I’ve recently watched a fabulous debate on systematic synthetic phonics V phonics in context and whole word reading development of literacy skills.  The debate at the Australia College of Education was opened by Education Minister, Rob Stokes.

The Education Minister commented that this debate evokes interest and passion from the education world and challenges orthodoxies about how students acquire literacy skills. As the introduction suggests, It should not be seen as a debate on how to quantify best teaching practices and that we should remain open to the opinions and facts we have and review our knowledge, to enable us to be open to new ideas.

I whole-heartedly support Professor Anne Castles‘ view about systematic synthetic phonics that we do not propose systematic phonics (SP) as the only method of teaching students to read and it should not be used in isolation.  We do not learn to read automatically as many learn the language of their mother tongue.  However, we have to consider here also the children who do not learn the vocabulary and expressive and receptive language of their mother tongue and so many have language delays which do not support them ready for school. However, where they do have the language skills, not all children can acquire reading skills due to specific learning difficulties such as dyslexia.  Children do not automatically recognise the lines and shapes of letters and convert them to sounds and at times some children need to be taught explicitly these representations.  At times, we need to go beyond this and teach children in a systematic phonics approach where we structure their exposure to individual letters, then clusters in blends and digraphs, starting simply and progressing.  A usual phonics programme is not by nature a (SP) system, as often the sounds are taught during exposure to words, in the context of reading sentences.  This can’t be done using a SP approach.  However expecting a child to recall each sound or word from a whole word reading approach is like asking some to recall and store endless amounts of pictures, for which they give a word/spoken response.  Using a SP approach children can crack the code rather than being reliant on a teacher/parent to tell them a word or guess on their own, they can apply knowledge and decode these words, making them independent.  Students can then develop transferable skills to decode other unfamiliar words.  There is no code if taught to read using an analytical system based on vocabulary.  Professor  Anne Castle makes a valid point that a child may think all words that start with ‘c’ are animals if they have been exposed to ‘cow or cat’ but what happens when they are met with ‘cup’.  Therefore, teaching them to decode through sounding out, gives them the correct word.  The systematic synthetic phonics system can also be reversed to encoding for spelling too.  Therefore, if a  child can read and sound out  a word, they can also be taught to know the grapheme (written) response for each letter.  This can be taken further by showing students the code of letter relationships and choices of grapheme response for each sound, such as /k/ at the end of a word can be ‘c, k, ck’.  She tells us that as experienced adult readers we often have whole word recognition but when met with an unfamiliar word we will often sound it out, defaulting to letter/sound relationships.  I agree also that we want students to becomes fluent readers but for some we need to expose them to foundation skills to reach that point, if we are to increase their chances of learning to read.

Professor Robyn Ewing presented her argument for a language based system, expressing that meaning should always come first when reading. I totally agree with her that learning to read is about developing a person’s life chances.  She considers that phonics system is not enough and whilst I agree that their needs to be a mix of both, some children need to be taught how to decode words and not be left to chance encounters within the context of a sentence and they should be expected to retain the information immediately.  From my experience a word can be read to a child and forgotten on the next page.   I know many parents report this too. For some children even showing them how to decode with each sound and letter representation is still insufficient, if conducted in the flow of reading a sentence/book.  I see that children need opportunities for over-learning using one sound in isolation in various formats of reading and spelling, also linking words to vocabulary and giving words a semantic link, in order for the information to be retained and used within other less familiar words and this cannot be done when exposing a child to whole word reading, when reading purely for meaning.

It is true that ‘to read’ is to give meaning to text but a child cannot do this if they cannot initially decode, in fact the inaccuracy of reading is more likely to frustrate and disengage a student from learning to read.  Semantics and meaning to words can be given through shared reading but I would not expect a child to retain the recognition of the whole word in the future.   Professor Ewing provides a good point that we start to assimilate meaning to words as babies and of course this is required as part of childhood development and contributes to reading for meaning.  However there are also many reasons why a child may have language delay and this skill may not be developed.  Professor Ewing rightly states that language exposure is required to create imagination and give enjoyment to text/reading and this can’t be obtained simply through systematic phonics and that only understanding can be  gained at sentences level.  However, I consider that we require spoken language skills and decoding skills to be able to comprehend if you do not have whole word recognition skills in reading.

