As has been pointed out to me over the last few days, I am a senior maths and physics teacher who has never taught reading. Perhaps this is the cause of a bias in how I interpret arguments about phonics. When I see something that is plainly wrong and that is written by someone with superior literacy credentials to my own, I jump to the assumption that this must be a deliberate attempt to mislead. But I may have been too hasty. Although perhaps not rocket science, early reading instruction has enough snags and points of contention that it could conceivably slip up those who are acting in good faith. So, bear that in mind as I unpack a particularly damaging misconception and/or misrepresentation: The idea of ‘phonics only’ that arose in my previous phonics post.
Decoding versus Language Comprehension
The ‘simple view of reading’ suggests reading comprehension is the product of decoding and language comprehension. Things can get a little tricky here, but decoding is basically the process of turning squiggles on a page into a word. Language comprehension is then the process of recognising the meaning of that word and fitting it in to an evolving model of what the text is describing.
This distinction is perhaps best illustrated with the aid of an archaic word. Say you read the sentence, ‘She asked for a potation’. If you have never encountered the word ‘potation’ before then it is a good bet that as a competent reader, you could probably still pronounce it. This illustrates decoding in the absence of language comprehension. If you then looked up the word, you could assign meaning to it.
The reason England’s phonics screening check asks children to read pseudowords like ‘sut’ and ‘dop’ - presented to the children as the names of alien characters - is to check this decoding process in isolation from the language comprehension component because decoding is rightly viewed a critically important component of skilled reading.
‘Phonics only’ for decoding
As with most misconceptions, there is a truth buried within the lie. Advocates of synthetic phonics would claim that phonics should be the only technique taught for decoding. Well, almost. There are some differences within the phonics community about whether a small number of high frequency words should be memorised ‘by sight’, but let’s set that aside.
Why stress that only phonics should be used for decoding? Well, the historical context is that other approaches to decoding words have been used and are still being used. England’s 1998 National Literacy Strategy, for instance, promoted the ‘searchlights’ model where:
“…when a child learning to read encounters a word he or she does not know, the child is encouraged to 'work out' the word either by inferring from narrative context or syntax, by sounding out the word or by recognising the shape of the word from a previous encounter.”
This is a version of the ‘three-cueing’ or ‘multi-cueing’ system that is also found in the Reading Recovery intervention. Advocates of synthetic phonics argue that good readers are skilled at using phonics knowledge to decode words and so teaching these other strategies is a waste of time and potentially harmful.
Unfortunately, this picture is further complicated by authors, including those of the National Literacy Strategy, who use the term ‘decoding’ exclusively as a synonym for ‘decoding using phonics’ and not for other ways to ‘work out’ the words. Phonics advocates would claim phonics should be the only method used to work out the words, whatever you want to call that.
There is more to reading than decoding
Phonics instruction alone is not enough to to build fluent decoding. This requires a lot of practice and so phonics advocates assign children ‘decodable’ books to read that contain only the letter-sound relationships that the children have so far been taught. However, as the simple view of reading implies, we have so far only addressed one half of what is needed for skilled reading - decoding. Language comprehension requires knowledge of words and broader knowledge of the world.
I doubt there are any early literacy classrooms anywhere where children are not given time to play, not read stories, not engaged in discussions, and not surrounded by a wide range of children’s books that they can flick through or ask questions about - all of which build language comprehension.
Yet some people repeatedly claim that advocates of phonics insist that the entirety of literacy education should be ‘phonics only’ instruction. This is wrong in principle because no theory of reading would support this. And it is wrong in practice because it is safe to assume that nobody does this. Typically, explicit phonics teaching may take-up about 30 minutes of the school day.
It is a good rhetorical tactic - one that’s likely to see you quoted in The Guardian - to argue that those nasty phonics zealots want kids sat in rows all day while the teacher drills them in letter-sound relationships, but it is entirely wrong.
Is this error the result of a basic lack of knowledge or of a more sinister attempt to manipulate opinion against phonics instruction? I’ll let you decide.