Phonics debate embracing the evidence

Phonics in context debate 2018

I thought seriously about attending the debate. But I knew it would make me angry listening to the same old ridiculous arguments trotted out by the negative team. Listening to it online they certainly didn’t disappoint. I have heard every one of the points time and time again. Seems to be a theme in any phonics debate that the negative team bring out arguments that they have no substantiated evidence for but have become accepted knowledge in the teaching universe. Teachers seem to be in a bubble of ignorance that they hand down to the new generation of teachers. I was a teacher for 10 years so don’t throw the teaching bashing thing back at me!

The negative side was actually hard to analyse because it seemed to lack substance, be emotive and verged on the fluffy side of the debate. I don’t know if this was a deliberate attempt to confuse the audience or showed a level of ignorance on the part of negative side.

Most of all listening to the debate made me so sad. Sad that parents seemed to be lumped with a lot of the blame. The primary function of school is surely to teach children to read. Not parents. Sad that the research and science that has been established over decades is dismissed with the old chestnut “We know best.” Sad that the negative didn’t even seem to listen to the affirmative and continued on their quest despite it making them look like they missed what the debate was about. Sad that so many kids are being failed. Seriously failed. I hear the horror stories of kids as young as 6 wanting to die because they can not read.

The affirmative supported their arguments with research evidence so I am addressing the negative points with research to show the flaws in their arguments. I will include a few anecdotes in there because the negative seemed to like to tell a good yarn.

We have between us been teaching and in education for 100 years.

I hear this one a lot. “I’ve been teaching for decades so I know best.” To be honest I taught with many teachers who have been teaching for decades who were terrible teachers. Never improved the day they walked into a classroom. Never moved with new techniques or learnt from their mistakes. I taught for a decade and I guarantee if I walked back in a classroom today I would be a better teacher. I have researched, experienced and learnt so much as a parent of a child with multiple learning difficulties. I do think about it a lot that I could have done a much better job as a high school teacher, even though I think I was one of the better ones. I could have taught more explicitly, gone to more professional development about learning difficulties and supported kids more who could not read and write.

I think many of the problems of this insistence that “Balanced Literacy” works is that many children look like they are reading initially. Then there is the well documented year 3 or 4 slump when text becomes complex and the picture cues disappear and the child stumbles. By then the teacher has moved on to a bright new cohort of young learners failing to see the strugglers. This was certainly our experience, though compounded by severe anxiety and poor teaching, our slump was in year 2 right after reading Recovery ended. My daughter gained 2 reading levels in the whole year and could not sound out even the alphabet let alone a word.

Reading is a natural process like learning to speak as a baby.

“Children’s life chances.”

“Baby as a meaning maker.”

“Reading is an epiphany.”

The running theme or misguided belief that seemed to be consistent in the negative debate is that the development of oral language is the be all and end all of learning to read. The negative seem to be confused between learning to speak and learning to read!

I have actually addressed this in my previous BLOG https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/04/10/phonics-check-myth-buster-2-learning-to-read-is-a-natural-process-and-advocating-just-a-phonics-approach-destroys-a-childrens-love-of-books/

I was so saddened by this that the parent blaming game seemed to be a central argument. As admin of Dyslexia Support Australia in our group we have discussed this many times. It makes parents so sad that the default position of teachers when a child struggles to learn to read seems to be “Did you read to your child enough?” This is so ingrained in teacher beliefs that they never stop to think about their own teaching. As a very involved parent it hurts. Without my intervention working on phonics with the guidance of our tutor there is no way my child would be able 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. I still read to her at age 13. She went to preschool for 2 1/2 years and was surrounded by rhyme, songs and books. She was read to and spoken to by Aunts, Uncles and grandparents who are Doctors, lawyers, teachers and authors. Her first sentence was “read dis book yep” as she followed me around the house toddling and carrying a book. When tested, in our search for answers, she had above average verbal comprehension.

The cover photo for this blog is me reading a book to my baby who struggled to learn to read until she got explicit and systematic phonics instruction.

Phonics is not enough!

