By ,27-Feb-2014 17:52:00
Misconceptions about so-called tricky words abound. For example the website of a Swindon primary school tells us: “Tricky words are words that cant (sic) be sounded out such as: the, to, no and go.” A Bristol primary school informs its parents: “Decodable words can be 'sounded out'. Tricky words need to be learnt by sight.” A South Gloucestershire primary says: “There are some words in the English language which you can't sound out (at school and in homework these are often know (sic) as the 'Tricky words'). For these words your child needs to use a variety of other skills, starting with 'sight reading' (learning to recognise the word as a whole instead of trying to break it down into its individual sounds).”
The confusion revealed in this small sample of examples is widespread. It seems that in a very large number of schools ‘tricky words’ are taught as words that cannot be decoded with phonics and which have to be learned by sight. The new National Curriculum for English refers repeatedly not to ‘tricky words’ but to ‘common exception words’ but it looks worryingly likely that this formulation will inherit all the misconceptions that have attached to ‘tricky words’. So the risk is that many teachers will continue to believe that these are words for which phonics ‘doesn’t work’ and which have to be learned by sight, as individual visual patterns.
Helpfully the revised National Curriculum does state clearly in the context of common exception words that “The understanding that the letter(s) on the page represent the sounds in spoken words should underpin pupils' reading and spelling of all words.” This is a very important point: In our writing system letters of the alphabet are used to represent the sounds we hear in those words when they are spoken and the point of phonics teaching is to make this principle plain to children and to enable them to unlock the code so that they can turn the letters on the page into the sounds they are used to hearing in the words those letters represent.
Of course what makes our teaching of this more difficult is that English has a complex code. The same letter or letters can be used to represent different speech-sounds – and the same speech sound can be represented by different letters. But despite the complexity there is a fundamental order to our sound-spelling system and good phonics teaching sets out to teach and explain this complexity in a carefully-ordered sequence – starting with an initial stage (typically covered in reception classes) that teaches only what is usually referred to as the simple code, followed by a further stage (intended to be covered in Y1) that deals with the complex code.
The aim from the beginning is, of course, to teach sound-spelling relationships in a way that makes them immediately useful – in other words the intention is that children should be able to apply their developing knowledge to a rapidly growing stock of words. The grapheme-phoneme correspondences are not being taught in isolation to read just a specific word.
However there is a need for some additional phonics teaching focused on its application into specific words. These specific words are the common exception words.
Some words use the alphabetic code in a very idiosyncratic way – the way in which the letters represent one or more of the sounds in those words is either more-or-less unique to that word or else is used in only a very small number of words. If these words were all rare or unusual words they could be dealt with later on as schooling progresses, but some of these words are very common and children will meet them frequently in their reading. So children need to be able to read these words and they are taught as ‘common exception words’.
These common exception words all use the alphabet to represent the sounds in those words, but the coding is uncommon or exceptional. So children need to be shown how the alphabetic code works in those words so that they can learn to decode them when they meet them in their reading. These words should not be taught as words to be learned as ‘wholes’, to be recognised as a single visual pattern or as words for which ‘phonics doesn’t work’. When children are being shown how the alphabetic code works in these common exception words they are being taught this new bit of code specifically to be able to read those particular words.
But as well as words with very rare grapheme-phoneme correspondences the category of tricky words also includes many words that use the sound spelling system in a way that is very common but is usually taught as part of the complex code in Year 1. Yet some of these ‘tricky words’ are very common and children will encounter them frequently even in quite simple texts. So those tricky high-frequency words have to be taught in Reception, in advance of the more general teaching of the relevant grapheme-phoneme correspondences in Year 1.
The same principle applies to the teaching of these words. Children should be taught how the sound-spelling system works in these words so that they can decode them when they meet them in their reading. These words are not to be taught as ‘sight words’, they are words that can be ‘sounded out’ just like any other words once children have been taught the additional phonic knowledge needed for these words. At this stage the phonic knowledge is being taught for word-specific application, but later on (probably in Year 1) they will encounter the same piece of phonic knowledge and see how it is used more widely in other words.
