Phonics and (N)LS?

Ros Asquith, Lines cartoon, Phonics reeding test

After the school holidays I will start observing a year 1 class (5-6 year olds) once a week to see how they are taught to read and write. I’m excited about this! I know they will be doing phonics. That’s what I want to see. This is rather odd because not so long ago I was very suspicious of phonics. I first came across it and -rather reluctantly- began to teach it when I took over half of an undergraduate module on Language and Education. My part of the module dealt with the role of literacy in education. A big one of course and phonics soon became part of what I was telling my students about. As I said, I used to be sceptical of it, so in my class I tended to dwell more on the whole language approach and I painted a mostly negative picture of phonics. Phonics, clearly, didn’t really fit with my idea of literacy as more than skills. The whole language method seemed to be a much better partner for our (colleagues in the Literacy Research Centre and elsewhere) shared view of literacy as socially situated practice. Phonics and (N)LS – how could these fit? (I put the N in brackets because as much as I like the new in New Literacy Studies, I know that some colleagues feel that the NLS are now old enough to be called LS). But back to phonics and (N)LS.I still don’t really know how phonics fits the idea of literacy as social practice. Isn’t it all about isolated skills? How does that fit the idea of reading and writing as situated, contextual, social…? The only (N)LS concept I can think of and that I would know how to apply to phonics is the autonomous model (and of course the ideological too ). I will have to leave this for now, hoping that after a few months in the classroom I will have come up with new ideas about how I see phonics  as an (N)LS researcher! What I do know is that there must be something that teachers and schools get right when they use phonics to teach kids to read and write. It clearly works in some schools (quite a few) and for some kids (many). Not everywhere and for everybody though. What I don’t quite know is why it works.

I might be wrong of course. Possibly, I start from the wrong assumption. I might be biased because of the children I know (mostly middle class and all attending schools known to be very good) and whose reading progress I can watch. Maybe it isn’t phonics that turns them into readers but something else? What works might be the combination of phonics with some other stuff that happens either at home, in school or in both places? The media talk a great deal about phonics. But the kids only do about 20 minutes of phonics every day. Surely they don’t learn to read and write in those daily 20 minutes. In policy papers the point about phonics having to be integrated with other activities involving reading and writing is made. Journalists don’t seem to be interested in this aspect though. My students always examine newspaper articles dealing with literacy in schools and they tend to talk about phonics, little else.

So that’s what I want to figure out when I start my classroom time: I want to know what happens outside the phonics sessions and how anything that happens during those daily doses of ‘c-a-t’ and Fred talk is drawn on and linked with other activities that go on at other times of the school day. Fred talk, by the way, is a method used by the phonics programme readwriteinc to encourage sounding out and blending of letters. It also requires ‘fred fingers’.  I look forward to my time in the school.