“Not sufficient to privilege phonics”

I’m actually wondering if the negative side actually listened to the affirmative side at all or just came with a defined script. Which is poor debating. Both Jennifer Buckingham and Anne Castles started their speeches outlining this as the exact point and Jennifer runs a project FivefromFive it is most definitely not OnefromOne.Troy Verey actually outlined how phonics is taught at his school in 30 minutes sessions explicitly and sequentially. He also outlined how explicit instruction was given in phonological awareness, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. He said more than once the 5 essentials of reading. Yet Mark Diamond ludicrously followed this minutes later with “ Phonics is not enough!”

Meaning comes first

This was reiterated over and over again by the negative side of the debate. I’d like to know how you get meaning out of text if you cant actually read the individual words?

Comprehension is most certainly the ultimate goal of reading but unlike what the negative say there are many foundational skills needed for comprehension to occur. Research supports that comprehension and fluency is achieved when a solid foundation has been laid down to achieve success. The foundational skills of oral language, phonemic awareness and phonics are of paramount importance. Often children with dyslexia have a phonological deficit which will impact significantly on their ability to learn the alphabetic principle and sounds of the English language. This doesn’t not mean that they need alternative methods. It means that they need to be explicitly taught in a systematic and intensive way to decode the sounds of the English language.

The Simple View of Reading outlines that learning to read requires two abilities – correctly identifying words by decoding and understanding their meaning (comprehension).

“ Reading Comprehension = Decoding x linguistic comprehension (R=DxLC)

The Simple View of Reading differentiates between two dimensions of reading: Word recognition processes and Language comprehension processes. It makes clear that different kinds of teaching are necessary to promote word recognition skills from those needed to foster the comprehension of spoken and written language, which is the goal of reading. Though considered separately, both dimensions are essential to reading. It is of first importance for teachers of reading to be clear about which of these two dimensions their teaching aims to develop, and make sure each of them is taught explicitly.” Sir Jim Rose https://www.teachermagazine.com.au/articles/teaching-reading-its-simple-but-not-simplistic

“Research has shown that good readers do not skim and sample the text when they scan a line in a book. They process the letters of each word in detail, although they do so very rapidly and unconsciously. Those who comprehend well accomplish letter-wise text scanning with relative ease and fluency. When word identification is fast and accurate, a reader has ample mental energy to think over the meaning of the text. Knowledge of sound-symbol mapping is crucial in developing word recognition: the ability to sound out and recognize words accounts for about 80 percent of the variance in first-grade reading comprehension and continues to be a major (albeit diminishing) factor in text comprehension as students progress through the grades” Moats, 1999 Reading is Rocket Science.

“ . . . less-skilled readers often find themselves in materials that are too difficult for them (Allington, 1977, 1983, 1984; Gambrell, Wilson, & Gantt, 1981). The combination of deficient decoding skills, lack of practice, and difficult materials results in unrewarding early reading experiences that lead to less involvement in reading-related activities. Lack of exposure and practice on the part of the less skilled reader delays the development of automaticity and speed at the word recognition level. Slow, capacity-draining word recognition processes require cognitive resources that should be allocated to comprehension. Thus, reading for meaning is hindered; unrewarding reading experiences multiply; and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement” (Stanovich, 1986).

Rich Meaningful text – decodables are a concern

I suspect that Robyn Ewing may have never read a decodable reader. They can certainly be fun and engaging because there is nothing more exciting for a child then to be able to be able to fluently read a story on the page. In my personal experience as a parent the PM readers were actually mostly terrible. My daughter hated them and would throw them across the room. We even had one that showed a mum in the kitchen cooking while the dad was in his study smoking a cigar. When our tutor switched us to Phonics readers both my children loved the stories and would ask for me to read them to them at bed time also. My daughter’s face would light up as finally reading made sense.

No teacher of synthetic phonics excludes rich and meaningful texts from the classroom. As Troy Verey outlined at Marsden road they start children on decodables and move them to full text as appropriate. Until then they read books to them to improve their vocabulary.

My daughter arrived at school absolutely loving books. From an early age she loved a complex story and preferred that we read things to her like Harry Potter whereas her sister (who is not Dyslexic) wanted us to read simple picture books. But being taught phonics poorly and non systematically in a “balanced classroom” made her hate reading. It took us much longer to remediate her reading than remediate her fear of books. Now after tutoring in explicit systematic phonics and the 5 keys of reading she reads for pleasure. She wants to be an author and writes books for relaxation. She went well in Year 7 English and was reading for enjoyment the text chosen by her teacher to study in class later in the year just by coincidence. English is her favourite academic subject.

