Will teaching phonics make your child a better reader?

Gg is for giraffe. But g is also for goat.
What is phonics?

English is a language based on an alphabet. The alphabet is made up of multiple letters. Each letter and group of letters make phonetic sounds. Teaching phonics refers to a method of teaching people how to read and write by teaching those phonetic letter sounds.

Most users of the English language will have little to no awareness of the role of phonetics in their everyday use of the language. I stumbled across phonetics by accident while studying linguistics at tertiary level. And then later on when trying to teach English as a second language. Up until that point, I didn’t know what phonics was because I wasn’t taught to read with phonics. It’s useful to note that not being exposed to phonics did not impact negatively on my ability to read and write. And I expect that that is the case for most people.

Why teach phonics?

Which brings us to the purpose of this post. Will your child be better at reading and writing if they are taught phonics? I am asking this question because there are proponents of phonics who argue that the failure to expose students to phonics in their early school years is the cause of the drop in reading standards. So, while I am pleased to see that there is acknowledgement of the issue of falling reading standards, I am unconvinced by the argument put forward by the phonics advocates. 

I make this bold claim based on the learning experiences I have gained during my three decade teaching career. Over this time I have applied myself rigourously in a search for the best teaching practice to be able to provide the best learning outcomes for all students. This site is a documentation of that search. I also believe I have experienced success at achieving pretty effective reading outcomes. For me, teaching phonics has been a part of that success. Yes, a part of.

Knowing how to teach

I believe the real solution hinges on being able to improve teacher competency. As I have said before, great teachers have great content knowledge and, they also know how to deliver that content effectively in order to achieve optimal learning outcomes for all students. Great teaching is about bridging the teaching and learning disconnect.

In other words, it’s about knowing what to teach, how to teach, and when to teach it. I have been in classes in which the teacher has chosen to focus on a particular letter/sound (or in maths, a number) for a whole week. This kind of approach to teaching is ineffective. But worst of all, it risks turning students off learning all together. Reading is a magical experience, if done right.

Experience in the classroom

Over the years I have got better at creating a language rich learning experience/environment. I have got better at giving children regular opportunities to experience the magic of language and text. Then, and only then, do I start asking them to decode words with me. Some students are already flying. They are already decoding competently so I am able to support them with the next stage of the reading process — comprehension and meaning. I never hold anyone back. I never make a student, who is flourishing with their reading, to follow a prescriptive phonics programme.

In this kind of learning environment, slowly but surely, the students who are struggling with decoding reveal themselves. At that point I start the process of figuring out what is at the heart of their lack of progress. Is it due to a lack of experience, knowledge or confidence with text? Or is it due to poor effort or attitude? Or maybe it is a combination of all those factors. I never assume that it is a lack of phonemic awareness that is the cause of their lack of reading success. I describe what the current incarnation of my reading programme looks like here.

The teaching and learning disconnect

This is the process of formative assessment in action. It’s a process that helps bridge the teaching and learning disconnect that I described earlier. It’s a way of looking for clues and evidence of the learning that is happening (or not happening) and then modifying my teaching practice to match those learning needs. And lo and behold, it is at this point that a child may reveal an absence of phonics knowledge. Hey presto, out comes my phonics hat. I then figure out a way to teach this child the phonics that they need to know. Those gaps are identified and filled. Problem solved.

Learning is dynamic. It is typically not a straightforward or linear process. Emotions, beliefs, attitudes all come into play and can be barriers to the learning process. Or you may have a student in your class who has excellent phonemic awareness but still can’t read. When a young student reads the word “one” as O for orange, N for nest and E for egg, you can safely assume that teaching phonics will only get you so far.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

What is the appropriate age to introduce chapter books to children?

We are spoilt for choice when it comes to reading books to share with the children

When it comes to literature for children, we are spoilt for choice.

For me, one of the biggest pleasures of teaching is the opportunities it offers me to read to the children. The classroom environment can go from noise level 10 to noise level 1, within the time it takes to turn to the first page.

I have written about the power of narrative before. That stories (and play) allow us to explore complex questions in a broader way. They allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. If you give them a chance, children will amaze you with their enthusiasm and their ability to understand and process complex ideas. Through the power of the narrative.

