Rebrand phonics to unscramble meaning for older learners

20th May 2016 at 00:00
Knowing how to ‘decode’ new words is an essential skill for students of all ages

Trysneochronologimentious. Did you manage to read that?

If so, you will have broken it down, bit by bit. You may not even have realised that this was what you were doing, but it is the only thing that you could have done, because your brain has never processed this word before. I just made it up.

That technique of breaking a word down is exactly the same thing that children are taught to do when they are learning to read. So, whether you’re trying to make sense of a cat sitting on a mat, or wondering what on earth trysneochronologimentious is, you will be using exactly the same method.

Phonics has long been associated with teaching children to read – and rightly so as it is an essential literacy tool. What phonics is not associated with is the education of older learners. Many FE teachers are conscious that using the method with their students would be seen as patronising or babyish.

For the majority of mature learners, phonics means “c-a-t”. In reality, it is much more than that. Phonics is just as effective for adults as for children. The vast majority of us will use phonics in our day-to-day lives; every time we come across a word that falls outside our vocabulary, we process that word bit by bit, drawing on the knowledge we already have to synthesise common letter patterns.

Cracking the code

Instead of calling this “phonics for adults”, we could use the term “essential decoding”. This is effectively what phonics is – seeing a word that we are not familiar with and then using the knowledge we do have to work out how to pronounce it. This “decoding” needs to take place in two sections: reading and comprehension.

Of course, we need to be able to read a word before we can begin to understand what it means. But phonics, or “essential decoding”, plays a huge part in comprehension as well. As with pronunciation, when we are trying to understand a previously unseen word, we will draw on already held knowledge. Teaching students, however old they are, the meanings of common prefixes, suffixes and stems will build a vocabulary bank, equipping the learner with the power to tackle new words.

Knowledge, for example, of the prefixes “anti”, “co”, “dis” and “uni” would be of huge benefit to a child or adult attempting to understand words such as antibiotic, coexist, disproportionate and unicycle.

In many cases, the problems begin as soon as a child leaves primary school. They may move on to secondary school with excellent reading skills, appropriate for the curriculum that they have just mastered. However, within a few weeks they are confronted with new and unfamiliar words. And although the definitions of these words may be explained to them, they are expected to be able to read them without assistance.

Taken as read

The trouble is, as soon as children enter secondary school, they are no longer taught to read. It is a skill that they are expected to already have, especially if they achieved a level 4 or 5 in their Sats. But many of them still require support. Yes, they are encouraged to read books in their spare time, but if this is something that they find difficult, they will avoid doing it. We all try to put off things that we find challenging unless we have a real motivation and desire to do them.

So, of course we must continue to use phonics as a means for educating our young children, but there is no reason why the method cannot also be continued through secondary school and FE, and into adult life.

If phonics needs a rebrand for that to happen, then let’s do something about it.

Katy Parkinson is the founder and director of Sound Training. She was formerly a senior learning and language adviser for a large unitary authority and was a teacher for 27 years

What the research says

Systematic synthetic phonics – teaching reading through blending letter sounds to pronounce whole words – has been heavily promoted by the government for use with younger students.

A report on phonics by Ofsted in 2011 suggested that the approach should also be central to the teaching of reading in secondary schools and colleges.

However, a 2014 analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation concluded that it had less impact with older children than interventions based on improving comprehension – such as practising taking notes of key points and summarising what had been read.

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