Teachers all over the UK are systematically teaching reading through phonics. I say systematically because the majority will be following step-by-step, a commercial scheme that the school, at great expense, has bought in. So far Michael Rosen (2012) in his blog has estimated that schools and government have spent nearly £8 million pounds on government-approved commercial synthetic phonics publications – governments match fund each school to the tune of £3000. Schools are doing this not because the teachers think this is the best way to teach reading, but because the government has told them to do it, and is subsidizing it. If subsidy is not enough to make sure schools do as they are told, the children will be given a compulsory phonics test. Apart from financial inducements, high-stakes testing and accountability is the government’s strongest weapon to ensure teachers comply with government dictat. In this blog I unpick the case put forward for phonics and argue that it has little to do with the successful teaching of reading.
What is phonics?
Phonics is a method for teaching reading that focuses on the relationship between sounds (phonemes) and letters (graphemes). A phoneme is the smallest unit of sound in a language but not necessarily a single letter, for example, ‘oo’ in look is a phoneme. There are 44 phonemes in the English language.
Synthetic phonics is the chosen form of teaching phonics by the English government. It assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading and aims to teach the sounds of individual letters and the 44 phonemes of English. Children are taught to sound out the letters in words and ‘blend’ them together.
Advocates of phonics put forward the following argument:
- · The alphabetic principle (phonics) exists.
- · Children need to be taught the alphabetic principle in order to become readers.
- · If you teach children the alphabetic principle they will learn to read.
The presentation of a logical argument in this way, whereby the conclusion is inferred from the two premises is known as a syllogism. If we can show that either the major premise (phonics exists) or the minor premise (children need to be taught phonics to become readers) is false, then the conclusion will also be false.
Let us suppose for a moment that the first premise is correct (and I intend to show that it is not) and an alphabetic principle does exist, this still says nothing about whether this has to be taught in order for a child to become a reader. But I get ahead of myself, let’s start with that first premise: ‘The alphabetic principle exists’ and examine it. The popular way of talking about this principle is to call it phonics. The simplest way of explaining phonics is to describe it as letter-sound correspondence. If you follow the phonics’ rule (which is what government wants us to do) you can turn a single letter into a single sound. Let’s throw the cat amongst the pigeons and see how quickly this assertion breaks down. The following analysis of phonics has been greatly assisted by the painstaking work of Steven Strauss (2005).
Teachers are familiar with the so-called CVC words (consonant-vowel-consonant, as in C-A-T). Even I was taught, “The cat sat on the mat” almost 60 years ago, however, the alphabetic principle doesn’t even work for CVC words as all teachers know. Whilst it works for ‘fit’ and ‘sit’, it doesn’t work for, ‘fir’ and ‘sir’, both CVC words, but the sound of ‘i’ seems to be controlled by the ‘r’ – these can be called the r-controlled words. Try it out! The ‘i’ sound changes in the presence of an ‘r’. The important thing to note here is that the phonics rule that single letters create a single sound is shown to be wrong when we think about this ‘r-controlled’ example.
That’s OK you might say, we can teach this rule, but what if ‘r-controlled’ is just the tip of the ice-berg? Let’s think about ‘y’ controlled words? Try pronouncing the following ‘a’ in bay, day, hay, ray, say, way – did you notice that to pronounce these words properly ‘a’ has a long sound. But in our example above, ‘the cat sat on the mat,’ the letter ‘a’ has a short sound. So there isn’t a single sound for a single letter, there are long and short sounds. Sounding out letters cannot teach us when to apply the correct one.
What about another phenomena known as ‘magic e’? Magic ‘e’ is magic because its presence can change the pronunciation of vowel sounds from short to long by remaining silent! So pan becomes pane, can becomes cane, ban becomes bane and so on. This adds another rule we must teach that also challenges the notion that there is an alphabetic principle of letter-sound correlation.
We can teach magic ‘e’ – most teachers do – but wait a minute, magic ‘e’ isn’t that simple (did I say simple?) If there are two consonant letters, the sound of the vowel changes. The vowel is long when the two letters are ng, th and st, as in range, bathe and taste, but short when the two letters are nc, ng, ns, rc, rg, or rs, as in dance, dunce, hinge, tense, farce, barge and parse. We can just add these exceptions to our teaching, can’t we? Not so fast, we also have to remember that if the word contains the sequence ‘ie’, which is otherwise pronounced long, this long pronunciation takes precedence over the short vowel pronunciation before two consonants, as in pierce and fierce. Are you still with me? We need to remember that if the word contains e, i or u immediately before r, the r-controlled pronunciation takes precedence over the long vowel pronunciation, as in hearse.
