Here we go on phonics again

Ros Lugg managing director of The Learning Staircase uses the PIRLS result, no doubt in a way that will feel utterly sincere to her, to stir up support for her highly structured and commercialised phonics programme, blaming teacher training for the deficiency. Which is suspiciously adroit in the way it avoids alienating her potential customers.

It seems these days that the only way you can guarantee having your views expressed in the media is to have a business-rewarding axe to grind in combination with a learning panic of some sort. It’s usually computers but here comes phonics again.

Ms Lugg, is of course, is wrong in every way but, in saying that, she is tactically clever in being a reasonably moderate voice. Her declared concern, as it always is with this agitating generation-to-generation phonics bloc (Tom Nicholson and Bill Tunmer won’t be far away), is the bottom group of learners. Oh how their hearts go out to them, but the odd thing is they rarely mention deprivation, squalor, disorder, and truancy. No give them phonics.

Other countries will be referred to by the phonics panic-group; countries who use a heavy programme of phonics and how they have done so much better than New Zealand. (Finland, by the way, which doesn’t use phonics is near the top in all results but is never referred to. Their lips are sealed on this one.) But all those countries have more money spent on classroom teaching, lower class ratios, more teacher aides, different school structures and entry ages, and above all, less inequality.

When New Zealand primary schools went into Tomorrow’s Schools we were top in reading, near the top in writing, and middling in mathematics. With Tomorrow’s Schools (irrespective of what Ms Lugg says) came increasingly heavy phonics imposed and policed by the education review office; this heavy use is recognised in a round-about way by people who want more phonics by them saying we want ‘a much more structured and research-based’ approach and the like.

It is so all so boring but oh so potentially devastating to children. I will have available in a few weeks a publication that goes into all this and much, much more.

One prediction I recorded in 1988 was that with Tomorrow’s Schools, primary school results will fall in all areas, especially in creativity, thinking, and the arts, but also in the 3Rs which both tragically and ironically, Tomorrow’s Schools was particularly supposed to lift. It was an impossible hope because disempowering teachers to the advantage of bureaucrats and quantitative experts, and punishing and deriding teacher knowledge to the advantage of absurdly named evidence-based knowledge, was sure to fail.

I want to make quite clear that there is considerable ‘evidence-based knowledge’, and in New Zealand universities, that supports my view – a view that most children need only a dusting of phonics with the emphasis being on children learning by storing words in the brain and using the characteristics implicit in those words to read. So please Ms Lugg, don’t use the expression ‘evidence-based’ as if it is entirely at the disposal of your bloc.

Now Ms Lugg, a word about children with dyslexia (by the way, I did agree with your 10 per cent estimation), I nearly wept at what I took from your brief reference to them. In my publication referred to above, is an article by an academic with deep dyslexia, who, in reading my articles on holistic reading, was drawn to set out in brilliant manner the nature of the proper response to dyslexia. I consider it definitive.

In the two crunch paragraphs he wrote:

I have used phonics-based learning as part of working with dyslexic learners because, certainly, phonemic awareness is an indispensable aspect of written language literacy. It would be utterly wrong to exclude phonemic awareness. But in the end, the process of literacy learning for a dyslexic person is indeed broadly the same as for any non-dyslexic person. And what is broadly the same is not narrow phonics but wide, supported literacy experience.

Instead of reducing all literacy learning matters to phonics, we must trust in the brain’s plasticity in the context of rich and properly focused, well supported language experience. An abundance of well-structured, personally highly meaningful written language experience – experience that takes proper account of whole language insights and works synthetically within the context of real, contextually relevant, reading and writing – the dyslexic brain will, over time, re-programme adequately and the experience of dyslexia will be ameliorated – though never ‘cured’. What is key is the close support of dyslexic learners as they struggle with the details of language in their acts of real reading and writing.

I have been going into schools in an official (or as now, semi-official) capacity for exactly 50 years, first, as a teachers college lecturer then as a senior inspector, now as an invited guest (no fee charged) and I have seen the grandeur of the stjcs of old who took a balanced approach slowly being pushed out by the review office, careless principals, and ruthless qualitative academics.

Another prediction of mine in 1988 was that the education right-wing won’t mind in the least their ideas failing because they know politicians and academics will ramp up the propaganda so that the same failed methods will just be imposed more formally and stringently.

So Ms Lugg, if primary schools are failing because a highly structured and formal phonics programme is needed, could you explain why mathematics will be in a tail spin and writing at the worst level ever?

The problem is not phonics but the structure of education, the deepening social inequality, and the destruction of teacher knowledge.

