Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Linguistic phonics v traditional phonics

Given that for many researchers working in the field of beginning reading and writing it is axiomatic that teachers should be adopting a synthetic phonics approach, the next question is: should that approach be graphemic, as Letters and Sounds is; or, should it be phonemic, as Sounds-Write, Sound Reading System, and That Reading Thing are?

Although I've written about the differences here and here, this post is a response to the almost constant, recent requests I've received for clarification of the differences between a truly phonic approach and a graphemic one.

I would love to find common ground with the people who advocate traditional (i.e graphemic) phonic approaches but the differences between them and phonics approaches start right from the off: in the normal course of things and whatever the graphemic programme, teachers present children with simple, three-sound words and point to the individual spellings and ask, “What sound does this letter make?” Or “What sound does this letter say?” When I hear this, I want to scream “Letters don’t ‘make’ or ‘say’ sounds!! We do! People do! Children do!” We are the active agents in this game. Speech sounds precede the invention of writing by tens of thousands of years. Writing is a relatively recent invention and was developed to record the sounds in people’s speech. Spellings comprised of one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings are symbolic representations of sounds.

If writing systems are invented, what are we to learn from this? That if you are going to teach young children to read and write, you should teach it in the direction of how it was meant to be taught. If you don’t, you quickly become entangled in the most ridiculous contortions to explain your teaching. These are many and varied and include such notions as ‘silent letters’, ‘kicking /k/ and curly /k/’, ‘hard sounds and soft sounds’, teach letter names rather than sound-spelling correspondences, and so on. The result is likely to be confusion, at least in the minds of some young learners.

So, not a good start, although you might still be thinking that most pupils will ‘get it’ if a teacher teaches that letters ‘make’ sounds, and if the teacher doesn’t bother to teach the children to say sounds precisely, or even if the teacher throws in letter names along with sounds. And, perhaps, many children might find ways of finding enough logic in what is being presented to be able to make sense of reading simple, one-letter spelling words. On the other hand, there are almost certainly already a number of children who don’t ‘get it’ and are beginning to wonder how this reading and writing thing works. And, again, maybe I can exclude the writing bit because lots of teachers don’t teach reading and writing together anyway!
Linguistic phonics practitioners surveying the chasm.

So, let’s move on a step. Where the differences between the two approaches suddenly develop into a chasm is when we get to the teaching of the double consonants. It was reported to me the other day that children in a class of young learners were being told to sound out the word ‘miss’ by saying ‘missssss’. This, presumably, because the teacher had no understanding that we spell sounds with two letters! In fact, the double consonant provides the perfect opportunity to teach that we can spell a sound with two letters: “It’s two letters but it’s one sound!” This is a concept that children are going to be getting to grips with a lot because, sometime later, after the four double consonants, pupils are going to encounter the spellings [ sh ], [ ch ], [ th ]. A linguistic phonic approach enables the teacher always to be consistent and without having to fall into muddled explanations.

In this way, pupils gain, through practice activities, a firm grasp of the idea in different contexts, such as with vowel digraphs, other consonant digraphs. Over time of course, pupils will butt up against the inadequacy of this concept in that they’ll be trying to read words with three-letter and four-letters. This takes us into the territory of extending understanding. After practice with one- and two-letter spellings for sounds, the idea that spellings can contain three-letters and four-letters is a mere bagatelle: the ground has already been well prepared. Imagine now that if you are a child and someone has already made clear that sounds can be spelled with two letters and you get to the word ‘light’ in a text you are reading. The teacher, knowing that neither spellings of the sound /ie/, nor three-letter spellings have yet been covered, runs her chopstick/pencil under the [ igh ] and says, “This is three letters but it’s one sound. Say /ie/ here.” And the child reads “/l/ /ie/ /t/, ‘light’.”


A sound to print approach is logical because there are a limited number of sounds in the English language and they don’t change. The hard bit about teaching the writing system is that it contains so many complexities. Now, I’m not claiming that every single child will, if taught in this logical and consistent way, eventually learn to read and write without making errors. What I am saying is that, although there are probably too many less frequently encountered spellings for anyone to become a perfect speller (or even reader, in the case of a few words), this approach makes perfect sense. Taught well, from simple to more complex, with plenty of opportunities for extensive practice, almost every child can learn to read and spell to a very high level of proficiency.

1 comment:

Tricia Millar said...

Thanks, John.

I'd like to add that traditional phonics inadequately taught and/or limited to years 1 and 2 is "toxic phonics". I end up with the 14 year olds who can't read but think they've done it all because their KS1 teachers had them attach sounds to letters. We used to only have to undo the guessing habit; now we also have to undo the misconception that "sounds is for babies".