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Phonics: Q & A

June 9, 2011

From the Telegraph:

Phonics: Q&A – why Sesame Street learning is making a comeback

Phonics was the preferred method for teaching of reading until the 1960s when it fell out of favour. But what does it mean and how will its teaching make a difference.

Children at school reading: Koob and Zort: the non-words in the new reading test for six year olds

Non-words were being included to check that children were not just regurgitating memorised words, a spokesman for the Department for Education said Photo: ALAMY

6:00AM GMT 25 Mar 2011

What is phonics?

Synthetic phonics is often described as a “back to basics” system of teaching children to read and is based on the 44 sounds made by letters or small groups of letters (phonemes) which comprise the English language

It teaches pupils to recognise the sounds of individual letters, and then blends of letters such as “sh”, “th” and “ee”.

Pupils build up gradually toward “decoding” whole words from their constituent parts, for example “s-t-r-ee-t”.

Phonics was the dominant teaching system until the 1960s when new methods arrived, such as teaching children to learn whole words without mastering the alphabet “by rote”

Those in favour of the more traditional system say it teaches children very quickly how to read almost any word they encounter.

But critics of the method have argued that while children can read individual words, they often do not understand what the words mean.

Why did it fall out of favour?

In the 1960s, phonics teaching was replaced by what were considered more child-friendly methods such as “look and say” or “whole language” learning.

These encouraged whole-word recognition in the belief that children would learn to read without having to learn the alphabet by rote.

This method has increasingly been dismissed by critics as “look and guess” because some children use other clues from the page or memorise the stories which they then purport to read.

Will it work?

The success of a seven-year trial of synthetic phonics involving 300 schoolchildren in Clackmannanshire, Scotland is often cited as proof that phonics is effective.

The research, conducted by St Andrews and Hull universities, showed that 11-year-olds who had been taught to read and write using synthetic phonics were up to three years ahead of their peers in reading skills.

A report commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills later showed the research to be inconclusive but the Government has recently been encouraged by a small-scale trial of 16 primary schools.

A larger pilot project will be introduced in 300 schools this summer before a national roll-out in 2012.

While synthetic phonics looked “promising”, the evidence in favour of using it was still “relatively limited”, the researchers said.

According to the study, there was no conclusive evidence that the phonics method improved children’s spelling or their understanding of what they read.

What do teachers think?

The teaching unions have questioned the government’s reliance on a “one size fits all” approach, which may not necessarily suit all children. They say it should be left to teachers to judge how best to teach their pupils.

Those in favour of the system say it teaches children how to read almost any word very quickly. But critics argue that while children can read the words they often do not understand what they mean.

Others say it is turning the clock back to pre-1950s teaching. Advocates insist it must be taught to the exclusion of all else and that the current approach of combining it with other teaching methods is confusing.

Blogger’s Note: I added the comments to this story as they already stated what I wanted to comment!  Gideon Reading curriculum includes a lengthy phonics component.


It should never have been abandoned.The meaning of the word is secondary to first knowing what the writing says. And if you can’t decode the writing then it matters not whether you know the meaning of the spoken word.
As Paul_basel says, it is eminently possible to conjecture the meaning of a word from the context of the rest of the text, and we do this all the time. (If we can firstly read.)Similarly I believe the ‘times tables’ were phased out in the learning of numeracy. Maybe this is why so many are, in fact, innumerate.But we have got to the stage where teachers themselves have had a variety of learning schemes (and so lots can’t spell or use punctuation properly) so they themselves need re-training.

Re the numeracy there is one very numerate boy in this family who was diagnosed at age ten as being ‘slow’ at numeracy. When trying to help him, I found out that he had been taught five different types of subtraction and multiplication. A reflection of how the various teachers themselves had been taught.

It is all about confidence. Using synthetic phonics and properly structured materials children can be given the confidence that they can read. Once they are secure in this then words where synthetic phonics breaks down can be introduced. The child can then not “sound it out” and can ask for help where upon the teacher can help them learn it as a whole word. In additon being able to read a lot of the sentences might help them deduce it from the context.
Phonics provides the bedroc from which you can grow ones reading ability. It doesnt matter if its back to the 50s if it works.
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