Tuesday 11 February 2020

The Trouble With Phonics

In 2006, British schools were told to teach children to read using a method known as systematic synthetic phonics. Prior to this, phonics was not used across the board and other methods, such as the whole word method, were used too.

If you have been following me on social media for some time, you will know about my dislike of systematic synthetic phonics as a method for teaching young children to read and write English. Let me tell you why.

I first became aware of the trouble with phonics when my eldest child learnt to read through this method at school. Despite us homeschooling for the first year, she entered school a year late at the age of 5 and a half. I had not taught her to read and because of this she was behind the rest of her year group when she began school. Her teacher decided she would sit in with the year below for the first 15 minutes every morning for their phonics lessons. Within a couple of months she was reading at the same level as her peers, which just goes to show that starting school a year later does not disadvantage the child, however, I noticed some annoying features of her early reading skills. Firstly, she would sound out every single letter before blending it together. This is a strategy she kept up for some time, a lot longer than my second child who did not learn to read using phonics. Secondly, she would say many words incorrectly because she would always say them phonemically and, as we know, English is not a phonemic language. Therefore, 'was' was always pronounced with a short 'a' sound (as in 'cat'), 'here' was pronounced with an 'e' at the end, and you can imagine how words such as 'thought' and 'enough' were pronounced.

It was this experience with my daughter, as well as my knowledge as a linguist, that led me to question the phonics system and I became determined to find a better way for my younger children to learn to read. A way that teaches children the correct pronunciation and spelling right from the start because, in my opinion, it is better to learn properly once than to try to correct ingrained errors. I have thoroughly researched this subject and, as a linguist, I have my own thoughts on this subject too. I will share my findings and realisations with you now.

The point of writing is NOT to record sounds

One of the main problems with phonics is that it presumes that the whole point of the written word is to note down the sounds of language.  This is simply not the case. The point of writing is not to record sounds but to convey meaning. Communication is the reason for language and written language is no different. By writing our messages down we are communicating in a different mode but for the same reason; to convey meaning. 

Phonics does NOT work for all children

Not all children can learn to read using the phonics approach. In 2014, Compton et al. estimated that 10-15% of children struggle with phonics. On top of this there is a high number of children starting secondary school with a low level of literacy and this is unacceptable. Something is clearly not right with the system and children are being failed. Children who find it different to distinguish between speech sounds - often those with speech sound difficulties - and children who have difficulty learning letter-sound correspondence will have difficulties learning to read with the phonics approach.

English spelling is NOT phonemic

Bowers and Bowers (2017) state that, "English spelling is a morphophonemic system in which spellings have evolved to represent sound (phonemes), meaning (morphemes), and history (etymology) in an orderly way." The fact that English spelling is not purely phonemic makes the phonics approach problematic for teaching children to read. In fact, the well-known English linguist David Crystal estimated that almost half of all English words have unpredictable spellings from the phonics point of view. When you think about this, phonics seems like a terrible way to teach children to read.

A lot of people may think that the English spelling system is awful because it is not phonemic but that it not the case. In fact, another well-known linguist Noam Chomsky said the English spelling system is near optimal from a morphological point of view. If you are not familiar with the word, morphology is related to the meaning of the language. Having a spelling system related to morphology makes a lot of sense because, as I said before, written language, and language in general, is about communicating meaning.

So, if you take the word 'sign' and think of related words, you may come up with 'signing', 'design' and 'signature'. Is the 'sign' part of these words the same? Well, 'signature' is pronounced differently to the others, therefore, phonemically they are different but morphologically they are the same because their meanings are interlinked.

Phonics decoding teaches incorrect spelling

There is nothing that annoys me more than reading scheme books filled with incorrect spellings. Their defence for this mistake is that they are teaching children to decode words and, in this way, they are wrongly assuming, as I mentioned above, that the point of writing is to record the sounds of a language. They claim that getting children to learn grapheme-phoneme (letter-sound) correspondence is the most important thing, even if it encourages children to spell incorrectly. I have no problem getting a child to decode a nonsense word, even though it is a waste of time, but I have a big problem with a proper word spelt incorrectly next to a picture of the word's meaning. For example, in the 'Jolly Stories' book by Sara Wernham which focuses on the Jolly Phonics method, 'heiv' is written underneath a picture of a beehive, 'hil' is written underneath a picture of a hill and 

Phonics instruction begins too early

In the UK, children normally start learning to read at the age of three when they attend preschool. They begin to learn phonics, perhaps one letter a week, and then when they get to the first year of primary school, at age four, phonics instruction really ramps up. By the end of their first year at school they should be meeting certain literacy targets and the following year they are assessed using the phonics screening test. This test assesses a child's knowledge of the phonic sounds and their ability to segment a word into sounds and blend sounds to form a word. The phonics screening test consists of 20 real words and 20 non-words. Testing a child on nonsense words is completely pointless because they will never come across those words in any text so it doesn't help them learn to read. I suggest it would be better to focus on learning real words that a child will actually need to read and write.

Most children acround the world do not start any formal education until the age of six or seven and, therefore, do not begin to learn to read and write until then. Despite this, it has been found that by the age if eleven, there is no difference in reading ability between those who started at the age of three and those who started at the age of seven. Moreover, those children who started later often have more positive thoughts and feelings associated with reading. So, why the rush?

Lack of evidence base

Despite systematic synthetic phonics being prescribed by the Rose report of 2006, there actually isn't very much evidence to support this reading scheme in the report itself. In the report Rose states that 'despite uncertainties in findings' phonics is the best approach for the vast majority of children. The Rose report's main evidence for this came from research carried out by Johnson and Watson in Scotland, in 2005. Interestingly, despite this research, systematic synthetic phonics is not compulsory teaching in Scotland.

Since the Rose Report there has been more research carried out into the advantages of learning to read through phonics and results have been favourable. However, when you truly look into a lot of the research papers you can see problems in how the results come about. They do not seem to put systematic phonics against one particular approach but a mixture of different approaches and unless you distinguish between approaches you surely cannot work out which one is best. Jeffery Bowers, an academic at the University of Bristol, stated in a blog post in 2019, "There really is little or no empirical evidence to support the conclusion that systematic phonics is best practice. The fact that this claim is repeated 1000s of times in the literature does not make it so. But it is somewhat of a scandal that the research is so consistently misrepresented in the literature."

Major studies conclude that phonics is important but not sufficient for teaching children to read. Of course it is necessary to teach children grapheme-phoneme correspondence for an alphabetic writing system but this needs to be taught within the wider context of a rich literacy environment that takes morphology into account as well as comprehension and enjoyment.

There are better methods out there

I cannot disagree that aspects of phonics, such as grapheme-phoneme correspondence, are necessary for teaching children to read but there are other approaches that teach this skill among other things and they may be better than systematic synthetic phonics. There are too many approaches to mention here but in my new course, 'Emergent Literacy and Beyond', I will summarise the other main approaches. 

In conclusion, the English writing system's lack of phonemic consistency is not a flawed system. As the linguist Venezky wrote in 1999, "English orthography is not a failed phonetic transcription system, invented out of madness or perversity. Instead it is a more complex system that preserves bits of history (i.e. etymology), facilitates understanding, and also translates into sound." There is nothing wrong with English spellings, it's just that phonics may not be the best approach for helping young children to acquire this writing system.

Additional articles of interest


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