Our classroom is currently full of giants made out of blocks, drawings of snozzcumbers and speculation on the wonders of frobscottle. The children are responding appropriately to Roald Dahl’s ‘The BFG’. When I tell them that I really wonder what it would be like to ride in a giant’s pocket or the crevices of an ear, while he runs at giant speed to Giant Country, I really mean it. I was a child once. I remember those feelings  of wonderment and awe. I think that if teachers can connect with the children at that emotional level it can really enhance their teaching practice. And what about poor wee Sophie the orphan, snatched from her orphanage by a giant in the middle of the night. The children feel for her, genuinely. It’s called empathy.

So, in answer to the question, “What is the appropriate age to introduce chapter books to children?” I think you will know my answer already. Of course, I don’t read chapter books to 5 year olds, verbatim. I paraphrase and retell. I quiz and seek responses to gauge comprehension and interest. I show the pictures in each chapter to the children before I read it. I keep it short and sweet. And even before I attempt to read it, I do a pretty good sales job. (The BFG being released at the movies helped out a lot, of course).

But be prepared. Because you may be asked to identify the research that allows for the reading chapter books to 5 year olds. As though, the immediate feedback from those 5 year olds sitting in front of you, listening intently and going off and sharing drawings of snozzcumbers in their free time, is not sufficient evidence. It’s times like that, that you just have to choose what you ‘give a fig’ about.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Ask me what it’s like to have the best job in the world.

Putting the learner at the heart of the learning.

Putting the learner at the heart of the learning.

It was lunchtime and I was sitting at my desk in the classroom going over my reading plan. I was needing to replenish my instructional reading books for the students for the following week. Here’s how it works. The students read a variety of texts with me at a particular level until I feel that they are confident, competent and fluent enough to be able to move up a level. The texts get more complex incrementally. Each level has language structures and vocabulary that are familiar and constant. New words and concepts are introduced systematically.

A child came into the classroom to get a drink. She stopped and asked me what I was doing. Never do I decline such a genuine inquiry. I may postpone it but I will never decline it. That’s because I see these moments as my ‘bread and butter’. Every conversation is a learning opportunity. And that’s not just for me. And of course the lunch hour is a big time to fill for young children who are still focussed on finding out who they are. That’s why I like to be available during this time. So I am able to support and guide children through this time of high need. Typically it is just a reassuring smile that is required or a bit of match making. Unless you remove yourself entirely from the classroom and playground, it’s quite possible to be permanently engaged with the children. But that’s what I signed up for. And it’s immensely rewarding. That’s what energises me.

So anyway, I explained to the enquirer what I was attempting to do. I casually mentioned that I was seriously considering the possibility of bumping her instructional reading group up to the next level. “Oh really? What’s the book called”, she asked.

“I don’t know yet. But I can show it you when I get it, if you like. You can see if you think it’s suitable for you”, I replied.

Twenty minutes later I was back in the classroom for the end of lunch and the start of the afternoon session. The classroom was once again full of children returning from playing outside. And before I had a chance to sit down, a voice amongst the din, asked me if I had chosen her book yet. I advised that I had and invited her to take it from the box where I had put it. She did. And she proceeded to investigate. “Hmm. What does it say?” She stood there for a minute or two, oblivious to the busyness going on around her. “Why don’t you take on to the mat and check it out”, I suggested to her. She did. The rest of the children got on with the task of settling back into class for the afternoon. We sang. We chose the next ‘super seater’. She read. She explored.

“Yes, I think it will be a good  book for me”, she said. And she placed the book back in the correct place and rejoined her colleagues on the mat.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

5 years old is too early for children to start their formal academic education.

Update: My attitude to the starting age of formal education has changed a little since writing this post. I am now believe that it’s critical to ensure that the learning experiences on offer are appropriate to the age of the child.

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The emotional and cognitive reality of a 5 year old.

