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.

How to set children up to be successful learners.


“Books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.”

The learning in my classroom of 5-6 year olds is going really well. So I thought I would try and capture this by describing two key elements of my reading programme that reflect the successful learning that I am witnessing. Some time ago I started noticing that I was having significant success in improving reading outcomes for all students. I put this down to the fact that I was willing to change my teaching practice. I continue to refine and change my practice as I see the need arising. For those not familiar with teaching reading to young children, the measure of success at reading for 5-6 year olds is on the child’s ability to decode a text – turn letters into sounds and then into words and then into fluent sentences. Thankfully, there is no standardised reading test for children of this age – yet.

The first element is based around how I have set up the practical aspects of my reading programme. It’s a programme that allows me to read with every child almost every day of the week. This means I can keep close track of each child’s progress in reading and be informed on a daily basis how each child is doing. Hattie’s research tells us that the best learning outcomes will be achieved when the child’s effort, attitude and achievement are ‘in sync’. This reflects the high levels of growth I am seeing in my classroom. This means that my job is more than simply delivering the key knowledge and skills of reading. By employing an evidence/research based approach I have discovered that there is a high emotional and human component to successful teaching (including reading). My job is get to know each child really well so that I can challenge and motivate them to do better, to make more effort, to be prepared to experience some cognitive dissonance and to invite them to place higher expectations on themselves.

If you were to enter my classroom during a reading session you could expect to see an environment in which there were high levels of student agency and engagement. You could expect to see the “student as teacher/teacher as learner” model of teaching in place. The students know that I have high expectations of them. I am telling them all the time that I want them to want to read well. I employ a growth mindset that taps into the natural curiosity and desire to learn that every child possesses. I also provide a very generous scaffolding service to ensure success for those who most need it.

In my reading programme I am always introducing a wide range of developmentally appropriate and engaging texts. The classroom is full of opportunities to receive and produce language – both written and oral. The children are given plenty of opportunities to read a wide range of texts. I read instructional texts to the children in a way that invites them to join the club of “decoders’. “I’ll let you in on a secret about reading”. Each child will read their instructional text with a range of their colleagues before they get to read it with me. And when they do get to read with me, they know that I am expecting them to bring their ‘A’ game along with them. As they read to me I am assessing their ability, attitude and effort. I develop next steps based on that assessment. Is it a technical skill or is it an emotional issue that needs to be addressed? It’s usually a mixture of both. It is a quick and efficient process. I have noticed that some students have learned to look for the tick or dot that I put against their name once they have finished reading with me. They want ticks. Ticks are success. Something so simple but so reinforcing.

As the year progresses, an opportunity to read with me becomes a highly sought after commodity. Underlying the requests to be allowed to read to me is, of course, “I want to show you how good I am at reading.” I never decline such an offer. But I will prioritise certain learners who I think need extra support. I do have external motivators in place to help the reluctant few in the beginning. Mostly, the motivator takes the shape of my ability to control access to the wonderful range of play resources in the classroom. Eventually, it all spirals up and up and the learning becomes intrinsically motivated. Great academic learning supporting great social learning. Inevitably, everyone becomes a great reader. The link between social and academic learning can not be understated.

The second element of my reading programme that helps it to be successful is something that I have already alluded to. That is, teaching reading needs to be more than about imparting the mechanical skills of reading. Teaching reading needs to be about inspiring and instilling a love of reading. That’s because sharing a passion for learning will always have a greater influence on a child’s success than direct instruction ever will. And I often wonder whether teachers fully appreciate the value of reading aloud as a way of developing great readers. In all my years in the classroom, I have never ceased to be amazed by the willingness of a child to be captured by a good story. A class of 5-6 year olds can go from noise and chaos to silence, the moment a book is opened. But it’s not always quiet. A good story can also be a time for questioning and discussion. Their enthusiasm and ability to understand and process complex ideas is impressive and informative. It often reveals an insight into a child that I previously had no awareness of. ie. formative assessment in action.

There is also the more ephemeral role that stories have on learning – their ability to engage children emotionally – within the classroom as well as beyond. Stories allow us to see life beyond the literal. To see in colour; beyond black and white. To dream. Yann Martel, author of ‘Life of Pi’, has this to say about fictional stories, “By imaginatively engaging with characters who we may not meet in real life, or by considering scenarios we may never actually find ourselves in, we can practice empathising with others and seeing from another point of view. We can learn from fictions in this way by being open to new experiences that we see in our mind’s eye. Narratives can teach us something new and encourage open heartedness. In reading we dream, and our dreams define how we live our lives.”

