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Response to phonics article in The Conversation

Barbara Murray - Monday, November 18, 2019

Response to Pamela Snow and Tanya Serry’s article Why every child needs explicit phonics instruction to learn to read in The Conversation on 12 November 2019.

Firstly, I agree totally that children have to be taught to read and write [spell]. We are born with the ability to learn and reproduce first the sounds and then the words of the language that we hear spoken around us from birth. We are not born with a similar ability to read and spell. We have to be taught and to be effective, the teaching has to be direct, explicit and systematic.

From my teaching experience starting in 1967, I feel that every student needs first Phonemic Awareness and then Synthetic Phonics instruction to learn to read and spell. There are several different kinds of phonics. Synthetic phonics is the one that properly conducted clinical studies show as the most effective as quoted in Pamela Snow and Tanya Serry’s article.

However, synthetic phonics cannot be completely effective without Phonemic Awareness of every single sound in any given language. It is not a given that students will have awareness of all the sounds. This awareness, too, has to be developed directly, explicitly and systematically. This first, vital step seems to be overlooked in many classrooms. Students must have an awareness of every sound before they begin to segment and blend. How can they segment words into sounds and blend sounds into words if they aren’t aware of all the sounds? If people are uncertain about the sounds of our language, the Australian Macquarie dictionary identifies them in the code at the front to the dictionary, as does any dictionary working with Australian spoken language.

There are several types of phonics. I know of three: traditional phonics, analytical phonics and synthetic phonics.

Traditional phonics is based on a letter-sound relationship using the 26 letters of the alphabet. Students learn the letters and their names and then a sound associated with each letter. Thus, the letter a says /a/, the letter b says /b/, the letter c says /k/ and so on.

Synthetic phonics involves segmenting words into individual sounds and then, using letters from the alphabet code to represent each sound, writing words. To write the word cat, the word isfirst segmented to identify the number of sounds - /c/ /a/ /t/. Then letters are selected to represent each sound - letter c to represent the first sound, letter a to represent the second sound and letter t to represent the third sound. To read a word, the reverse process of assigning a sound to each letter or letter group is used and then those sounds are blended together to form the word to be read. The fact that this is a reversible process makes our alphabet a true code.

Traditional phonics combined with synthetic phonics works well enough with the early consonant-vowel-consonant words such as cat, bed, tin, fog, mug introduced to students. However, if your name is Phoebe this explanation for decoding Phoebe would be /p/ as in pig, /h/ as in hot, /o/ as in orange, /e/ as in egg, /b/ as in boot, /e/ as in egg. In Phoebe, only one Traditional Phonics letter/sound explanation, /b/ as in boot, works when decoding this way. How confusing is that?

Later, with traditional phonics, students are introduced to variations such as the letter a in lady, cake, rain, play. The rule that ‘a says /a/‘ has to be withdrawn. This is just one example of many misleading traditional phonics statements. As a young teacher, this was all I knew about teaching phonics. I used other reading strategies such as rote learning using flash cards and card games. Generally, back then, phonics was only taught in the first three years in primary school. Students were given some more rules such as ph and gh for /f/ as in photo and laugh, y for /i/ as in tiger in fly and so on. It got quite messy and confusing for students as the ‘rules’ kept changing. Children did learn to read but with very little understanding of how the English language works and generally with poor spelling skills. Often they did not enjoy reading and composing written genre samples.

I taught Years 1, 2 and 3 in the first few years of my career. The combination of traditional and synthetic phonics sufficed for the reading and spelling vocabulary but, looking back, I now realise it could have been much, much better. When I moved into the middle and upper year levels where phonics wasn’t usually taught, I taught spelling by rote which fell down if memory failed because there were no strategies to support the teaching method.

Then one year I was assigned a class with students in Years 5, 6 and 7 who struggled to spell and read the most basic words. I decided phonics was the answer. I discovered that teaching segmenting and blending the more complex words in the Years 5, 6 and 7 spelling lists involved a lot more than in lower school classes. I realised students needed to be aware of all the sounds in our spoken language before we could do anything else. I used the code in the front of the dictionary to develop this awareness. As we worked through all the words with each sound, we discovered so many different ways of representing sounds in words such as for /i/ as in tiger - pie, night, fly, mice, buy, goodbye, height, island.

I made charts, card and board games, lists, activity sheets and whole class team games to develop phonemic awareness of all the sounds we use in Australian spoken language, segmenting and blending skills and the letter of letter groups [graphemes] we use from the alphabet code to represent the sounds. The results were astounding.

Together, we looked for patterns to help manage the complexity of the words of the English language. We composed general ‘rules’ with examples and listed them on charts to be hung on the classroom walls. We also added examples of exceptions to our rules as with English there are nearly always exceptions. So many different races of people invaded England and added words to the language making it the rich, complex language it is today.

The boys got just as keen and successful as the girls in literacy skills. Thinking about words, using the strategies and becoming grapheme detectives in their world intrigued them all.

All students are capable of learning the processes as, in the end, they are basic skills, just like riding a bike! Learning to decode and encode effectively is the precursor to higher levels of literacy accomplishment such as comprehension and composing. This opens up a whole new world once students can achieve this.

I continued using a phonemic approach with synthetic phonics for the rest of my days in the classroom and then shared all that I learned in the writing of Sound Waves, the whole school phonemic approach to reading and spelling skills. This program is widely used in schools across Australia and in some countries overseas.

The Australian National Curriculum urges schools to include phonemic awareness and synthetic phonics all the way from Foundation through to Year 10 in their language programs.

Some time after writing Sound Waves I realised that teachers were looking for interesting ways to develop phonemic awareness in beginning readers and writers. They asked for titles of picture books that focus on a specific sounds with engaging illustrations. When I researched what was available in the market place, I realised that only half the sounds were represented in the story books.

This prompted me to write the Sound Stories. They come as a boxed set of 4 hard cover books with a beautifully illustrated story for every sound in our language. When schools buy a set of the books they get a set of PDFs of all the stories so they can project the pages of the books up on their interactive whiteboards in the classroom. The Sound Stories are available for purchase through my website. 

Finally, I became a much better speller myself. Now I segment words all the time as I write them and I am learning a foreign language. My understanding of a phonemic approach with synthetic phonics is helping me make sense of this new language. I am learning it quite quickly and I am staying with what could have been ‘a too hard basket’ activity.

Phonemic Awareness and Synthetic Phonics are skills for life

Story from Book 4 of the Sound StoriesFireworks Excitement - story for /er/ as in ladder 

Example words from the story, containing this sound - fire, excitement, Alexa, brother, mother, father, above, below, houses, river, spectacular, erupt, across, even, louder, watches, fountain, water, away, sputter.....





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