Professor Ewing questions the validity of the phonics checklist and I agree, as good automatic readers, when there is no meaning to pseudo words it becomes irrelevant.  She also states that testing in the UK has not improved reading, however I would argue that perhaps the type of intervention provided and the frequency, for those children who are struggling to read, is not sufficient to enable them to progress, as rarely are SP interventions put in place.  I do feel that pseudo words do have there place in learning to read, especially for the struggling reader.  Those who have not acquired reading skills can at times have whole word recognition of high frequency words which have been practiced, however they cannot then transfer the sounds within that words to an unfamiliar word.  At times this can ‘mask’ their true ability to read accurately. Therefore, using pseudo/non-words, can quickly indicate if a child can decode and transfer letter representations to sound and blend unfamiliar words.  Professor Ewing concludes that teachers know children best, to know which way to teach a child to read.  This is a fact but we do need to ensure that teachers are given all the tools at their disposal, to identify when a child is failing to read and put in place the most appropriate form of intervention.

You can watch the debate here too

Dr Jennifer Buckingham put forward a strong argument for synthetic phonics but again clearly stated it was not the only strategy for reading, although she stated that proficient decoding is the path to fluent reading and of course we all agree that accurate and fluent reading is the aim for children.  Dr Buckingham continues to say that longitudinal studies have shown that decoding skills are a good predictor of eventual reading levels and that adequate levels of decoding are required to engage in language and comprehension skills.  She reports  professor Kate Nation’s evidence that phonological decoding skills are at the core of learning to read.  In fact, it is considered, learning to decode leads to better reading and furthermore access to  more words, in turn increasing vocabulary and literacy engagement.  Using phonics in context whilst reading is said to link print with meaning but she considers this method is flawed as multiple cuing strategies  are used, such as sentence context, pictures and finally looking at all the letters.  When students come to CodeBreakers sessions I see so many default to guessing at words based on initial letters or reading in context, guessing and predicting words rather than truly decoding.  On the surface it appears they are reading but when inaccuracies occur, students cannot truly comprehend text effectively.  Dr Buckingham considers good readers use phonological skills. She states, knowing what a word is in the first place requires phonological decoding skills and only than can we add meaning.  She considers we also require context, as the word ‘wind’ can only be connected to the correct meaning once it is in the sentence. However, initially a child would need to be be able to sound out the word/decode it and phonics then enables the child to know it can be one of two choices.  Using an analytical, cuing and phonics in context system means there could be multiple choices for words starting with ‘w’.  Dr Buckingham continues, “Synthetic phonics has shown to be effective with at risk readers, furthermore high performing primary schools have a synthetic phonics approach to reading, as a common factor”. She reinforces my comment that pseudo words are useful in systematic phonics programmes, for instructional, analytical and assessment reasons. She reminds of authors such as J.K. Rowling and stories from Dr Zeus have brought to life many stories with pseudo words. A teacher can deduce many things from a child incorrectly reading a non word and teachers can bring to this their expertise and knowledge. Dr Buckingham concludes the unfortunate title of ‘Back to Basics’ which has been attached to synthetic phonics, does not reflect the cutting edge understand we have of how a child learns to read.

Dr Kathy Rushton reinforces her opinion that meaning comes first and through literacy we tell stories. As readers we predict meaning through subject matter and prior knowledge. I agree, where an individual can ‘read’ and has good language skills.  However, so many children are entering the school system with poor language skills which are not being identified and mislabeled or even overlooked.  So many children are not able to decode or develop whole word recognition or phonics in context skills and as a result fall behind in their reading, so often guess at words incorrectly, creating the wrong comprehension of text.  Dr Rushton reports an excerpt which concludes, if there needs to meaning, concept or experience within reading, just phonics is a waste of time.  She considers vocabulary cannot be left to chance to be developed later and using phonics as the initial approach does this and that motivation for reading comes from language.  She continues, that where phonics is used, it is at the expense of language development.  Again, I agree where a student has no language development delay and is able to access the written words easily.  She considers that older students who fail to read are using one inadequate strategy, sounding out.  She feels these students require support in language and comprehension.  Again, I would reiterate that these students may well have an underlying learning difficulty, an unidentified language development delay or a difficulty such as dyslexia, experiencing difficulties blending words or having not been shown component parts of letters make specific sounds. For example, instead of labeling letters ‘r-a-i-n’  understanding that ‘ai’ says a long /a/ sound and then being shown how to blend.  Dr Rushton concludes, focusing on phonics doesn’t make children want to learn.  I would argue that some need to focus on systematic synthetic phonics to learn to decode, build their confidence in their own ability, reduce their frustration related to reading, develop independent reading skills and decrease the chances of disengaging from reading.