Finally, I think there is a wider issue at play here too. New Zealand writer of children’s stories, Joy Cowley, takes umbrage with the idea that boys are not interested in reading. She believes that it’s a case of boys “are not interested in reading the books they are given.” According to her, “books should love a child and help a child to feel powerful.” These days I actively seek out books that have a boy hero in them in order to avoid what Joy Cowley describes as a case of “oestrogen strangling testosterone”. (Is that not an apt description of the education sector as a whole?) These kinds of books do exist but you have to seek them out. I suggest that the test as to whether you have got the right book is when a bunch of 5 year olds ask you to keep on reading a story that lacks any pictures for them to look at.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

An RNZ interview with Joy Cowley can be found at the link below…

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How effective is your teaching practice?


Reading Levels #1, 2017


Reading Levels #2, 2017

I made a claim on this site recently that I had managed to turn my classroom into a learning environment in which all students were able to experience enormous growth in their reading achievement. You can find that post, here. I decided to take it a step further and turn the reading data into graph form. I did this because I wanted to get a visual representation of what I was witnessing and help substantiate my claim. I focused on reading simply because it lends itself to data collection better than other subjects. But I’m describing a learning environment that is effective across all curriculum areas.

There are two critical components to this claim. They are as follows:-

  1. The inclusive nature of that growth. ie. all students are benefiting.
  2. Being able to identify the pedagogy being employed to create that growth.

Teachers are being asked constantly, to find ways to help lift the long tail of underachievement that exists within schools. That’s been part of my motivation to create the learning environment that I describe. But it’s also because this kind of learning environment is just better for everyone, including myself. It’s a constructive model of teaching. It’s success is greater than simply enabling students to reach the required standards.

All students who enter a classroom at the beginning of the year arrive with a wide range of academic and social dispositions. They all came to class with different social and educational backgrounds, and expectations. With the right pedagogy in place, the fact that all students come to class with these differences, is no longer a problem.

That’s because there exists a teaching pedagogy that can:-

  • close any gaps in the learning potential that may exist, amongst the students, when they enter the classroom at the beginning of the year. It is also able to avoid any of those gaps getting wider during the year.
  • support the teacher to identify the needs and set achievement goals that match each individual student. It allows for all new learning to be built on the learning already achieved. That bar of achievement needs to keep being raised, incrementally.
  • encourage students to work together. This means that the more capable students get to reinforce what they have learned, and at the same time, helping out the less able ones to improve their learning.

It is worth noting that the student’s actual reading results are only a part of the story. Of course we want all the students to manage to attain the required National Standard. But what we should be particularly interested in, is the trajectory of the students’ reading results; the level of growth/improvement. From looking at the graphs you will not be able to determine the boys from the girls, the students who are finding it straightforward from the ones who are getting the most support from me, the students whose first language is not English from the students whose first language is English, the students who are self managing from those who need support to manage themselves. All boats are rising more or less equally. Everyone’s a winner. No students are ‘flatlining’.

And there is some good news for students who have not reached the standard yet. Terms one and two tend to be settling in time. Establishing routines. Building a class culture. It is in the final two terms of the year that most progress is achieved. That’s when the learning has the potential to be super charged. It reflects the high levels of enthusiasm and growing levels of self confidence amongst the students. This student agency that I am describing is something that I put a lot of value on, and a lot of effort into generating. Once it is established, this agency then starts developing a life of its own. It becomes the force that generates the self sustaining improvements in reading amongst the students. It’s that “students become teachers and teachers become learners” scenario that I have previously discussed.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

Notes about the graphs: see below….

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It’s possible to create a learning environment in which all students learn exponentially.

Can you read this?

“I don’t care that you have trouble spelling. But I do care that you are mindful, curious, thoughtful, empathetic and articulate.”

I am currently witnessing some amazing growth in the reading abilities of all the students in my classroom. And we are only a term and a half through the year. Normally, I don’t see this kind of growth until further into the year. Yes, I do say “amazing growth” and I do say “all”. Let me explain what’s happening. And before I do, let me also say that this is not the first time I have witnessed this. But it is the first time that I have set out to document it. The difference is that this year I have fully embraced the “Visible Learning” pedagogy. There is no more tentativeness. The training wheels are off completely. It is also worth noting that this amazing growth is not only evidenced in reading. I am seeing it replicated throughout all learning areas.

So what exactly am I seeing?

It is easy to track reading. There is a wide range of graded texts for the children to read. When a child shows competence at level 1 texts, they move on to slightly harder level 2 texts, and so on. It translates well into a box ticking and graph making exercise. The level of progress each child is making, relative to where they were at the start of the year, is easy for all to see. And from my vantage point, I can see that all children are improving, ‘more or less equally’. (Keep reading for a more detailed analysis of what I mean by ‘more or less equally’).

