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.

Life doesn’t operate in silos, education shouldn’t either.

A pet shop was a favourite setting for some of the children's stories.

Writing is more than a new blank page everyday.

I have spent many years learning and practicing the craft of teaching. And if I wasn’t such a modest person I would probably say that I have mastered this teaching thing. Mastery takes time and perseverance. Experience and longevity does not have to mean resting on one’s laurels. For me, mastery is about creating a buffer; of space and time. A buffer that allows one to look outward. To reflect. To see and hear better through the static. To gain confidence in trusting oneself and trusting the children. To appreciate that doing the same thing over and over is unlikely to offer up any different results. To move beyond the deficit model that seems to be the foundation of our education system.

This deficit model casts a long shadow. It dims the light. Academics write about it. Their research and their words match my daily observations. Stories of the disengaged and the excluded are regularly in the media. Nor do you have to look hard to witness the deficit model fully operational in all aspects of modern society and public institutions. I know I risk the opprobrium of my colleagues for raising this issue. But it’s not a personal thing. It’s purely professional. I think there is an alternative. I have seen glimpses of it. I have no answer to those who say everything is fine and dandy, just as it is. Some form of acknowledgement that change is needed is essential. The system needs to cater equally to all learners. But gravity favours the status-quo. No one wants to be apart from the crowd for too long.

The New Zealand Curriculum supports schools to move away from ‘silo’ thinking: the treatment of subject areas as rigidly discrete entities, with no application to each other. It’s now almost universally accepted that, as life doesn’t work like that, education shouldn’t either. – New Zealand Education Gazette, 21 March 2016, Vol 95, Number 5, Pg 2.

It’s about being innovative. And be reassured that there is no risk to the students’ learning. There is nothing to lose. Everything to gain. The innovation I have tried out in the classroom so far, looks good. And more importantly, it feels good. For both the children and myself. It works like this. I see a need. I test an idea. I evaluate it. I modify it. I test it again. I evaluate the outcome. I share it with colleagues. I seek feedback from colleagues and parents. It’s agile and effective. The children have a critical role in this process. They are the feedback. I am constantly listening for their voice. Their enthusiasm for learning and their clever responses to my provocations are the feedback I crave. ‘Provoke, listen, respond’. This process provides the teacher with a strong sense of where the children are ‘at’ with their learning; their developmental level – both academically and emotionally.

For some time I was aware of a need. So I decided I needed to be innovative with my writing programme. The rationale for doing so was clear in my head. I wanted the children to experience writing in its broadest and most engaging form. (You can imagine how happy I was to see the above item in a recent Education Gazette that validated this approach – suggesting a move away from ‘silo’ thinking that currently prevails in the classroom). I wanted to link as many different curriculum areas as possible to teaching writing. I wanted a literacy activity that would appeal to all students equally. I wanted an activity that provoked high level thinking.

Clever thinking

Never underestimate the complex thinking a 5 year old is capable of.

So the children each made a diorama. They built a diorama. They created their own stories. They shared their stories. They said it with pictures. They said it with spoken words and written words. Because children love stories. Want a quiet, calming activity? Pull out a good story to tell. The children wanted to tell their own stories. And they had the knowledge and tools to do it because they know what good stories sound like. Because of their prior knowledge. I helped them develop their knowledge of the features and structure of stories (ie character, setting, problem, solution, introduction, conclusion, celebration) and then went about supporting them to develop their own stories.

For those of you aware of the S.O.LO. taxonomy, all the learning was directed at the ‘extended abstract’ stage. Many showed ability at that level. Some needed support to work at that level. As you can probably imagine, I have long since stopped being surprised by the level of complex thinking that a 5 year old is capable of. Nor was I surprised by the level of engagement with this activity. Unfortunately, the deficit model seems to have a blind spot with regard to the connection between engaged learners and behaviour. Writing is more than a new blank page everyday. It’s broad and complex and fun. Well, it can be.

And if I wasn’t such a modest person, I would say that this is an example of the ‘visible learning’ that all teachers should be aspiring to.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.

When it comes to effective learning, context and relevance is everything

Writing needs to re redefined. It is much more than just the process of putting words on a piece of paper.

Writing needs to re redefined. It is much more than just the process of putting words on a piece of paper.

“Can you write ‘Happy Birthday, Mum’ for me”, is a request that I frequently get and one that I love to receive. I dutifully write the words on the card that the child has carefully created from the spare materials and resources that are placed strategically around the room. Or, I will be asked to write it on the board for the child to copy. Sometimes I will endeavour to remind the child of the correct way to hold a pen. It depends on how busy I am at the time. Regardless of how busy I am, I always make myself available to respond and acknowledge these kinds of wonderful examples of learning taking place.

If I was thinking narrowly, I would only view this as an academic exercise in writing. But of course it is much more than that. This 5 year old understands the concept of birthdays and celebrations and feels compelled to embrace this cultural phenomenon. This child is thinking of life outside the classroom. The connections to be made are unlimited. These are some of the many insights it gives me into this child. And I use to think naively that the classroom was where all the learning took place. Not any more. Context is everything.

