Phonics Myth Buster 2 “Learning to read is a natural process and advocating just a phonics approach destroys a children’s love of books!”

This myth makes me super mad for a number of reasons. It’s the ultimate straw man and is frequently trotted out when faced with research and logical arguments. It is also one of the most ridiculous arguments in the anti-phonics arsenal.

Surrounding children with books does not teach them to read.

Yes being exposed to a rich language environment does give a good foundation of Phonemic awareness and vocabulary but excellent oral language does not ensure excellent reading. A child who struggles to learn to read because they have not been given explicit systematic phonics instruction will not love books no matter how much they are exposed to great literature.

“The scientific evidence that refutes the idea that learning to read is a natural process is of such magnitude that Stanovich (1994) wrote:

That direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioral science. . . . The idea that learning to read is just like learning to speak is accepted by no responsible linguist, psychologist, or cognitive scientist in the research community (pp. 285-286).” http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar98/vol55/num06/Why-Reading-Is-Not-a-Natural-Process.aspx

“Scientists have established that most students will learn to read adequately (though not necessarily well) regardless of the instructional methods they’re subjected to in school. But they’ve also found that fully 40 percent of children are less fortunate. For them, explicit instruction (including phonics) is necessary if they are to ever become capable readers. These findings are true across race, socioeconomic status, and family background.” https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED498005.pdf

Not only is this supported by research I can attest to this through personal experience. My daughter adored books until she went to school. I read to her constantly. It was our main activity. Her first sentence was “read dis book yep” as she followed me around the house toddling and carrying a book. She had a lovely kindy teacher who read her books and played games but she was not so good at teaching phonics. My daughter developed severe anxiety centred around school and reading and would throw her readers across the room with ferocity. I can attest to the fact they were not great literature either!

In year 3 we hired a structured literacy tutor who taught her explicitly and systematically phonics, Fluency, comprehension, phonemic awareness and vocabulary. Gradually her love of books outweighed her fear of books as she learnt to read. So she has gone from being a non reader in year 3, without the ability to even sound out “cat”, to year 7 loving books. I still read to her every night. She has dozens of books piled into her bed to read. To calm her anxiety she reads. She writes stories constantly and says “books are magic portals to other worlds.” English is one of her favourite subjects.

Can anyone please point out who the phonics only advocates are?

I’m not sure who these so called phonics only advocates are because they get mentioned so much and I’m yet to meet them. I’d really like to meet them and tell them how stupid they are…..but I fear they are but a mystical creature. They are the boogie men of the phonics world. Made up to scare all the teachers who don’t want to accept the science that conclusively shows the importance of an explicit and systematic approach to the teaching of reading, including phonics.

Let’s examine some of the phonics check expert advisory panel. Do they advocate a phonics only approach?

Jennifer Buckingham is behind the Five From Five initiative which aims to improve literacy levels by ensuring all children receive effective, evidence based reading instruction. I will give you a clue…..Five from Five….not one from one. Jennifer Buckingham advocates “The simple view of reading is that learning to read requires two abilities – correctly identifying words (decoding) and understanding their meaning (comprehension). Acquisition of these two broad abilities requires the development of more specific skills. An extensive body of research on reading instruction shows that there are five essential skills for reading and that a high quality literacy program should include all five components…..Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabluary and Comprehension.” http://www.fivefromfive.org.au/five-keys-to-reading/ Five from Five is a great website with substantial research information. It is worth taking a look.

Pamela Snow, according to her University profile, specialises in research in “the oral language skills of high-risk young people (youth offenders and those in the state care system), and the role of oral language competence as an academic and mental health protective factor in childhood and adolescence and applying evidence in the language-to-literacy transition in the early years of school.” So put simply she researches the role of oral language and effect on literacy.

What Pamela Snow says about the myth …”One of the tired and hoary old chestnuts that is regularly trotted out against those who argue for better and more systematic phonics instruction is that there’s more to reading than simply decoding text. That’s a bit like saying that there’s more to making a cup of tea than boiling the kettle. Advocates for evidence-based phonics instruction have always seen learning to decode as a necessary but not sufficient part of literacy learning. The Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) asserts the importance of both decoding and comprehension. So if you can’t get words on and off the page, what hope do you have of participating in digital, critical, multi or any other sort of literacy?”http://pamelasnow.blogspot.com.au/2016/04/reading-is-verb-literacy-is-not.html

Check out her blog the Snow report as it is excellent.

