On This Matter Of Phonics

The old demon of oversimplification is back again with the teaching of reading. Of course phonics is a useful word attack skill but it is not the centre of the universe. Reading is a very complex task – perhaps more so than ever before in this contemporary world. Phonics alone simply cannot deal with it. There are 44 phonemes in English and only 26 letters. 

Here is a little visual I made to illustrate my point. It speaks for itself.

As a teacher today I would see phonics as an important part of a wider teaching program. So much more than sounding needs to happen. We need to immerse the children in language. Read them stories often. Use classroom drama to illustrate words. Play music to enhance listening. Get them to write often and read their stories to a friend or to the class. Lend books, especially illustrated ones, for home reading, ideally involving parents. Do readers theatre. Practice with cloze tests. Play Scrabble. Do crossword puzzles. Among other things, all this promotes skills with context.

Context clues are an important part of word attack. Watch what happens when I put an invented word into context. The word is xzn. On its own it is meaningless. Now for context: I drove the family xzn into the garage, checked the tyres and filled it with petrol. See what I mean? You decode the word into the idea of a car based on context clues and you are probably right. You need to give children many, many contexts. Let them guess. Give them practice. Immersion in language to me is vital. Words need to be everywhere. I remember in practice teaching taking my students into infants classrooms where everything was labelled: “table,” “chair,” “desk,” “window” and so on.

Next I speak of sight words. My infants and primary teaching coincided with the Dolch sight words. In the 1930s and 1940s Dr Edward William Dolch researched word frequencies and made a list of 220 words, mastery of which would enable you to read a high percentage of common verbal material. He also supplied 95 high frequency nouns.

The Fry Sight Words list is closer now to present day needs. Sight words require drill. Once you know them your reading flows more easily so you can focus on other words.

The value of memorised sight words is that common words or irregular sounding words can be recognised at a glance without letter by letter analysis. This fluency is important for oral reading. So oracy itself has needs beyond phonics drill. I have respected for a long time the social value of reading aloud – say in play performance or verse speaking – the latter a valuable activity that unfortunately is often neglected these days.

What is the purpose of reading? It is a lot more than mere barking at print. Meaning is the key, the crux, the life moulding force. So we have word attack. We decode. Then comes meaning – that intangible, mystic outcome. If we are good with meaning, it gets us out of trouble. If we are bad with it we elect monsters into government. 

In all my years of teaching (50) and study I have not found a better description of the levels of comprehension than the one given by Nila Banton Smith. It’s a good analysis to work on.

The author suggests that comprehension be divided into four distinct categories of thinking skills: (1) literal comprehension, the skill of getting the primary, literal meaning; (2) interpretation, the probing for greater depths of meaning; (3) critical reading, the evaluating and passing of personal judgment; and (4) creative reading which starts with an inquiry and goes beyond implications derived from the text.

Source: https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED034657

Of all the outcomes of teaching it is hard to find a more rewarding one for the teacher than the gift of reading. I have seen the light in the eye of the infant child when the first words begin to flow, and I have seen the glow of pride from a PhD student when a thesis abstract has been accepted. The significance of effective reading is vast.

The shoulders of so many giants are waiting for us behind the print that we read. There lies the wisdom of the ages. There lies the ability to detect political sham and advertising trickery. All this is too important to be reduced to simplistic formulae or league tables based on pseudo-tests derived from false premises.

I’d now like to finish with a poem I wrote some time ago. Thanks for your company.

Back to Basics

Or Teaching Reading Is Not As Simple As It Sounds

Kill off all the metaphors, cancel connotations

With your universal phonic imposition.

Blow up all the phrases with well directed lasers

So reading fits your toxic proposition.

Mangle all the meanings, disintegrate depiction

While shackling wide-eyed infants to their stint.

Put their thoughts in traction through stereotyped infraction

And teach them only how to bark at print.

Massacre analogy and mutilate sublimes

As you advertise a false belief that sells.

Vandalise all contexts with pedagogic pretexts

Confining every dream to decibels.

Standardise existence, by removing all resistance

To the sometime invalidity of rules.

Violate felicity with a claim of authenticity

That ratifies your covenant of fools.

Dream on of a place where thought abounds,

And the poor as they read become rich;

Where elegance transcends predictable sounds

And the meaning soars far above the pitch;

Where all of the wonder as authors are read

Flows free as the winds from the pages,

While diversity chooses how children are led

To a world beyond sound sculptured cages.

28 April 2007