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How ‘phonics’ have come the full circle

“Sound it, see it, write it, repeat: that’s how I was taught in the dark ages,” writes Hugh Selby. “We’ve come full circle. What goes around comes around, albeit with fancy labels.” Photo: Queensland State Archives

Columnist HUGH SELBY journeys into the bewildering world of phonics to discover what they are and why they’re vitally important in teaching ACT children to learn to read and write and enjoy it. 

Dear concerned parents and grandparents of early primary school children, let’s have a look at the competing approaches to having them master and enjoy reading and writing as quickly as possible. 

Hugh Selby.

That way we’ll have some understanding of what their teachers are striving to do.

I could have started with preschoolers; however, what with the cost of trams that their parents can’t ride because there is no nearby parking, and the expensive pretence that we’re important enough to go nuclear with submarines, there’s just no spare cash to give every toddler a free chance.

For those of you with great teenagers at high school and young adults in tertiary institutions, my commiserations to them and to you. 

It seems that the kids were taught using some method that has meant that too many of them read poorly. Not the kids’ fault. Not the fault of the teachers, either. So, who to blame? I haven’t a clue but there might be a class action in it – if the victims can fill out the paperwork.

Looking for a solution to the poor-reading problem

In late April an “expert” report about teaching literacy and numeracy to our children was handed to the ACT government. 

For some five months the expert panel gathered information, conducted an exhaustive literature review of all the research, and then analysed how our schools (that is, our teachers) could teach to improve the kids’ results on the national assessment program of literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN).

The tests are taken nationwide in years 3 and 5 for primary, then in years 7 and 9 in high school. The test results are published by ACARA (the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority). 

The reporting for each grade separately covers reading, writing, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and numeracy. The results can be compared, for example, across states and territories.

Those results are a powerful political tool (“our opponents are underfunding education”), a powerful bureaucratic tool ( “under your leadership as principal, the school’s results have improved/worsened/stayed the same”), and a powerful marketing tool (“if you want your child/ren to succeed then send them to us, not the place down the road or across the border”). 

Although the ACT report deals with literacy and numeracy to the end of high school, this article looks only at the literacy issue for the early primary years.

The report endorses the literacy teaching method of matching the sounds of spoken English with individual letters or groups of letters

For example, the sound “k”, as in kite, king, catheter, Kathmandu, check, can be spelled as c, k, ck. Another example, take “or” in horse and tort. We get that same sound, spelt differently, in “au”, as in taught, and “aw” as in awe, saw, law and the family name Shaw. 

“Teaching children to blend the sounds of letters together helps them decode unfamiliar or unknown words by sounding them out. This is called ‘phonics’.”

That last sentence (pasted from an internet search of “phonics”) includes two conceptual problems.

Four, distinctive approaches to ‘phonics’

The first problem is that there are at least four, distinctive approaches to “phonics” instruction. The recent report (and the above sentence) appear to endorse the “blending approach” (also known as “synthetic”, which adds a sense of mystery). The four approaches are summarised below.

The second problem is that “sounding” is only one of several, interrelated tasks. “Learning to read” children must not only repeatedly say aloud each sound. They also have to learn, by repeated looking, that the same sound can appear with different letter combinations, just as we saw above with “or” and “au” and “aw”.

Add to the listening and seeing experience the related skill of writing letters. Writing (as distinct from typing on a keyboard) letters, then words, then sentences and paragraphs, doesn’t just involve muscle co-ordination and muscle memory. It is also tactile. Try writing with different types of pencil lead and biro nibs and you’ll recall the tactile element.

In short, the essential tasks of learning to read and write draw on the child’s hearing, seeing and touching senses.

Now imagine that your adorable child/grandchild is in a class of 20 or so pupils. The next lesson is early reading and writing. How is that material going to be made interesting for every child, not just the ones who will seemingly “self teach” or acquire it at home?

It’s here that different teachers, experienced in the same overarching technique for teaching reading and writing, and knowing that the curriculum specifies what vocabulary is to be mastered in that school grade, can bring their personality and talents into play.

By “reading the room” a good teacher can use their knowledge of the current interests of the children to find a bridge between those interests and what is being taught. “Words” that are taught within a context that is interesting to a child are more easily and purposefully remembered. That, in turn, leads to their being read and spelt correctly.

For those who doubt that this matters, reflect on how quickly you mastered some skill when you needed it, and how disinterested you had been in that skill when you didn’t see any need for it.

Those “bridges” between required content and pupil interest and imagination can be as varied as current sports and “arts”, popular digital and published story series, and upcoming events. The engagement can use conversation, role play, and an ever expanding online and paper library.

