Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Magic Bullet?

Phonics is an important building block in the process of children learning to read. Just in case there’s any doubt I’ll repeat it - Phonics is an important building block in the process of children learning to read. But phonics alone is not a ‘magic bullet’. I’ll repeat that again - phonics alone is not a ‘magic bullet’.

There was an interesting article in ‘The Guardian’ today about a literacy programme in West Dunbartonshire, Scotland. They claim they are in the process of ‘eradicating illiteracy’. In 1997 only 5% of children had very high scores on word reading, today the figure is 45%. Synthetic phonics has been at the core of the scheme.

But it has not been the only factor. A 10-strand intervention was set up, featuring a team of specially trained teachers, focused assessment, extra time for reading in the curriculum, home support for parents and the fostering of a “literacy environment” in the community.

There is also an early intervention system from nursery upwards and those who do fall through the net are given the intensive, one-on-one Toe by Toe programme. Synthetic phonics has been only one strand in the West Dunbartonshire approach.

This is a far cry from the Rose inquiry and the subsequent edicts that all primary schools must teach phonics, the so-called ‘magic bullet’. Why doesn’t phonics alone work? Because unlike Finnish or Welsh, English is not phonetically consistent. Every study since the sixteenth century has found that 20% of children have difficulties in starting to read. In my experience the poorer readers usually rely on phonics alone, they can’t read in context and have poor sight memory of words.

Phonics has been thrust down the throat of schools, without the sophisticated and expensive programme that was adopted in West Dunbartonshire. Phonics alone will not help the poorer readers and those who can already read will be bored to death, some of them need to engage with real books, not scraps of text. In one international study England scored highly in reading but low on interest in books.

The most important thing is to inculcate a lifetime love of reading not just the mechanics of the process.

Labels: ,

Dear Mr Read,

How I understand the position you are coming from.

But how much you underestimate the need for synthetic phonics.

Of course synthetic phonics is not the entire picture in a child's literacy development - no-one ever said it is.

Whilst you say, repeatedly, that you understand that phonics is important - you then go on with some glee about the fact it is 'only one strand'. Are you rubbing your hands together in some kind of triumph?

But how important that one strand is, how fundamentally life-changing for our children.

I would like to ask you a couple of key questions. Have you been to a rigorous synthetic phonics school and seen the engagement of pupils and staff and their immense satisfaction as they can see the improvements in reading and spelling on a daily basis? Have you taught synthetic phonics either for beginners and/or for remediation?

If you had done these things, I am sure you would be much more enthusiastic - indeed passionate - about synthetic phonics and its key role in empowering all the children - and all the teachers who use it.

I am, without doubt, a rebel and a maverick in this world of Ofsted inspections, local authority advisers, bureaucracy gone mad - but I am an ardent proponent of synthetic phonics because I have seen the power of its effectiveness first hand in different settings, with beginners and with children and adults of all ages who were needlessly struggling with learning to read, spell and write.

What synthetic phonics proponents make clear is that, yes, there are other important ingredients to teaching reading in its full sense, but there are 'strategies' for teaching beginning reading and for remediation which can make the 'mixture of methods' nothing short of a poisonous and detrimental concoction.

What teachers need to know and understand is their alphabetic code knowledge well and how best to teach it - and therefore their 'craft' and/or their 'vocation' can truly be both inspiring for all children - and effective for all children - true inclusivity and true accountability.

You may be interested to see the arguments in some detail:


Just because nobody had heard of synthetic phonics prior to the launch of Toe by Toe, this should not imply that Toe by Toe is pure phonics. It is not, and neither is it a magic bullet, though it can easily be the gun that fires them.

I do not expect Toe by Toe, as a commercial system, to be widely adopted by our government. What does surprise me is the failure of phenomenally overpaid education advisers. It surprises me that they cannot find ways to integrate the useful parts of Toe by Toe methodology into the national curriculum.

Actually, it does not surprise me. Teachers have always needed an underclass on which to blame their lack of teaching progress. Illiterates are the perfect scapegoat. After all, they will get their Toe by Toe treatment. When they are excluded from education and society long enough to fall into the prison system. As the Shannon Trust funds their prison literacy programme largely from donations, it leaves much more in the education pot for lavish salaries and expensive facilities.

The parallels between successful literacy schemes in West Dunbartonshire and in the secure estate are astonishing. Starved of resources and opportunities, both are of little interest to those looking for a quick buck or high flying career. So the unfortunates left behind, just get on with something that works. Thankfully, Tommy MacKay and Christopher Morgan, with years of success behind them (outside the education system), are there to guide them.

It might not be a magic bullet to you or me, but when you can stand tall for once and find acceptance in society, literacy means everything.

Then you can learn to love finding the meaning of inculcate.
I've never understood the appeal of phonics-first in reading instruction. But then, I'm often bewildered by voting patterns as well.

Yesterday I read with a child who recognized words (by sight), used phonics to try to guess what some words might be, looked around the page for picture clues, predicted text based on pattern, and then asked themselves if their reading made sense. This child has strong basic literacy skills because she knows how to co-apply a variety of strategies when decoding English (one of our wackier languages). I'll scaffold that child's further development by ensuring she has interesting (to her) books at her instruction level, as well as loads of opportunity to read to me or have me read to her.

Why would anyone want to rate or rank all these necessary strategies? Why would anyone want "beginning readers" to have fewer tools than the rest of us?
As a skilled reader of some 50 year's standing I can safely say that I don't use any of the above 'strategies' when I read. If I come across an unfamiliar word I sound it out. If I don't know its meaning I look it up in a dictionary, or I may be able to work it out roughly from context. The sort of books I read don't have helpful pictures on every page. If there are any pictures they tend to be grouped on a few pages at long intervals in the text.

I can't think of anything more ludicrous or frustrating than having to guess my way through a text. I wouldn't want to inflict that on the children I work with.
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?