I am visiting a middle-size school in a Waikato country town as a school inspector. The principal is towards the end of his career and is quite content to run a settled school and to have an uneventful tenure. One thing, though, he greatly enjoys is helping children with their reading. Some of these children are slipping behind in their reading, in other words, potential candidates for reading recovery; others are failing readers. They come to his office on a regular basis, sometimes in small groups, sometimes on their own, to read to him. He is patient, kindly, and interested. No particular reading techniques are employed. The most you could say is that he gives them plenty of time to work out any word they are struggling with. Their reading takes wing with him. The results are outstanding but, to me, not surprising, because I have seen the phenomenon occur many times. If you put a child or a small group of children with a kindly, patient adult, regularly, and in a settled environment, there will be a remarkable improvement in reading. What is happening is reading by words, not parts of them, and in a highly conducive atmosphere. The moral is: When adults try out reading ideas in such circumstances, the variable that brings success is not any particular reading technique – it is the situation and environment. I call it the RPE – Retiring Principal Effect. This effect comes into play pretty much irrespective of other circumstances.

The following are some of the ideas I would discuss with teachers to set up a rich language environment:

Some children will need more phonics than others, but the overall aim should be sparing

One-to-one is magic, the programme detailed below is intended to free teachers to provide more of individual time to those who most need it

Reading, like written language, offers a straightforward way to set up independent learning in an emotionally supportive atmosphere

Reading in a developmental classroom provides children with many choices.

An important part of that choice comes from the arrangement of the physical environment:

There should be a snug, relaxing reading area

A lively class and school library

At all teaching levels there should be plenty of reading on the walls around the room.

Complementary with the organisation of the physical arrangement:

Should be the freedom to use it

Children should be able to use resources and to get out books and read them on their own initiative

If they are in doubt about the propriety of doing so, they could make a request on the request board

No templates and no written comprehension

Lively open-ended discussion and drama activities should predominate

And reading should be seen as an all-day activity or writing, or whatever (of course you will be keeping an eye on it all)

The term contract is used to describe an informal agreement between teachers and individual children for certain activities to be undertaken by the children at a time, and pace, that suits.

If reading is, indeed, a highly valued activity:

Then the freedom to read should have considerable precedence throughout the day

Of course, it is not absolute freedom of choice

But teachers should go out of their way to accommodate that choice.

In a threshold developmental reading programme, children should have considerable choice in the materials they read:

A central reading philosophy will be the ‘I can read’ developed so beautifully developed by stjcs – a gift

Younger children should choose their Ready to Read and supporting reading materials, and have an even wider choice in their independent reading

Older children should always have an independent reading book on hand

And teachers should make it their business to know what it is, and celebrate it when completed

They should challenge children: What book are you reading at the moment?

They should further challenge children by encouraging them to widen the scope of their reading.

There are plenty of other opportunities for choice in reading:

If thematic reading is being taken, children should choose from amongst a list of journals, bulletins, books, articles, and so on

For activities at the end of reading there should always be a choice

Children should never do worksheets, templates, book reviews, written analyses, written-question answering, unless they have chosen to do so.

Children’s reading is enriched by having the stimulus of other children’s ideas –

As a result there should be:

• Shared reading using enlarged print books or sets of books

• Language experience

• Story reading to children

• Thematic reading

• Drama

• Partner reading

• Interactive reading using computers

• Story reading from tapes

• Song and poetry reading

• Investigative reading (using reference books and other reading material)

• Reading material on display around the room (often associated with partner reading)

• Certain reading activities within context (cloze, alphabet, matching, and construction of sentences

• Own written language reading.

This variety of reading brings further opportunity for choice:

Children can choose to continue with an activity in preference to a subsequent activity suggested by the teacher

Or choose to do an activity produced on their initiative.

The concepts of print should occur throughout the reading programme in a contextual way:

There is a tendency for teachers to become overly involved in the ‘pathology’ of reading

That is, analysing and making moves to correct reading failure

If a child is undertaking reading recovery, the key is the support the child receives on his or her return to the classroom.

Children with dyslexia should be taught reading employing the same reading principles as for all children, that is in context and with meaning:

But there should be generous amounts of one-to-one reading with the same person and, compared with some other readers, more attention given to the parts of words

On the understanding that children with dyslexia should be taught holistically, children, if possible, should be taught reading within schools rather than through outside organisations (I know this can be very difficult to maintain given the meagre allocation of special teaching funding, but that would be the ideal).

The greatest challenge in reading is not to teach children to read, it is to get them to enjoy reading:

A major cause of children not enjoying reading is a lack of fluency in reading

And a major cause of a lack of fluency in reading is learning to read in a highly structured, rather than a holistic, naturalistic way

Notice that boys who tend to receive the most phonics and for longer, tend to be non-independent readers when they get to intermediate

Highly structured teaching is an impediment to reading fluency and enjoyment in the longer term

Teachers should focus children on clusters of words and their meanings

Rather than on single words and their insides.

The best way for children to build up letter-sound associations is by participating in a range of holistic, contextual reading language activities.

