Thursday, 12 July 2012

Phonics and what works best when teaching children to read.

For the last 8 years I have worked in Year 1 of a Primary school. One of the best bits of my job is helping children learn to read and I have watched with interest the debate on whether phonics are the best way to achieve this. Today I read an article on Mumsnet which put both sides of the argument, but I thought, as someone who works every day with children, I would put my two pen'orth in as well!

In the U.K the government want schools to use phonics to teach children to read. They want them to be tested at the end of Year 1 when they are 6 and if they have not achieved a certain level their parents will be informed.

Other parties such as the writer Michael Rosen argue that phonics should be only part of the regime to teach reading and that:

  What really matters is what produces young readers who read for meaning and want to read more and more and more, now and for the rest of their lives. 

As someone who thinks phonics are an essential part of learning to read I was ready to disagree with Michael Rosen as he seemed to be condemning their use. However, as I read more of what he had to say and thought more about what I actually do at work, I found myself agreeing with him. To be honest, although the government might lay down rules, what actually happens is that the staff working day by day with children use all sorts of ways to encourage their reading skills and ability.

Reading is not something that happens magically when you start school. A love of reading starts when you snuggle up with your child way before they are school or even nursery age. Having books around the house, reading bedtime stories, looking at books together on a rainy day ... or a sunny day if we ever get one, that's where it starts.

Its about learning to turn pages, following the words with your finger so your child begins to learn that the story begins here and finishes here, talking about what's happening in the pictures ... Its knowing that your love of books as a parent is absorbed by your children. Its about sharing books together, asking your child's opinion on what's happening, what might happen, how are the characters feeling ... 

Year after year the children who read well are the children who have support and input from home so that by the time they reach school they are already on their way to enjoying books - whether they be story books or non-fiction.

Phonics are the building blocks of reading, but they are not the only tool in the teacher's box. For me, phonics are essential for children to be able to build words, decode words and the correct pronunciation of them is essential too. But the language surrounding them scares people ... What are phonemes, synthetic phonemes,  graphemes,digraphs, split digraphs?? I know because I work in school and I work in Year 1, but how many people outside of that sphere could say? The language alienates parents and makes it all sound like something scary and scientific. All it is really is the basic sounds - not ABC, but a as in at, b as in bob and c as in cat.

Phonemes are the sounds in our words. Graphemes are the way they are written. Digraphs are 2 letters put together to make a sound - like ch or sh. A split digraph is where 2 letters are split to make a sound - like     a-e, so rat becomes rate. The split digraph or 'magic e' changes the vowel from its short sound  to its name in the alphabet ... bit - bite, con - cone, cut - cute ...

Where I work we know our way round the library - which books work for which problems - which books are fun, which ones suit particular needs. That's how it should be. Its about encouragement and enjoyment.

What really helps is support at home - reading each evening. Yet so often children don't get that support - maybe they do their reading in the back of the car on the way to school with their grown up unaware of whether they are actually reading or just making up words, or there's 'not enough time', sometimes reading at home is a battle. Sometimes, in fact very often, reading becomes a competition. Parents want their children to shoot up the reading levels as quickly as possible, writing notes like "too easy!" or "next book!!". Its not a competition!!! Sometimes its lovely to have a book that you can read easily and enjoy - don't you think? Reading shouldn't be like training for a triathlon ... full of sweat, frustration and hurt.

In our classroom we have a reading corner full of pluffy cushions and gorgeous books that children can curl up and read or 'read' for pleasure and I love seeing them do so, maybe reading to each other.

Of course we have to assess them, but this is done continuously - not in some government test, but individually, with praise and encouragement. Some children take longer than others to learn - perhaps literacy is not a strong point at home or perhaps they have a particular problem, but with care and dedication they get there. If they don't get support from home they get extra support at school. I love it when a child with whom I have worked in Year 1 comes to me when they are in Year 2 or 3 and proudly says "Can I read with you?". To sit down and listen to them reading is a joy. Spending time together with a book can be time spent sharing more than the book - thoughts, fears, hopes.

