Get it right from the start

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Tom Burkard on why phonics should come before reading schemes or real books

In our pamphlet, Reading Fever: Why Phonics Must Come First - written last November - Martin Turner and I argued that children should be taught phonics before being introduced to reading schemes and "real" books. This pamphlet has been attacked three times in The TES: in a leader (December 13, 1996), by Kathy Hall (January 3) and by Sue Palmer (January 24). I doubt that any of our critics read past the introduction - had they done so, they would have been discomfited by a front-page article in The TES's Scottish edition, The TESS (December 27), announcing "an exciting breakthough on literacy teaching" by our colleagues at St Andrew's University. This breakthrough is... er, teaching children phonics before they're given reading schemes or real books.

In the school cited in the St Andrew's study, Woods Loke Primary in Lowestoft, Suffolk, pupils were fully 16 months ahead of a control group of Scottish pupils after only two terms in Reception. Woods Loke serves an ordinary working to lower middle-class catchment, and baseline testing has shown that few of its pupils arrive in Reception with much in the way of pre-reading skills. Yet the data I've published reveals that on the 8-plus Suffolk Reading Test, only 1.8 per cent of their pupils scored below 80. ln Suffolk as a whole, 14.3 per cent of all pupils scored below 80 in l991.

From the first day of Reception, pupils at Woods Loke gather around the teacher for varied and interactive activities with letters (see TES, April 12, 1996). Mastery of basic skills is astonishingly quick - by the end of the first term, most pupils have learnt at least one way to spell each of the 42-odd phonemes of Standard English, as well as a basic sight vocabulary of irregular key words. They are never encouraged to guess or predict words - context is only used to resolve ambiguity and improve fluency.

At the end of the first term, most children are able to start on reading schemes with confidence. Phonological training does not stop here - from now on the reading programme is not that different from any other school, except that almost all the children are reading.

Despite the much-heralded return to phonics in the past few years, most serving primary teachers were trained during the halcyon years of whole language and "real" books. Not surprisingly, most schools have only added a few phonological knobs to existing whole language programmes. There is, of course, much that is attractive about the whole language philosophy; neither Martin Turner nor myself dispute that children should be encouraged to explore print and react critically to what they've read. Unfortunately, there's not a scrap of hard data to suggest that these activities actually help poor readers to master essential phonological skills.

Academically, the case for phonics is proven. Research shows that skilled readers can process virtually every letter in a word effortlessly without contextual information. As a skilled reader you take this ability for granted. Because you almost certainly developed these skills when you were too young to remember much about it, you may easily be deluded into thinking that you picked it up naturally - just as you learned to talk and listen. This theory is not supported by any objective research. As teachers, we all know that at least 20 per cent of pupils have great difficulty learning to read.

These children may have any number of problems. They may come from broken homes - but then most do not. They may spend too much time in front of the telly - but then so do most good readers. They may not speak English at home - but once again, most poor readers do. There's only one thing we can be sure of: these children have great difficulty matching print to sound.

In special needs, it is now accepted that slow readers need direct teaching of phonological skills. But the real question we should be asking is: if they need phonics, why don't we teach these skills right from the start? Most teachers are only prepared to adapt half-way measures, such as the fashionable "rime and onset" approach. A major study recently published in the US (TES, February 21, 1996) has confirmed the findings of the St Andrew's research - much better results were obtained when children were explicitly taught phonics from the start. The very least you owe your pupils is to look at what they're doing at Woods Loke.

Reading Fever: Why Phonics Must Come First, 1996, Centre For Policy Studies

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