Without intervention by myself, her tutor and thankfully a Learning support teacher (came to the school in year 2) who believed in explicit systematic phonics I have no doubt she would have been another child to add to the illiteracy statistics. A child behind grade level in reading at the beginning of year 4 has a 12% chance of ever catching up!

The High Stakes Phonics check is a concern

“Nonsense words are problematic if reading is about making meaning.”

“Disadvantages good readers”

“The JABBERWOCKY!”

The concern actually is that Robyn Ewing has obviously not read the research on the importance of nonsense words (psuedowords).

“the speed of naming pronounceable nonwords is one of the tasks that most clearly differentiates good from poor readers” (p. 40). Also, “the persistent differences between skilled and less skilled readers in reaction times to pseudowords seem to be due to processes…operating on subword processes” (p. 41). One of these “subword processes” is the application of phonics rules to recognize written words.”

” pseudoword naming is discovered to be a “potent predictor of reading ability at all levels” (p. 100).

Keith Stanovich (2000) http://www.nrrf.org/old/essay_pseudowords.html

In sum, one of the most well replicated findings in reading disability research is that, compared to chronological-age controls, reading-disabled children have difficulty in reading pseudowords” (Stanovich, 2000, p. 129). That is to say, there is an “incredible potency of pseudoword reading as a predictor of reading difficulty” (p. 207). A notable experimental finding in this regard is that pseudowords, “such as bint that have word neighbors that are inconsistent in pronunciation (pint, mint) took longer to pronounce than nonwords without inconsistent word neighbors (e.g., tade)” (p. 215).

Studies of the reading of pseudowords also have implications regarding the performance of poor readers with high and low IQs. It is found (Stanovich, 2000, p. 329) “that these two groups of children display equivalent pseudoword reading deficits.” This kind of evidence leads some reading researchers to conclude that “unless it can be shown to have some predictive value for the nature of treatment or treatment outcome, considerations of IQ should be discarded in discussions of reading difficulties” (p. 96).”

http://www.nrrf.org/old/essay_pseudowords.html

There is no evidence in the UK that the test disadvantages good readers. The nonsense words are clearly indicated. I find it quite incredulous that she says that the UK has not improved their reading. The first cohort of the phonics check has just achieved the best PIRLS results in a generation.

Yet Kathy Ruston quotes a Reading Recovery teacher who talks about Marie Clay. The home of reading Recovery and Marie Clay is New Zealand who have terrible PIRLS results.

“New Zealand continues to have the largest spread of scores from good to poor readers among developed countries. The long tail of poor literacy achievement remains, despite attempts to shrink the gap. New Zealand, now ranked 33rd, used to be in first place in 1970. New Zealand is the poorest performing country in the English-language world. Our teachers have been trained and provided with teaching resources that are out of step with contemporary research, and with literacy teaching practices in other countries. Britain, for example, has made significant improvements in literacy learning outcomes since the introduction of systematic phonics instruction towards the first decade of this century. As the UK newspaper The Telegraph noted today, “Reading standards in England are the best in a generation, new international test results show, after the push towards phonics led to a dramatic improvement in children’s attainment.”” Professor James Chapman, Distinguished Professor Bill Tunmer and Dr Alison Arrow http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle_uuid=FFBE6235-9CB5-4742-97C0-E1AA4ED407B5

High stakes testing!? Teachers must be very scary indeed if they can’t sit with their students one on one and perform a 5 minute check of 40 words without stressing out the kids. The overwhelming majority of parents with children with dyslexia in our group found the suggestion that a 40 word check would cause student hardship ludicrous. Because the reality is illiteracy causes far more hardship including children who self harm, talk of suicide, have school refusal, learned helplessness, behaviour difficulties and secondary mental health issues. This has already been addressed in my blog https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/03/09/phonics-screening-check-myth-buster-1-the-phonics-tests-will-be-too-stressful/

The example of the Jabberwocky as reading for meaning really did make me chuckle as I actually used it as an example in my blog of the need for decoding to translate the many nonsense words in rich children’s literature. https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2018/04/19/phonics-check-myth-buster-3-nonsense-words-are-silly-and-we-should-test-reading-in-context/ . How could you possibly read the Jabberwocky from context alone is beyond me. One of the great problems with the concept of phonics for adults is that they don’t realise they are decoding, as they do it so effortlessly, and can’t remember how they learnt to read….especially the ones who need walking sticks. (Robyn Ewing mentioned walking sticks not me!)