The best way to achieve a holistic, naturalistic approach to reading is to:

• Build on, and maintain the ‘I can read’ attitude to reading

• Make reading enjoyable

• Undertake letter-sound association and word study subtly

• Encourage independence in reading

• Allow reading to occur at most parts of the day

• Use a variety of reading materials and experiences: enlarged print, shared books, individual readers, writing of language, reading of own written language, songs, poems, comics, language experience, computers, word processors, and so on

• See language as something that occurs throughout the curriculum and the day

• Make reading a highly valued activity.

Women in primary school junior classrooms, the ones who have been the heart and soul of junior class reading for decades, have been diminished in status and spirit by the structures of Tomorrow’s Schools and in particular by phonics-focused academics as an outcome of the bitter and long-running phonics debate. These women are in an increasingly weakened professional situation, and vulnerable to any future undermining by politicians, the media, bureaucracy, education lobby groups, community pressures, and the effects of a changed emphasis in the training of teachers on some campuses. I call this group of teachers the ‘balanced reading’ group. The philosophical antecedents to balanced reading going back to Clarence Beeby.

There was no doubt in my mind that the battle over the teaching of reading was a battle for the one remaining curriculum area in which primary teachers still retained the edge in control. And, of course, within the structures and philosophy of Tomorrow’s Schools, the academics, bureaucrats, and right-wing politicians were always going to win. Phonics was one way academics could leverage their way into a direct say in what happens in schools – for phonics-focused academics, teachers having the edge in control over reading was akin to there being a power vacuum. Political and socially conservative groups also knew that reading, because of its importance to the public and the way emotions can be stirred, was a key to reducing confidence in teachers and their representatives, and to helping them gain dominance over education. As a result, from time-to-time, you will find phonics academics forming unofficial alliances with conservative elements to further the ambitions of both groups. Teachers, to retain what little they have, need to be on guard against the collusion between phonics-focused quantitatives, conservative politicians, and commercial companies to produce book and computer programmes – programmes always riven with flaws and rigidities. Holistic reading requires highly skilled teachers, in free interchange with other highly skilled teachers in close relationship with their school communities. But these teachers have been seriously reduced in number by the actions of the education review office, private consultancies, and submissive principals.

I am just so sick of this one. When is Labour going to get going and fill the vacuum? All the old primary school antagonists are pouring in: the education review office, right-wing politicians, commercial interests, the media, and quantitative academics.

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4 Responses to Here we go on phonics again

  1. Bruce Hammonds says:

    Enjoyed reading your response to the article and agree entirely. It worries me that many teacher are looking to phonics to solve reading problems when they need to be focusing on introducing rich language experiences and helping individuals as required – and where necessary using phonics lightly as you suggest.

  2. Leanne Eloff says:

    I have been reading your blog for some time and really enjoy your thoughts. I do feel compelled however, to comment on this one. Firstly, Ros Lugg is a lady 🙂 .

    A good part of any effective literacy practice should have emphasis on phonological awareness or more so phonemic awareness rather than that of pure phonics teaching, and yes there is a huge difference. I agree that stand alone “phonics” teaching programmes have little transference into reading and writing and there is substantial evidence to suggest this. An understanding, however, and bringing attention to patterns and sounds in words certainly makes a difference to children learning to read and write and should be integrated into programmes throughout the day – especially for students starting school.

    However, phonological awareness teaching IS incredibly important in the acquisition of reading skills. The understanding of sounds, words and rhymes and the ability to manipulate these are a crucial building block to literacy acquisition. When phoneme awareness is integrated into rich literacy and language experiences through books that children love and through everyday practice, children will have a better chance of then making connections to reading and writing.

    I do agree that the love and joy of reading comes first! Children need to be fed the gift of language and the joy of literacy through books, experiences and conversations. As educators however, especially our newer teachers, there seems to be a lack of then knowing how to integrate this into an effective literacy programme..

    An integration of phonological awareness and rich, authentic and engaging literacy learning in my opinion is a great idea!

  3. Kelvin says:

    I simply disagree. Children read best by reading words, not consciously putting bits and pieces together to form them. The first determination should be to build on ‘I can read’ and build up the words in the brain and let the brain do the work.. And time should be allowed. It is very rewarding to teach children in the most efficient way to read. You can see, in some respects, we are not a million miles apart but that initial determination, believing in it, is the difference between us. When it works, and it usually does, it gives power to classroom teachers and moves it away from academics and experts.

    But hi! it is great to be discussing curriculum things. And might I say, when I was an inspector, I was happy with all sorts of approaches. I want teachers to be in charge – after all, they are the ones charged with doing it.

    Thanks for the gender correction.

    All best

  4. A former stjc says:

    Dear Kelvin

    Never give up.

    You may be tired of the reading battle but for two old long-ago STJCs (my sister-in-law and me) every time you tell the world about junior class reading it revives our spirits.

    You give credence to our memories.

    And you acknowledge all the accomplishments of those who supported the junior class teachers through all the good changes in reading back in those years.

    How lucky we were to be part of all that.

    Just to have it remembered gives hope that it will come again.

    Never give up – we need you.


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