The Phonics Debate

It is far too simplistic to be blaming a whole language approach instead of a phonics approach for the poor results in our children’s reading.  If it was only as easy as reinstalling a national phonics program, we would have done it ages ago.  The issue here is not about phonics like some are professing:

OLD-school ways of teaching children to read should be re-introduced in Victoria, experts say, urging a return to phonics.

Academics and primary education specialists say Victorian children are paying the price for the Education Department’s failure to heed a federal literacy taskforce’s calls for a return to structured phonics-based teaching.

RMIT childhood psychology expert Kerry Hempenstall said the current approach – where children are taught to recognise whole words instead of learning to sound them out – had failed.

“Whole language has been around for 30 years and since then the Government has spent billions on literacy programs and reducing class sizes and, despite that investment, literacy has not improved,” Dr Hempenstall said.

The Education Department told the Sunday Herald Sun it had no way of knowing whether the reading standard had improved under the whole language “experiment” because it could not compare the two different approaches.

Spokeswoman Megan McNaught said figures showed there were more grade 3 students meeting minimum reading standards today than 10 years ago.

The National Inquiry into Teaching of Literacy recommended in 2005 that educators should provide “systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction” to help children master “alphabetic code-breaking skills” needed for reading.

But Dr Hempenstall said Victoria had ignored the advice to the detriment of its little learners.

“Teachers today have not been taught to teach phonics in a systematic way,” Dr Hempenstall said.

“They don’t receive that training in their teacher education, so it doesn’t matter whether or not people are saying, ‘We do teach phonics’, they need to have that training for it to have an impact.”

Anyone that thinks that reverting to a phonics program will fix the problem is in fantasy land.  The problem concerning poor reading rests with two major factors.

1.  People are reading less.  We live in a modern world where people are getting their entertainment and news from the digital media.  Children are not being exposed to literature at home like they used to.  Adults are not modelling good reading habits in the same way that they used to.  There is something quite powerful about reading around your kids. 

2.  Both systems of teaching literacy are deeply flawed because they don’t easily convey the joys of reading.  Both systems can be taught well, but often come across in  a turgid and uninspiring way.  Whatever system teachers are instructed to take on must be engaging and relay the joys of reading to our kids.

When something isn’t working, there is always a call top go back in history.  Only trouble is, things change for a reason.  If it was working so well back then, it never would have been overhauled in the first place. 


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7 Responses to “The Phonics Debate”

  1. Margaret Reyes Dempsey Says:

    In my opinion, there’s another reason why kids aren’t reading as well as they did in the past. We focus on too many subjects too early in elementary school before we have laid a solid foundation of reading and comprehension skills. I could go on and on for hours about this, but I don’t want to hijack your blog. 😉

  2. Kate Williams Says:

    Whatever the method, children need to be enthused – inspired – to learn to read. I find, as a children’s poet working in schools, that if a child is motivated to write, he is happy – proud even – to correct a word or two with help. By the time he has read out his verse to the class, he has virtually learnt the spelling of those words, as part and parcel of all the fun.

    • Michael G. Says:

      Sounds brilliant Kate! Exactly what we should all be aspiring for in our teaching!

      • Kate Williams Says:

        Easier said than done though, I’m sure, on a daily basis, and with so much else on a teacher’s agenda to be juggling with simultaneously. It’s ok for me because trying to enthuse and inspire to write is pretty well all I do on my visits!

        Thanks for your response, and good luck!


  3. John Tapscott Says:

    The debate that pits phonics against whole language is borne out of ignorance. Both are essential. Without phonics a child will be able to learn to read but will reach a plateau at a reading age of about 8 years. The correct question is not “if” but “when”. Without whole language phonics is a grotesque exercise in “barking at print”. In the normal scheme of things children first learn to recognise whole words by sight. It is impossible for a Chinese child to “sound out” 猫. The child learns to recognise and associate this symbol with “mao”, meaning “cat”. As with Chinese children, so with children who learn to read a phonetic written language. The whole word is recognised by its meaning. Once the meaning is established it is then possible, and necessary, to teach the child to analyse words according the sounds made by letters and to recognise certain patterns, e.g. beginning sounds. At this point the child also learns how to use a knowledge of sounds to construct (write, spell) words.

    Why people argue for teaching phonics, over and against whole language is that everybody remembers the structured phonics lessons as being part of their learning to read and thinks that this was how they began to learn to read. Learning by the whole language approach is more subtle but necessarily there at the beginning but not easily remembered in the same way that nobody remembers learning to speak. It is there, nonetheless, and is essential. Learning the sounds made by single letters and groups of letters is also essential.

    Therefore the debate that argues one approach against the other is specious and not worth the effort. Begin with the whole language approach but teach phonics as soon as possible and let’s have no more of this silly debate.

  4. free stuff Says:

    all the time i used to read smaller posts that also clear their motive, and that is also happening with this article which I am reading here.

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