Commercial programs off the shelf

Commercial programs certainly play a roll in the introduction of synthetic phonics within a school when teacher training proves inadequate. They are a quick way to achieve teacher training and give a good guide for the systematic approach that must be taken in the teaching of phonics. However none of the panel are selling or advocating commercial programs to be the way to go. As Louisa Moats states “A program is only as good as the teacher implementing it.” If our teachers are inadequately trained introducing systematic explicit phonics through a program will ultimately fail.

I also find this quite strange when many commercial programs with a poor evidence base are being readily embraced in schools in Australia. Brain Gym is now considered the poster child of pseudoscientific rubbish that finds its ways into our schools. Should we dare mention the $50 million dollars a year NSW was throwing at Reading Recovery until a research review showed it was little bang for a bucket load of cash. Many states are still throwing $ at Reading Recovery. Read more about Reading Recovery here. http://www.kevinwheldall.com/2013/02/small-bangs-for-big-bucks-long-term.html

We need to meet the needs of the individual

No actually we need to use a scientifically based approach that gets all children reading. Our current dominate way of teaching children to read learning phonics in context is leaving a great percentage of children illiterate.

“Thanks to new scientific research—plus a long- awaited scientific and political consensus around this research—the knowledge exists to teach all but a handful of severely disabled children to read well. Recent scientific studies have allowed us to understand more than ever before how literacy develops, why some children have diffi- culty, and what constitutes best instructional practice. Scientists now estimate that fully 95 percent of all children can be taught to read.“ Louisa Moats Reading is Rocket Science 1999

“Research indicates that, although some children will learn to read in spite of incidental teaching, others never learn unless they are taught in an organized, systematic, efficient way by a knowledgeable teacher using a well-designed instructional approach. And, while many students from high-risk environments come to school less prepared for literacy than their

more advantaged peers, their risk of reading difficul- ties could still be prevented and ameliorated by liter- acy instruction that includes a range of research- based components and practices. But, as the statistics testify, this type of instruction clearly has not made its way into every classroom.” Louisa Moats teaching Reading is Rocket Science 1999

12% of English words are regular so phonics doesn’t get you far to reading

I really have no idea where this ludicrous statistic came from. “The spelling of words in English is more regular and pattern- based than commonly believed. According to Hanna, Hanna, Hodges, and Rudorf (1966), half of all English words can be spelled accurately on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone, meaning that the letters used to spell these words predictably represent their sound patterns (e.g., back, clay, baby). These patterns, though, are somewhat complex and must be learned (e.g., when to use “ck” as in back and when to use “k” as in book). Another 34 percent of English words would only have one error if they were spelled on the basis of sound-symbol correspondences alone.* That means that the spelling of 84 percent of words is mostly predictable. Many more words could be spelled correctly if other information was taken into account, such as word meaning and word origin. The authors estimated that only four percent of English words were truly irregular.” How Spelling Supports Reading And Why It Is More Regular and Predictable Than You May Think, Louisa Moats

“We Don’t leave reading to chance!” Troy Verey

“Too many kids missing out on learning to read due to the rejection of the scientific knowledge” Jennifer Buckingham

It is time as a nation that we took a scientific approach to the teaching of reading as we are leaving far too many children behind. As a parent of one of those children who still has learned helplessness, anxiety and self esteem issues as a result of early reading failure one child is too many.

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Phonics myth buster 3 “Nonsense words are silly and we should teach reading in context.”

“Nonsense words are nonsense” is utter nonsense!

One myth that immediately shows the tigers stripes is the myth about nonsense words and context. Straight away your opponent has shown their lack of understanding of learning to read, the importance of phonics and their alliance to multi cueing.

Are nonsense words really nonsense? After all any word that is not in a child’s vocabulary is a nonsense word. Without the ability to decode nonsense words the reading of some of the best children’s literature would be impossible!

Crodsquinkled’ – The BFG by Roald Dahl

Woozles’, ‘Wizzles’ and ‘Heffalumps’ – Winnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne

Hornswogglers, snozzwangers, whangdoodles and Oompa-Loompas –Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Nonsense words or pseudowords are an essential part of the phonics check. Pseudoword decoding issues are a well established predictor of reading difficulties. Nonsense word tests such as DIBELS have been used for some time as an indicator of decoding difficulties.

