Phlippin’ Phonics

I really didn’t want to get drawn into the phonics debate. I have smiled indulgently as Secondary Maths teachers  and Boarding School History teachers have pompously told primary specialists how to teach children to read – much in the same way as I do when my Dad shouts advice to the England manager from the sofa. It’s irritating but essentially irrelevant as these people will never actually have to teach a child to read/manage the England squad. But when primary literacy co-ordinators start to weigh in with the view that words like ‘going’ follow phonetic rules, I start to think that the world has gone mad. Deleuze, the philosopher, said that our opinions are the umbrellas that protect us from chaos, but some of this lot are marching down the street poking everyone in the eye with their spokes. It’s time to speak out.

The hysteria has reached fever pitch on twitter. Academics who have dedicated their whole professional lives to understanding the very complex process of learning to read are denounced as….wait for it….Phonics Deniers…as if they are a danger to the future security of the world. PhPhS. As far as I can see, the worst that any of them has ever said is that ‘there’s more to reading than phonics’. Blimey, let’s burn them at the stake.

Don’t get me wrong here – I like a bit of synthetic phonics – I used to enjoy little 20 minute sessions of Jolly Phonics – I saw it as akin to learning to ride a bike with stabilisers on. It’s a way of making children feel that something that is actually quite hard is manageable. They can develop some skills like pedalling and steering so it’s easier to do the hard part later. But at some point the stabilisers have to come off.

But I get a bit annoyed when people breezily write in their blogs that phonics is the first step to reading. Really? This is the first step to reading (according to Sam):-


1. First, look at stuff and try to figure out what they mean/do. You’ll start to notice that some stuff has things written on it. Then…


2. Realise that there are these really interesting things called books…and that the pages are turned in a certain direction and the text runs in a certain direction (which often requires an adult who will read to you a lot).


3. You’ll find out that books come in quite handy during a long stint on the potty.


4. So…even if you can’t actually read what you’ve picked up, you know that reading is great because…


…we all read in my family and our house is full of books. By the time I get to school, I am ready, almost desperately ready to read….and now I can!


The first step to reading is not Phonics, but  access to books and role models to read to you and in front of you and for whom reading is clearly a pleasure. The first steps involve talking and building vocabulary and knowledge about the world so that when words can be read, they can be understood. They are the first steps.

Then….phonics is helpful. Certainly, I’d say that children enjoy it – it’s not a chore, and my son has liked coming home and telling me the difference between a digraph and a split digraph. But I suspect, like his older brothers did, he’d have learned to read without phonics because he’s been immersed in text all his life. But what of children who are not?

High quality Early Years education will build a love of books, of rhyme and of narrative. It will build vocabulary and knowledge of the world. It will make reading as exciting as bouncing. It will whet the appetite – that’s what the first steps do – create the desire to read. And this needs to be continued in school.

High quality synthetic phonics, delivered in 20 minute blocks can act as the stabilisers which take kids from the push along toy to the road bike. They are a crutch, but children quickly learn that our language is more complex than phonics first seemed to suggest. Have a look at this little sweetie..

He comes across a word – ‘going’ and his phonics knowledge initially tells him that the word is /g/oi/ng/ – like boing. There is some debate about whether or not the /ng/ is a single sound, but let’s leave that for now. The point is he hesitates – he has pre-existing knowledge of vocabulary and he self corrects – going. This is not a decoding skill, it is a vocabulary skill. He goes a step further – writing the word down, he recognises a morphemic pattern – a base and a suffix and draws a line between the two. This is a whole lot more sophisticated than implementing a decoding skill. Phonics alone would not have got him to the correct pronunciation of the word. One twit(ter) user today suggested that going WAS phonetic and then proceeded to set it out as /g/oa/i/n/g . Go figure.

Anyway, the point is that if you are keen on phonics, that’s fine and dandy, but remember to take the stabilisers off. Remember that the biggest job ahead of you is navigating the anomalies of our language – many of which can be broken down by understanding morphemes and etymology.

