What to say to phonic sceptics

In the UK we often hear people making anti-phonics claims in the media, which demonstrate a fundamental lack of understanding of Synthetic Phonics.   Mike Lloyd-Jones, in his book ‘Phonics and the Resistance to Reading’ lists these wrong assertions and challenges them.  Based on his book, here is how we can answer their claims:

“The English language is non-phonetic “

This is not the case.  The English language has a phonic alphabetic code.  It is complex.   Children are taught first the simple part then the complex part.  As part of the complex code children learn alternative spellings for sounds and alternative sounds for spellings.  Most children will need to learn roughly 100 grapheme to phoneme correspondences to become fluent readers.  Very few words fall outside of the phonic code.  Why would we withhold knowledge and skills we know will help children learn to read?  Would we withhold useful information from children when teaching any other subject?

To see the phonic code table click on the link:  https://www.phonicbooks.co.uk/teaching.php

“Children learn in different ways”

Phonics is not a way you teach a child to read but the content and skills necessary to become a fluent reader.  The phonic code (grapheme/phoneme correspondences) is a body of knowledge.   Children also need to learn to segment and blend sounds in words.  Like it is imperative to teach children basic facts and skills how to manipulate those facts for certain functions in order to become numerate – it is imperative to teach children the phonic knowledge and skills to become literate.

“Phonics does not help comprehension”

Reading = decoding + comprehension.  In a minority of case children may be able decode without comprehending what they are reading.  This can occur with EAL children or children with a language deficit.  These children need to be taught vocabulary alongside of decoding.  Most children will develop comprehension once they develop reading fluency, practise reading and expand their vocabulary as a result.

Researchers have found that poor decoders rarely have good comprehension because – you can’t comprehend what you can’t read.  If you find reading difficult you won’t want to practise reading.  If you don’t read – you won’t develop a vocabulary. This will limit your comprehension.  Poor decoders will inevitably be reluctant readers.

Good decoding skills is the best start for good comprehension as it develops fluent and confident readers who read more challenging texts which then develop wider vocabulary, more fluency and further comprehension.  This is clearly depicted in ‘A Simple View of Reading’ (Gough and Tumner 1986).

“Children have different learning styles so ‘mixed methods’ offers them a choice”

  1. Phonic is not a learning style – is about knowledge and skills.
  2. ‘Mixed methods’ offer children a ‘reading-by-guessing’ strategy (guessing by picture, context, grammar and initial letter) alongside of phonics. It leaves children to flounder. They need to decide which inaccurate method to use for every word. ‘Mixed methods’ promotes inaccurate reading. Would we leave children to guess number bonds?

“Phonics deters children from reading for pleasure”

  1. You can’t read for pleasure if you can’t read.
  2. Phonics accelerates the acquisition of literacy which launches children into a rich diet of literature.

Phonics, if taught well, is used only for the first stages of acquiring literacy.  As children are taught to read they should hone their skills in reading exercises called ‘decodable’ books.

Children are not denied access to picture books or books that are beyond their reading level.  Teachers continue to read to children and surround them in a literature rich classroom environment.

Some children learn to read without phonics

Yes, some do as they unscramble the phonic code for themselves.   But a phonics programme will help their spelling.

As we don’t know from the start who will need a structured phonics programme and who will not – should we allow children to fail before we teach them in a systematic way?  Would we refrain from teaching all children number bonds because some children pick them up at home or teach themselves?

 “If phonics has not worked why give children give them more of the same?”

A number of ‘catch-up’ programmes include mixed methods claiming that phonics on its own did not help the child to learn to read.  In most cases the reason the child did not learn to read are:

  1. The child is confused as mixed methods are taught alongside phonics
  2. The child has not been allowed sufficient skill (blending and segmenting) practice before moving to the next stage
  3. The teacher may be teaching a phonics lessons but the books used for reading practice cannot be read using the strategies the teacher has taught as many reading schemes are not decodable. The child must resort to guessing in order to read the text. This means that what struggling readers need is a highly structured phonics programme with plenty of practice of skills at each stage. Using ‘decodable’ reading books is essential to help him/her develop reliable, successful decoding strategies.
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