Phonics teaching in primary schools

In addition to my work on literacy policies (see my earlier post), since October last year, I have been doing classroom observations in a year 1 class of a local primary school. The children are 5 to 6 years old and it is their second year in school (the first year is called reception). Phonics is currently the favoured approach in many English-speaking countries, so I wanted to see how it is done in practice. I had also heard quite a lot about the different phonics programmes produced by commercial publishers and which the English government has encouraged schools to purchase. I was keen to see how such programmes are used in schools. Research into phonics often emphasizes the need to integrate the teaching of letter-sound relationships with other activities to develop children’s reading and writing and their vocabulary. Some researchers and authors of children’s book argue that phonics teaching focusses too much on letters, sounds, syllables and words (the mechanics of reading or deconding) at the expense of engaging children with meaningful sentences, songs, stories, poems and other literature. Another concern is that phonics does not teach children to understand what they decode. I remember one of the first parents’ evenings in my son’s school when the headteacher spoke about the important role parents play in children’s reading development. We were urged to read with our children daily and to listen to them reading to us. But the headteacher also insisted on us having to ask our children questions about their reading. I remember at the time being somewhat resentful of that advice because I didn’t want my readingwith my son to turn into school-like comprehension tasks. But I could see the headteacher’s point and I remembered having read about this issue in academic papers.

So these are some of the things I was interested in when I started my classroom observations. In particular, I wanted to know whether and how phonics intergrated with other reading and writing or language-related activities happening during the day.

I haven’t got any answers yet and have just come back from another morning in school thinking that I am nowhere near what is sometimes called (somewhat oddly) ‘saturation’ in research, i.e. when after a number of interviews or observation sessions nothing new is coming up. For me, at the moment, each time I am in the class something new is happening that makes me think differently about phonics and literacy. More questions. There is no space here to talk about all the issues that I have noticed and the questions I have been pondering over in my fieldnotes. But here is one that I hope might interest other people too.

This is about the role of talk in relation to the teaching of literacy. I have to admit that this is not something I had thought about much when I started working the class. Of course I am aware of research into classroom talk or classroom discourse and how talk supports learning. But I hadn’t really linked this to my ideas about phonics. But talk is very important in the phonics lessons. There is talk of various kinds (this is just a very rough attempt to clarify my thoughts on things I observed this morning): teacher talk of course, teacher-children or teacher-child interaction and then talk between the children or by the children as a group. For phonics of course, talk is crucial because of the teacher having to ‘model’ the sound. If you have ever heard Ruth Miskin, who created ReadWriteInc., a popular phonics programme, demonstrate the sounds of the English language, you will know what I mean (or have a look here: https://global.oup.com/education/content/primary/series/rwi/?facet_type_facet=Teaching+Support&region=uk&view=ProductList#

Children who are taught with synthetic phonics (ReadWriteInc. is a synthetic phonics programme) rely on the teacher correctly saying sounds and words. So in the phonics lessons I see there is a great deal of individual sounds being made and being, repeated – in chorus or by individual children. The teachers make a real effort to pronounce clearly and consistently. But there is a lot more talk going and a lot of this seems to be essential to the children’s progress. Sounds that are pronounced incorrectly are immediately put right, words are said using ‘fred talk’ first (sounds pronounced separately) and then ‘blended’ together. Fred, by the way, is a funny creature who can only speak in sounds (not letters or full words). Then there is a somewhat different kind of talk and this is a form of interaction that seems to be very important.  This is when the  teacher and the children together speak about the words they are currently learning (based on the sounds that are the topic of the lesson). Several things seem to come together here: the teachers talk to the children about the words they are learning to make sure that they understand their meaning. They ask questions and propose ideas  in order to put the words into contexts the children can relate to and which are appealing. Jokes are made and little stories told. This morning for example, it was all about the sound ‘ea’, as in tea. So there was some talk in the group about one boy who had never had tea but wanted to try it. Then we talked about tea versus coffee as the teacher declared her preference for coffee and also about why some parents may not want their children to drink tea. We also pronounced and then wrote down the word ‘dream’ and of course that made us all think about last night and what we had been dreaming.