The widespread confusion amongst teachers about tricky words is actually a symptom of something else - a widespread lack of understanding of how the sound-spelling system works in English, including its complexities, and recognition of how a good phonics programme handles that complexity. The emphasis on phonics in the revised National Curriculum is greatly to be welcomed. It is the first time that the National Curriculum has so explicitly and definitively established phonics as the required approach to teaching reading. But its successful implementation will depend on teachers having the secure professional knowledge to understand the alphabetic code and how it works.
By ,17-Sep-2013 11:07:00
The sentence in the child’s book is ‘The man got on his horse’ but the child reads aloud “The man got on his house”. This reveals that the child is over-reliant on phonics.
You’ve probably come across this old chestnut before because it’s a genuine example of an argument used by supporters of the whole-language movement to demonstrate the importance of multi-cueing and to expose the limitations of phonics.
Let’s start at the beginning. The child who mis-reads ‘house’ for ‘horse’ is allegedly over-dependent on phonics. Now, some of us think that actually the mistake emerges from insufficient phonics but let us agree to put that to one side for a moment and move on to the next stage of the whole-language analysis which is to assert that the substitution of ‘house’ for ‘horse’ reveals that the child is not reading for meaning. Presumably because the idea of a ‘man on a house’ does not make sense. This analysis is not entirely convincing. You and I have all seen a man on a house; we would probably say we had seen a ‘man on a roof’ but I don’t know that young children should be expected to conform to this usage.
But, once again, let us put our reservations to one side and persevere with the way the whole-language theorists want us to see it. Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that ‘The man got on his house’ is self-evidently nonsense and put ourselves in the shoes of a ‘mixed methods’ teacher. The sentence that the child has supplied doesn’t make sense so we have to ask the child to think again.
But how exactly is this re-thinking to proceed? The only thing in the sentence that tells us that ‘The man got on his house’ is wrong is the letters in the final word. But directing attention to those letters would, according to the whole-language diagnosis, only reinforce the child’s alleged over-reliance on phonics. So what is the child to do?
I know, let’s ask him to read the sentence again from the beginning. And this time he gives us, “The man got in his house”. Now that, according to whole-language thinking, is progress. The sentence now makes sense. It isn’t correct of course but perhaps that doesn’t matter. In fact it had better not matter, because it’s very hard to help the child to put it right without pointing out that the child is not paying sufficient attention to the letters in the words. And since we’ve diagnosed the problem as over-dependence on phonics we can’t be seen to be admitting that phonics is needed to get the sentence right.
Well, still in the shoes of the whole-language teacher, perhaps the cue of prediction can help here. “The man got on his….?” And it turns out this useful prompt enables the child to complete the sentence differently “The man got on his… bike”. Damn and blast! No, let’s be patient and persevere. We can suggest he tries again (“The man got on his…?”) but it turns out that there are a large number of alternatives that the child can suggest – feet, knees, computer… Now it happens that none of those words has a spelling that is remotely like ‘horse’ but we can’t tell him that, because, according to the whole language analysis, it’s looking at those bloody letters that’s got him into this mess in the first place.
This whole-language approach is all turning out to be rather difficult, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that a text is “jointly constructed by the author and the reader” so perhaps it doesn’t really matter if the man is on his house, rather than his horse.
So let’s suggest that the child turns over the page and – Oh Thank God! There’s a picture of the man on his horse! I can tap the picture of the horse meaningfully on its hindquarters and say again “The man got on his…?”
“Horse!” says the child. Oh, what a relief. His reading is really coming on.
Okay, I can now step out of the mind-set of this imaginary whole-language teacher and I admit it feels good to escape. All that getting the child to look here, there, and everywhere except in the right place felt rather silly. But that’s because the multi-cueing strategy inevitably leads to silliness. The fact of the matter is that unless the act of reading is sidestepped altogether (as it is when the picture clue is used) then the clues won’t work because by and large these clues only present themselves to the minds of those who don’t need them. Time and time again the clues so firmly believed in by the whole-language theorists only exist when you already know what the text says. Of course the clue of context tells you that the man got on his horse (rather than say his bike, or his phone or the ladder) when you already know that ‘horse’ is the final word in the sentence.
