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.