Getting confused? Let’s try and sum this up.
A vowel letter is pronounced short in CVC words, unless:
1) The vowel is immediately followed by the letter r, in which case it is r-controlled and then it is long as the following examples demonstrate: i, e, or u (as in fir, her, fur), if a (as in car, far) or if o (as in for).
2) The vowel is immediately followed by the letter y, in which case it is long, for example, if a or e (as in say, hey), if u (as in buy, guy) or if o as in (boy, toy).
3) The vowel is immediately followed by the letter w, in which case it is [uw) (as in new, grew), if a (as in paw, saw), or optionally [ae] (as in how versus, low and bow [baew] versus [bow]).
As my friend the meercat would say: Simples! (short vowel on cat).
Let’s move on. Teachers are also expected to teach letter combinations as one sound, as in the most common combination, th. ‘Th’ can be pronounced with either a voiced th as in the, this, that or voiceless th as in thin, thick and thank. How does phonics help children know when faced with sounding out a word if th is to be voiced or voiceless, and more importantly in a phonic system of teaching, how does the teacher teach this? Letter-sound correspondence simply won’t work. And unfortunately voiced and voiceless pronunciation does not only apply to th. Consider as, is, has, his and was in contrast to bus, Gus, pus and yes. Will small children being taught how to read find it helpful to know that ‘s’ is voiceless when house is a noun, but voiced when it is a verb? Try it: “Look at the house”(noun); “the cattery housed the lost cat” (verb). To say nothing of the confusion caused when the same word can be both a noun and a verb depending on the sentence.
Wait, there’s more. The letter g immediately following n and immediately preceding er is pronounced if the er is part of the stem, as in finger and linger, but is silent if er is a separate suffix, as in singer and ringer, unless of course you are decoding the words longer and stronger. Phonics is not for the faint-hearted. As the few examples included here demonstrate the phonics’ rules that are needed to generate pronunciations for even the most simply spelled words very quickly become overwhelming.
The rules are complex. And we haven’t even discussed homographs – words that are spelled alike, but have distinctly different pronunciations such as Reading and reading, for example, ‘he likes to read’, ‘she read the book’ or homophones – spelled differently but pronounced the same, their, there and they’re, and pair and pear. Or even more confusing the mixing of homographs and homophones as in bow (and arrows), bow (to the queen) and bough (of a tree) – and while we are on ‘ough’ – how about, cough, hiccough, dough, enough, drought, fought, plough, thorough and so on. Oh, we just teach those as exceptions to the rule!
I could go on, but let us move now to consider the conclusion to our syllogism (try and pronounce this word phonetically), that if children are taught the alphabetic principle (phonics) they will learn to read. Such an assertion has assumptions that we must identify and challenge. The first assumption is that children must first turn the written word into sound before the word can be recognised. Following this, the second assumption is that the letters of the alphabet systematically represent the sounds of the language, which as I have just demonstrated, they do not. There are other assumptions:
Assumption: Phonics has to be learned if you are to become a reader.
Assumption: Phonics must be taught if children are to learn to read.
You might expect there to be strong, scientific, research evidence to support these assumptions before deciding to impose a phonics approach to teaching reading on teachers and children – the fact is, there isn’t any.
So what do we know about reading? The most important thing that I know about reading is that it is a meaning-making process. It is true that we can learn to decode through phonics, in fact I can read Welsh, a truly phonic-based language quite well, but the problem is I don’t understand any of it. I have taught many Muslim children who have learnt to decode the Koran, but they don’t understand the Arabic they are reading. There is a world of difference between decoding and reading, we may be able to teach children how to ‘bark at print’ – and given the irregularity of English, that can produce some hilarious results – but this must not be confused with reading.
When we read, we read for a purpose, we are focused on meaning, not on the sounding out of letters or the identification of single words. Ingrained on my memory is the experience of my eldest daughter who was being taught to read in the 1970s when a whole word approach to reading was fashionable. Each night she would come home from school with a pack of ‘flash cards’. The words, all printed on individual cards, corresponded to all the words that would appear in her next reading book. My homework as her parent was to ‘flash’ each card to prompt sight recognition. When she could recognize them all (the teacher had to check of course), she was allowed to have the next reading book from the memorable (not) series, ‘The Village with Three Corners’. Unfortunately she constantly got mixed up between the words ‘was’ and ‘saw’ and because of this she was not allowed to have a reading book. I pointed out to her teacher that when she read those words in a book she never got confused. The sentence, “she saw Roger Redhat in the park” would never be read as, “she was Roger Redhat in the park” – that would not make sense, but the teacher refused to give her the book until she “had sorted the words out”. This experience started my own particular journey into understanding the process of learning to read.
