Teaching All Children to Read and Spell Well Means Using Direct, Systematic Phonics Instruction

"Reading competence is foundational, not only for school- based learning, but also for children's behavioural and psychosocial wellbeing, further education and training, occupational success, productive and fulfilling participation in social and economic activity, as well as for the nation's social and economic future."

AU National Inquiry into the Teaching of Reading 2005

When I first began specialising in child behaviour management over a decade ago I quickly recognised a correlation between poor literacy achievement and delinquency I was not surprised therefore, in recent year, to read of some US states actually predicting future prison populations based on year 3 and 4 reading scores. And yet when I have suggested to some Head Teachers that if they would like to see improved behaviour throughout the school that should look at how reading was being taught within Prep, Year 1 and 2 I have been looked at as if I were suggesting something really bizarre. Despite the lack of accurate estimates on the overlap between literacy under-achievement and crime, the associated links however are well documented (e.g., McNee, 2004; Mayhew, 2003). So teaching all children to read early on- using methods that work for all - is more important to society than many people seem to appreciate.

For the purposes of this article I will presume that the reader is interested in the initial stage of learning to read- however systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well, whether or not they are beginning to learn to read, or experiencing reading difficulties.

Within our current education system we are often so focussed on 'child based learning' and on constructivism (an established theory of knowing and learning rather than a theory of teaching) and teachers often do not realise that there is a serious lack of supporting evidence for its effectiveness in teaching children to read. Unfortunately one 'method' of teaching reading- the 'whole-language' approach to teaching and learning - reflects this philosophy of learning, and has been the predominant approach for early literacy teaching and learning throughout English- speaking countries (Pearson, 2000; Westwood, 1999, 2004). This approach assumes that children are inherently active, self-regulating learners who construct knowledge for themselves, with teachers needing to give little or no explicit decoding instruction. While this may be OK for many children, the ones we focus on at Read Australia(TM) are those who struggle. This also includes children who are from disadvantaged backgrounds who often do not have rich phonological knowledge and phonemic awareness upon which to base new learning. Being taught using this 'whole language' method has the effect of compounding their disadvantage once they begin school. This is particularly the case for children from non-English speaking backgrounds, including Indigenous children where English may be their second or third language.

So why use it?

The sounds in our language existed long before the letters. The written symbols of our language were invented to represent the sounds we have been speaking for centuries. Teaching children these sounds is easy when they are speaking- as they know those sounds- they are using them in words pretty much all day (don't we know it!) So we need to teach them how the sounds we use (when we speak) are represented on paper ie how to de-code the written word.

While in Australia I have been astounded by how often children are sent home during their first year with 'sight words' and also with 'readers' that they cant possible de-code. If we teach children 'whole words' we aren't teaching children that these words are based on the sounds in words- but rather, we are relying on memory.

Perhaps this puts in into perspective- a typical person can only retain around 2000 - 3000 words- enough to perform at year 1 level. However by memorising children will soon start forgetting those words, and run out of ways to guess and memorise. It will become harder for them to distinguish 'horse' from 'house' etc because they are trying to remember the whole word and it's becoming more difficult as more words are introduced and used. So instead we should do it the simple way and teach children the individual sounds that make up words- of which there are just 134. If they are going to be given 'sight' words to learn we'd rather it be the handful of words that can't be de-coded eg yacht'. There are 55 words in the English language that they won't be able to de-code. The other 19,950 that we use daily are predictable and decodable however! - if the 'code' is understood. So it's important we teach children that way round.

To put this into practice we need teachers to understand why this method is most effective for the highest number of children. There needs to be a focus on explicit teaching of the structure and function of written and oral language in ways that allow children, regardless of their backgrounds, to reflect on and consciously manipulate the language. This involves an awareness of phonemes, syllables and morphology- and this requires a high degree of teacher-centred presentation of learning material, with an emphasis on explicit instruction, scheduled practice and feedback (e.g., Center, 2005; Westwood, 2003, 2004). This method asks more of our teachers- and provides children with a greater chance of success.

