There's nothing to decode: testing six-year-olds on phonics is a sound way to ensure they can read

18th March 2011 at 00:00

Abdul, seven, sits reading a story aloud - he reads "nuzzled", then stops and re-reads the sentence: "For a long time she spoke to the elephant until he grew calm and nuzzled her with his trunk." He thinks it must be a nice thing to do but looks up to his teacher and says: "What's nuzzled?"

Abdul loves the story of The Hunter by Paul Geraghty. He loves the new words he has decoded: "rasped", "trying in vain", "tottering" and "mighty tuskers". He re-reads the story lots of times and ponders over his favourite phrases.

Children's books often contain words that children haven't heard - may never hear in everyday speech - and every new word is a potential nonsense word until they have read it and learnt the meaning.

Children who can work out new words have the world of books before them. They become so good at decoding words that they are able to read, understand and enjoy any book they want to read, whether fiction or non-fiction.

Learning this way can be both effective and fun - you only need to see the short programme on it made at Elmhurst Primary School in Newham.* Children here come from diverse backgrounds, and many have English as an additional language.

The pupils love to read, and perform well in all aspects of literacy - success which is underpinned by a strong foundation in phonics. Ofsted's recent report Reading by Six shows how a systematic approach to phonics, along with a language-rich curriculum, is a model for success.

It is because we see such good results from this approach that we support the Government's proposal to check children's decoding skills at the end of Year 1. We are worried by what we see as the flaws in the arguments of people who oppose this.

One recurring argument is that young children need to use context as well as phonics in their reading. If this means that children should use context to understand what they read, we agree. We also agree that readers occasionally have to use context to help with pronunciation as well as with meaning, as, for example, in "Keep your dog on a lead" and "The pipe was made of lead", but such examples are fairly rare, and even here, it is helpful if readers can use phonics to narrow down the choice of pronunciations to "led" or "leed".

They also need to identify several words without using context in order to identify one word through context.

The way that the argument is worded, however, suggests that children should often use context (and even pictures and just the initial letters of words) to work out what words are rather than what they mean. If so, a common interpretation of the old "searchlights" model - rejected with good reason by Sir Jim Rose when he led his review of phonics - is still alive and well. What Sir Jim recommended instead was that children should be taught to use phonics as the "prime approach" to reading.

We like the way this is summed up by Charles Perfetti, a psychology professor who has researched language learning at Pittsburgh University: "The hallmark of skilled reading is fast context-free word identification. And rich context-dependent text understanding," (Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 18, No. 2, 1995). Although English has a complex alphabetic code, children can be taught to work out what most words are by decoding them phonically, and this is surely the most efficient way of lifting the words off the page.

It does not stop children from enjoying reading, or from using context for comprehension purposes and for pronunciation decisions of the "lead" type.

It has also been suggested that a word needs to be in children's spoken lexicon in order for them to be able to work it out. We disagree. Abdul, the pupil mentioned above, could work out words that were not in his spoken lexicon. Children who can do this are still free to ask someone about meanings or try to deduce meaning from context, and they can then add these new words to their oral vocabulary, as we adults also do when we read a word outside our lexicon.

In fact, many words are unfamiliar to young children in their written form - the children have to translate them into their spoken form before they know whether they know them. Surely, then, the inclusion of non-words in the screening check is no big deal, especially if they are presented as the names of imaginary creatures. Many syllables in multisyllabic real words are the equivalent of non-words - children who can't read "tas", "des" and "per" can't work out "fantastic" and "desperate". In any case, might children not encounter non-words in their text-reading - for example in Michael Rosen's poems Bips and The Smeenge or Roald Dahl's The BFG?

Learning how to read is a great leveller - all children can have access to an education whether or not they have free school meals or have English as an additional language. And because non-words are equally unfamiliar to all children, they are a fair way of checking that children have the potential to work out pronunciations for any new printed words without adult help.

The unions have described the belief that synthetic phonics is not being taught in schools as a "pervasive myth". If they are right, then synthetic phonics is being taught in schools, so whatever else children are learning about reading, they should all be learning to decode. They should therefore not be fazed by the requirements of the screening check.

Ruth Miskin and Jenny Chew are literacy trainers; Shahed Ahmed is headteacher at Elmhurst Primary in Newham, east London

*The Teachers TV video - Applying a Systematic Phonics Scheme can be found at: http:bit.lyhE1Xga.

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