As well as seeing improved reading data, I am seeing major shifts amongst all the students in their attitude, effort, curiosity and confidence with reading. I see children reading a book with a friend when they could be playing with blocks instead. I see children offering to help a colleague to read a tricky part of a text and then advising me that their colleague had tried really hard and had done “their best”. I see a child examining a text closely and sounding out words and sounds; employing the reading knowledge and strategies that I have already shared with them. I see the child’s eyes light up with a strong sense of accomplishment. The same child, who up to a week before, was a reluctant reader and finding reading difficult.

So how exactly is this happening? (hint: student ‘agency’).

After many years at the chalk face I am now able to identify the deliberate acts that I am engaged in and the impact these actions are having on the students’ learning. The cause and effect relationship has become clear. (Unfortunately, this correlation is not naturally occurring within the education profession. That is, there is no automatic correlation between a teacher’s level of experience in the classroom and the level of a teacher’s expertise). Increasingly, more of my time these days is spent listening, observing and responding to the children. I take great interest in what they are doing. I show them that I care about what they are doing – emotionally and academically. I am nudging them gently in the direction that they need to go. I’m the expert. I know what they need to know in terms of knowledge and strategy. And most importantly, I connect with them at a human level.

I am focused on more than just passing on the knowledge and skills of reading. It’s about developing a learning culture that becomes self sustaining in the long term. It’s about demonstrating to the students that I genuinely care about them and their learning, and conveying high but realistic expectations. I know how to manage and organise the children effectively and more importantly, how to get the children to manage and organise themselves. I also know what motivates them. I know what they will work for. It’s about human psychology. That’s the foundation for all the great learning that is happening in the classroom. It is this human/cultural aspect of learning that I am most interested in these days. It is this aspect of learning (and in this case reading) that I spend so much time and effort cultivating.

In this kind of learning environment, the children are well versed in giving each other feedback. It’s a learning environment in which I have time and space to be able to give the children feedback, and advise them of what they need to do next. It’s instantaneous and it’s done verbally. The feedback could be about their reading skill, and/or, it could be about their attitude towards their reading/learning. Praise is always forthcoming. But only when it is deserved. We only celebrate excellence – in achievement and effort. That’s important. I am yet to meet a child who (at least eventually) does not respond positively to being challenged and encouraged to do better. Think back to the last time you completed a task that challenged you and required you to strive. That “I did it” feeling.

I also need to know what to expect of a child at their developmental age. The learning needs to be fun and engaging. The learning environment is prefaced on a growth mindset rather than a deficit mindset. Follow Maslow’s advice for strategies on how to get the best out of yourself as a teacher as well as your students. Or adopt my manifesto for creating a positive learning environment. The focus needs to be on finding the potential in the students rather than highlighting their limiting factors and deficiencies. Road blocks need to be removed. Stop finding excuses. Start being creative and curious. Become a problem solver instead. Some children will need more scaffolding and support than others. That’s because not all children enter your class at the beginning of the year from an equal starting point. Not all children come from the same social and economic background. Remember, we are looking at improving everyone’s outcomes equally.

‘More or less equally’?

As the year progresses two things start to happen. First of all, I find my role in the learning process changing. My input is required less and less. Or at least, I start to focus on providing support to those in greatest need. But overall, my role shifts to one that is more about guiding the students. I have been surprised this year with how quickly I have been able to make that happen. Secondly, I notice that student academic achievement starts to improve exponentially. The source of that growth is all due to that highly prized commodity called ‘student agency’. I assume that this what Hattie is trying to convey when he says,

The biggest effects on student learning occur when teachers become learners of their own teaching, and when students become their own teachers.

Student agency is an essential ingredient of effective learning. And it is an ingredient that is easily overlooked and by and large, absent from your typical learning environment. I have my theories for why this is the case. I think it comes back to the idea that effective teaching and learning is inherently, a human endeavour. We are naturally inclined to look for tangibles; the focus is on the knowledge and skills of teaching reading, maths, everything. Everything but human relationships. That’s what I remember of my time training to be a teacher. And just because human relationships/connections are not easy to see or measure, it doesn’t mean that they don’t exist or shouldn’t be valued.

It is this type of learning environment that will have the greatest impact on lifting that long tail of underachievement in New Zealand schools. It is the magic bullet to avoiding children failing in our education system. It is also the antidote to those ideologues who promote charter schools or those who think more and better discipline/homework/computers/sport… is the solution. But not only does this approach to teaching and learning have a positive impact on those underachieving students, it does so with no harm to other students. All children benefit. So says Russell Bishop. I would go a step further and suggest that it is a learning environment that allows all students to flourish. It is an approach that works for all students equally.

Having said all this, my interest lies now in figuring out how to upscale this teaching pedagogy. The evidence I am witnessing and describing is compelling. Dare I say, a deficit mindset and a lack of curiosity is not only holding back the ability of students to grow exponentially.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

This blog post relies heavily on the work of Professor Russell Bishop. Refer to the link below…

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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.