Michael Rosen is right when he says that phonics shouldn't be the only tool used, but it has, in my opinion, to be the starting point in school. Our language is hard and there are tricky words where phonics don't work, but you have to start somewhere and by having the building blocks of sound as a tool you are given a method of accessing books. Its our job as grown ups and school staff to add to this by encouraging children to enjoy books and understand their meaning - after all there's no point being able to read if you have no idea what the words mean.

As someone who loves reading I love sharing my enjoyment with others and really what matters most to me is that the children in my care are helped in every way to learn the skill of reading which they can carry with them through life. 


Inkling said...

Interesting that you would write about this topic this week! I'm a total believer in phonics, having learned one method of phonics instruction and having taught a variety of phonics curriculum through the years.

In my experience, only one of my students failed to learn how to read well, and I'm now wishing that I had thought to try the method I'm using with my son. It was used with great success in communities where reading wasn't a family affair and where poverty and all the problems it brings was prevalent. If I could go back, I'd totally try it with him in our tutoring days and see what would happen.

It's called the DISTAR method, and the book I'm using is the Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons. The authors took the method and adapted it for home use. I wanted something that my 3.5 year old could do as he keeps looking at me with mournful eyes saying, "Mama, I don't know how to read!" He doesn't have the attention span or ability yet to do the phonics program I've picked out for him to do in K-1 grades. So I remembered this book from my nannying days and decided to try it since it only takes 15 minutes a day or so and is super simple. I figured it would give him a good basis and would help satisfy his desire to know how to read a tiny bit. The introduction about how to use the book and the reasons for each thing they do was fascinating. I wish I'd known so much of it when I was in the classroom! It's quite different from any of the phonics programs I've used in the past, and I see how it would be possible to reach nearly every learning style AND every learning issue. Perhaps one day I'll tutor a child like the one I failed years ago, and see if this program is the answer I suspect it might be.

Fascinating stuff.....

ds_mummy said...

Love this post, I love reading and it seems to be the same with my son. He has been a great reader since starting primary. He is 10 and has a kindle as I was rapidly running out of space. I could buy him 5 books on a Monday and he would have them read before the weekend. It's not a quick read as he can go into each book in so much detail that it amazes me. Believe it or not but 2 years ago I went to parents night and the teacher told me that my son reads too much.......seriously......don't think she liked being proved wrong as he did disagree with her on some of her knowledge and was correct....this year, wow, What a difference, a teacher that appreciated his general knowledge and reading skills and gave him very high praise indeed. This should be encouraged for all kids, you read posts in Facebook etc and the use of the english language is appalling.

sarah at secret housewife said...

Thanks for commenting Inkling and DS Mummy. I am going to have a look for the DISTAR method, Inkling.I agree with you about the standards of English language DS Mummy and I'm sorry to hear about your son's bad experience. Thank goodness he has a good teacher now!
Its so frustrating when you can see the potential in children yet it is not being nurtured.Reading is soooooooo important!
Thanks for reading this post and taking the time to comment.

Mumofthreeboys said...

I have Sat down and read books with my chilDren since they were babies, my eldest is a very good reader and excels in English but my 5 yr old is struggling. I do phonics with them and have bought books and flash cards to support there learning. I too read with children in school of all Ages from yr1- yr5.
Teaching children sounds with the actions helps them to remember the letters when reading

sarah at secret housewife said...

Thanks for commenting Mumofthreeboys. I felt bad when I read your comment as I hoped I hadn't made people, including you, feel bad if their children were finding reading difficult despite lots of input.
I want to say that all children are different and each child progresses at different speeds. What remains important for all children is what I have written in my post. This doesn't mean that children will automatically be brilliant at reading straight away, but it will help them understand in a way that is enjoyable and constant.
By having the support you give your children they will get there in the end, at their own pace, and will have had lovely times with you on the way.
I hope that makes sense? And I'm sorry if I made you feel I was condemning children who struggle. I may not have done, but I wanted to make sure I hadn't!! Thank you for retweeting my post anyway!!