Now the whole-language theorists might tell us that context would eventually work as a clue because if the child reads further on he will discover that what the man got on was a four-year-old chestnut filly that last Tuesday romped home in the Whole Language Handicap at Kempton Park. Well, all right not that, but some other words that will point the child to the realisation that the man isn’t on his house at all but on his horse and enable him to go back to the previous page and self-correct.
But, in my imaginary scene – invented yes, but entirely plausible - the child has already tried the strategy of ‘read on and then return to self-correct to make sense’. And as a result the child provided ‘The man got in his house.” So the use of context to correct an earlier mistake has already been tried. And it failed. And, come to that, why should the whole language teacher assume that the child will only apply the contextual strategy to correct previous words? Why shouldn’t the child attempt to preserve meaning by applying the same strategy to ‘correct’ the words coming next? (the words that are supposed to make him realise it’s not a house but a horse). So when he does go on to where on the next page it says the man’s horse was trotting, he could be entitled to self-correct this to the man’s house was rotting. Or, for that matter, that the man’s house was ‘beautiful’ – after all the letters in the words are apparently the last thing he’s supposed to rely on.
And all this mess and confusion starts from the bone-headed assumption that a child who reads ‘house’ for ‘horse’ is over-reliant on phonics… How long will this kind of nonsense persist before teachers understand the folly of pointing the children in every direction except the right one? The letters in the words.
By ,10-Sep-2013 13:10:00
The level of anti-phonics hysteria has intensified in the last few years. Myths, misunderstandings and downright falsehoods not only persist but proliferate. Phonics and the Resistance to Reading is a robust demolition of the arguments put up against phonics and an exposure of the damage and harm resulting from the longstanding muddle of teaching reading using ‘mixed methods’. The book exposes the dark side of phonics denial, its social costs and human consequences.
By ,27-Jul-2013 13:42:00
Imagine yourself in this situation. You’re part of a research team that’s just completed a large sampling of the opinions, views and observations of hundreds of teachers. You’re just sitting down with your colleagues to write up your report when one of the team points out that for the most part all the data you’ve collected is worthless – the teachers, whose views you’ve so painstakingly collected, simply don’t know what they are talking about. As you sit around the table pondering what to do, the fatal warning “Rubbish In, Rubbish Out” is painfully to mind…
Well, this, or something like it, may have been the situation in which the research team from the National Foundation for Educational Research found themselves when they were working on their evaluation report (commissioned by the Department for Education) on the Y1 Phonics Screening Check. The evidence that they collected was riddled with a fatal contradiction – the majority of teachers surveyed supported systematic, synthetic phonics teaching but, at the same time, believed that children should use a variety of methods to recognise words.
The good news is that the NFER team had the sense to realise that the teachers’ muddle and incoherence didn’t get in the way of the evaluation story – actually it was the evaluation story.
Of course the evaluation team put it delicately. Rejecting any temptation to say bluntly that most of the teachers were talking through the back of their necks, they put it this way:
“More than half (53 per cent) of schools reported that they taught systematic synthetic phonics “first and fast”, although teachers’ responses regarding the use of other methods to teach children to decode words were not wholly consistent with this data.”
The report helpfully gives examples of what these ‘other methods’ are – “context cues, visual memory and picture cues”. To put it plainly children are being taught to ‘word-guess’. No wonder the evaluation showed that the majority of teachers surveyed believed that the Y1 Phonics Screening Check did not give useful information. Well, of course. Expecting teachers who are committed to word-guessing to see the value of the Check would be like expecting faith healers to be able to interpret a chest x-ray.
If the evaluation were showing no more than that teachers were stubbornly sticking to their old ways of teaching reading, then the story might not have been worth telling. But the evaluation team acutely (and repeatedly) put their finger on the real issue – teachers simply do not understand systematic, synthetic phonics. And in particular teachers do not understand how our sound-spelling system works. This is a crucial piece of understanding because phonics needs to be seen, in the words of the evaluation team, as “a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works which all children should be taught”.
