This year the UK government introduced phonics screening tests at the end of Year 1 and there is a firm commitment to the teaching of synthetic phonics as the primary method of teaching reading.
For me there are 2 key questions in this discussion:-
1. How important is phonics instruction for producing fluent readers?
2. Is it appropriate to test young children’s phonic knowledge?
1. The Importance of Phonics
Clearly, phonic knowledge is important. I learned to read using the phonetically regular Meg the Hen books and was always an advanced reader.
Phase 1 of Letters and Sounds (a resource for pre-school children published by DFES in 2008) gives an excellent grounding for later phonic skills. The materials introduce phonics through listening and playing with sounds before any focus is put on the written letters. My own children could recognise rhyme and alliteration at the age of 3 through playing games, and joining in with songs and rhymes. In my opinion it is this groundwork in early life that is sometimes missing in failing readers therefore phonic instruction in later phases becomes meaningless and sterile rather than fun. Building the underpinning skills through play is therefore an important factor.
There are numerous studies that cite the size of a child’s vocabulary in the pre-school years as an accurate indication of how easily they will learn to read. Further studies suggest the importance of children understanding story structures and the language involved in re-telling stories. Children develop vocabulary through talking and listening but to an even greater extent through reading. When a child is unable to read or in the early stages of reading, the importance of adults reading to them cannot be underestimated. Not only does it encourage an interest in books but it also enriches vocabulary considerably. As evidence to this point my 8 year old who is an advanced reader has a rich vocabulary and writes with mature language and expression. She enjoyed advanced books such as Winnie the Pooh and Pippi Longstocking in her pre-school years. She now reads Harry Potter, Little Women and the Narnia books and regularly inquires as to the meaning of words developing her vocabulary even further. As a writer myself I am very aware of the impact reading has on the quality of my writing.
There is little doubt that there is a percentage of children who are failing to learn to read, having a detrimental effect on future academic success. I would be interested in analysing the statistics to see what proportion of these are boys. Most girls enjoy reading, mark making, role play and other early literacy related play. Many boys do not. In my opinion more needs to be done to channel boys natural interests in physical play and technology into literacy activities. This does not have to exclude phonics as one of my colleagues demonstrated when she encouraged her pre-school boys to explore rhyme and rhythm by dressing them up as rappers, using electronic beats and encouraging them to make up their own raps.
To some extent therefore it is not what is taught that is the issue but the way that it is taught. If phonic instruction is to be the key method of reading instruction then it must be engaging or children will switch off from day 1.
2. Phonic Testing
I understand the reasons for introducing this test and would by no means undermine the fact that we need to highlight failing readers early to give them the extra support they need. However, I do feel that most teachers know the children who are struggling to read without the test. Certainly as a parent who has helped with reading in class this was easy to spot and it was also clear which children were struggling to decode using phonics. I think that putting children under pressure at a young age and giving parents another thing to worry about or be competitive about is wrong. I don’t have children who have been through these tests and from feedback from other parents I think that schools are handling them sensitively, ensuring that children are unaware that they are being tested, however I still feel that they are wrong.
Some children will be exposed to all of the experiences mentioned above but will still struggle to learn to read. Perhaps the tests will help to identify and address these children’s needs at an early stage but I am wary that catching children when they are failing is not the best starting point to addressing the problem.
A further point that was raised in the discussion is that all children do not learn in the same way and that the ability to decode words does not automatically produce fluent readers. I used to work with children on the autistic spectrum. One of these children had a fascination with letters and sounds, he could read phonetically regular words before he started school but his understanding was at the level of a 1 year old. When we read books together they were of the ‘Where’s Spot?’ type and anything more complex was beyond his understanding. I realise that this is an extreme case but I believe that it is a cautionary tale to those who may think a good phonics test result means that their child is reading fluently.
I will be watching with interest as my children move through the US education system (especially as they will start school a year later than in the UK) to see how literacy teaching differs and whether there are similar worries about levels of attainment.