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Dombey: Questioning Phonics

Posted: Tue May 23, 2006 4:17 pm
by Susan Godsland
This article first appeared in the September 1999 issue of Literacy Today (issue no. 20). IMO it encapsulates, still, the main arguments :( of the UKLA.

Questioning phonics

Henrietta Dombey, professor of literacy in primary education, University of Brighton

In a reply to Synthetically successful (Literacy Today, June 1999), Henrietta Dombey analyses the research evidence on teaching phonics to children.

In their recent article 'Synthetically successful' Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson claim that their synthetic phonics programme has proved significantly more successful with school entrants than an analytic approach. However, neither of the two comparison groups used in the study was taught with an approach meriting the term analytic, since both were taught initial sounds only, and that at a very slow rate. They were not taught how printed words can be split into onsets and rimes. A fairer comparison would have been with the thorough-going analytic approach currently being developed in North Lanarkshire, where similarly dramatic gains in word recognition are reported.
But before we rush in to adopt a particular phonics programme that promises rapid progress, we should ask some searching questions. The first question is really two:

How does this programme relate to other aspects of learning to read?
Does it allow teachers and children to give priority to the process of making meaning from written text?
In their illuminating study of successful literacy teachers in English schools, (see LT 19) Jane Medwell and colleagues found that unlike their comparison group of largely less effective teachers, the successful teachers had developed a coherent philosophy of teaching reading in which they put meaning first, starting with whole texts of interest to their children, before looking at techniques of work identification. They certainly taught phonics, but did so in the context of 'reading for meaning', not through decontextualised worksheets and activities. Phonics learning is an essential part of learning to read, but it should not distort, conflict or interfere with the teaching or learning of other parts, such as a liking for books, the capacity to relate what you read to your own personal experience and to other texts, and the understanding of how a story might go.
How does the programme fit with what we know of the patterns of children's literacy learning?
Uta Frith has shown us that children go about the business of identifying new words in fundamentally different ways as they go through the process of learning to read. Initially, whatever we try to teach them, young children recognise words as unanalysed wholes, making no attempt to map the component letters into speech sounds. She terms this the logographic phase, stating that towards the end of this phase children may well notice some at least of the letters involved. But they only start to make systematic use of this knowledge when they enter the next phase, what she terms the alphabetic or analytic phase. Here they are learning to relate letters and groups of letters to phonemes and groups of phonemes. In other words they are learning phonics. Children who have acquired quite a wide reading vocabulary in the earlier logographic phase may well need cajoling, repeated prompting and considerable support to tackle words analytically. But as they move through this phase, learning the more complex spelling patterns as well as the simpler, this learning becomes automatic and they enter the third and final phase - the orthographic phase. Here they operate confidently with a repertoire, not of individual words, but of spelling patterns, which allows them to 'recognise' new words immediately. This should be the goal of all phonics teaching.
We need to ensure that the programme we adopt allows children to develop an initial sight vocabulary while preparing them for the next phase, and then encourages them to analyse the regular words, using this analysis as a basis for learning new words. Then we need to help them organise and internalise this knowledge.

Does the programme recognise the sequence of children's development of phonological awareness?
Usha Goswami in the UK and other researchers on both sides of the Atlantic have clearly demonstrated that young pre-readers find great difficulty in splitting a spoken word into its component phonemes and even greater difficulty in 'blending' the phonemes corresponding to the letters of a word to produce the whole word. While the initial consonant in a simple word such as 'dog' may pose few problems, the final consonant is harder and the vowel is harder still. But, perhaps because rhyme is such a pervasive element in children's culture the world over, splitting such a simple word into its onset 'd' and rime 'og' is much easier. Usha Goswami has also shown that, based on this onset/rime division, young children are capable, given relevant teaching, of drawing analogies between new words they encounter and words they already know. So a child who knows 'dog' and is familiar with 'f' as an onset, can be encouraged to work out 'fog' for himself. To aid this process, children should be trained in awareness of onsets and rimes.
However, the Australian Brian Byrne and others have shown that phonological awareness on its own is not enough: children also need a thorough familiarity with the letters of the alphabet and the phonemes they most straightforwardly represent. Children also need to learn to build up words from their component phonemes. But programmes that expect children to leapfrog this 'onset-rime' stage in their development of phonological awareness run the risk of making children over dependent on their teachers and insecure in their learning.