Without that knowledge teachers cannot develop the confidence in teaching phonics that the research tells them they should have. And a lack of understanding of the sound-spelling system breeds a host of other common confusions – for example the muddle over the nature of ‘tricky words’. Not to mention an inability to see the point and purpose of the Y1 Phonics Screening Check.
Now the report tells us that almost half of those teachers surveyed “had received externally provided training specifically focused on the teaching of phonics”. This seems at odds with the same teachers’ evident lack of essential professional knowledge. The answer probably lies in another of the evaluators’ findings: “In the majority of cases, training was supplied by local authorities”. Well, that probably explains everything.
Of course training is also available from reputable providers (including a few LAs) through the match-funding scheme but the evaluators found that the overwhelming majority of schools had used that scheme only for books and teaching resources - only three schools in the large sample had used match-funding to buy training. This will be no surprise to those of us who have been arguing from the start that the match-funding scheme did not give sufficient emphasis to the importance of training which notably appeared at the back of the catalogue as a sort of last-minute afterthought.
The NFER evaluation report is the first in a series that have been commissioned on the Phonics Screening Check. Further reports will appear, culiminating in a final report in Spring 2015. This first report draws on interviews with teachers in 14 schools and surveys of 844 literacy co-ordinators and 940 Y1 teachers. The authors of the report tell us that the sample of teachers involved was “broadly similar to primary schools nationally”. Which makes it all the more worrying that the report has had to be seeded with language that signals the researchers’ determination to make clear that the responses of those whose views they sought are for the most part unreliable – words such as “misunderstanding”, “confusion” and “contradictory” are used to create a sort of cordon sanitaire between the researchers and the views they are obliged to report.
Of course the teaching unions, the phonic-deniers and the phonics-phobics have widely claimed that this NFER evaluation discredits the Phonics Screening Check. The reality is that it provides compelling evidence to justify the Check as part of the national set of reforms designed to drastically improve standards of reading in England. But the report is also a warning of how far we still have to go to develop a teaching profession that, as a matter of course, has the understanding and the skills needed to teach reading properly.
By ,22-May-2013 08:14:00
The scrutiny of anti-phonics argument does not make for a broad field of study. The long list of objections to phonics actually resolves, under analysis, into a tiny handful of inventions, misunderstandings and paralogisms. The result is that reviewing anti-phonics argument is rather like reading the jokes from a box of cheap Christmas crackers. One old chestnut after another.
One of these old favourites runs something like this: I can read German but I don’t understand a word of it. This proves that phonics is a waste of time.
It’s hard to understand why this argument was thought to pass muster on its first outing, but many phonics-phobics must have had the syllogism-bypass operation because it keeps on being repeated.
The first thing you notice about that argument is that it concedes the very point it sets out to attack. German is being read because it is being decoded. A familiarity with the sound-spelling system in German is necessary before the letters of the alphabet can be translated into the sounds they represent.
The second point it concedes is equally basic to the case for systematic, synthetic phonics. Phonics is essential but not sufficient: fluency in decoding needs to be accompanied by language comprehension. This is the Simple View of Reading – a major plank in the ‘Rose Review of the Teaching of Early Reading’ , a central feature of all good phonics training and the guiding framework for the revised National Curriculum for English.
What makes this ‘I can read German but I can’t understand it’ argument all the more curious is that it actually appears, in a slightly altered form, in the Rose Report setting out the case for systematic, synthetic phonics. The first appendix of that Report vividly illustrates the dimensions of the Simple View of Reading by using the well-known story of Milton’s daughters reading aloud to their blind father texts in Greek that they could not comprehend but which they could decode.
So it comes to this: one well-worn argument against phonics is actually taken from the case for phonics and mis-used uncomprehendingly by phonics-deniers who do not see that it actually is a refutation of the very argument they are foolishly advancing.
Which brings me to a more significant point: Why is it that apparently intelligent people rage against phonics using arguments that, like the example just considered, depend for their success on an uncritical acceptance of a cartload of utter nonsense? That’s the question that I set out to answer in my forthcoming book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading.
You are viewing the text version of this site.
Need help? check the requirements page.