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Response to Katina Zammit's article on Phonics

Barbara Murray - Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Response to Whole language approach: Reading is more than sounding out words and decoding by Katina Zammit, Deputy Dean, School of Education, Western Sydney University, as published in The Conversation on 12 November 2019

This response to Katina Zammit’s article is based on my experience as a primary school teacher, co-author of Sound Waves, a whole school phonemic approach to reading and spelling skills and author of the boxed set of 43 Sound Stories, which has a story for each sound used in Australian spoken English to introduce the sounds to beginning readers and writers.

While I agree with Katina’s thrust wholeheartedly, I was disappointed that she didn’t emphasise the vital first step that must be taught before synthetic phonics begins. If you read below about my discovery experience with middle and upper primary school students you will understand this comment.

Whole language with traditional phonics

I used a whole language with synthetic phonics approach in various ways in my classroom from 1967 until 2001 when I resigned from teaching to write the Sound Waves program. At first I used traditional phonics, which taught the names of the 25 letters in our alphabet with one sound for most letters and how to segment and blend those sounds.

This worked really well in the entry level to primary school and I became passionate about phonics as a literacy skill. Parents were astounded at how students learned to read and write so quickly. Once I moved into the middle-and-upper year levels in primary school I was shocked at the poor spelling. At first, I taught spelling in these classes almost always using the rote learning method.

Comprehensive phonemic awareness approach combined with synthetic phonics

Then I taught in a school with middle and upper school students who struggled to remember spelling by rote and so I decided on phonics. Phonics traditionally was only taught up to Year 3 in the primary school arena so these students had to be retaught or newly introduced to the phonics process.

Without realising it, I began to use a comprehensive phonemic awareness approach combined with synthetic phonics. With older students we found so many more sounds in their required spelling words and many more ways of representing the sounds using the letters of the alphabet than in the lower year level spelling words.

Together, the students and I made a chart for every sound using the code in the front of the dictionary. On each chart we listed the words to be learned and highlighted graphemes [the letter or letter groups] for the focus sound. It was exciting, developing phonemic awareness of all the sounds and identifying so many different graphemes for each sound. There were some sounds that were new to me too. The students became enthusiastic about finding phoneme and grapheme examples for all 43 sounds in as many words as they could.

From all this discovery activity with sounds, graphemes and words, the improvement in their spelling ability was amazing. We made card and board games. I made worksheets. I continued using this approach for many years with great success.

Phonemic awareness and synthetic phonics teach just basic literacy skills

However, I realised I was just teaching the literacy skills of decoding for reading and encoding for writing. There were still the higher-level thinking skills needed for comprehension when reading and composing when writing plus working with the features of various genre in written and spoken English.

What I did discover from all this experience?

  1. Developing facility in the basic literacy skills freed students up to move on to higher level literacy activity such as comprehension and composing specific genre, earlier and with greater efficiency.
  2. All students developed ability with the blending and segmenting skills.
  3. Boys began to enjoy language lessons. The intrigue of being grapheme detectives that lead to becoming efficient spellers and readers made language more enjoyable and interesting.
  4. A phonemic awareness with synthetic phonics approach helps students understand our language.
  5. It also builds strategies to use when decoding and encoding instead of having to depend on memory when rote learning is the only method of learning.
  6. Whole language happens in classroom activities every day. Teachers cannot avoid it. Reading to the students, introducing and immersing students in the various genre with the eventual composing of these genre are all part of the whole language approach.
  7. Reading every day, books that demonstrate the various genre to students develops vocabulary, imagination, experience with genre, knowledge the world around them, constructive thinking and speaking skills..… The list goes on and on.

No one method does the job. The combination of tried and proven methods is what does work. When phonics was thrown out, students missed learning vital literacy skills.

Now teaching those literacy skills has returned to the classroom but we must not throw out whole language that brings such rich experience to language learning.

Teachers must start with phonemic awareness. Synthetic phonics cannot work if the students are not fully aware of all the 43 sounds. How can students segment and blend words into individual sounds if they are not aware of all the sounds?

New ideas fail

In my experience, new ideas fail because the teachers don’t understand how to use the ‘new’ (actually ancient in this case) method. Way back in the sixties Cuisenaire rods were introduced to teach maths. Fortunately, I learned how to use them through my teacher training. If used properly the results were amazing. Every student in most schools across Australia was provided with a box of rods in the early learning classrooms. The cost would have been massive! However, within a few years that method of teaching was tossed out as not working. In fact, amazing results could have been achieved as the rods provided the best teaching method - hands-on, but teachers received little or no instruction on how to implement in the classroom.

Let’s not have this happen to literacy. Properly taught, direct, explicit instruction of literacy skills using a phonemic approach with synthetic phonics combined with whole language can bring fantastic results.

Let’s do it!

Barbara Murray

November 2019


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