How does the programme relate to the spelling patterns we want children to be able to read?
Our spelling system represents spoken sounds with written letters. But, as we know, there is no simple one to one relation between our (approximately) 43 phonemes and the 26 letters of the alphabet. While our consonants are not always reliable, it's our vowels that pose the real problem. English is a vowel-rich language. We have some 12 vowels and 8 diphthongs (vowel combinations such as 'oy') in English, but only five vowel letters. The letter 'a' stands for very different sounds in the words 'cat' 'call' and 'cast'. The consonant letters that follow the 'a' indicate how it is to be pronounced. In other words the rime is a more reliable guide to pronunciation than are individual phonemes. 'Call' rhymes with 'ball' and 'fall' (though not with 'shall'); cast rhymes with 'fast; and 'past', and of course 'cat' rhymes with 'bat' and 'fat'. But if we 'sound out' these words phoneme by phoneme, only the 'cat' group works. Yet our children need to learn these and the very many other rime 'families' that include such vowel sounds.
But as the linguists Chomsky and Halle have demonstrated, not all spelling is phonetic, even in the onset/rime sense. Many spellings such as 'southern' tell us rather more about meaning than pronunciation. If children are to become fluent readers, they need to recognise key units of meaning - to know that the 'ed' of 'jumped' and 'landed' has the same meaning, even if the pronunciation differs. In other words children need to learn to look for key morphemes - meaning units - as well as pronunciation units.

This brings me to the final question:

How is success judged?
In many trials of phonic programmes researchers judge success on children's ability to recognise words out of context. The test words may be the most phonically straightforward, such as 'cat' and 'dog'. They may even be nonsense words. But the proof of the pudding is in the contribution it makes to helping children read un-artificial, connected text fluently with a clear focus on meaning. Nothing else will do.
Unlike many commercial phonics programmes, the National Literacy Strategy framework recognises that phonics is only a part of learning to read. It also recognises that children need to learn a sight vocabulary in the early stages and the importance of onset and rime - at least in Reception and Year 1. These are all positive attributes. But the lists of 'specific phonics and spelling work' for Years 1 and 2 in particular, have daunted many teachers. Introducing these spellings in appropriate rimes - 'ai' in 'nail', 'sail' etc. for example, can make them much more user-friendly. And where teachers have the courage to draw their word level work out of texts which children are reading for their meaning, the whole process can become much more purposeful. Above all, we need to remember that children need a balanced approach to learning to read, not one that distorts it into an empty mechanical exercise, of limited value in encounters with real texts.

References Byrne, B (1999) The Foundation of Literacy Hove: Psychology Press
Chomsky, N and Halle, M (1968) The Sound Patterns of English New York: Harper and Row
Frith, U (1985) 'Developmental Dyslexia' in K.E. Patterson et al. (Eds) Surface Dyslexia Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Goswami, U (1992) Analogical Reasoning in Children Hove: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Medwell, J et al Effective Teachers of Literacy Exeter: University of Exeter ... icsHD.html

Posted: Tue May 23, 2006 6:51 pm
by Lesley Drake
I'm surprised she didn't try plugging her own book on this, published by CLPE. Read the reviews and see how entrenched and unchanging are these whole language progfessors and hangers-on. ... ml#anchor1

They cling to "their" favourite bits of research, which is why, ultimately, this has to be overturned school by school at grassroots level.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 3:55 am
by jashill
I am the father of 7 children, 8 through 23 in age. Our children were homeschooled for ten years. Each child has learned how to read through phonics. With each child their reading vocabulary quickly expanded to match their several-thousand-word speaking vocabulary. Then they expanded their vocabulary further through reading. If they had been taught look-say methods first, they would have had a reading vocabulary of a few hundred words during their early reading years.

I teach reading to children with severe intellectual disabilities including autism, downs syndrome, and other disabilities. My students are 16 to 18 years of age. Of my ten students, two read extremely well, a few read fairly well, a few read only the sight words they can remember, and the others cannot read. Each student that reads well has mastered phonics, the readers of lesser ability know phonics to a lesser degree, and every student who reads poorly or cannot read has been taught sight words for over a decade. The sight-word readers have reading vocabularies of a few hundred words!

Children who use phonics to decode words during the early years of reading already know the meaning of virtually all decoded words because they are in their speaking vocabulary. The novice reader has little need for strategies to learn the meaning of words--by context or otherwise. After they have mastered phonics and read well, they will use context and other means to learn the meaning of phonically decoded words.

The author of the passage asserts that certain sight-word strategies should be used before the child is taught phonics. The methods she describes appear to be early phonics instruction and not sight-word strategies. A strawman is easy to topple.

Because I was taught by phonics--without any "sight word" nonsense--I read adult-level prose when I was 10. I began reading tomes when I was 12.

The teaching of reading by look-say was the nonpareil disaster of education.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 7:25 am
by g.carter
Jashill - thank you for posting. What a tremendous task to teach 16-18 year old severely affected pupils. I hope you continue to post.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 12:26 pm
by Debbie Hepplewhite
jashill - I think this thread - and your posting - will become one of our 'classics'.

I don't know who you are or where you live, but what a refreshing and inspiring posting to arrive 'out of the blue'.

Thank you! :wink:

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 12:32 pm
by Debbie Hepplewhite
I am utterly convinced that Henrietta represents a large group of academics who have never set foot in a Jolly Phonics or Ruth Miskin classroom.

I believe that 'they' simply don't know what is possible.

The expounding on what beginner readers can, or cannot, do does not fit in with my experience as a primary and special needs teacher.

With synthetic phonics teaching, my infants gained the best reading and writing results (in my local authority) at the age of 7 with tests which were based on comprehension and narrative writing.