Mandy Nayton states “Explicit instruction in phonemic awareness, structured synthetic phonics, vocabulary, reading fluency and reading comprehension strategies provide all children with a clear learning advantagehttp://auspeld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Balanced-Reading-Programs-What-are-they.pdf

So stop trotting the myth out that phonics is promoted as the cure all to reading. Also stop throwing the love of books back at us “phonics advocates.”

The phonics check is a simple check to identify children most at risk of reading failure and ensure all children are given adequate phonics instruction. “We know that children taught to read using structured synthetic phonics will be a year ahead of controls and national norms initially and will maintain or even add to this advantage over time (Johnston and Watson, 2003; McCardle and Chhabra, 2004).” http://auspeld.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Balanced-Reading-Programs-What-are-they.pdf

It is time to drop the myths and ideologies and follow the evidence. We are leaving too many kids behind. Pamela Snow could certainly give you the research on the consequences of illiteracy and as an admin of Dyslexia Support Australia I can give you the horror stories.

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Dekker Delves into Dyslexia

Advocate for the introduction of the phonics check in Australia. Advocate for the teaching of evidence based literacy instruction for every child in every school. The explicit and systematic teaching of Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension. Advocate for Dyslexia Awareness I support reputable organisations such as the Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA), Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA), the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), the FIVE from FIVE Project, and the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) AUSPELD and State-based SPELD organisations, as they all recommend the use of EVIDENCE-BASED TREATMENTS/PROGRAMS for learning difficulties. Mum to 2 delightful, amazing and creative kids. Mum to a kid with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia and anxiety. Admin of Dyslexia Support Australia Group, Dyslexia Awareness Australia and Dyscalculia Awareness Australia. Board of Directors SPELD NSW 10 Years a High School Teacher All my opinions are based not only on experience as a teacher, a mum and an administrator of Australia’s largest Dyslexia Support group but on research. I believe in the scientific method and the need for education to meet the same rigorous evidence based standards as the medical profession.

6 thoughts on “Phonics Myth Buster 2 “Learning to read is a natural process and advocating just a phonics approach destroys a children’s love of books!””

  1. I am starting to privately teach a very bright 9 year old child in her 4th Year at school. She has been surrounded by books and read to since she was a baby, but she cannot read or write any words. Her Year 1 school report was very good. Her Year 2 teacher at the end of the year told the parents she was ‘behind’ but ‘should catch up soon’. The parents then had her vision and visual perception checked and were given a report which no one has looked at. They then had a psychometric assessment report done which no one has looked at. Then they saw an occupational therapist followed by a speech therapist who gave them reports which no one has looked at. This year’s class teacher has told the parents ‘she is behind in reading’ and has offered to give her ’15 minutes of extra time” at lunchtime. No one has sat with this child and taught her to read and spell, I suspect because no one has known what to do with her. This child now hates the books that she used to love and is showing signs of emotional distress. The parents are very worried and very frustrated and fed up with the education system. I have heard these accounts for 29 years in private practice. How much longer will they go on? No one has known how to teach this child to read and spell! As Dr Rowe said in 2006 “It is not rocket science”. I will read all of her assessments and explain to the parents what they mean. Then I will informally assess her literacy sub skills without stressing her. When I find out which of these skills she does know, I will begin directly teaching her alphabet, phonemic awareness, synthetic phonics (bottom up) skills and give her books that she can read to practice. When she has mastered these skills, she will be able to read and write and begin to ‘love books’ again. If she had the proposed Year 1 Phonics check, then had been directly taught these skillls, she would have learned to read and write in her classroom by her class teacher. She may be one of the 5-8% of children with SLD who would need an extra small group synthetic phonics program to augment her class teaching in Year 1&2 and then functionally literate by Year 3. This malfunction in the Australian primary education and teacher training system has got to be addressed, so that these thousands upon thousands upon thousands of cases stop. At present all that is needed is that each State Education Minister and Opposition Education spokesperson agree to implement the Year 1 Phonics check now, followed by scientific evidence based teaching. The teacher unions and English organisations who keep blocking this reform have to respect all of the evidence and responsible reform efforts. These young children and their parents have done nothing wrong and do not deserve to be treated so unprofessionally.

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