Our Authors Don’t Want us Teaching Phonics

There is a major phonics debate going around. One side argues that one must learn phonics to be able to read properly, the other suggests that phonics is dry and boring and detracts from the pleasure of reading:

More than 90 of Britain’s best-known children’s authors and illustrators have called on the government to abandon its plans to introduce early-year reading tests, warning that they pose a threat to reading for pleasure in primary schools.

The former children’s laureate Michael Rosen is leading the writers’ charge against a phonics-intensive approach to teaching young children how to read.

A letter to the Guardian signed by 91 names including Meg Rosoff, Philip Ardagh and Alan Gibbons says millions is being spent on “systematic synthetic phonics programmes” even though there is “no evidence that such programmes help children understand what they are reading”.

Rosen told the Guardian: “It does not produce reading for understanding, it produces people who can read phonically.”

Click on the link to read Who Said Grammar Isn’t Important?

Click on the link to read The Resistance Against Teaching Grammar

Click on the link to read Captain Phonics to the Rescue!

Click on the link to read the Phonics debate.

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2 Responses to “Our Authors Don’t Want us Teaching Phonics”

  1. John Tapscott Says:

    This is a spurious debate which has been around for far too long. Of course children must read for the sheer joy and pleasure of reading. Of course children need to understand phonics. The whole language approach, and phonics are both essential. The big question is when. When should children learn phonics? Is phonics foundational to reading or is meaning foundational?

    My contention, which is backed by 40+ years experience in the classroom, is that until a child understands that the squiggles on a page actually mean something, and can recognise a number of these as words, the teaching of phonics is futile; mere barking at print.

    Once a child has a number of words, recognised by sight, then the initial sound made by words has some meaning. If the child has no basic sight vocabulary, phonics only serve to confuse. I would not be dogmatic about this because one can always find exceptions. I am speaking in general terms.

    With no understanding of phonics a child can attain to a reading age of 8 but then will reach a plateau. It is at this point an understanding of phonics is essential for the child to make any further progress. Of course it would not be wise to wait for a child to be 8 before teaching phonics, but as soon as a child can recognise enough words to pick the difference in beginning sounds you are well on te way.

    The question is not whether to teach phonics, but when.

    Consider the case in China where there is no phonetic alphabet.
    A child must learn to look at “猫” and say “mao” (cat), just as an English speaking child looks at “cat” and can recognise the word long before he/she has any idea of phonics. Both English speaking and Chinese speaking children are encouraged to use other clues when learning the whole word, such as pictures and gestures.

    As I began, it is a spurious debate, fostered by people with a vested interest, but with little understanding of how children learn to read. I have a smidgen of understanding of the learning to read process as I have taught many children to read from scratch (including those with “intellectual disability”) beginning as late as 8 years of age.

    The authors are right if you consider how many schools attempt to teach phonics before they teach reading for meaning but at the same time without phonics a child’s progress learning to read is somewhat limited. However, by the time a child has a reasonable sight vocabulary, there is no need for learning phonics to be dry and boring because he/she will be able to discern the meaning of it all and a conscientious teacher will find ways of making this fun.

    There is no “either, or” when teaching reading. It has to be “both, and”. The well trained teacher will be able to discern when a child is ready to learn phonics and it will have nothing to do with his/her chronological age.

    • Michael G. Says:

      I agree with you John. To me, this debate seems to be an argument between two extremes. I believe the answer lies somewhere in the middle – to teach phonics, but not to have it hijack your whole reading curriculum. It’s all about finding the right balance.

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