Remember that readers read better when they love to read. Loving books is as important as being able to decode them. And, bear in mind the warning from E.D. Hirsch on the perils of the core testing of reading. He states (time and again actually, but no-one seems to listen) that spending time teaching children reading comprehension strategies in preparation for a test is almost useless if they don’t know what the words mean. Immerse them in wonderful, knowledge rich texts where they learn about the world. I’d contest the idea of a core curriculum as such – the subject of another blog perhaps – but rich knowledge, imaginatively pursued is every child’s right.

Teach them in ways that have them racing to find out more – check out @imagineinquiry’s scheme of work on The Romans to see how to do this superbly because knowledge need not be dull.

And instead of putting fingers in ears, and chanting ‘phonics phonics phonics’  look carefully at the evidence – it’s not as clear as some would have you believe:[1].pdf

Right. Perhaps I should batten down the hatches now.

What I learned about children and reading this holiday…

Middle son is 14 and likes to read on holiday. Since he was little, he’s enjoyed reading favourite books over and over again, hence Harry Potter’s series was read 15 times over, and The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials received similar treatment. He reads books to a pulp. But this summer, he did something new – he asked me to choose some books he might like. I felt a little sense of dread as I looked at my bookshelf. Get it right and he’d trust my judgement, get it wrong and the Hunger Games would come in for its tenth reread. Unlike Michael Gove, I don’t really care if my child is reading Twilight or Middlemarch, but I do care that they read – not to add lists to a future university application, but so their futures are filled with the pleasure that books can bring. So I looked at the shelves, and then rang eldest son.

Eldest son is/was a voracious reader but unlike his brother, raced through to the next book as fast as he could. Reading for him was like a competitive sport – he wanted to have read as many as possible and was less likely to fall in love with one. Still, I figured he’d be more in tune with the taste of his brother. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ he said without hesitation, so that went in the bag. I knew middle kid liked the film ‘Life of Pi’ and reading the book might appeal to his tendency to repeat, so that went in too. He thought Twilight was ‘alright’ so linking to the vampire theme, I added ‘The Historian’ and then on a whim, ‘The Kite Runner’. He loved them all and each one opened up discussions over Greek salads and souvlaki about the many more books he might read. He’s looking forward to John Irving,  Harper Lee, Jane Austen (on his brother’s recommendation, not mine) and Amy Tan. Few of these books would appear on a literature canon, but they’ve been chosen for HIM, based on what he has enjoyed and themes he has engaged with. And so this is what I learned…

Reading is like spinning a web – things connect. It turns out that one of the things he enjoyed was learning about other places – India, Istanbul, Afghanistan and what life is/was like there. So I can now recommend all sorts of books which are set in other countries and cultures. He liked the first person narrative style of The Catcher in the Rye, so I can recommend books with similar voices. His canon will link to his interests and it may be that this crosses over to the classics. But choices will be personal and linked to what he has enjoyed so far. This is how readers are created. One thing leads to another.

And this is why I resist and will continue to resist the idea that some books should be read by everyone. Because we all have different webs and it makes the world a more interesting place. By all means let’s introduce children to great literature, but let’s do so by finding their individual ways in. Let them personalise their web; find their connection. The result is that when they’re grown, you can argue over whether Lear or Hamlet is greater, whether Anne trumps Charlotte or whether Pip or Nicholas captured our hearts. We can have these discussions because we had the freedom to find our favourites, not have the same texts thrust upon us. Our literary heritage will be very much poorer if we reduce our children’s reading to prescribed lists of recommended texts; creating straight paths rather than a web. There’s something very controlling about that. We need, in schools, to find out what makes children tick and find books that feed their interests. We need to know the children. And we, as adults, need to read and read widely so that recommendations can flow.

This is one thing I learned on holiday.