Keith Stanovich (2000) …cites several experimental studies that conclude;

• “the speed of naming pronounceable nonwords is one of the tasks that most clearly differentiates good from poor readers” (p. 40).

• It thus is not surprising that pseudoword naming is discovered to be a “potent predictor of reading ability at all levels” (p. 100).

• there is an “incredible potency of pseudoword reading as a predictor of reading difficulty” (p. 207). http://www.nrrf.org/old/essay_pseudowords.html

The phonics Screening check has been examined for validity. “Our analyses show that the phonics screening check is a highly valid measure of children’s phonic skills. The check showed convergent validity by correlating strongly with other measures of phonic skills (e.g., teacher judgements of phonic ability and psychometric tests of nonword reading and spelling) and with broader measures of reading (e.g., single-word reading accuracy, prose reading accuracy and comprehension). It also demonstrated discriminant validity, by showing weaker correlations with more distal skills (e.g., vocabulary and maths).

Furthermore, the phonics screening check seemed to be sensitive with respect to identifying children at risk of reading difficulties.” (Duff 2015) https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/1467-9817.12029

It needs to be emphasised that this is a simple check of one essential element of reading. An element that can certainly derail a child’s road to effective reading quickly. We also now understand that the majority of children with Dyslexia have a phonological deficit and these children make up the great majority of children who fail to learn to read and require intensive intervention.

In my daughter’s case we were told time and time again she was going ok despite the fact that my parent alarm bell was ringing. It wasn’t until half way through year 2 ,when our new school learning support teacher tested her phonics, that we knew something was really wrong. My daughter could not decode even the most simple nonsense words. Yet she had given the impression she was reading for over 2 years due to her wonderful ability to “guess”. My daughter was read to from a young age and has an enormous vocabulary so she has the ability to guess in context. She would often finish sentences that were over the page. This is not reading.

I’ve heard teachers and parents claiming good readers fail the test and they get tricked by the nonsense words. Nonsense Words are clearly indicated with a monster symbol! There is only one correct pronunciation!

It’s highly Likely that these mystery children have been taught to read using context clues and guessing strategies. These children also may have had the phonics check nonsense word section poorly explained to them. They are also likely to be at risk of reading failure later due to inability to decode.

What about the teachers who in the UK are teaching nonsense words? I’ve heard this as an argument. I haven’t seen any evidence. If they are teaching nonsense words then this is the fault of the teachers and not the check. The only way to teach how to decode nonsense words is to teach decoding explicitly and systematically.

There are some situations when a very limited teaching of nonsense words is valid. It is probably appropriate to explain to children before the phonics test what a nonsense word is, give some examples and show that it is indicated by the monster. Also explain to kids these words have to be decoded. In the case of my daughter we use nonsense words as a diagnostic tool. She has such an extensive vocabulary and has poor guessing habits so we need to test whether she can actually decode. Whether she has learnt a phoneme or guessing is very evident once we throw in a few pseudowords.

Using cues in context for reading comprehension as an adult or a capable reader is a useful strategy. Reading in context for word identification using multiple cues for beginning readers is not a useful strategy and is often a fallback coping mechanism for the poor readers. Encouraging of guessing is not reading and is a very difficult bad habit to undo in struggling readers. It took a long time for us to teach our daughter to decode rather than guess. Going through every word starting with a “D” that you know when faced with an unknown word is not efficient. As a parent it is maddening when my child does this. When she is encouraged to decode she will get the word quickly.

Scientific evidence strongly demonstrates that the development of skilled reading involves increasingly accurate and automatic word identification skills, not the use of “multiple cueing systems” to read words. Skilled readers do not need to rely on pictures or sentence context in word identification, because they can read most words automatically, and they have the phonics skills to decode occasional unknown words rapidly. Rather, it is the unskilled readers who tend to be dependent on context to compensate for poor word identification.” http://www.readingrockets.org/article/use-context-cues-reading

The year 4 reading slump is well documented and is often when children with Dyslexia are diagnosed. In year 3 we switch from learning to read to reading to learn. The text becomes much more difficult at this point and the pretty pictures that children have used to help them guess have vanished. Lack of ability to decode unknown words becomes very evident at this point and affects fluency and comprehension if decoding is not automatic. Reliance on multiple cueing systems fails miserably.

