How children read

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Did you know?

* There are two models for teaching reading: sound-based (phonics) and visual (whole language)

* Einstein didn't learn to read until he was 10

* Learning to speak is the first step towards learning to read

* A baby's babble includes many more phonemes (the distinctive sounds used to form words) than are used in their home language. After six months, they begin to concentrate on the sounds they hear most

* In many European countries emphasis in the early years is on oral interaction; children may not be taught to read until the age of seven

* Seventy-five per cent of people will learn to read, regardless of how they are taught. But that still means one in four will struggle

Everyone agrees that learning to read is a good thing. But there's less agreement about the best way of achieving it. Because most of us don't remember learning to read, it can be easy to imagine there's nothing to it.

But it's one of the most hotly debated topics in education - with its own bewildering jargon. Phonics? Whole language? Onset and rime? For parents and teachers helping with those first simple texts, it can seem a long way from the squiggles on the page to Harry Potter. But with increasing pressure on children to master literacy basics, it may be worth remembering that Einstein couldn't read until he was 10.

Baby talk

Learning to speak is the first step towards learning to read. "Reading is not natural, but language is," says literacy consultant Sue Palmer.

"Reading is a taught process built on the back of language." It may be helpful to think of reading as a code: once children make the connection between what they see on the page, the sounds they hear and the meanings attached to words, they've cracked it. There is still debate over how much language skill is innate, but babies are born with the ability to distinguish subtle sound differences. So, unlike adults, they pick up a whole range of phonemes - the distinctive sounds used to form words. Each of the world's 6,000 languages uses a different assortment of these phonemes and, until six months, a baby's babble includes many more sounds than are used in their home language. After that, they begin to concentrate on the phonemes they hear most. Until the age of one, babies hear speech as a series of distinct but meaningless words, but then they begin linking words to meaning. By 18 months they are boosting their vocabulary at the rate of one word every two hours. By the age of three, they are beginning to "play" with language by experimenting with rhymes.

Sounds easy-peasy...

In theory, yes. But evidence shows that television and changing lifestyles mean parents talk less to their children than they did in the past. More children now arrive at school with poorly developed speaking and listening skills. In many European countries - including Finland, Sweden and Hungary - emphasis in the early years is on oral interaction; children may not be taught to read until the age of seven. But in the UK, the pressures of early-age testing and parental expectation mean schools start teaching children to read as soon as they arrive in reception class. "Today's youngsters are the least prepared of any generation, yet literacy is taught earlier than ever," says Sue Palmer. The debate about the appropriate age to begin reading is a fierce one - and closely linked to an even fiercer argument over the best way to teach it.

Order! Order!

At a basic level there are two models for teaching reading. One is sound-based, the other visual - or "phonics" and "whole language" as they are commonly called. But it isn't that simple. There are many approaches to phonics and whole language, and every approach has passionate proponents and entrenched adversaries. Literacy is a subject that provokes strong passions. It also provokes controversy, arguments and academic feuds.

Depending on your viewpoint, it all makes for an exciting debate - or a complete muddle. "Think of it as a political spectrum," says Prue Goodwin, lecturer in literacy at the University of Reading. "You have extremists at either end, with strong ideals and definite views. Then there are those towards the centre, who are pragmatic and take ideas from both sides."

Phonics: as easy as A, B, C?

The English language consists of 44 phonetic sounds, or phonemes. Phonics is a system of breaking down words into smaller components of sound. But there are several ways of doing this. The most commonly drawn distinction is between "analytic" and "synthetic" phonics. Synthetic phonics involves breaking words down (segmenting) into the smallest unit of sound, then teaching children to blend these sounds together to form words. So the word "street" is broken down into five components: "s-t-r-ee-t". This is sometimes referred to as "all-through-the-word" teaching. Children are taught letters, and digraphs (such as "th" or "ee") and trigraphs (for example, "igh").

"You simply see the letters, make the sound, blend it together and then hear the word," says Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation, an organisation that promotes synthetic phonics as the best means of teaching literacy. Synthetic phonics programmes teach alphabet sounds, rather than alphabet letters (kicking k, as it were, rather than "kay") and use reading books designed to explore certain sounds, with only sounds already learned being encountered.

Analytic phonics also involves breaking down words, but not necessarily into the smallest units. The onset-rime method, for example, divides words into openings and endings. So "street" is broken down into "str-eet". Words are learned in groups or lists. The early emphasis is on initial sounds - so children might learn "p" and then practise "p-ig... p-at... p-ot".

Later, they tackle lists such as "m-at", "c-at", "r-at", where the first part changes but the second is constant.

