There could be trouble brewing in the classroom
Much has been said in recent years about the standard of reading among children in the UK. Successive governments have put in place various systems aimed at raising ability levels. Measures have also been taken to record how successful these methods have been.
Now, a research fellow at Durham University’s School of Education has published a pamphlet that not only calls into question the teaching method preferred by most schools in the UK, but also the ways in which its success or failure has been judged.
Dr Andrew Davis goes as far as to say that forcing a “rigid diet” of phonics on youngsters already able to read is an “affront to their emerging identities” that is “almost a form of abuse”.
The pamphlet, part of the Impact series published by the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain, suggests that children who already read for pleasure could become demotivated if they are made to see words as a series of sounds rather than understanding the whole meaning behind them.
This flies in the face of what politicians in the UK have been focusing on for a number of years, namely that “synthetic phonics” is the best way to teach children how to read. The method, as previously stated, focuses on decoding and translating letters into sounds rather than recognising whole words and their meanings.
The teaching system is so popular in the UK that the new national curriculum for England states children in their first year of formal schooling need to develop the skill of blending sounds into words, and use this whenever they come across new words. It also says children should read books “consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and skill”.
Dr Davis has labelled this move an “objectionable imposition of synthetic phonics on all teachers and pupils”.
His particular focus is on the small number of children who begin their school life with the ability to read for pleasure.
He says: “To subject either the fully-fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons.
“To require this of students who have already gained some maturity in the rich and nourishing human activity of reading is almost a form of abuse.”
But his analysis does not stop at those children who can already read. He says it is essential that all children are able to understand the meaning behind words and texts, rather than purely the ability to parrot out the sounds.
He likens the teaching of phonics in isolation to telling a student actor to represent sadness by turning their mouth down, adding that “lip shapes have no significance outside the intricate detail of human interactions”.
He also warns that the current policies on phonics are underpinned by researchers who say their work explicitly shows that systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way of teaching children to read.
Dr Davis argues the idea that teachers can proceed by way of prescribed methods rather than practical judgments is a ‘fantasy’. He describes teaching as a vastly complex human activity involving contextual and reactive practical judgments that are responsive to the myriad contingencies of classroom life.
He does not claim that phonics is wholly without merit, admitting sustained attention to letter-sound correspondences can be helpful to some novice readers.
But he is at pains to stress: “If a child is already reading for pleasure, and enjoying stories, and they then get sucked into this idea that reading is essentially about decoding letters, it is potentially demotivating to them.
“Being forced to move back from reading for meaning to a mechanical exercise of blending and decoding is likely to be off-putting. Phonics can be very useful to children when learning to read, but it should not be imposed rigidly on all.”
Branded failures at six
Such is the fervour surrounding phonics that plans are in place to test children aged as young as six on how well they have grasped the concept. However, teaching unions have warned that this could leave children with a sense of failure at an early age.
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “Too many children are not reaching the expected levels of reading at a young age, do not catch up, and then struggle in secondary school and beyond.
“Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities, enabling almost all children to become confident and independent readers.
“Thanks to the phonics check, 177,000 six-year-olds will this year get the extra reading help they need to catch up with their peers.”