The argument between phonics vs sight reading is a polarising one and like the paradigm wars, it is also very unhelpful. Both phonics and sight reading are two sides of the same coin, designed to produce literate people. Literacy is seen as key to ‘getting on’ in life and, to all extents and purposes, the world is currently dominated by the need to understand the written word. I say currently, as the more tech that seeps into everyday life, the less you need to be ‘text’ literate. Virtually all new operating systems (phones/tablets/laptops etc.) have software that renders the need to be able to read all but outdated. I suspect that within a few decades, reading and books will be outdated. Having said that, fashion goes round in cycles and vinyl records are making a comeback!
English is an opaque language, it is a mongrel that lies. It is a hybrid of multiple others, that operates multiple ‘rules’ all at once, all of which a literate person is expected to know. For the majority of people, these multiple, yet subtle, rules are easily learned over the first couple of years as a ‘reader’. For others, it’s like cracking the enigma code without a computer. As soon as you think you’ve just about cracked it, the code has been reset and you’ve got to start over. ‘Phonics’ seeks to create rules by reducing English into units of sounds by which the code can be cracked. To quote from the Borg in Star Trek, phonics seeks to bring order to chaos, assimilation is necessary, resistance is futile! But what happens if you can’t assimilate?
The key part of learning phonics is gaining sound/symbol awareness. Symbols need to be learned by sight (or feel if using wooden letters etc.), if not, how can we develop sound/symbol awareness? A person needs to know what /ai/ looks like at the same time as what it sounds like (or feels like). Which is correct though, lite, liet, leyet or light? All follow phonetic ‘rules’, but only one is the correct one. Why is ‘polite’ not spelled ‘polight’? What about split diagraphs? Surely that makes ‘lite’ correct? No? How about that ‘magic e’ rule? If we go from mat to mate to mated, why not plan to plane to planet? Vowels only have 2 sounds right? Its name and its sound. But how about the /o/ in one? Why does it sound like a /w/? How can we possibly know how when rules aren’t rules?
We move between words from Latin, Greek, German, French, Scandinavian and many more. By the train station in Norwich, is a region called Thorpe Hamlet. Thorpe (Old English) dates back to pre-900AD. It means village and is influenced by Old Norse (thorp) and Gothic (thaurp). Hamlet is 1300-50AD and means village without a church, from Middle English (hamelet) and Middle French (hamel, from German ham, meaning home). So Thorpe Hamlet essentially means village village. As clear as mud then…..
Virtually all our actions have some kind of rule underpinning it, but we barely, if at all, give it any thought. We give deference to a policeman/woman, but why?
‘Because they keep law and order’
‘But I keep law and order (in the classroom)’
‘Not that kind of law and order’
To explain, it would become necessary to explain what a law is and what order is. We ‘know’ because we have set up rules which have eventually led to this ‘knowledge’.
We may also follow the thread:
‘How do I know it’s a policeman/woman?’
‘Because they wear a uniform’
‘So all people who wear uniforms are policemen/women?’ and so forth.
Much has been written in social science about what it is to follow a rule (e.g. Bordieu; Wittgenstein). To follow the rule we much first understand it. We first need to know what is meant by ‘law’ or by a ‘policeman/woman’ before we learn to give deference. The thread of how far you could go back in unpicking a rule may run and run, potentially akin to a family history tree, exploring branch after branch.
Children start out the other way, of course. A four-legged thing walks past their cot ‘that’s a cat’, says parent. The child points out a four-legged thing from their pushchair ‘cat!’ ‘No, that’s a dog’. They point to a four-legged thing from their car seat ‘dog!’ ‘No that’s a sheep’ – and so on. Rules start to become established, but it is unlikely that they have been explicitly explained. By sight, children quickly assimilate snippets of information and develop a sophisticated understanding of rules covering animal types, habitats, etc. Cats and dogs live in houses, sheep and cows live in fields. You can ride horses but you shouldn’t try and stroke a tiger. They also learn some interesting inaccuracies such as ‘cat’ being the opposite of ‘dog’!
In regards to creating rules to teach English, I would argue that the received wisdom of science tells us that rules simply do not work. We must extend our sight reading ability from sound/symbol awareness to incorporating whole words. Most children will do this without really thinking about it, like they do in the animal example. They may read whole words along with the teacher’s story, they may read whole words during guided reading and they will be asking a variety of others what a word will say. What is so very sad about the ‘phonics wars’ is the complete lack of understanding of the fact we learn by applying both sight and sound more or less simultaneously.
Recently, a Head teacher was bemoaning his daughter’s school for issuing ‘sight reading’ words, stating that it would undo the phonics teaching so she wouldn’t be learning them. Oh dear. Children’s ability to learn is far, far more sophisticated than that, but children don’t always learn in exactly the same way or at the same rate. If children have failed to become little Borg-like creatures, assimilating the text as it comes their way, we need to know why and formulate a plan of action. Teaching more and more of the same is likely to be inefficient and may lead to low self-esteem and disengagement. Rather than attracting readers, teachers will be repelling them.
For a few children, automaticity will not ensue for a variety of reasons, such as not being able to acquire sound/symbol awareness or because they are unable to work outside of the initial ‘rule’ taught (i.e. always applying the first spelling learned for a specific sound). It may be that the student does not yet have the level of maturity necessary for literacy learning, they may have a problem in language functioning, a sensory deficit, working memory problems and so on. The ‘rule’ nature of literacy does indicate that those with an ASD may be at risk not being able to adopt a new rule for the same sound, but many with ASD do read fluently so no assumptions should be made. However, they may become fluent decoders with very little comprehension…..
Rules should never be blindly followed, they need to be understood. I fear that blanket policies in teaching literacy will generally discriminate against somebody, and that somebody is likely to meet the criteria of being disabled under the Equality Act. We know that children with SEN/D rarely feature in Education Ministers rhetoric, but we must take an evidence-based approach, evidenced that is, by what works for the individual child not some government policy or research document that is based on the typically-developing child. If the child is typically developing, they are unlikely to need an intervention, phonics or otherwise!
An alternative approach – Reading Recovery (RR) (for example) – is initially more expensive than a phonics intervention, requires specialist training but has quicker results and slightly better long-term outcomes. It doesn’t mean that the approach should be adopted wholesale, but it does provide evidence that a tailored approach to teaching students who are struggling to acquire literacy is likely to pay dividends. In legal parlance, it would be ‘an efficient use of resources’ and provide ‘best educational and other outcomes’.
No polarisation please, can we simply get back to teaching to our students’ needs, through a whole toolkit rather than a single multi-purpose tool?