Sounds exciting - what's the evidence?

Not surprisingly, there is a mass of academic research into reading - much of it unreliable. A review by the National Reading Panel (a US organisation established by Congress in 1997 to monitor the effectiveness of a range of approaches to teaching literacy) of all research between 1970 and 2000 examined 1,100 reports. It found only 38 of these could be deemed "valid scientific studies". But interesting and well-documented case studies do exist.

Research by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, followed a sample of several hundred primary pupils who were taught a synthetic phonics programme in 1998, with control groups being taught a more traditional analytic programme. At the end of the 16-week programme, children in the synthetic phonics group were reading and spelling seven months above their age, and seven months ahead of the control groups. In the five years after the original programme, not only did the sample group stay ahead of their age targets and the control groups, but there was a reversal of the expected gender gap. At the end of Primary 5 (average age of children 9.7 years) the boys had a reading age of 12.2 years, compared with a reading age of 11.6 years for girls.

Another study of a synthetic phonics programme was conducted at St Michael's CE primary school in Stoke Gifford, South Gloucestershire, by Dr Marlynne Grant and Trudy Wainwright. The programme was first taught in 1997, and put pupils an average of six months above the expected reading age. By summer 2002, the same group of children had reading ages in excess of 15 months ahead, with no significant difference between boys and girls.

Phonics: as slippery as fish?

While a phonics approach is the obvious way to tackle a "transparent" language such as Swedish or Spanish, English is a minefield of irregular soundspelling combinations. A Victorian spelling reform advocate tried to demonstrate the absurdity of English spelling by suggesting that "fish" could be spelled "ghoti" - that's "gh" as in "tough", "o" as in "women" and "ti" as in "nation".

At some point phonics will not suffice, and irregular words have to be committed to memory. (The counter-argument is that children taught phonics develop a closer eye for detail so are more adept at learning irregularities.) Another accusation levelled against phonics is that children learn to pronounce words correctly without knowing what they mean.

(Phonics enthusiasts argue that learning to say the word is the first step, and that learning meaning follows after.) Critics also suggest phonics relies on "direct instruction"; that it turns a creative process into a teacher-directed activity. (Equally, there are those who insist phonics can be fun if well taught.) Then there's the argument that unless children see a practical purpose to their learning they are unlikely to be motivated, which means using "real" material, not tailored books, to capture their imagination. (Critics of this view would point out that unless children learn to read efficiently, access to "real" material will be limited throughout their life.)

A visual approach: whole word and whole language

Many children start to read by learning their name. Because they learn the whole word, without breaking it down into sounds, it's known as the "whole word" approach, and it works by familiarising children with the shape of the word. The "whole language" method shifts the emphasis away from individual sounds, even individual words. Instead, children are immersed in language and literacy through the sharing of books, and games and rhymes.

Later, they will be given books to interpret themselves, by relying on memory, intuition and the phonic knowledge they have picked up along the way. The books may be simple, but they will usually be "real" in that they won't be tailored to a recently learned letter or sound. The emphasis is on uncovering meaning and this may well involve guesswork, sometimes prompted by pictures or by context.

Phonics purists don't like the idea of children being taught to "guess", though there's an element of prediction and guesswork even in skilled, fluent reading. Reading sense, after all, is easier than reading nonsense - you, no doubt, just "guessed" that "Reading" at the start of this sentence meant the activity and not the town in Berkshire. Whole-language enthusiasts claim that this way of teaching encourages a stimulating classroom environment where children learn creatively. But it can be daunting for those who struggle to read, or who don't get opportunities to practise at home. There is also the danger that children rely purely on memory - only to find as they get older that they lack the skills of working new words out for themselves. The counter-argument is that a child who learns through a whole-language approach will still be phonemically aware because children instinctively pick up phonemic rules and apply them.

So why not mix and match?

In effect this is what most schools do. Most experts agree that phonics teaching has a role to play, but many believe there is more to literacy than phonics alone. "There must be systematic teaching of phonic knowledge," argues Prue Goodwin. "But that can be combined with a holistic approach that immerses children in language. The two are not exclusive."

The argument for using a variety of methods is simple: different children learn in different ways. Widely-held, though not conclusively proved, beliefs include phonics suiting boys best, girls favouring whole-language methods, left-brain dominated children preferring phonics while right-brain like to get stuck into "real" books, and high-achievers flourish under a whole language approach, while low-achievers fall further behind.

Sue Palmer is among those who argue that a holistic approach ensures fewer children are "cut-out" of the experience. The RRF - and other phonics advocates - see it differently. "It's perfectly possible to teach phonics in a multi-sensory way that will cover the needs of every child," says Debbie Hepplewhite.

