it quite effectively when they are reading books designed to support this approach

 Fluent readers (especially adult ones) can and do use it very effectively; they have an enormous store of language and reading experience


 There is a ‘middle’ stage of learning to read when reliance on guessing what a word might be is disastrously unreliable 

Note the use of the word 'disastrously' here. A lot of early reading is 'disastrous' by this count. Children sitting reading without understanding is 'disastrous' too. After all, why do we learn to read? In order to understand texts. If we don't understand them, why read them? 

Phonics first 

This really has to be unpacked. Some schools are interpreting this as removing all non-phonics texts from Reception and Year 1 classes. It's time for phonics people to 'come out' and tell us if they really mean this or not. I've heard contradictory accounts of this. 

 Phonics is the only reliable strategy for learner readers to use when tackling unknown words

No, this isn't the case. There is evidence to suggest that phonics only readers are no better than 'mixed methods' readers when faced with words they have not seen before - provided those words are in the context of a passage of real writing. The false testing of phonics nonsense words simply shows that children are being trained to read out loud phonically regular words. This doesn't tell us if they are reading for understanding.  

 If they have been taught to understand and use the system properly it will almost always work to find out what a word ‘says’ 

How ironic that the word in italics - 'says' - is precisely the kind of word that phonics only children sometimes find difficult - along with 'said' because in many accents it's pronounced 'sez' and 'sed' - 'rare' pronunciations for 'ay' (in 'says') and 'ai' in ('said'). However, both 'says' and 'said' usually crop up in easy-to-predict contexts in sentences and passages, so grammatical and semantic cues often assist the reader. However, the word 'read' , along with 'wound' - and a few others - can only be figured from context. Yes - only. 

 This is, of course, not all there is to reading – but it is an essential first step 

This is very funny. The idea that the vast question and problem of 'reading with understanding' can be packed away in this one sentence is hilarious. 

The first big misunderstanding

Different children learn to read in different ways. Lots of children learn by methods other than phonics. There is no one-size-fits-all. 

No, that's not a 'misunderstanding'. Why should different children, with different experiences of texts (before learning to read), different usage of spoken language, different emotional and cultural backgrounds all learn to read in exactly the same way? Where is the learning theory or sociolinguistics to back up such an extraordinary statement. We have sat through years of hearing how 'choice' in education is all-important and yet on this one matter - learning to read - one-size-fits-all is THE way. 

In actual fact, something else is going on. Many homes teach their children various forms of initial literacy before the children get to school. They do it with picture books, reading cereal packets, playing with magnet letters on the fridge, song-books, reading ads of the TV or in the street and so on. Many homes do not. For this reason alone, one-size-fits-all is not appropriate. 

Where this goes wrong

 Many children ‘pick up’ reading relatively easily, more- or-less regardless of the method used to teach them. Sooner or later, they figure out the phonics for themselves This has always been the case. 


 Equally, some children do not ‘pick up’ reading, or do not pick it up well enough to become fluent, comfortable readers. They never sort out the phonics. 


 Phonics is not a method of teaching reading. It is how the system works. It is the core knowledge needed to read. 

No. Some children learn to read without going down the phonics route. They 'get' the phonics through other methods or that phonics is part of the method. Calling it 'core knowledge' is misleading. It is one of the knowledges. And there are various routes to it for some children. Why deny it. Anyone who learned to read prior to the present era of intensive phonics instruction is evidence for this. Why try to wash us off the record? 

 We cannot leave the teaching of reading to chance. We need to teach the core knowledge – phonics. 

Classic phonics scaremongering. What chance? Was I taught to read by 'chance'? No, I had teachers and parents who worked away at it from the time I was 3 to the time I was 7. They used many different methods: reading out loud to me (which enabled me to 'get' the written code, playing with letters, drawing letters in sand, on slate, learning nursery rhymes and poems, playing lexicon, using flash cards, playing syllable games, reading 'Beacon Readers' and so on and so on. 

