Let’s get all children reading for pleasure and for meaning!
Everyone interested in literacy wants children to enjoy reading, including teachers, parents, children’s authors and campaigning groups like the National Literacy Trust and the Reading Reform Foundation. At the same time, we all want children to read for meaning.
Of course older children who struggle to read words do not like reading and it is obvious that children who cannot read words accurately cannot read for meaning. The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer 1986) makes the obvious explicit. It explains that reading has two basic components: decoding (word recognition) and comprehension. Synthetic phonics is best for teaching decoding and plenty of exposure to spoken and written language is essential for developing comprehension.
Synthetic phonics is most effective if it is taught as soon as children begin school, so that they learn to decode words easily and automatically as early as possible. Well taught synthetic phonics is child-friendly and children look forward to their phonics lessons. Older children who have been taught phonics well from the start will use it automatically; then incidental teaching for unfamiliar words is enough and there is no need to continue systematic phonics teaching for word reading.
Until they can read for themselves, it is important to read to children to develop their comprehension. And, if children enjoy hearing someone read a good story or fascinating facts, it encourages them to learn to read for themselves. Getting together with a wonderful book is good for adult-child relationships too.
When children have learnt to read words easily, it is up to schools to make abundant time for them to read and discuss a wide range of high-quality literature. In schools where synthetic phonics is taught rigorously, most children can read any age-appropriate literature by the time they are seven years old and some much sooner. In the best schools, expectations are high and teachers are passionate about the value of reading widely, so children become enthusiastic and sophisticated readers too.
In schools where synthetic phonics is taught rigorously, most children can read any age-appropriate literature by the time they are seven years old and some much sooner.
Word reading is not only for reading books. Older children who can read words easily become independent and capable, because they can read the print around them, including instructions, safety notices, signs and information about products for sale, as well as text messages, emails, blogs and social media. An adult who cannot read words easily is severely disabled.
There is an equivalent simple view of writing. Writing has two basic components: transcription (spelling and handwriting) and composition (articulating ideas). Both are needed for independent writing. Spelling and handwriting are part of synthetic phonics teaching. Children learn to articulate their ideas through discussion, role-play and exposure to both spoken and written language.
Young children who are taught synthetic phonics well quickly learn to articulate their ideas through simple writing that is phonically plausible and can be understood. Their spelling is unlikely to be accurate at first, because spelling in English is more difficult than word reading. That means that systematic teaching of spelling should continue for longer than systematic teaching of reading. Phonics continues to be fundamental, because knowledge of phoneme-grapheme correspondences in specific words helps children learn to spell accurately. At the same time, knowledge of morphology becomes increasingly important, as well as the history of words. Lots of reading helps children to spell too, because they get mental pictures of words they see often.
Teaching spelling systematically to older children is not onerous; it takes only a short time out of the week. Then it is up to schools to ensure children gain an extensive vocabulary and an understanding of grammar, combined with inspiring discussions and examples of effective writing from a wide range of well-written literature, so that they can articulate their ideas clearly and imaginatively through writing.
It is difficult to understand why some people believe there is a contradiction between teaching synthetic phonics systematically, writing effectively and reading for pleasure and meaning. There is evidence that all children benefit from synthetic phonics, but those from deprived homes benefit most. It is unforgivable to campaign for less phonics for these children. The aim must be for all children* to get the knowledge and skills they need to write effectively and to read for pleasure and for meaning.
*with the exception of those with profound learning difficulties
Elizabeth Nonweiler, July 2017