In an interview for a BBC news item about phonics with Reeta Chakrabarti, Christine Richmond, from Cannon Lane First School, said that, ‘anything that comes into schools that is going to allow children who are not achieving to be picked up by schools has got to be a good thing.’
Now, it’s not that I object to Ms Richmond saying that it’s of paramount importance to identify children who aren’t achieving. I don’t! It’s tremendously important. But, what about very able children? Phonics is hugely important for them too.
St Thomas Aquinas school in Bletchley is a primary school where Sounds-Write has been used for a number of years. In 2006, we tested fifty children in Y2 [average age seven years and three months] who had been taught using Sounds-Write from the beginning of YR. On the spelling test we used (Dennis Young’s Parallel Spelling Tests, 2nd edition, which has a ceiling of eleven years), 44% (22 out of 50) of pupils hit the ceiling on the test, 64% (32 out of 50) of all pupils had a spelling age above nine years and six months, and 90% (45 out of 50) had a spelling age of eight years or above. Only one pupil had a spelling age below their chronological age.
So, not only were the least able pupils performing very much better than anyone had ever expected, but the most able were able to read almost anything that was thrown at them. At the end of Key Stage 1, in terms of being able to read and spell, they were already equipped to cope with the demands of a secondary curriculum. What’s more, they enjoyed reading because reading was something that was very easy to do. In other words, they had acquired the kind of automaticity that allows immediate access to the content of what is being read.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that these pupils would have been able to understand every word they were able to read. Given a text to read from, say, the New Scientist, they might well struggle to comprehend meaning. Understanding comes with cultural capital but much cultural capital is acquired through reading. As Keith Stanovich* has pointed out, ‘print is a uniquely rich source of content. Personal experience provides only narrow knowledge of the world and is often misleading and unrepresentative’.
What’s the message? Exactly the opposite of what the whole language zealots in the UK Literacy Association and the NAS/UWT are saying! To develop a love of reading, you need to be able to decode print and this is a skill that needs to be taught by trained teachers who know how the writing system works and how to teach it. That isn’t to say that we neglect other things. Teaching children how to read and spell should take place in the kind of rich, literary environment that lovers of reading so rightly advocate.
*Stanovich, K., (2000), 'Does Reading Make you Smarter', in Progress in Understanding Reading, London, The Guilford Press.