Phonics isn’t working – for children’s reading to improve, they need to learn to love stories – South Asia Time

Phonics isn’t working – for children’s reading to improve, they need to learn to love stories

 April 17, 2024  

Government data has shown that in 2022-23, 30% of five-year-olds in England were not meeting the expected standard for literacy at the end of their reception year at school. Literacy was the area of learning in which the lowest proportion of children reached the target level.

Now, recent research from think tank Pro Bono Economics has found that this lack of early reading skills could result in a £830 million cost to the economy for each year group over their lifetimes.

A 2023 report from the National Literacy Trust found that less than half of children aged eight to 18 say they enjoy reading. Enjoyment is at its lowest level since 2005. Part of learning to read should be learning to love books – and enjoyment in reading is linked to higher achievement. If children don’t like reading, how we teach it to them isn’t working.

Our view, as academic linguists, is that part of the reason why so many children do not experience joy in reading is the excessive focus on synthetic phonics in early education.

Synthetic phonics teaches reading by guiding children to decode words by linking letters (graphemes) to their corresponding sounds (phonemes). For instance, children are taught that the letter “g” corresponds to the initial sound in “get”.

Synthetic phonics is often referred to in everyday language simply as “phonics”. That is useful shorthand but technically speaking “phonics” is a broader term, which refers to all methods of teaching reading that emphasise relations between letters and sounds. Phonics, in this broader sense, also includes analytic phonics, for example. But in analytic phonics whole words are analysed, with the pronunciation of individual letters and groups of letters deduced from that – not the other way around.

Synthetic phonics has always played a role in teaching children how to read, alongside other methods. However, following recommendations by former headteacher and Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Jim Rose in 2006, it rapidly became the main approach in England, more so than in other Anglophone nations.

The government has pointed to England’s high ranking in the comparative Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) as evidence that phonics is working. Unfortunately, other research does not support this narrative around synthetic phonics and literacy.

Another international comparison of student achievement, PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), looks at 15-year-olds. Here, UK students’ performance in reading was at its highest in 2000, before the heavy emphasis on phonics. Children in the Republic of Ireland and Canada, where synthetic phonics isn’t as central, outperform their British peers in reading.

And in general, England’s PIRLS scores – as well as other data – show that achievement in reading has stayed fairly stable since 2001, rather than showing the improvement that might be expected if phonics was indeed so effective.

Processing language

In synthetic phonics, children do not focus on texts or even paragraphs or sentences. Instead, they process language word by word, letter by letter. An extreme but real example of this is when they are asked to read word lists that even include nonsense words, such as “stroft” or “quoop”. The goal here isn’t to expand vocabulary but to practice blending letter sounds, turning each word into a challenging task.

Children are also given “decodable books”, intended to help them practice a few specific sounds. A genuine example of a story designed to make children practice just eight phonemes, starts as follows: “Tim taps it. Sam sits in. Tim nips in. Sam tips it.” Many of these artificial sentences sound unlike anything children would ever hear or read in a real-life context.

To be fair, the images in this decodable book make it clear that Tim taps the door of a house, that Sam sits inside that house, and so on. But it’s difficult to imagine that children’s attention will be captured by these stories – it certainly wasn’t in the case of one of us, Willem’s, own children.

This is not a good start if we wish to encourage kids to read for pleasure, as the National Curriculum rightly suggests we should.

Boy and girl reading book together smiling
Children should learn to love reading. wavebreakmedia/Shutterstock
Educational researchers have argued that the government’s focus on synthetic phonics is not warranted by the research literature. And the relation between sounds and spelling in English is devilishly difficult compared to many other languages, such as Spanish or Polish. For instance, “g” sounds very different in “gel” than it does in “get”. This makes exceedingly high reliance on synthetic phonics a poor decision to begin with.

Broader comprehension

There are alternatives to England’s focus on synthetic phonics. In the Republic of Ireland and Canada, for instance, phonics is integrated into an approach that emphasises reading whole texts and includes strategies other than just synthetic phonics. Children are taught to consider the wider context to look for meaning and identify words.

Read more: Phonics teaching in England needs to change – our new research points to a better approach

Take the sentence “Sam sits in his house”. A child may not have learnt the sound corresponding to “ou” and not been taught that an “e” at the end of a word isn’t always pronounced. But if they have genuinely understood the preceding sentences in the story, they have a good chance of figuring out that the word is “house” knowing that Tim has just knocked on a front door and that Sam must sit inside something.

And we know from a study that has examined the findings of many research papers that a phonics-led approach is less effective than one that focuses on comprehension more broadly, by getting children to engage with the text and images in different ways.

We believe the government’s plan for literacy isn’t working. Focusing on stories that children like to read would be a better place to start.

(From : The conversation)