A great learning environment for young children is one where the focus in on the sounds of letters and not their names. So the words they see around the classroom as whole words will be written using bold and non bold type face. The parts of words that are in bold are where the sounds in the words we are speaking are represented by two or more sounds (that change when put together) eg this - the th is in bold as the 't' and 'h' together are how we represent the 'th' sound. 'i' and 's' are separate. So teachers will tell the children that the word this is written using 3 sounds th + i + s

When the children have learned even 6 sounds they can start to read and spell words! Initial 'readers' would be books that have text that doesn't have many words that have bolded text- eg 'a fat rat ran past' (which as you will see is a sentence created using just 7 sounds). All words other than 'the' should be de-coded in these early 'readers- so the children are actually reading the text. Early readers find this way of viewing text much easier- it makes sense to them! -so these fantastic teachers would create their own resources or order them from our online resources page. Ideally resources created are also personal to the children- making them more meaningful- starting from a selection of 6 sounds and working on the concepts required so that they can start to crack the 'written code'.

When confident with the basic level children would be given a mixture of books as 'readers'- because their success rate (de-coding, not guessing) will still be good. Initially however children in these 'ideal classrooms' would only be given 'readers' that they can de-code. They should of course share 'real' books - or books that have not been developed using phonics- with older children, parents etc- however to learn to actually read children would be taught the skills to do so- and part of that is actually understanding why we write words as we do, and why we spell them as we do.

If we look at the AU Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy 2005 (or Rose Report, UK etc) we see that recommendations support this. Parents can use the summaries to get the idea of what teachers should be doing. 'Read Australia(TM)' was created to empower parents so that they can be more effectively and proactively involved in their children's literacy development. Governments have been researching this topic because children were (and still are) failing- and teachers needed clearer direction. Teachers can no longer get away with using their own preferred method - or systems they've been using for years because research and clinical studies show us these aren't meeting the needs of our children. Some teachers of course ARE providing opportunities for children - and ensuring that all children are being taught explicitly- however many still aren't- and children shouldn't suffer because of this. If children in the early years see letters and say the name instead of the sound- eg pronouncing 'a' as 'ay' instead of 'a'- as in the sound we hear when we say 'cat' parents should be worried. Why? We don't say see-aye-tee when we say cat! They need to know the sounds of the alphabet- not their names- as their names are meaningless with regards to spelling and reading the English language.

Good readers start by learning the code (they had teachers or parents that taught it to them) so that when they come across words they have never seen before they actually break them down. Some pick it up quickly even if not being taught well- however there are many others that don't- especially boys. They need to be carefully monitored! If children are great at spelling words- not just from memory- its because they understand how words are broken down and also understand how the sounds we use to speak- to form words- are created. For example they will give you all the versions when asked to spell the word 'brown'. They wont just give the 'correct' spelling- they will also tell you that it could have been written 'broun' if we were to put the other 'ow' sounds within the word- or if asked to write 'same' they would give 'saym, sayme, saim, saime,' etc - or 'fur' would also be written 'fir or fer'. We do lots of work with children using 'real' and also nonsense words as we want to know they really do 'get' the code.

The written word relates to our spoken word- so children must become aware of the sounds in words - as they hear them. Many children we assess for example will have difficulty hearing that there are 4 sounds in 'frog'-or knowing what the word would be if we said 'frog' without the 'r'. They haven't practised listening to the words we are speaking- and knowing how to written them down, with the individual sounds in the correct order.

Something many teachers do unfortunately- not realising this makes it really difficult for children who aren't picking this up quickly- is that they put two sounds together that should stay separate. So children put for example 'fr' instead of 'f' and 'r'. We need to keep it simple - if the two sounds change when put together then that's fine - if not keep them separate. So 'shop' has 3 sounds - sh o p - but frog has 4 sounds ie f + r +o + g

Children should be tested when they start school- and this should be on-going, to assess individual progress. Objective, standardised diagnostic tests that assess the essential alphabetic, decoding skills required for reading proficiency are available to teachers- however seem not to be fully utilised. In order to meet the needs of all children we need to use methods that meet the needs of all children from the beginning- not give them phonics instruction when they are failing at 7 or 8. We KNOW what to do- reports are readily available - and in addition to actually doing this we also need to pay much more attention to individual children- and in knowing how each child is developing in all aspects of reading and spelling, from their first day at Prep!

So please join us and ensure all children are able to read and spell quickly- we owe them this as parents, carers and educators.