Applying ‘phonics first’

If children are systematically being taught phonics and we want them to learn consistently to apply phonics skills as the strategy for word reading, then they must not be asked to practise this with books that:

 require them to use alternative strategies

This is exactly how and why schools are banning real books from Reception and Year 1 classes, in case the children look at them! Meanwhile, those homes where parents think this is a load of old hooey  are of course filling their children's lives with stories and poems which they read with and alongside their children, sometimes pointing at words, sometimes helping their children guess words, sometimes reading a text over and over again so that the child learns the text (as I did with 'Peter Rabbit' when I was a child and their children benefit enormously from this massive infusion of a variety of texts. 

 require them to apply phonics they haven’t yet been


In the early stages of reading, they should practise with books that are matched exactly to their level of phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use alternative strategies (i.e. ‘entirely decodable’ books) 

This is of course the old boring fallacy that we learn in stages as determined by those who instruct children. It is predicated on a notion of learning that we learn in predetermined stages. 

Decodable books

When young children are asked to practise with such books success is immediate and their sense of themselves as independent readers very rapidly grows. Progress, matched to teaching, is fast and they are very soon fluently reading the widest possible range of books. 

However, this fluency has its down side when the children are a bit older and discover that they 'can read' certain texts and not understand them. This is particularly the case (from my observation) with children who have a very narrow experience of texts. 

'they are very soon fluently reading...' this should be backed up with evidence that longterm intensive phonics teaching produces 100% success for children 'reading with understanding'. Is there evidence that it can and does for all children? No. 

The second big misunderstanding

Decodable books are facile and dull. They restrict children’s reading disastrously. How will children ever learn to love books and reading if they are taught like this? They may learn to ‘bark at print’ but they will never learn to be real READERS. 

Well, we can all argue about what's dull and what's interesting. Those of us who have sat with our children hour after hour helping them become good judges of what is boring our children and what is not. 

Where this goes wrong

 The quality of decodable books has blossomed recently. They are many now available written by some of our top children’s writers.

 Phonics is only one ‘axis’ of the simple view of reading. At the same time children's language and comprehension must be nurtured and developed. They can and must be taught to love books. They should be hearing, learning, telling, discussing, enacting and exploring the widest possible range of wonderful children’s books. This is every bit as important as the phonics. 

How does this sit with the passage above where Gordon Askew is demanding that children learning to read are NOT given texts which are not phonic and not geared in to the exact stage of phonic awareness geared in to the progression of the schemes? Note, he is using the word 'exploring'. How do you 'explore' a book whilst preventing a child from trying to read it for themselves? Either you're stopping them or you're not!

Some headteachers and some Ofsted inspectors are interpreting the passage above in a way that is directly contradictory to the one here. 

The Year 1 phonics screening check

 Covers only the decoding of isolated words; it is not a reading test and is not meant to be; it does not attempt to assess comprehension 


 Seeks to establish simply whether children can apply phonic knowledge to decode unknown words; this is not sufficient for reading, but it is essential 

It is not essential in all cases. I (along with millions of others) did not learn to read on the basis of 'first' phonics, the 'reading for meaning'. That's why it can be shown that it is not essential in all cases all the time. To say that it is is misleading. 

 Involves exclusively those GPCs that will have been covered at this stage by any good SSP programme

 Presents them only in completely phonically regular arrangement (even in the ‘pseudo-words’)

 Therefore, involves nothing that a child who has learned the necessary sounds and how to blend them will not be able to do 

However, some children when faced with the 'nonsense' words try to correct them to make them make sense (eg 'strom' to 'storm'.) This is of course marked as 'wrong' even though the child may be a good reader. 

Note also that the children who do not score at the right level are dubbed as not succeeding and parents must be told. It is not clear how or why this is advantageous for children learning to read. 

The Year 1 phonics screening check

 Any group of children not reaching the standard will include many who will struggle with reading at later stages, or, at very least, not read with sufficient confidence and fluency to become ‘real readers’

 This includes a good number of children who appear, at this stage, to be reading satisfactorily (but who are, in fact, using primarily those ‘alternative’ strategies that will prove unreliable later on)

 We all need to be fully aware of who these children are, so that they can be given the further support they need

Opening the door

Children who can ‘lift words off the page’ (i.e. decode them phonically) can begin to access any text within their present language comprehension.

To develop their reading further it is essential to develop further that language comprehension, both spoken and written.

Opening the door

Systematic synthetic phonics, well taught and consistently applied as the prime strategy for word reading and fully balanced by both the enthusiastic sharing of a love of literature and the development of comprehension, is not the door to a very small room. It is a door to the vast cathedral of all books have to offer.

‘Books crow-bar the world open for you.’