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Answers on Latest Phonics and Teaching Debate

Barbara Murray - Monday, June 01, 2020

With all the current media debate casting doubt on the efficacy of teaching phonics, perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves of the key points of the phonemic awareness and synthetic phonics that the Australian Curriculum urges schools to implement in the primary school classroom.

In previous items on my Blog I have outlined my experience teaching first traditional phonics in the lower primary school year levels and later a phonemic approach with synthetic phonics in classrooms across all primary school year levels, which I did until 2002. At that point I retired to write the highly successful Sound Waves, a whole school phonemic approach to spelling. This program, soon to be published in its 4th edition, is widely used across Australia and in several countries overseas.

During my 30 years of teaching and writing I have the following points to offer to the debate.

1. A phonemic approach combined with synthetic phonics is a basic skills program.

2. Most students can master the phonics skills of segmenting and blending sounds.

3. Different learning abilities and styles of learning can be considered when teaching the phonics skills.

4. Like any skill, extra support and practice will allow struggling learners to attain competency in the skills.

5. The complexities of written English are unlocked so students can make sense of reading and writing.

6. Complex language skills such as comprehension and composing various genre are more easily achieved once competency in phonics skills is attained.

7. A phonemic approach with synthetic phonics skills is just a small part of a comprehensive English program.

8. Teachers need to understand how to segment and blend sounds and how the alphabet code works.

9. They must understand the term, ’explicit teaching’, and how to implement it in the classroom.

10. Teachers also need to be taught a broad range of teaching methods to suit the wide variety of learning techniques and strengths in their students.

Busy classroom teachers need help when they have students with unusual learning issues. They do their best but are not equipped to give students with special needs the attention they require. Trained support staff is needed in these situations. It is unfair to blame tried and true teaching methods and the teachers themselves.

Unfortunately, parents need to help with their students’ learning in the same way that they would help their children with muscular-skeletal and other problems.

A child in my family is dyslexic and in the end her success story as a third-year university student now gaining distinctions and high distinctions at a State of New York university, was a result of the work of a mother who never once gave up supporting her child all through primary and high school. Practise, practise, practise, determination and perseverance by both the parents and the student to overcome all problems was what worked.

A mother reads Sound Stories, by Barbara Murray, with her daughter.

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