Tuesday 28 January 2014

Phonics - a summary.

There are many possible responses to the government's imposition of intensive, systematic, synthetic phonics teaching on English schools.

Today has been especially important because Professor Andrew Davis from Durham University has expressed dismay at the way in which children who are already emergent readers are being told that they are not reading properly and must accept the full phonics regime.

This backs up the research conducted by Eve Bearne and others for the United Kingdom Literacy Association which has showed that many children who have become good readers are 'failing' the Phonics Screening Check given to children at the end of Year 1. One of the reasons why they 'fail' is that they 'correct' the nonsense words on the test-sheet, changing 'strom' to 'storm'.

These academic responses are important and others cited by such people as Professor Stephen Krashen and Professor Henrietta Dombey back up the central argument that a wall-to-wall phonics regime is not the solve-all that has been claimed and indeed sets up other problems.

I rarely say this in print, but I'm an 'academic' too, as well as being a children's author who has written or adapted books for the very age group of children learning to read. The way I'm an academic is slightly different from the ones already mentioned, but I would like to say here, in a clumsy sort of a way, that the kind of academic I am, can also contribute to this debate.

To clarify, the great contribution made by the academics above is that they have examined in great detail: the process of learning to read, the evidence offered by the many forms of testing reading in English-speaking countries. All good, and when I've come up against the exponents of the present phonics regime, I do my best to remember and cite their research and evidence.

In summary it is this:

1. There is no evidence to suggest that intensive synthetic phonics teaching will do any better - in the long run - than the 'old' methods of mixing up different and diverse methods of teaching children to read - so long as what's being tested is 'reading with understanding' and not just 'reading out loud' or 'decoding' as the phonics exponents call it.  This 'in the long run' phrase is very important, because one of the ways in which the phonics revolution has been won by governments is to point to the success of tests like the Phonics Screening Check. To clarify this: this purely and only tests whether children can read words - real and nonsense - out loud to a teacher.

2. Reading is much more than 'sounding out' or 'reading out loud'. In short, it's reading with understanding. This is the longterm aim of all researchers, teachers and children in relation to reading. Otherwise, there really is no point.

3. Exponents of the phonics regime regularly claim that they are 'returning' to the old ways of teaching reading. This is not true. No one before the present era was taught to read by a pure and intensive phonics-only method. This can be reviewed by looking at the teaching-to-read materials. They all have phonic elements, some more than others. But none of them is exclusively phonic.

4. Some exponents of the phonics regime say explicitly that the instruction should take place 'first, fast and only'. Though they argue amongst themselves about what this means, it is working out in practice to mean that parents and children are at the very least being discouraged from trying to read texts other than the ones that are the government approved phonics reading schemes. For a variety of reasons, this is thought by the 'non-phonics' lobby to be wrong. For example, one problem with phonics teaching is that it has to come up against the fact that English is not 100% 'regular'. That's to say, any given letter or  letter-combination may well produce different sounds when we try to say them: eg the 'ch' in 'church' is different from the 'ch' in 'machine'. Then again, when we think of a sound like the 'e' in 'bed', we notice that we can also make that sound by writing the 'ea' in 'bread'. Then again, there are many letters which appear to be 'silent' - the 'k' in 'knife' the 'gh' in 'fight' and the 'b' in 'debt'.

In other words, a purely phonic approach has to do some quite complicated procedures to explain all this from within the phonics scheme. And ultimately, they don't. They have invented another category - known as 'tricky words' or 'red words' in order to get over the problems of such words as 'was', 'of' and 'come'. These have to be learned as 'look and say'.

So, researchers are interested in how well children can make the transition between reading phonically 'regular' words to the non-regular ones. Again, there seems to be very little or no evidence to suggest that this transition is made any quicker or better (including understanding) by those children on a phonics-only regime as opposed to those learning by a mixed methods regime.

5. Of itself a phonics-only regime doesn't give children a reason to want to read more, other than the pleasure gained from getting the process right. In other words, it's a 'reward' system. Some get it all right, some get most of it right, some don't get it right. The reward doesn't come from an intrinsic quality of the process they're embarked on. The whole point of reading - and this is the author in me talking here too - is to get pleasure out of the stories, poems and plays. These are complicated pleasures and I'll come on to them in a minute. The government has spent £23million on providing 'match funding' for schools to buy the schemes they approve. In other words. £46 million pounds of public money in England has been spent on teaching children to read phonically.  Open question - how much public money has been spent giving an equivalent focus on providing the facilities and books and training to encourage very young children to read for pleasure?

