When phonics fails

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Teacher Helping Male Pupil With Reading At Desk

Deborah Salsbury favours a balanced approach to teaching reading, incorporating elements of both phonics and a whole-language approach.

“It’s not your fault you can’t read” is how I reassure a pupil when they tell me about their negative experience of learning to read. Unfortunately, feelings of failure and “I can’t” seem to be entrenched, even in some of the youngest of pupils.

In our education system, when a child completes Year 1 (age 5-6) if they can blend chunks of sounds in forty real words as part of the Phonic Screening Check, they have reached the expected standard to be classed a successful reader. If the standard has not been reached, the child will experience further phonics teaching throughout Year 2 and additional phonics intervention. At the end of the academic year, they will be reassessed again. Many are now asking whether we should really subject our struggling, possibly dyslexic readers to more of the same kind of teaching methods and resources, or should we do something different? If we repeat the same interventions, how can we expect a different outcome? Is the screening standard a true reflection of what makes a successful reader?

The rigidity of teaching reading through systematic synthetic phonics and a ‘bottom up’ approach means we are judging our struggling, potentially dyslexic readers on the one aspect of reading that many of them find a challenge. For those who have ADHD, dyslexia or auditory processing challenges, we are determining their reading success by their weaknesses and then focusing on this element repeatedly with the hope that a standard of phonic recognition is reached, thereby making the child a ‘reader’. Using the skills taught in synthetic phonics, children need to recognise the sounds and blend them together to make a real word or a ‘nonsense’ word. However, what if those letter combinations make alternative sounds—sometimes up to nine different sounds. Or if you blend those sounds together, they could make a completely different sequence of sounds due to silent letters or long vowel sounds. By placing too much emphasis on one route to reading success, we are setting some of our children up for immediate failure, and their reading journey can slow or grind to a halt.

Many struggling readers also have speech, language and communication challenges and need to have good language structure modelled to them. Limited vocabulary and knowledge of language can hold many children back on their journey to becoming a successful reader. So we give them decodable reading books, where words have been shoehorned in because they have a particular spelling pattern. This falls short of enriching the child’s vocabulary or knowledge of language structure. It does not create a passion for reading, because few of these books effectively tell a story. There are many more skills and knowledge that need to be nurtured and embedded in order to create a skilled reader.

Laboriously saying every sound aloud detracts from the meaning. But isn’t the meaning what it’s all about? I’m reminded of a time I assessed a child who came to me for tuition. This child knew all their phonics and would probably have passed the phonics screening check. During the Running Record assessment they read one of the first level books and it went like this: “Th-e c-a-t i-s o-n th-e t-a-b-le”. The rest of the book was read in the same way—no blending, and no desire to derive meaning, but the child felt they had ‘read’ the book. When asked what was on the table, the response was “What table?”. The child hadn’t even looked at the pictures or pronounced whole words, but they had ‘read’ the book. My colleagues can recall many similar experiences when initially working with their pupils. Teachers in school no longer have the flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils as one reading system dominates.

The term Reading Wars refers to a long ongoing debate regarding the most effective way to teach reading. The two main camps in this discussion are the phonics-based approach and the whole language approach. The whole language approach emphasises meaning and comprehension. It encourages children to learn to read in a more holistic manner by immersing them in literature and exposing them to a variety of texts. It focuses on understanding the meaning behind the words, but it has been criticised for encouraging children to guess when decoding. The casualties of the Reading Wars are our struggling readers. If our education system is still producing teenagers with a reading age below 8, then something must change..

Educational research suggests that a balanced approach, incorporating elements of both phonics and whole language, is the most effective way to teach reading to children. This approach is often referred to as the balanced literacy approach. Teaching children to use a selection of strategies means when one route is unsuccessful for them, another route can be explored. For those who struggle the most, a completely unique, tailored approach is most definitely needed. We need to teach these children to read through their strengths eg, vocabulary knowledge, sustained focus on topics that interest them, strong sight vocabulary (able to instantly read a word), literacy knowledge, verbal reasoning, background knowledge, knowledge of language structure, comprehension, including inference, interpretation and understanding. When we focus on these things and teach the tricky bits with engaging, colour coded, multi-sensory resources, using books that genuinely interest and engage, we can extract the phonics/decoding out of them and encourage cross-checking with language structure and meaning to decipher new words.

Deborah Salsbury
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Founder and Director of The Reading Doctor LTD

Website: thereadingdoctors.com
Facebook: @thereadingdoctors

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