Why ‘mixed methods’ scupper mastering the phonic code

Time and again research has shown that mastering the phonic code is key to successful, fluent reading. The mastery of this knowledge is particularly vital for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Experienced teachers will have observed that some children manage to unscramble the phonic code for themselves and will learn to read regardless of how they are taught. Others do not. These children need structured teaching of the phonic code until they learn to master it. Now that systematic synthetic phonics is part of the National Curriculum, one may think that the ‘phonics debate’ has been settled.

And yet… some teachers still advocate the use of ‘mixed methods’ (also known as ‘multi- cueing’) without realising that, in so doing, they are scuppering the chances some of their pupils of mastering the phonic code – the key to reading success.

Under the banner that children are all different, many teachers believe they must offer their pupils different approaches to reading. What they don’t realise is these other strategies are unhelpful to their pupils and contradict their own phonics teaching.

What are the ‘mixed methods’ strategies?
While in our phonics lessons we teach graphemes, the sounds they spell and how to blend them into words – ‘mixed methods’ encourages the reader to seek clues other than reading the word. Children are encouraged to seek clues in:
1. The picture
2. The first letter
3. The context of the story
4. Grammar of the sentence
What does this mean? It means that children are guided away from the graphemes on the page and encouraged to guess. So in fact ‘mixed methods’ are guessing strategies.

In our phonics lessons we teach children decoding (reading) and encoding (spelling) skills but when reading with the children we encourage them to use their guessing skills.

What is wrong with guessing?

Confusion

Children will resort to guessing, given half a chance, as this is an easier option than decoding a new word. They may use guessing as the primary strategy for working out any new word they encounter. This will cause confusion. When reading a new word they might wonder: Do I sound it out? Guess from the picture? Guess from the first letter? Guess from the story? Read on and guess from the sentence? Which strategy do I use – when?

Conflicting messages

By teaching phonics in one way but not reinforcing this when children actually read, we are giving our pupils conflicting messages. The reading experience should consolidate and develop the phonic knowledge and skills taught in the phonics lesson. What is the point of teaching phonic reading strategies if pupils are then discouraged from using them when they need them to read a text?

Inaccuracy – poor comprehension

Guessing leads to inaccurate reading. Inaccurate reading leads to poor comprehension. Poor comprehension leads to – well, poor readers.

Guessing strategies are unreliable

Mixed methods are unreliable. Here is why:
1. If children guess a word by scanning the picture – what do they do when there is no picture?
2. If children guess by the first letter how can they know if the word is response, repose, responsibility, responsible, respite etc (lots more alternatives…)?
3. If children guess by context or grammar – what happens when there is no context, e.g. in a caption or title?
In short- ‘mixed methods’ offer the reader unreliable props.

Mixed methods don’t help children master the phonic code

Teachers should be asking the question: does this strategy help my pupil read this word the next times he/she sees it? When children get in the habit of guessing, they don’t utilise or develop their phonic skills. They can’t extrapolate their phonic knowledge from one word to other words with the same grapheme and thus have to guess every new word they encounter! A missed learning opportunity!

It is really important that we all understand that ‘mixed methods’ are unhelpful to children learning to read and they contradict our own teaching! Let’s stick to Synthetic Phonics not just in our lessons but when reading with children and our pupils will have a better chance of mastering the phonic code and becoming successful readers!

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