Despite the arguments, there is common ground: a belief that whatever is taught has to be taught in a structured way that embraces every child's needs. "Even if you use different methods at different times, you can't just throw a load of stuff in and hope," says Sue Palmer. "There has to be a purpose to it."

Where does the national literacy strategy fit into all this?

The NLS was launched in 1998. Its cornerstone, literacy hour, decreed that primary schools would provide structured literacy teaching for one hour every day. But what type of programme does the NLS offer? The answer is a bit of everything. There is a phonics element, although experts are divided as to whether this is of the analytic or synthetic variety. The consensus appears to be that there has been a shift towards synthetic. But synthetic phonics enthusiasts argue that large parts of the NLS remain rooted in a whole language approach, both in terms of reading material and in the way that guesswork is often encouraged.

So has the NLS been a success? Again, opinions vary. Literacy rates across all age ranges have improved over the past five years - yet girls still outperform boys and there are still large numbers of children who are not learning to read proficiently.

Dr Gemma Moss, at the Institute of Education, London, has been researching how the NLS has changed practice in schools. She has found that before the strategy was introduced, a third of literacy time was used for comfortable, quiet reading where children could choose their own books. In most cases this has now disappeared - classrooms even look different. "Reading used to look like fun, but now you won't find many beanbags," she says. "It makes a difference as to how children think about reading; it makes the skills much more visible, but it also makes it clearer that reading is schoolwork."

Reading the past

The literacy debate is not new. The phonics movement has roots in the mid-19th century. By 1898 a phonics programme, devised in the UK by Nellie Dale, was popular on both sides of the Atlantic. But with the introduction of large comprehensive classes, the authorities decreed that "look and say" methods were the easiest way forward. In the 1920s the most popular resource was one-word flashcards, but these were soon replaced by reading schemes and by the 1960s, "Janet and John" type books were in almost every school. It wasn't until the early 1990s that phonics began to regain popularity in the UK with the appearance of several resources, such as Jolly Phonics by Sue Lloyd, which set out to make phonics more enjoyable and accessible. Since 1998 most schools, though by no means all, have followed the NLS with its eclectic methods. The most popular current reading resource, used in about 75 per cent of primaries, is the Oxford Reading Tree, a series of illustrated stories that originally leaned towards a "look and say" approach.

Why bother?

For all the bluster over the choice of method, experts admit that 75 per cent of people will learn to read regardless of how they are taught. But that still means one in four will struggle. Children who don't learn to read find it difficult to access the curriculum and gain qualifications.

But it's on a personal level that literacy matters most. Learning how books work, developing adequate vocabulary and knowing enough spelling patterns to read fluently is only the start. It should let you decipher letters from the bank, but for many people, reading is more than just a functional skill. "We actively promote fiction and poetry," explains Val Johnson, a deputy head in Sheffield. "Teaching children to read can be fun. But it's also about giving them a strong sense of self, allowing them to explore and understand themselves, so they're well-equipped to go out and deal with whatever the world throws at them."

Main text: Steven Hastings Photographs: PhotonicaAdditional research: Patrick Hayes The Issue returns after the summer break on September 3


* The National Literacy Trust ( has information, ideas and links to other websites, books and research articles. Also look at, the website for the trust's campaign to encourage parents and carers to talk to very young children.

* The Reading Reform Foundation (

* Comprehensive information on the national literacy strategy is at

* The websites for the Lancaster Literacy Research Centre ( and the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, ( have useful links to resources and research.

* See for the Jolly Phonics programme.

* The Oxford Reading Tree (

* The Child Literacy Centre ( has advice and information for parents and teachers.

* Read Together (www.readtogether. and the Book Trust (www.booktrust. list a multitude of resources and activities. The Book Trust runs BookStart, the books for babies programme.

* The National Reading Panel (

* The Clackmannanshire research can be seen at .asp, and a summary of the Stoke Gifford research at www.ridgehillpublishing.comres.htm.

* Understanding Literacy Development, by Peter Geekie, Brian Cambourne and Phil Fitzsimmons (Trentham Books, pound;15.99).

* Recognising Early Literacy Development, by Cathy Nutbrown (Paul Chapman, pound;18.99).

* Literacy Development in the Early Years: helping children read and write, by Lesley Mandel Morrow (Allyn and Bacon, pound;26.99).

* How Children Learn to Read and How to Help Them, by Cedric Cullingford (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;18.99).

* Improving Literacy Skills for Children with Special Educational Needs, by Heather Duncan and Sarah Parkhouse (RoutledgeFalmer, pound;22.50).

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