Following yesterday’s post from Jacqui Moller-Butcher in which she responds to Michael Rosen’s anti-phonics arguments, one of the complaints that has repeatedly emerged is the idea that phonics is not the only important aspect of teaching children to read. Indeed not. Take this comment from John Hodgson for example:

No-one knowledgable in teaching the reading of English would deny the value of a grasp of characteristic letter-sound correspondences. This is not the same as arguing that ‘phonics’ (a term that denotes a more or less intense focus on such correspondences) is the only important thing, and that children are being denied the gift of reading by those who advocate also using contextual and other cues.

What ought to be obvious is that phonics is only important in teaching decoding skills. Once decoding the alphabetic code has been mastered, reading comprehension relies very little on phonics.

But that’s not the whole ‘only phonics’ argument. In this comment, children’s author, Michael Rosen states:

Well, when I first came into this debate I was told by several people and found on one of the training programmes, and was told by several teachers who had been on training programmes that the slogan to remember was ‘first, fast and only’ phonics. This was interpreted by some teachers and the present schools minister as meaning that for a period of time (unspecified) children should only look at phonically regular texts. This meant excluding or removing ordinary picture books from classrooms. Nick Gibb agreed with this on a panel I was on with him in Brighton and he explained that this was because children at that point find picture book texts (or any other book for young children) ‘confusing’.

No one – 0r at least, no one sane – really thinks children should never encounter a range of texts. The real debate is around whether systematic synthetic phonics be used to teach decoding to the exclusion of all other methods such as Whole Language and Reading Recovery, and whether using SSP to teach decoding means that children should only ever see “phonically regular texts” in classrooms. 

Happily, Jacqui Moller-Butcher again comes to our rescue. Reprinted with kind permission, here is another of her responses on my blog:

Dear Michael

Actually, the ‘only’ bit is simple: Early in the process, when asking children to practise their understanding and recognition of the English alphabetic code, ‘only’ use texts which are matched to their capabilities in order to maximise success.

Uncontroversial, I think.

Asking children to practise their recognition of the code with texts containing code at a level they haven’t yet been taught maximises the likelihood of frustration and difficulty. Children should ‘only’ decode (not guess) when practising their understanding of the English alphabetic code. Obviously, allowing or encouraging children to guess whole words undermines the act of learning the alphabetic code which would be confusing, non-strategic and pointless. If they recognise a word instantly and read it without decoding it out loud, that’s part of the process. This doesn’t need to be forced; as code recognition becomes automatic, it happens naturally.

Teachers should discourage guessing which will quickly reveal itself through errors. If a child reads ‘cry’ instead of ‘carry’ or ‘went’ instead of ‘wet’ they are guessing from word shape and using only fragments of code. If you have spent time teaching phonics, why would you then deliberately teach children not to apply the knowledge you’ve taught? That’s self-defeating and a waste of precious teaching time.

Surely that is uncontroversial too. That’s it in a nutshell. That’s ‘only’ explained for you.

Now to the question of whether ordinary picture books should be excluded from the classroom during this process. None of the above excludes reading anything at all for pleasure with and to children whenever a willing adult is available to help and no one would suggest that a child should be discouraged from looking at any book that’s caught their eye.

It’s naughty to suggest that any adult involved in education or, indeed, any politician is against reading for pleasure. That’s just silly. You know I know you know I know you know that! You need a holiday from creating fictional baddies, perhaps.

Phonics enthusiasts, as you like to call them, are just as passionate about reading for pleasure as you are. To the phonics enthusiast, phonics is the bridge that leads directly to the wonderful land of Reading for Pleasure. As children become confident at a simple level, they are ready to be taught the next level of code. At that point we should introduce books that contain complex code. Balanced carefully to stretch children while ensuring success at each step and done with conviction and passion, this process is very exciting.

Do this first and fast so that reading print is always positive and quickly becomes effortless.

Do this so well that a child can’t even glance at writing without reading it instantaneously, whether they wanted to or not:

…they look up at a sign – oops! – they’ve read it;
…they look at a note Mum left to Granny – oops! – they’ve read it;
…they look at the dinner table – oops! – ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ – they’ve read it!

They didn’t even want to or mean to; they just couldn’t help it because decoding has become so effortless, so slick… so easy.

This is true of my own four children, now aged 7-12, who learnt to read through systematic synthetic phonics at home, with me and my self-taught knowledge, a little every day. It was my son at nursery, who, at the lunch table, read with pleasure ‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’, much to the amusement of the nursery staff. My four can’t stop reading. They see print, they read it. This is a vital building block in enabling children to read for pleasure. It cannot and will not be pleasurable if it is difficult, if it is slow and if it doesn’t make sense.

Let’s talk about sense.

The (mean) average child has experienced around 16,000* waking hours on arrival in Reception. This is already 1000 more hours than they will spend in school for the next twelve years.

We mustn’t underestimate the comprehension development that has already taken place, whatever their background, not least because our time with them for all of the curriculum from Reception -Y11 will only ever total less than 25%* of their waking hours to age 16. The percentage available for schools to devote to reading is a fraction of that. Many children will arrive at school already loving or not loving – and everything in between – books. We have to work with that.

With only 1235* hours to play with in their first year of school and much of that is spent at lunch, in assembly, on trips, off ill, being snowed out, in the loo, rehearsing for shows, in the playground, in PE, learning about music, having golden time, doing art, doing maths and all manner of other crucial and exciting things on the curriculum). We must be very strategic in our teaching of reading.

With relatively few hours and with 30+ in a class, we must also be realistic. We can’t do everything we would like and love to do for developing reading in the very precious time that we have. [This is the essence of my opportunity cost argument.]

What can we do to maximise comprehension and reading for pleasure at the same time?

It seems plain to me that the greatest priority must be to unlock print so that a child can read everything they already understand, whether or not their first 4-5 years have been language rich, whether or not they love books… yet. If we unlock print quickly, clearly and thoroughly so that children decode confidently and accurately without wasting a second on any guessing at all, they will soon not need the help or confirmation of an adult. Once they are unable to look at the cover or first page of a book without reading the print instantaneously, effortlessly and with ease, we’ll know that we have been successful in the first and most important task in encouraging them to read for pleasure. Then we can let the wonderful words, phrases and sentences on the page sing out. Let the words do the talking. Let the books sell themselves.

How marvellous would it be if our children began to choose books because they were attracted to the blurb, the front page, the words in the middle as well as the engaging covers and pictures? Confident and fluent readers can take books home to read independently in the 3510* hours they’ll spend outside school in that first year of Reception and every year thereafter. We all love doing the reading with them and to them but we must ensure that we equip them early to read effortlessly to themselves if we are to nurture readers who choose to read for pleasure when we cannot be there to engage them.

It feels wonderful to feed them – they love it too – but we must equip them to feed themselves.

The wonderful and dynamic ideas for encouraging reading are varied and endless. But, while a child finds the act of reading print at all laborious, even the most marvellous strategy will fall flat because reading – which must ultimately be done alone if  children are to develop into fully fledged independent readers – is not yet pleasurable.

*Please note, all calculations of waking hours are my own. Please do check them and refine if you think fit. I have used published information on average hours sleep for babies at each stage of development up to 4.5 years. I’ve based a school day on 6.5 hours and a school year on 190 days. I’ve assumed 13/24 waking hours for a Reception child. The figures are not exact but they are relevant, interesting and surprising!