There seems to be this gigantic straw man in the phonics debate that those that advocate systematic phonics want there to be only phonics taught. When pushed there doesn’t seem to be one valid example of anyone who advocates a phonics only approach. If you can find one let me know. This blog is about setting fire to the phonics only straw man and outlining evidenced based literacy instruction.
So what are the phonics zealots advocating for?
Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) is often mentioned in the phonics debate but I prefer to use the terminology systematic explicit phonics instruction as this not only distinguishes itself from phonics in context, embedded phonics and analytic phonics but includes SSP and linguistic phonics. Evidenced based literacy instruction includes systematic explicit phonics early as a foundational concept otherwise many children will fail to comprehend text once reading becomes more difficult. I like Louisa Moats labelling “scientific based reading research (SBRR).
Why the focus on phonics in the debate?
Decades of research shows the importance of explicit phonics instruction as a foundational reading skill. Phonics in context is not enough and phonics instruction is often embedded in a balanced literacy program where students are expected to learn to read by some level of magic osmosis. This approach works for some children but leaves a significant number of children at risk of reading failure.
Phonics is an essential foundational skill that for many years has either not been taught at all (whole language) or been sprinkled onto a whole language approach in “balanced literacy”. Such phonics in context teaching has an ideological strangle hold in teacher training as it represents the romantic view of reading instruction. The evidence shows that such an approach will leave many children behind. Phonics needs to be explicitly taught by the teacher in a systematic fashion.
“… studies of reading development, studies of specific instructional practices, studies of teachers and schools found to be effective – converge on the conclusion that attention to small units in early reading instruction is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some” (Snow & Juel, 2005, pp. 501–520).
Evidenced based literacy instruction
Evidenced based literacy instruction includes 5 key elements that must be taught explicitly and systematically. Phonological awareness, Phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension are all essential components of evidenced based literacy instruction. Without a solid foundation of essential reading skills comprehension will be impacted.
Oral language at the core
Oral language is a skill that should be achieved naturally before school and is also an essential foundation to achieve literacy. Oral language should be achieved through everyday interactions with adults. However some children may have language delays and should be referred for specialist intervention. Children with Dyslexia can often initially present with speech language delays due to an underlying phonological deficit.
Unlike the acquisition or oral language, literacy is a skill that needs explicit instruction. Only a small handful of children will achieve the skill of reading seemingly effortlessly and with little instruction through exposure to books. Explicit and systematic teaching in the 5 elements of literacy instruction are beneficial for all children and absolutely essential for a significant percentage of children.
Whilst exposure to a rich language environmental is essential to literacy acquisition it is certainly not enough to enable the great majority of children to become capable readers.
Phonological awareness and phonemic awareness
Phonological awareness (PA) is the ability to perceive and manipulate the sound and language components of words onset, rimes, phonemes and syllables. Many children develop the basic skills of phonological awareness through songs, rhymes and listening to children’s books. Poor phonological awareness is a very good predictor of reading failure.
“Researchers have shown that this strong relationship between phonological awareness and reading success persists throughout school” (Calfee, Lindamood, & Lindamood, 1973; Shankweiler et al., 1995). http://www.ldonline.org/article/6254/
Phonemic awareness is a sub skill of phonological awareness which where children identify and manipulate individual sounds (phonemes) in a word. It includes the ability to separate a word into the sounds that make it up and to blend single sounds into words. It is like phonics without the actual association with letters. It is the top tier of phonological awareness. The development of phonemic awareness, being a higher order phonological awareness skill, can be difficult for most children and very difficult for some children. It is often an area of difficulty for children with Dyslexia and for children who have not been exposed to a rich oral language environment. For those children at risk of reading failure phonemic awareness needs to be explicitly taught.
“PA instruction helped all types of children improve their reading, including normally developing readers, children at risk for future reading problems, disabled readers, preschoolers, kindergartners, 1st graders, children in 2nd through 6th grades (most of whom were disabled readers), children across various SES levels, and children learning to read in English as well as in other languages.” National Reading Panel Report: An evidenced based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction.” https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf
“That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates reading acquisition, is one of the most well established conclusions in behavioural science” Stanovich, progress in understanding reading
Phonics is the alphabetic code of the English language. It is the relationship between speech sounds and how we represent them in writing using letters of the alphabet. Phonics utilises the ability to break down the code of a word into individual phonemes and attach them to graphemes. This is particularly important for children with Dyslexia who will often need a much more intensive approach to the teaching of phonics. All students benefit from an explicit and systematic approach to teaching phonics.
