Learning and Development

Why Phonics Isn’t the Be-all and End-all of Learning to Read

  • Why Phonics Isn’t the Be-all and End-all of Learning to Read

While teachers of early literacy are subject to the statutory demands of the EYFS, and those in Year 1 and beyond, the National Curriculum, the synthetic phonics approach isn’t the be all and end all of teaching children to read, says Claire Scott…

There’s a good chance you remember being read to by your parents when you were younger. You may remember, or indeed still have, your favourite book. You might remember experiences such as visiting the library, or reading under your blanket by torchlight. What’s less likely is that you remember how you learnt to read. You know you did – reading this is evidence alone. But did it involve a particular scheme? Were you helped by a certain teacher? Was it an inspiring book or lesson? It’s safe to say, however, that if you were taught to read by someone in some way, that way wasn’t exclusively phonics.

Phonics, known more accurately as synthetic phonics, is now the ‘prime approach’ used to teach young children across the UK. The government adopted this method after the Rose Report in 2006 and it features heavily in the new National Curriculum for 2014. It is a statutory requirement for Year 1 that pupils are taught, “to apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words”. It’s also, quite alarmingly in my opinion, asserted that pupils should “read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words”.

The phrase “other strategies” is important here. By using it, the Department for Education acknowledges that there are indeed other strategies that can be used to work out words. These strategies are likely to be the ones you might have used to learn to read, and indeed, still rely on today when reading unfamiliar words.

Working in early years requires practitioners and teachers to ensure that the children in their care are prepared for life in Key Stage 1, and the EYFS itself supports the teaching of phonics. The statutory framework outlines that “literacy development involves encouraging children to link sounds and letters”, and lists using “phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately [and] write words in ways which match their spoken sounds” as early learning goals for reading and writing. Thus before children have even begun the process of learning to read, it is apparent that the path to success takes only one route, and that is through phonics.

Synthetic phonics does work, and sounding out and blending can be a useful early strategy in reading words. But it is far from being the only strategy. To suggest a one-size-fits-all approach to any aspect of teaching and learning is at best naive, but as Professor Andrew Davies argues, could at worst be “seriously inappropriate for some early readers”. So if not phonics, then what?

Analytic phonics

Where synthetic phonics focuses on sounding out the individual phonemes then blending them back together – reading ‘all through the word’ – analytic phonics teaches children to look initially at the whole word and break it into chunks that they already know. Words can often be split into two parts: onset (the initial part before the first vowel) and rime (from the first vowel onwards). For example, taking the word ‘spill’, ‘sp’ is the onset and ‘ill’ is the rime. You can then generate a whole rhyming string of words that use ‘ill’ by substituting the onset – fill, bill, mill, etc. These are also called ‘word families’.

Supporters of the analytic method argue that after initially learning to read, competent fluent readers often use this method when they come across unknown words. As an adult, it is likely you do this. How would you read the word felinophile? You might well say fel-in-o-phile. If you know it is related to cats, you might even pronounce it fee-line-ophile. Chances are you haven’t sounded it out phonetically, one letter at a time – you have moved beyond this stage, using a much less laboured technique. It can also be argued that analytic phonics helps to speed up the process of reading altogether, as teaching one rime, for example “ill”, can help decode a whole host of other words.

Look and say

This is something most adults remember doing at some point, if only in relation to spelling. Simply put, words are learnt as a whole, through flashcards and repetition. This works, and is in fact advocated for older children by the National Curriculum, which uses this method for irregular words that cannot be decoded by phonics. Sometimes called ‘tricky words’, the sheer volume of these words in our everyday language is astounding – some 40 of the 100 most commonly used words cannot be decoded phonetically – and is yet another argument for considering that “other strategies” can be useful when learning to read. The look and say approach also takes account of the irregularity of the English language as a whole – in theory, no word cannot be learned this way.

The biggest criticism of this method is the amount of words a child has to learn, and retain, in quick succession and that the young human memory simply doesn’t have the capacity to do this effectively in order to learn such a vast vocabulary.

Whole language

This method promotes the use of high-quality picture books and stories to help contextualise written language. There is little direct instruction, but children rely on the teacher to explain and guide them through making their own connections and understanding the words. Phonics, both synthetic and analytic, can be used alongside this method, but only within the context of the book being read.

There is an overarching emphasis on developing comprehension, which is often one of the biggest criticisms of synthetic phonics. Advocates of the whole language approach are more concerned with children engaging with, and understanding, the story than the correct pronunciation of each and every word. Using other strategies, such as context and visuals, is also encouraged, so children could guess at the word rather than actually decoding it.

Using this method it would be hard to gauge, and therefore support, exactly what a child has become secure in and how they are reading what is on the page. But immersing children in high-quality literature, and having the timely support of an adult in guiding them through the meaning and decoding strategies available in reading the text, is arguably the most rounded approach of all.

Contextual and visual ‘cue’ systems

When children are shown flashcards or look at picture books, they use what they see in illustrations to support their understanding of the words. We would assume this to be a good thing, but the Department for Education would consider using the visual information as guessing, not decoding, and as such, it becomes one of the “other strategies” children are discouraged from using.

Of course, when eventually pictures disappear and children move on to novels, they cannot rely on the pictures, but instead they must use their knowledge of the story (the context) to make sense of the words. Again, applying this to reading text is discouraged – the National Curriculum even states that “once pupils have already decoded words successfully, the meaning of those words that are new to them can be discussed.” In other words, after reading “She shed a tear” (as in ‘fear’) as “She shed a tear” (as in ‘bear’), then teachers would point out the obvious context being missed. Surely these cues could help a child when he or she approached a word, rather than afterwards…

Closing thoughts

We all know how complicated and irregular the English language is. The only reason we adults persevere is because, somewhere along the line, we’ve picked up a little bit of all these strategies to help us – synthetic phonics, analytic phonics, whole language, look and say, visual and contextual cues. If we are not giving children as many strategies as possible, as soon as possible, then surely we are going to end up with a whole generation of disheartened, confused and ultimately discouraged struggling readers. As early years practitioners and teachers, it is important that we remember, too, that while children need to learn to read, they must also want to read, and our enthusiasm for sharing a love of books and reading can be the most vital lesson of all.

Claire Scott is a qualified teacher and early literacy consultant.