6. If you compare transcripts of conversations between young children or between young children and adults, with the texts that we ask them to read, we can quickly see that there are big differences. Talk and conversation is full of interruptions, tailings off, gaps, 'ers' and 'ums',  repetitions,very short 'utterances' like 'yes', 'no', 'oh', 'what?' 'thanks', 'please' and a very extensive use of words like 'there', 'it', 'he', 'she', 'they', 'I', 'we', 'you', 'his' 'her', 'hers', 'them', 'him', 'this', 'that'.

Apart from talk put between speech marks, the texts put in front of young children are based on standard English sentence structure. Most children aged 5, 6 and 7, hear very little language expressed in this way as part of their everyday lives - unless they hear it read to them by parents, carers and teachers.

The significance of this is that even as we teach children to 'read the words' we are also initiating them into another 'code'. I've said in the past that this is analogous to trying to understand a dialect other than your own. Some people disagree with that analogy. Either way, it's clear we are talking about different kinds of English - at least one kind for speaking; and at least one kind for writing. In each case, it's probably more kinds that have to be learned eg child and adult speech; the writing of picture books, the writing of the ads the children see on posters and in ads, the writing of newspaper headlines or TV captions...and so on. These different kinds of speech and writing involve quite different uses of grammar, different ways of putting words together, different word orders, different ways of sounding 'complete' or 'appropriate' for the context.

Learning to read involves 'getting' all this - being able to make transitions between these different codes., or at best being able to talk one code and write another.

Phonics teaching on its own, cannot and does not enable children to do this. What has to take place is an engagement with 'meaning' and 'understanding' ie with the power of people to use words to affect and interest others. If you don't do this, you can probably enable children to 'sound out' or 'decode' but you will not enable them to understand what they're reading.

I absolutely concede, without argument, that some schools and some exponents of phonics practise an active teaching of rhymes, reading of stories in order to make that bridge between pure phonics and the 'written code'. Some do. Some don't.

6. One of the aspects of reading that I studied in order to become an academic involves a theory of how it is we assemble texts in our head thereby enabling us to read the text in front of us. It's as if we assemble in our heads a library of books, recordings, signs, posters, labels...and indeed anything made up of words, or containing words, or the words themselves in all the different ways in which they are expressed - written, spoken, sung or however. It's clear that we start doing this from the moment we are born. People talk to us.

But it's not just 'words', it's how they are strung together and how they appear in all the different 'formats' or from the different 'platforms'. To get understanding from these, we have to 'get' these formats and platforms or 'contexts' just as much as the words themselves.

Put another way, none of the writing that we put in front of children comes as a true 'first'. The child approaches what is put in front of him or her, with the texts that are already in his or her head.

So do we do all we can to develop this 'store of texts' (sometimes called a 'repertoire')? Or do we treat the child as someone who is always in deficit, always with 'not-enough' knowledge?

Either way, it's my belief that with every act of bringing something new to the child, we should also build on and acknowledge what they already have. Most teachers, prior to the arrival of the phonics regime, knew this and did this. They scribed the things the children said, they got the children to label their corners and pegs. They got them to explore the places they knew in order to look at the words and language that was there - ads on the sides of buses, cereal packets and the like.

Many teachers and parents are carrying on doing this sort of thing, no matter how hard-pressed they are, no matter how much under pressure from workload, inspectors or whoever to focus on phonics, phonics, phonics.

7. A word used by linguists to describe - for example - the language spoken in Europe, before the Romans arrived - is the 'substrate'. That's to say, eg the Celts spoke Celtic languages and then along came the Romans speaking Latin. The result is that the different kinds of Celts had different kinds of effects on the kinds of Latin they ended up speaking. That's why Spanish, Portugese and French speak so differently from each other.

A similar argument could be made to do with learning to read. Different children are different substrates, with very different experiences of texts, (ie different 'repertoires'), very different attitudes to writing, very different ways of speaking. It's almost impossible to imagine why anyone would think that a one-size-fits-all approach to the process of learning to read would be appropriate or right.

In short, it isn't. That's why parents are hearing that the child they thought could read, can't read. That's why some children, particularly those  who are learning English and have little experience of texts other than phonics texts, end up 'barking at print' - ie reading out loud but not understanding what they're reading.

8. We have to resist the phonics-only approach ('first, fast and only'). We have to do all we can to encourage reading for pleasure with children of all ages. We must not discourage parents and carers from helping children read if they want to. We have to keep our eyes on the final prize - reading for understanding as part of learning for life.