“The 3-cueing approach is a microcosm of the culture of education. It didn’t develop because teachers lack integrity, commitment, motivation or intelligence. It developed because they were poorly trained and advised. They didn’t know the relevant science or had been convinced it was irrelevant. Lacking this foundation, no such group could have discovered how reading works and how children learn.” (Seidenberg, 2017, p.304) For further information on the three cueing system read https://www.nifdi.org/news-latest-2/blog-hempenstall/402-the-three-cueing-system-in-reading-will-it-ever-go-away

Anyone who declares nonsense words are nonsense does not know how to teach reading or how to identify children at risk of reading. I need a big digital stamp for every time I hear this nonsense.

Let me leave you with a little nonsense.

Jabberwocky a nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!

Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun

The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:

Long time the manxome foe he sought —

So rested he by the Tumtum tree,

And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,

The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,

Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,

And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! And through and through

The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!

He left it dead, and with its head

He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?

Come to my arms, my beamish boy!

O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”

He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;

All mimsy were the borogoves,

And the mome raths outgrabe.

An explanation of the poem can be found here….including how he made up the words. http://www.alice-in-wonderland.net/resources/analysis/poem-origins/jabberwocky/

Cutting down phonics Screening Check myths feels a bit like slaying the Jabberwocky …

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.

Phonics Myth Buster 1 “The phonics tests will be too stressful!”

The inspiration for this blog is The President of the Australian Education Union Maurie Mulheron. I was blocked and a number of other dyslexia advocates were also blocked after telling their personal stories on a tweet about the PSC being too stressful for children. I tweeted a number of comments by parent members of Dyslexia Support Australia, with their permission. It was all too confronting I suppose? The overwhelming majority of parents with children with dyslexia in our group found the suggestion that a 40 word check would cause student hardship ludicrous. Because the reality is illiteracy causes far more hardship including children who self harm, talk of suicide, have school refusal, learned helplessness, behaviour difficulties and secondary mental health issues.

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Parents and children enter school with the undeniably justified expectation that they will learn to read. My daughter who had loved books from before she could walk or talk went to school with a spring in her step loving the idea that soon she would be able to read books for herself. Day 1 after the term 1 holidays she cried going back to school and I had to peel her from my grasp.

Children require great resilience to resist the impact school failure has upon their self esteem. In school there is such a large importance placed on literacy and children who are failing to grasp the fundamentals of reading are faced all day with work that they can not do, whilst their peers in comparison learn quickly. Eventually a situation of learned helplessness results as the student will no longer even attempt to do something new or something they have failed in the past. They see no point in trying as they are convinced they will fail. Anxiety will increase the impact of dyslexia leading to a vicious cycle of increased anxiety, decreased motivation, frustration and failure.

By half way through year 2 my daughter would vomit before school, have headaches, come home with severe anger and was lost to a world of constant anxiety. She spent months with a psychologist for anxiety. Remediation of her reading by employing a structured literacy tutor was much easier then the learned helplessness, self esteem and anxiety they still persists in high school. Yet she is one of the lucky ones identified early enough and with a parent who could find and pay for evidenced based instruction.

If you are a parent and you think that 40 words read out loud to a teacher one to one is too stressful then maybe you are placing too much pressure upon your child. A year 1 child if not pressured or tutored is unlikely to find reading to the teacher different to any other day.
If you are selfish and think that my child does not need a phonics check because they have no problems than maybe you should consider the impact on society illiteracy causes. We are not just talking about children with dyslexia. We are talking about a large percentage of the population with poor literacy.

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If you are a teacher and your students are stressed by reading 40 words to you then you have poorly taught phonics or are way too scary to be teaching infants. Maybe it’s time for a career change or some professional development perhaps.

The Phonics Screening Check is a simple 40 word check where a child sits one to one with their teacher. Failure to identify children at risk of reading failure has serious consequences.

Dyslexia Support Australia Comments about the PSC. Going back and reading these again broke my heart. We need to forget ideologies and listen to the evidence. I know the vast majority went into teaching to help children. So I challenge you to read these comments and not then have a desire to implement a 40 word check.

There were many more….