The reader who is reading the text is important, the author who is writing the text is important. The author has an intended meaning that the reader needs to construct for him or herself. The background knowledge and beliefs of the reader is important as the reader brings these to the meaning-making process. Of course letter-sound relationships are not ignored, but they represent just one of a number of cognitive resources deployed in the task of creating meaning from an author’s text. Compared to other resources, though, such as knowledge of syntax, semantics and text genre, letter-sound relationships are relatively inefficient in leading the reader to meaning. What I have found most successful of all when teaching children to read is when they have the opportunity to learn to read by reading stories they have created themselves.
I have been working with schools on a project, known as the Storytelling Curriculum. Using this approach children dictate their own stories to an adult who transcribes the stories and reads them back to the children. Children then read their stories to the class. The key to success here is that the children understand what they are reading; it is their words, their meanings and their chosen genre they have used to create their own stories. From reading their own stories to the class they quickly move on to reading the stories of their friends and from this to books. In fact, as shown in the research that we carried out, the children’s progress in reading over one year was far more than that expected or achieved in schools following a phonics approach (Lyle & Bolt, 2013). The child who is reading his or her own story to the class has created the story to convey meaning to themselves and to others and in reading the story is concerned to make meaning for the listeners. As proponents of what was called a whole language approach to reading powerfully argued, reading is a purposeful act of meaning construction. Reading is not merely learning how to decode words.
There is a vast amount of research that supports a pedagogy of reading that emphasizes meaning construction over decoding, however the current government policy ignores this in its quest to put phonics centre-stage. As I have attempted to show above, the sheer number of English words whose spellings either violate, or render excessively complex, the supposed rules of letter-sound regularity make phonics an extremely complex approach to reading that is guaranteed to confuse teachers, let alone their pupils. To rely on phonics for the correct identification of a word is like relying on touch to tell the difference between two different types of potato.
What I find most worrying about this wholesale and enforced adoption of phonics is the potential side-effects of too much phonics as children are turned off to reading by utterly boring and meaningless activities. When this approach to teaching is linked to high-stakes reading tests based on phonics and not meaning, it is a recipe for misery in the classroom.
The standardized curriculum that is the new phonics curriculum is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach that serves no-one. The high-stakes testing that accompanies it will decide the educational future of millions of children. It is already pushing out the creative subjects of art, music and drama. It does not address the needs and talents of individual children and I predict will contribute to a rise in incidence of anxiety and depression among our children who are already judged to be the most anxious in Europe and are already the most tested – constantly weighing the pig does not make it heavier! According to Whitehead (2010) we already spend far more on testing than we do on books! When teachers are encouraged to see children merely on how well they perform on the tests this turns teachers into machines for producing successful test-takers. Teachers will teach to the test and the test will define the curriculum. When this test is based on spurious assumptions without any proper research to back it up, when years of research into a whole language approach to reading is tossed aside, we need to ask some series questions about the government’s motives in spending so much of our education money on something that is not proven to teach children how to read.
As Michael Rosen reports in his blog:
USA: 4800 elementary schools,12,000 pupils doing systematic phonics did no better at comprehension than non-phonics taught pupils.
Why doesn’t the government want to take notice of research like this which meets their criteria of large-scale, controlled, experimental study? As with so many government-led initiatives we can only assume they have decided what they want and will willfully ignore all evidence to the contrary.
This doesn’t mean that all phonics is a waste of time. There are some children who have learning difficulties who can benefit from being taught phonics. But to extrapolate this and apply it to the teaching of reading to all children is to ignore that the majority of children learn to read at an early age without being taught by professional readers. The success of these children should be examined in any theory of learning to read. Learning to read does not start when children are taught sounds.
Lyle, S. (2012) The Storytelling Curriculum. Creative Teaching and Learning, Vol. 3.3, pp. 30-36.
Lyle, S. & Bolt, A. (2013) [in print] The impact of the Storytelling Curriculum on literacy development for children aged 6–7 and their teachers. Welsh Journal of Education.
Rosen, M. (2012). http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.com/2012/06/government-approved-phonics-scheme.html
Strauss, S.L. (2005) The Linguistics, Neurology, and Politics of Phonics. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.