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The Lexonik office was buzzing recently after reading Sally Weale’s article: ‘Focus on phonics to teach reading is ‘failing children’, says landmark study’. It was an article that sparked serious discussion, especially from our Founder, Katy Parkinson.
I am a huge advocate for phonics, I know it is not the only skill required but it is the first skill to acquire in the pursuit of becoming a skilled reader. Other teaching approaches are important, but instruction must start with phonics and young learners must be proficient in using those phonic skills before they can move on to learning other reading strategies.
The article in The Guardian brings into question the place for teaching phonics in our school system, but fails to highlight that phonics is merely ‘the mechanics’ of reading; without the mechanics, you can’t progress to the skills they highlighted such as comprehension, so a student is unlikely to begin reading for pleasure. There is a distinct difference between the linear process of learning to read and, reading to learn; the latter cannot happen without the former, which is where the importance of phonics sits.
It is also not helpful to refer to the broad subject of ‘reading’ when focusing in on synthetic phonics. As phonics is only dealing with word recognition, phonics teaching will never harm or hinder a person’s reading ability, but not providing a solid grounding of phonics will harm the reading ability, of all at-risk children.
Many proficient readers appear just to ‘get’ phonics, as if by magic they pick up the phonics bit and they are off. They find reading easy, they enjoy it, they will read for pleasure and will reap the benefits of gaining all the incidental knowledge of the world that they pick up when reading and in doing so leave their peers behind.
However, this isn’t everyone and it’s the at-risk readers IN PARTICULAR who need effective, robust teaching of phonics and it must come first.
To be a skilled reader, and be effective in areas such as comprehension, we rely on other strategies beyond phonics. Phonics is only ever the first step, it needs to be followed up by further robust strategies to develop language comprehension and equip readers with vocabulary knowledge, background knowledge, language structures, literacy knowledge and verbal reasoning. Phonics teaching has never professed to deliver on everything it takes to be a skilled reader.
Encouraging the love of reading is important and educators and parents/guardians must seek out every opportunity for this, but systematic instruction must be prioritised so children can discover a love of reading independently.
Professionals, through appropriate professional development and training, should feel empowered to meet the needs of their students, including the explicit teaching of vocabulary and reading. A systematic approach to the teaching of phonics is important to create rigour but there will always be the need to develop those language comprehension skills, so we create rounded, able readers. This requires just as much attention in terms of teacher training – it cannot be left up to chance.
A significant gap in the report appears to be the lack of reference to the teaching of reading for older students. The report didn’t look at the importance of phonics in later years; they focused mainly on years one and two. Phonics is for all ages but should be taught in a manner appropriate for the age of the student. Look at the problems students have when they leave primary school with insecure phonic knowledge, they cannot access the secondary curriculum. They very quickly become frustrated; if you’re a frustrated learner in secondary school, you become a disaffected learner, if you’re disaffected you become disruptive, which leads you on to a path that we do not want our students to take.