With synthetic phonics teaching for special needs, my pupils gain from double to six times the improvement ratio in a term in decoding levels, and are able, for the first time, to tackle simple written comprehension questions because they can read the text!

These results are typical of pupils taught from the beginning with synthetic phonics. We hear more and more about this fact on our online forums.

Will these academics play the same record over and again and never heed the growing evidence - statistical and anecdotal?

Are they stuck in a time warp or stuck with their heads in the sand? :roll:

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 12:50 pm
by Debbie Hepplewhite
To be fair, Henrietta wrote this in 1999.

Does anyone know of her most recent views?

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 12:51 pm
by maizie
I am utterly convinced that Henrietta represents a large group of academics who have never set foot in a Jolly Phonics or Ruth Miskin classroom.

I believe that 'they' simply don't know what is possible.
After sitting through an 'academic's' attempt at explaining SP recently, I have to say that I completely agree with you, Debbie.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 3:17 pm
by Peter Warner
After sitting through an 'academic's' attempt at explaining SP recently
That's above and beyond the call of duty, to hear someone else mangle
something so dear to heart. Must have been torture, and a challenge to
find 47 different ways to sit quietly.

I had the (in comparison) mildly discouraging task today of attending a
presentation entitled 'Reading skills- methods and applications'. The speaker
spoke for ninety minutes and managed to avoid uttering the words 'phonics',
'alphabetic code' or 'decode' even once. Neither did he attempt to explain
the process of reading itself.

To clarify; I respect the speaker for his accomplishments at the university
level, but I don't think he has much to offer teachers of younger
age students.

Mildly discouraged, Peter Warner.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 7:21 pm
by Lesley Drake
Dick, you are SO right.

You want more recent evidence of her views? This is her response to the introduction of Ruth Miskin's programme at Britannia Village Primary in Newham featured on BBC2's Newsnight.

This intervention is unlikely to tell us much. The children will probably make better progress on tests of word recognition than previously, because of the novelty of the approach and the glamour of being videoed and "on telly". But will they go to books more readily? Will they understand the texts they "read"? Children certainly need to learn phonics, but they also need to learn many other lessons about reading, such as its power to give you both information and enjoyment, and the role it can play in taking you beyond the limits of your first hand experience and also aiding your thinking.
Henrietta Dombey, Brighton

Get the cynicism!

because of the novelty of the approach and the glamour of being videoed and "on telly".

And the same tedious banging on about meaning.

Will they understand the texts they "read"?

I think we are being too kind implying that our Henrietta and her ilk just don't understand. I think they go out of their way to refuse to engage with the truth of the matter, and to deliberately mislead.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 7:55 pm
by Lesley Drake
And this quote:
And Professor Henrietta Dombey, one of the country's leading experts in the teaching of reading, has commented 'Reputable studies published in journals on both sides of the Atlantic have shown the superiority of a balanced approach, paying attention to both the mechanics of word recognition and to the construction of meaning. Perhaps even more importantly, such studies have shown that the quality of teaching and the quantity of engaging texts that children read make more of a difference to their achievement than do their teachers' approaches to early word recognition.' (Letters The Guardian 8 December 2005)

She went on to point out that 'the Clackmannanshire study, cited as proof of the superiority of synthetic phonics, is riddled with flaws and has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal in an English-speaking country. In terms of comprehension, not only were its subjects a mere three months ahead of "national norms" (no control group was involved) rather than the three years we hear so much about, but their progress followed an unprecedented focus on reading in Clackmannanshire's schools, through a carefully phased intervention involving professional development for teachers, and an injection of new books.'
This came from a longer page of "stuff" by Derek Gillard.

Sigh. I liked that quote from Diane:

When I read/see/hear these kinds of reports it just makes me want to go
sit on the beach and watch the birds.

Thing is, we don't have many seagulls in the East End.

Posted: Sun May 28, 2006 8:06 pm
by Lesley Drake
Good job we have Jenny on the case! ... 332482.ece

Scroll right down to get the start of her response to HD's nonsense.

Posted: Mon May 29, 2006 12:10 am
by Debbie Hepplewhite
Lesley - I remember seeing Professor Dombey on Newsnight with Ruth.

She gave the impression of being personal and begrudging...

I wonder if the sceptical academics think that all these headteachers and teachers who speak of greatly improved reading, spelling and writing results are simply not telling the truth?

But why wouldn't they believe so many teaching professionals? :roll:

Posted: Mon May 29, 2006 7:19 am
by g.carter
I think it was Henrietta Dombey who remarked that her teacher-training course was too overloaded (not her words) to include much phonics teaching. But three years ago a friend did her pgce as a mature student at Brighton- all they seemed to do in respect of reading instruction was MISCUE analysis....tons and tons of it.

Those were very good and timely observations, Dick.

Posted: Mon May 29, 2006 3:21 pm
by Lesley Drake
Lest we forget just how truly awful miscue analysis is: ... alysis.pdf

WHAT is this still doing on the DfES website?

Found this whilst googling too. ... ritque.htm