Phonics is back; but choosing the right sort of phonics programme is vital, writes ROWAN TAYLOR
Phonics is back. The year-long inquiry into the teaching of reading by Parliament’s science and education committee has recommended better phonics instruction in primary schools. This is great news for parents of the one in three New Zealand children who are struggling readers. It is also good news for everyone else because research shows that even good readers can read and spell better with phonics under their belts
Phonics is not a teaching method. It is a skill – the skill of matching letters to voice sounds and vice versa. It is an extremely important skill because 85-90 per cent of English words are spelt as they sound. But it is a skill that has not been taught systematically in our schools for at least three decades.
The fashion since then has been the so-called whole language or balanced literacy approach, in which children are expected to learn naturally being taught the alphabet and smothered in bright colourful story books. Some letter sounds are taught in an ad hoc, piecemeal way, but this is a far cry from the systematic phonics instruction called for by the committee.
- Fact: the last New Zealand children to top an international literacy survey were those who learned to read in the early 1960s.
- Fact: adults who learned to read after 1970 did less well in the 1997 Adult Literacy Survey than those who learned to read in the preceding two decades.
- Fact: since 1970, the gap between good and bad readers in New Zealand has widened.
Poor literacy is usually attributed to cultural and language barriers, poor parenting, too much telly, lack of computers etc. Of course, these factors play a role – but only where the teaching is not good enough to outweigh their effects. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured futilely year after year, into Reading Recovery, computers-in-schools, parents as first teachers, and so on. Everything has been tried except the bleeding obvious: improving the teaching.
Now the select committee has finally bitten the bullet and said what we all needed to hear – our teachers simply don’t know how to effectively teach the most fundamental literacy skill, phonics.
It is a very bitter pill. Not so long ago New Zealand educators were being lauded as visionaries as they hawked their whole language snake oil – and Reading Recovery clean-up pack – around the world. It took about a decade for the customers to wise up – as their test scores plummeted. In the mid-1990s, England and a host of American States, most notably California and Texas, dropped whole language and embraced systematic phonics. Their literacy levels have been rising ever since.
But here in New Zealand, the whole language industry steam-rolled on under a different name – balanced literacy – protected by a conspiracy of silence that spiralled right to the top. With one voice, the ministry, the Education Review Office, the Literacy Task Force, and the Colleges of Education simply pooh-poohed the evidence that kids need phonics first and foremost. Without the embarrassment of yearly national testing to debunk them, they airily dismissed the concerns of parents, dissenting teachers, and researchers.
Only a few hardy souls stood up to the juggernaut: teachers like Dorris Ferry, Janet Bradford, and Mary Ashby-Green, whose pupils bloomed under systematic phonics; and researchers like Tom Nicholson, Bill Tunmer, and James Chapman, who kept plugging away at the research evidence. Now the select committee has vindicated their persistence.
But hold the champagne. Phonics will only rescue New Zealand’s readers and spellers if it is taught systematically to everyone – and there is the rub. Many teachers, even those who think they already teach phonics, have no idea what a systematic phonics programme entails. It actually means teaching the 44 phonemes (speech sounds) of the English language, and the 100 or so main ways of spelling them. Most teachers haven’t a clue what those sounds and spelling patterns are, or how to teach them.
But that is not all. There are several ways to teach phonics, some excellent and some abysmal. Most fall into one of two categories – synthetic phonics or analytic phonics. In synthetic phonics, children are taught individual sounds, how to spell them, and how to combine them to form words. Research has found this word-building approach to be the most effective way to teach phonics. Teachers who use the Jolly Phonics programme find the same thing.
In contrast, the analytic approach preferred by most whole language teachers introduces children to whole words first (either in stories or rhyming word families) and then tries to get them to learn the letter-sound combinations within the words. Research has found that analytic phonics is less systematic, more confusing, and less effective for beginner readers.
So choosing the right sort of phonics programme is vital. Our schools don’t just need phonics – they need systematic synthetic phonics. The committee has recommended this for low decile schools but has been less prescriptive for other schools. There is also an impression that only the poor readers really need phonics. Therein lies the danger.
Most school principles are still struggling to overcome long years of anti-phonics brainwashing. Many think that the smattering of letter sounds they already teach is sufficient. Most have no idea of the options available, the research findings, and the improvements that their students could make if everyone were taught phonics systematically.
Many principals, like Belfast’s Peter Simpson, quoted in The Press, think standard programmes do not work and pursue the impossible dream of individually tailored instruction. College of Education lecturers, like Faye Parkhill, say phonics is not the panacea and warn against putting all children through some systematic system of learning. Such comments are precisely opposite to what the research shows. Phonics is most successful when taught systematically to small classes or groups.
The Ministry of Education’s first task now should be to draw up some guidelines and training programmes. But there lies another problem – the scorched earth policies of past decades have left so few good phonics advisers to turn to.
- Rowan Taylor is a founder of the recently established Phonics First Charitable Trust and is working on a parents’ guide to teaching phonics.