I am unlikely to say anything new here and people more familiar with phonics teaching may have found nothing of much interest in what I have described above. Nevertheless, for me it was important to realise how central this kind of talk is. It is central because it addresses the issue of comprehension (see above). It is central becausing creating meaningful contexts for the sounds and words the children are asked to learn turns the lesson away from drill and meaningless practice of sounds and letters towards something that’s somewhat more embedded in or at least close to real life interactions and real, fun and engaging conversations. Talking about the boy wanting to know what tea tastes like gave meaning to the sound ‘ea’ (and in doing so helped the children memorize it and also remember its spelling, I would guess). The kind of talk I described is also important because it allows  the children to actively take part in the lesson. They can offer ideas, tell little stories, laugh about what somebody else has said or ponder over whether they’d like to try coffee or tea. Or would rather have hot chocolate. All this allows the children to connect with the lesson in a way that, I would suggest, addresses the potential difficulty of phonic being too much about children having to listen and reproduce new sounds, letters and words.

Observing the children this morning (and on previous days), I am convinced that the talk I describe above is absolutely essential to the children’s motivation. It helps giving meaning to the – let’s face it – at times tedious work of getting to grips with the sounds of the English language (and the letters they correspond with). And it is fun. I am saying ‘tedious’ because there is no doubt that the actual process of learning sounds and blending them together is not always easy and that some children like it more than others. Writing too, when you first start to do is, is not always fun. Phonics lessons require the children to concentrate, to listen, to think, .to sit still (or at least reasonably still)… not easy for a five year old who would probably be much happier running around on the playground.

Ruth Miskin explains that constant praise is very important when teaching phonics. No doubt, this is the other form of talk without which as I can see no phonics session would work. The children need constant feedback. They need praise. The teachers in my class have a wide range of words and expressions they use when they praise the children. Added to this they use rewards in the form of stickers and points. I have noticed that the teachers praise as much as they can. Every little effort gets noticed and mentioned.

I could say a lot more about the importance of talk in a phonics lesson. For example, that the stories and ideas the teachers and children share develop their vocabulary (which of course in turn supports their reading and writing). I will stop here hoping that what I have described above is of interest to others. I have not yet looked into the research literature on this and I expect there to be other work on this (what I have described and tried to analyse above is anything by revolutionary in its ideas – on the contrary it’s probably quite banal in some ways) – so if anybody has views on this or knows about studies relating to talk and its role in phonics teaching, I’d be very happy to hear from you.

And I apologize for this rather long post.

Uta

3 thoughts on “Phonics teaching in primary schools

  1. This is the way phonics was taught in the “old days”. Over the last few decades the teaching of phonics was frowned upon in order to justify the implementation of “Whole Language – Child- Centred Learning. The implementation of this method has caused a tremendous amount of difficulty for many children, who have been passed through the system without having the opportunity to acquire the mechanics of the English language. I have seen high school children not have the ability to read a newspaper, or be able to spell words or structure a sentence properly. The other sad thing is that the children are being blamed for their lack of ability to learn. It has been scientifically been proven that all children have the ability to learn; they just learn at different rates. During this process various labels comprised of certain behavioral “diseases” were applied to the children by school psychologists who entered the school system in support of the Child-centred learning method. This is just the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to talk about regarding issues within the school system.

    • Thanks, Ilona, for your reply and comments. Of course all children can learn and teachers do know this. They do learn at difference paces though. i found that quite striking when i first began my classroom observations. There were indeed big differences between these 30 children. It was very important for me (who has not been working with children of that age before) to talk to the teachers about this. For them, the range in abilities relating to literacy was very normal. And by the end of the year, even i could see that everybody had made a lot of progress and that some of the difference were beginning to level out. The blame discourse that you mention is really not helpful at all. i feed that early tests such as the Phonics Screening Check do nothing to stop this tendency of children being told – directly or indirectly – that they are not doing well enough.
      Uta

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