The pressure is on for teachers of Year 3 and 4 pupils to improve the teaching of phonics. But is there a danger that too much emphasis on this strategy may be hindering lower-attaining children from making good progress in reading. Knowledge of phonics is a powerful tool for spelling, and it can be a useful supporting strategy for reading, but for too many lower-attaining children, phonics can be a hurdle which prevents them reading.
I teach in a first school (for children aged four to nine). Two years ago I did a survey of reading strategies throughout the school. I asked every teacher to identify two higher, two middle and two lower-attaining readers.
I did a miscue analysis - to see what sort of mistakes were made - as I listened to each of the children reading and I then talked to them about the book, the stories, their attitude to reading and about strategies they used when they did not recognise a word.
All of the children were relaxed, happy and appeared to be enthusiastic about reading. I was surprised to discover that our higher, middle and lower-attaining readers were following different pathways. From reception onwards, the higher-attaining children had high expectations of books and of themselves as readers: they actively searched for meaning on the page, using all the strategies they knew; they monitored their own reading and when meaning was lost, they hesitated and revisited the sentence. These children tried to make meaning using even the simplest of reading scheme texts.
By contrast our lowest-attaining readers were treating each individual word as a separate puzzle. These children either recognised a word on sight - or thought they did - or attempted to sound it out. The children's entire cognitive capacity was focused on puzzle-solving, so there was none left to monitor meaning. Also, the children's reading was so inaccurate, due to a mixture of confidently misreading high-frequency words (for instance, confusing can and come) and of failing to accurately decode phonically irregular words (for instance, he, then) that meaning was lost.
I realised that whilst our highest-attaining children were developing into readers, others were being turned off. As I heard yet another junior child trying, and failing, to decode a word like crisp (sounded out as cr - i - sp. Spit?) I began to wonder whether our well-intentioned attempts to help children by continuously supporting their phonic knowledge might be misdirected. Some of these children didn't seem to "get" phonics. And our response? To give them more!
Starting with some training for teachers and assistants, a governors'
curriculum committee meeting, a parents' evening and significant investment in new reading resources, we began to change the culture for reading. The knee-jerk response to a child who "gets stuck on a word" has for so long been "sound it out", or "what does it begin with?" that we knew that there was going to be no quick fix.
In the two years since this transformation began in my own school, I have been invited to support other schools and I have undertaken similar surveys. I am discovering the same pattern in school after school. And the good news? Earlier this term, I repeated the reading survey in my own school. Although we still have higher, middle and lower-attaining readers, and the children are still positive and relaxed as readers, they are no longer following such discrete reading pathways. All the children are searching for meaning and are using a wide range of strategies to find it.
Phonics is still a very active and useful strategy but now, for all our readers, it is one of a range. Even more positively, the "tail" at the bottom of each class is much shorter, and standards throughout the school have risen.
Kate Ruttle is series editor of Trackers, a reading resource for KS2 children reading at level 1B to 2A, (OUP), and a teacher at Ditton Lodge first school, Newmarket