5 is a critical age in a child’s life. “The learning that takes place at that age is creating a blueprint for life as an adult,” says Professor of Neuroscience and Education, Paul Howard-Jones. He says that, “the foundation of the well-being of an adult is based on a child’s early emotional and cognitive development. A good foundation at an early age will lead to good interpersonal relationships and self-regulatory thinking.” What a daunting proposition. What an opportunity. A chance to set up a child to be successful in life. If it’s approached it in the right way, that is. Working with children at that age is such a thrilling and rewarding experience. And such a serious endeavour. What a responsibility! That’s why I am always asking myself – “Are we getting it right? Are we doing the best for our children? Are we approaching it the right way?”

By and large, a 5 year old is still living in an egocentric world. A 5 year old’s social understanding is limited. It is around the age of 5 that a child is ready to be encouraged to think beyond itself; to develop key emotional and social skills, to understand the perspective of others, to develop empathy, to find one’s place within the group, to develop confidence in group situations, and to fit in socially. Whereas adults get to choose the level of social engagement they expose themselves to, children are typically not given much choice.

When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved.

5 year olds are better at working 1 on 1. Group situations can be very emotionally challenging for them. Having extra people around means having to share your time and compete for the attention of friends. Emotions of jealousy and rivalry are very difficult to process at this age. The adult’s job is to help them get these emotions under control and help them learn to self regulate. 5 year olds need to learn to understand that the consequences of not managing/controlling their feelings can result in losing friendships. They are able to learn this.

The problem with starting academic education too early (and defining education too narrowly).

5 years old is also the age that children in New Zealand start their formal academic education. That’s the age when we start to teach them to read and write and count. That’s the age we start to define them by a set of narrowly defined National Standards. Can you see the problem here? When children have just reached a formative age in terms of emotion and socialisation, we set them off on their academic journey. Before any appropriate pro-social learning has been started, let alone achieved. By starting them off on their academic journey so soon, we haven’t given them enough opportunities to develop emotionally or cognitively.

It’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms…

Many children are not developmentally ready to complete structured academic learning when they arrive at school. Nor should they be. Many children are still developing emotionally. That is where the teaching and learning needs to be focussed. The adoption of National Standards has made things worse by requiring the setting of unrealistic academic goals. This is turn, leads to teachers employing inappropriate classroom practice to achieve these goals.

5 year olds are being expected to learn through rigorous instruction. As Erika Christakis says, “it’s naive to assume that meaningful learning is actually happening in high-pressure, worksheet-laden classrooms where teachers tightly control the content and pacing of instruction.” She says, “we also suffer from confirmation bias — we look for evidence to support what we already believe.” Teachers are encouraged to ignore the human element of education. So while National Standards are touted as a solution, they are in fact, a distraction from focussing on real solutions. That is, equal learning opportunities for all children.

There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences.

Today’s children have got it tough. Our academic expectations of them are increasing. Our misplaced anxieties are demanding greater academic achievement at even earlier ages. This is compounded by the reality that children are also losing their free play time outside of school hours. Children have busy schedules. They have organised sports events, culture activities and playdates to attend. Parents are busy. Children are required to fit into their parents’ schedules. Or they are being supervised by technology. Tragically, it is not so unusual to have 5 year olds in the classroom who need support to be able to engage meaningfully when given free play.

So, what’s the alternative?

There’s a well-established scientific consensus that young humans learn best through playful, relationship-based experiences. That’s academic and social learning. They learn through playful, hands on experiences with materials, and with the support of engaging, caring adults.

Nor does ‘play’ mean an unstructured free-for-all.  Active, play-based experiences can incorporate language rich environments to help children develop ideas about literacy. Experience tells me that in the right environment, children will ‘miraculously’ develop an understanding and strong desire to read and write. 

Yes, a daunting proposition. But also a wonderful opportunity – a chance to set up a child to be successful in life.

Update: Since publishing this post, I have discovered that the same issues are being discussed in the media in Australia.  A teacher quit teaching and petitioned the government to address her concern that, “teachers are being forced to teach an age inappropriate and crowded curriculum which is pushing students too hard, too fast.” The petition asks parliament to “observe international evidence-based best practice and ensure children are six years of age or older to commence being formally taught an incremental age-appropriate national curriculum”, and “that all play for under 6-year-olds is play-based and data collection be minimised, as well as order an independent investigation into the true depth of child and teacher distress in primary schools related to the curriculum.”

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

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