Troy Verey, deputy principal repeated his sound bite, ‘Don’t leave reading to chance’. He stated the 5 essential skills to reading; phonological awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. He highlighted the instructional methods for delivery should be; explicit, systematic and sequential.  He considers teaching phonics is required to unlock the alphabetical code, otherwise we #leave reading to chance. For many children, they experience the joy of reading very early on in education, some even enter primary school with the ability to ‘read’.  However, a percentage do not, for many reasons, poor and deprived backgrounds, access to books, parental intervention, shared experiences of reading, language development delay but for many of these children struggling to read I have met articulate, concerned, educated parents who have tried lots of interventions and strategies from their own experiences of learning to read or have researched methods and still find their child is not evolving inline with their peers.  These children require specific and targeted intervention, as do all of the children who are struggling to access the written word for a variety of reasons. Some of who may have unidentified SPLDs.  I agree that the success of reading can contribute to the predictors of health, career and general welfare.  Mr Verey recalls his teaching qualification contained little exposure to strategies and the science of reading, which he states is the core to any child’s education.  His experience is that many children can read  predictive text but then reach a reading ‘slump’ in year 4.

Verey considers from his experiences that if we use systematic synthetic phonics systems, we develop fluent and accurate readers and as a result they increase their own vocabulary.  They have introduced a system of exposure to synthetic phonics, moving on to decode-able books and then progressing to additional books related to their learning.  He considers the ‘real reading’ takes place all the time.  Students develop their vocabulary during lessons and strategies for comprehension, as a result, he considers they are less likely to be met by unfamiliar words and text they don’t understand.

You can read more about Mr Verey and this debate here 

Finally, Mark Diamond school principal, again considered meaning is first, meaning leads to ideas and that is fundamental to learning.  I agree with his ideology that a range of effective strategies should be available and for teachers to know when to apply them, however as Verey identified, too often the science of reading is not taught to teachers and this should be available within the tool box of strategies, to apply to those who are struggling to read.  Mr Diamond dismisses that where a child is taught with synthetic phonics  this allows for the working memory to be free to engage in higher levels of cognitive learning.  My argument is, if you cannot decode and read words, you cannot enter into reading comprehension and there the processing of language.

He provides an example of a class having to abruptly close its discussion of a book to commence synthetic phonics instruction.  I don’t consider Mr Diamond is mindful of the student with delayed language development who is probably not even engaged in the discussion but nodding and gesturing to hide their lack of understanding and masking their difficulties by following the crowd. This child is likely to require specific targeted language instruction and is likely to also be a struggling reader.  I do not advocate systematic synthetic phonics is for all, but those who are not progressing with their peers.

Mr Diamond considers it disrespectful to ‘dumb down’ the teaching profession and that using a synthetic systematic phonics programme does not use the rich skills of teachers.  To the contrary, I consider that teachers can add to a programme such as this, using their skills and experience and knowledge of the student’s ability.  Again, I do not consider all students need to access this type of intervention. Mr Diamond considers ‘off the shelf’ packages are not for all and goes against instructional leadership and I would agree, it is not for all. However, he goes further to suggest that those promoting synthetic phonics programmes advocate them due to their own vested interest and that economics should not be part of education. As the author of a programme,  I have specialised in a field and taken many years to write a programme which I consider brings students the experience of having a specialist dyslexia tutor, delivered through a TA/teacher, who are often at the forefront providing support to a student who is struggling .  Unfortunately, we have reached a point where parents are all to willing to engage in the private services for their child’s education support both those who are struggling and those who are succeeding and want to progress to higher levels of achievement.

Mr Diamond concludes his presentation by reading an excerpt from a phonics book which is used to learn to decode. I agree, the sentences can be stilted and there is not necessarily reading for pleasure but when you have seen a child disengage from reading, cry with frustration, actually decoding words and seeing their confidence and self belief increase, this can’t be measured with any standardised test.  From this comes the confidence to try and eventually the engagement and interest in reading.

At CodeBreakers we use a systematic synthetic phonics programme, although there is supporting evidence for this intervention, we’ll be commencing a year long study September 2018-19 into the effectiveness of CodeBreakers in some schools in Staffordshire, UK.

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