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Parent comments
“Anxiety comes from being underestimated, unsupported and misunderstood, not from a short screening assessment. This screening assessment done in year 1 would have helped everyone to realise then that my daughter is dyslexic and we could have prevented her getting to year 4 and wishing she had never been born as she thought she was so stupid (and everyone at school treated her that way)”

“My child was in grade 1 when he told me he was “starting to feel stupid”. He was feeling stupid because his peers were finding reading much easier than him. The proposed phonics check would have picked up the weaknesses that the existing testing didn’t. Target intervention could have begun much sooner. When we know where the gaps are teaching can be more targeted. Let’s stop waiting for our kids to fail before they are supported.”

“I’d like to think that if my child now 9 had been screened when she started school the anxiety and school refusal that has been a feature of our lives every single school day for the past 3 years might have been avoided and her self esteem might not be so fragile.”

“If we had had that phonics check in year 1 my daughters life would have been completely different. Intervention could have started earlier (rather than year 4). She might not have the low self esteem that she still does today in year 6. We woudln’t be still trying to claw back the 2 years that she is behind.”

“My beautiful, clever, kind and amazing 9 year old dyslexic daughter told me she “wanted to go to a desert island and just die because I’m so dumb…” I knew something was wrong in year 1 when nothing would click with literacy but no one listened until I finally had her assessed myself in year 3…but by this time the anxiety, constant feelings of failure and self doubt have worn her down bit by bit whilst we work so hard to build her back up with love, support and most importantly evidence based instruction. If she had of had this screen in 1st grade and then the appropriate intervention, so much despair and heartache could have been avoided…. please don’t let more children feel like my little girl does. It is so avoidable and almost criminal.”

“I read with my kids every day! So I would have tested 100 percent. It didn’t improve my child’s reading or pick up his dislexia! What rubish. Only phonics tutoring improved his reading and a phobics test would have meant phonics help earlier.”

Specialist tutor comments

“One of my students repeatedly hit his head on a wall while saying ‘I am stupid’ IN YEAR 1. He did not want to go to school and was experiencing massive rages. Consequently his mother found me; after 1.5 years of MSL he now knows he is actually quite bright and is a different child. Thankfully his mother ignored the school who said things along the lines of ‘All in good time…’. He has since been diagnosed with severe dyslexia.”

“I’m an education advisor. Part of my role is take calls from distraught parents about their broken child who struggles with literacy and/or numeracy at school. I also work as a specialist teacher 1:1 with students who often blame themselves for their learning issues. My heart is broken every single day as I know that most of their problems could have been avoided if they had of been properly identified in Year 1 and provided with the appropriate intervention. None of their problems are their own fault… it is the fault of our broken system. Stop the heartache… bring in literacy & numeracy screeners for year 1 & educate our teachers in relation to research & evidence based strategies. Doing this will help all our teachers, our students and our community at large.”

“Every day I work with kids who’ve missed out on an intensive phonics based intervention that could have started immediately after a simple 5 min phonics check with a trusted adult. They wouldn’t now be in year 9 with a reading age of six and feeling ashamed and hopeless.”

“I’m about to graduate as a primary school teacher. I can 100% say that my teacher education course included no information about dyslexia or how to screen for it. There was also no teaching about evidence-based reading instruction through synthetic systemic phonics. I am glad the phonics check is being introduced because without it, I would possibly miss some struggling children who could benefit from explicit phonics instruction (as all children could). I know the pain of this first hand. I first raised concerns about my daughter in kindergarten. A series of very lovely, well-intentioned teachers failed to see the issue. It was only in year 4 that private assessment revealed the extent of her learning issues, including dyslexia. Explicit phonics instruction over the last year has seen her come along in leaps and bounds. It has also cost us $7000.”

“I’m a high school teacher (and mum to a Dyslexic 9 year old). The number of students I’ve taught over the years who clearly have learning disabilities/difficulties (and I suspect many of them, Dyslexia) is phenomenal. Most of them have never been flagged and have nothing in their school records about their learning difficulties. Instead they’re labeled as slow or disruptive or lazy. Many of them are disengaged or struggling with mental health problems. Life would be so much easier for these kids if they were identified early and had the intervention they needed.
As a teacher I laugh when I read comments such as “let the teacher’s just do their jobs”. If we were all doing it properly this wouldn’t be happening.”