Inevitably, the child’s writing, the letters that make the words that convey the birthday message, will be a combination of capitals, lower case and some strange mixture of hieroglyphics. I rarely correct that. The recipient of the birthday wish will understand immediately the intent of the message, even if the words are not entirely legible. These children have only just turned 5, after all. That’s early to be starting formalised education. But if we must start them that early, the least we can do is soften the blow; ease them in, so to speak. This child understands that words convey messages and those messages can be spoken or written down. That’s something to celebrate.

Compare and contrast.

I ask this same child and all of his or her 5 year old colleagues to sit down at their tables. I give them each a blank piece of paper and a pencil. I ask them to write. Now, that child with so much to say, all of a sudden becomes ‘mute’. That blank page remains blank. Or it is covered in what appear to be random squiggles. What’s going on here? And it isn’t only this child. There are other blank pages too. But not only that. There are tears. Requests to have a drink, to go to the toilet. ‘Behaviour management’, instead of teaching writing, becomes my top priority. “What’s going on here?”, I ask myself. These typically vibrant, eloquent children are acting out of character. Or are they? Are they simply reacting appropriately to what is a very complex task?

Is it possible that the way we currently approach writing instruction,

1. underestimates the complexity of writing?

2. overestimates the relevance that this type of writing instruction has on the children?

When you break it down, writing is a complex business – pencil grip, letter formation, writing direction, staying within the lines, leaving a finger space, legibility, spelling, word recognition… and those are just the surface features – the mechanical process of writing.

Then you also have to have something to say – ideas. And you need to hold those ideas in your head for more than a minute. I love writing my ideas down. Well actually, typing them and increasingly, just speaking them into very clever technical devices with the help of Google and Siri. What next? Who would have thought? etc. When I write, most of my time and energy goes into thinking and bouncing ideas off people – in real life and via social media. I spend time seeking inspiration and ideas from other writers and thinkers. A lot of time goes into crafting and editing my ideas in the hope that they will make sense. And who is my audience? What is my purpose? I experience quite a lot of anxiety around writing. How will my audience react? So as you can see, there’s a lot of energy expended to be able to write convert the ideas in your head into a written form. Context is everything.

Yes, I love writing. And I encourage all the children in my class to love writing too. That’s why we are always reading and talking and sharing ideas. I regularly show them direct examples of how the process of writing works – in the form of co-constructed class stories – recounts of shared experiences: throwing boomerangs, flying kites, chasing cats, having water fun, swimming in the school pool, walking to the local park with parents. They tolerate my efforts. I keep them short. They enjoy reading the end product though. Especially if they are somehow featured in the story. Relevance is everything.

I can foretell the criticisms that this approach to teaching writing will attract. It will focus on the quality of the explicit instruction provided. Are enough opportunities being provided for modelled writing sessions? Are the modelled writing sessions sufficiently pitched, paced and explained? Maybe the time should be more serious and stern? Or then again, maybe it should be more relaxed and funny? Would wearing a silly hat during instructional time help?

Another form of criticism will be centred around the idea that “life is tough” and the “take this medicine” approach. “If you don’t make them sit down and write, you will encourage laziness, a dislike of writing….” The problem is, that by employing the ‘blank paper’ approach, the focus shifts from learning, to that of ensuring compliance. While this may be achievable when the child is still young, it becomes increasingly difficult as the child moves into teenage years and adulthood. And of course achievable should not be interpreted as desirable or as promoting effective learning.

Child psychologist, Louise Porter provides a helpful example to rationalise this.

Consider when we are supporting a child in learning to walk. We don’t scold or feel angry when the child falls over. Instead we lovingly help them up and support them in trying again. If we think of behaviour (and learning) as development, then we can shift our thinking to being more like supporting a child in learning to walk.

I also realise that there are quite likely to be 5 year olds who can complete the complex task of writing independently. It’s just that I have not met one yet. It’s that teaching children the complex task of writing is an adult’s priority, not a child’s. If you utilise the provoke-listen-respond model, you will notice that children move at a different pace and they will surprise you with their insight and understanding of the world. And it’s not to say that you actively discourage children from writing. ‘Horses for courses’ is the expression, I think. The best learning is the one that is not forced. Of course a 5 year old can be taught to play the violin. But is it desirable? Adulthood lasts a lifetime.

Nor is this critique of the way writing is taught focused solely on 5 year olds. It is applicable to all ages. It is applicable to all subjects. Context and relevance is everything. Learning in the classroom needs to replicate the realities of the outside world as much as possible. Writing words on a page is not an accurate reflection of the modern world. An essential skill to have – sure, but not a substitute for all those other essential skills like thinking and creating and…

In a future blog post I am going to describe a writing activity that I did with a bunch of 5 year olds that achieved, what I believe to be, the essence of what I have described here. At least a step in the right direction.

Ease Education: Teaching at a human scale.

You can also find Ease Education on Facebook and Twitter.