Sound it, see it, write it, repeat: that’s how I was taught in the dark ages. We’ve come full circle. What goes around comes around, albeit with fancy labels.

No one ever said to the child or teenage me: “It’s time for your phonics class” or even mentioned the word “phonics”.

What went wrong, and putting it right

Apparently, there are at least four approaches to teaching ‘phonics’: analogy, analytic, embedded/literature, and synthetic. For a fuller explanation of these see here. For our purposes the following are enough.

Analogy phonics teaches preschoolers to identify patterns in words. 

Instead of just memorising random words, they learn to decode and understand new ones based on similarities to words they already know.

Analogy phonics is said to be a form of analytic phonics. They both focus on whole words and then deconstruct them into their sounds (phoneme) parts.

Analytic phonics draws children’s attention to particular word parts. The emphasis is on initial sounds, onset/rime and word families. Single letter-sounds are taught through reference to words that begin with that sound. For example, a series of words beginning with the letter “a” may be listed – ant, apple, animal – and the children say the words, and note the similarities in letters and sounds. Note, contrary to the early explanation above, in this method the children do not pronounce sounds in isolation, nor blend individual sounds together.

An embedded or literature-based approach to teaching phonics involves pointing out letter-sound relationships to children while reading an engaging text. Teachers do not identify all letter-sound correspondences – the constant interruptions would defeat the purpose of reading the text – they will choose some and not others, based on their understanding of what the children need. 

Some children, a minority, acquire a working knowledge of the alphabetic principle using this method – usually those fortunate enough to have seen important people in their lives read for a variety of purposes, shared books with them, turned the pages, talked about the pictures and the stories, had words and letters pointed out to them, become familiar with what letters and punctuation looks like, noted how print travels along a page – experiences that add up to many hours of out of school “reading instruction”. 

The term “synthetic” refers to the process of blending individual sounds together. In synthetic phonics programs, children practise blending as soon as they know letter-sounds that blend together to make a word. This is now the “go to” method.

We all need to cope with ‘scaffolding’

I wish I could tell you that the definitional part of this article was over. Alas, not so. We all need to cope with “scaffolding”. We know what it is when we see it on construction and renovation sites. It is the way to move around and “up and down” the structure from the outside.

Using a Google search, it quickly becomes clear that in the education context it does not have a settled meaning. Those who follow the different approaches to phonics set out above make different claims to what “scaffolding” means for their approach. They do seem to agree that it is “teacher guidance to pupils”. The content and method of that guidance is variable.

Early this year the Victorian Education Department put out some useful information. The use of “scaffold/ing” refers to how a teacher, like a scaffold, supports those who are building something – in this case each pupil’s ability to read and to write.

The support given by the teacher is to guide/support pupils as they read, talk, and think their way through some printed material. Once the pupil learns (that is, there is improvement in each and all of their vocabulary, their ability to find and talk about meaning, their spelling, and their ability to use the words in descriptive prose) then the supporting scaffold is not needed.

The ACT Expert Panel endorses this teacher guidance (at page 69). Discussing approaches to reading development they note that the Big 6 model is, “the most clear and succinct list of the essential aspects of the teaching of reading. The Big 6 model is expressed as:

  • oral language (including early literacy experiences);
  • phonological awareness (building awareness of the sounds of spoken language);
  • phonics (knowing the relationship between letters and sounds);
  • fluency (reading with accuracy, expression, at an appropriate pace);
  • vocabulary (knowing and using an expanding range of words); and,
  • comprehension (using specific strategies to understand a text).” (Page 81)

They go on that, “There is compelling evidence that the most effective way to ensure students develop phonological awareness and the ability to decode is through an… explicit phonics approach.” (Page 82)

Following a detailed explanation of the research the report makes this finding (5b) about early primary reading: Teachers should use …an approach that includes:

  • opportunities for oral language development;
  • explicit teaching of phonological awareness and phonics;
  • use of decodable readers… to teach decoding and blending…
  • vocabulary, comprehension and fluency development using a range of quality text types;
  • opportunities to use developing reading skills in writing tasks that demonstrate the close relationship between reading and writing; and,
  • appropriate testing to check what the pupils have mastered.

I don’t suggest that you read the report, or this article, to your descendants. I do recommend that you read together suitable books by Australia’s many first-rate writers for children. It’s a lot of fun to share.

Former barrister Hugh Selby’s free podcasts on “Witness Essentials” and “Advocacy in court: preparation and performance” can be heard on the best known podcast sites.

‘In principle’ support for education reforms


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Hugh Selby

Hugh Selby

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