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Sounding off about teaching children to read

Helping children recognise the sounds in words can improve their reading ability. Pratham Books/Flickr

There are two main approaches to teaching children to read. Phonics, involves teaching children to recognise combinations of characters and establish the meanings of words based on combining them. The other involves children working out the meaning of the whole words in context.

Studies consistently show that phonics works far better than whole word recognition, but it hasn’t stopped fifty years of controversy about the method.

The written word is a visual code for the spoken word. Teaching children to make use of the alphabetic structure of words is now considered a necessary step for them to become skilled in reading.

When children are beginning to learn to read, they know the meanings of many more words that they hear and say than of the words they can pronounce on a page.

The strong advantage of knowing how phonics works is that it enables the reading of words not before seen. The meaning is understood once it has been pronounced, if it is a word in the child’s vocabulary, and is amenable to such translation.

This strategy relieves children of the daunting task of trying to remember every new word as a new shape, or of trying to second-guess the author based upon the meaning of the sentence surrounding the difficult word.

Once firm on this primary decoding strategy, children can be challenged with words more opaque to phonic analysis. However, about 80% of English words have sufficient regularity to be decoded in this sound/symbol manner.

Phonics teaching needs to be systematic to ensure an impact on all children.

Some children grasp phonics principles readily, and can then self-teach many of the associated skills when engaged in large amounts of reading.

Others need far more assistance, both in intensity and duration.

Synthetic phonics involves first teaching the letter sounds, and how to blend them together to make words.

The alphabet is introduced systematically, though not necessarily in the traditional order, and includes sufficient practice to ensure the vital sound/symbol associations are firmly established.

These activities are scheduled separately to other language activities such as listening to a teacher read a story.

The alternative, sometimes promoted as phonics within a “balanced” literacy program, has been shown to be hit and miss. When the cues to phonics principles are only presented informally while reading stories, too many children fail to establish and maintain the connections that systematic teaching achieves.

Apart from the findings of the US 2000 National Reading Panel, there are countless studies supportive of the synthetic phonics approach.

One famous study was conducted in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. Children were taught reading using synthetic phonics and in the national reading testing at age 11, the Clackmannanshire students were three years ahead of the national average.

This method of teaching is now mandated for students across Britain under its 2006 Primary National Strategy , though many teachers remain resistant to its implementation.

Phonics is only one necessary element, and other components such an awareness of the sounds in a word, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary also need to be addressed if beginning readers are to progress to skilled levels. This was made clear in the US National Reading Panel report.

Unfortunately, the many empirical studies that have begun to influence policy in Great Britain and the US are yet to have an impact on Australia’s education systems.

Our 2005 National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy was quite unambiguous in its support for systematic, synthetic phonics instruction for beginning readers.

However, an intransigent education industry including education bureaucracies, teacher education faculties, teacher unions, and literacy educator groups has fought successfully to ensure that few of the recommendations of the reviews mentioned are evident in classrooms throughout Australia.

Further, teacher training has not equipped teachers with the knowledge and skills required to teach literacy effectively to all children.

There is an unacceptably high rate of poor literacy in our community. According to the ABS in 2007, almost 50% of Australians aged from 15-74 years are unable to participate fully in our society because of literacy difficulties.

If we are to have an impact on this figure we need to draw upon the findings of empirical research, and to overcome a tendency to be guided by gurus, zealots, social movements, and fads.

When evidence-based practice becomes the norm in education, early phonics instruction will play an important part in ensuring that all children have a better opportunity to develop strong literacy skills. It is literacy that underpins the complex higher order skills needed to flourish in our modern society.

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