“Current research tells us unequivocally that struggling learners benefit: When the structure of spoken and written language, beginning with phonemes, is represented for them explicitly, sequentially, directly and systematically in the context of a comprehensive reading program” Birsh and Ghassemi 2010
“The evidence is clear that the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read, particularly those at risk of having problems with reading.” Rose review, England (2006)
Fluency is achieved when children have gained enough mastery and automaticity of phonics and high frequency words that their reading seems effortless. Children who are fluent read out loud with expression. Children who have achieved fluency at an appropriate level for the text do not guess but read with accuracy and sound out unknown words. Often children with Dyslexia don’t have the automaticity of the alphabetic code to achieve accurate reading at a flowing speed and their reading is laboured and choppy as a result. Lack of fluency will require a much greater load on working memory and processing speed and thus hinders comprehension of text.
Fluency can be assisted by the use of decodable readers in the early stages of reading. Decodable readers enable faster recognition of words, which in turn reduces the amount of mental energy required to decode the text. This facilitates the building of automaticity, fluency and confidence.
Students should be given ample opportunities to read out loud. Guessing and the use of multi cueing strategies should be discouraged in early reading acquisition. Children should be encouraged to decode unfamiliar words..”
Knowing the meaning of words is essential for comprehension. The ability to read a word is essentially meaningless without understanding the word. Early exposure to conversations and being read to is of paramount importance to developing a rich bank of spoken vocabulary.
Achieving early reading fluency is essential to prevent the Mathew effect which will have a significant impact on a students acquisition of reading vocabulary. The Mathew effect is where poor readers are limited to restricted vocabulary in their reading and leads to a widening gap between readers as those who are successful early in reading are able to build a huge store of vocabulary through reading more complex texts.
Audio books and adults reading text can assist children to build vocabulary who are struggling to read at grade level.
It is also important to explicitly teach children vocabulary.
Comprehension is the extraction of meaning from text and is the end point for reading. It requires a set of complex foundational skills as discussed. Any deficit in any of these skills will hinder comprehension. A child who cannot read at a word or sentence level or a child will poor vocabulary will have impaired comprehension. A child without adequate fluency, poor working memory or attentional issues may lose the meaning of the text.
“Teaching reading [comprehension] strategies is worthwhile, but we should bear in mind that knowledge of strategies is only a small part of what makes an effective reader. A good reader also decodes fluently, has a broad vocabulary, and has wide-ranging background knowledge.” Willingham (2006)
Fewer than 1% of children who a good decoders with adequate vocabulary will have comprehension difficulties. (Lyn Stone, Reading for Life, 2019)
The simple view of reading
The ‘Simple View of Reading’, (Gough & Tumner, 1986) describes that reading comprehension is achieved when decoding and linguistic comprehension is achieved. Deficiency in either area will lead to poor comprehension. My daughter is an excellent example of the importance of each aspect. Assessed at age 8 ½ she had a reading comprehension age 1 ½ years below her peers. But testing also revealed a superior level of oral comprehension. My daughter was exposed early to a rich language environment. She enjoyed having complex text read to her much earlier than my other child. In preschool the teachers noted her huge vocabulary. Yet she struggled to learn to read because for children with dyslexia explicit systematic phonics is absolutely essential.
Strands of early literacy development. Reprinted from Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice, by H. S. Scarborough, in S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson (Eds.), 2002, Handbook of early literacy research, p. 98,
Classroom instruction best practice
The 5 keys to evidenced based literacy instruction must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.
The National Inquiry into Teaching of Literacy in Australia (2005) states; “in sum, the incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based literacy research is that for children in the early years of schooling (and subsequently if needed), to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written language, they must first master the alphabetic code – the system of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that link written words to their pronunciations. Because these are both foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.”
Explicitly: “Explicit teaching is where teaching follows a very important direct principal of instruction when helping students to acquire essential skills.” Julie Mavlian 2018
Systematically: Students are introduced to one concept or skill at a time before moving onto more complex areas. “Explicit instruction is also systematic: there is a carefully planned sequence for instruction, not simply a spur of the moment approach. The plan is constructed in a logical sequence that proceeds in a hierarchy from simple to complex objectives.”Hempenstall (2016) Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Teaching of Reading (p31)
Early: Before school students need to be exposed to a rich language environment in order to develop foundational vocabulary and phonological awareness. When children start school they should be explicitly taught phonological awareness and phonics due to the fact that they form an essential foundation to reading.
Well: Skills should be assessed and monitored and mastery of each skill should be achieved before progression to higher order skills.
We are leaving too many children behind. Illiteracy has devastating consequences. One child struggling to learn to read, who could have been taught, is one child too many. I know because that one child was my child. With the assistance of a tutor I was able to teach her to read. But the emotional scars remain years later. What I would like to see in this debate is less ideology, rhetoric and straw men and more facts and evidence!
Resources and further reading
Examples of High Quality, Evidence-Based Phonics Programs DSF https://www.education.sa.gov.au/sites/g/files/net691/f/examples_of_high_quality_evidence-based_phonics_programs.pdf
Reading for life Lyn Stone