SCHOOLS AND READING
It is important to know which method of teaching reading is used in your child’s school, so that you know how best to support your child’s reading development: whether you simply need to provide support and extension work, or whether you may need to pre-empt potential problems, and may have some rather large gaps to fill.
In the UK, Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) has been mandated as the teaching method in schools for many years. This makes the task of parents much easier. See What is Phonics? for a detailed description of this method.
In Australia and in the USA, some schools have introduced SSP, but most have not.
In the context of the USA, the following site gives a very clear overview of what is at stake:
I will focus on the context with which I’m familiar, which is Australia.
The Reading Wars
In Australia the acrimonious debate about the best teaching method to use has been labelled the Reading Wars. This debate has continued over many years, despite the fact that there is overwhelming evidence to show that explicit and systematic instruction of phonics is the most effective method. See, for example, the 2016 report, Read About It: Scientific Evidence for Effective Teaching of Reading by Kerry Hempenstall and edited by Jennifer Buckingham.
A 2019 Research Report by Jennifer Buckingham and Linda Meeks found that, in their review of 116 literacy units in undergraduate initial teacher education courses, only 4% had a focus on “how to teach beginning readers in the first few years of school.”
Which teaching method is followed in any particular school seems to depend on which side of the debate the principle and/or the head teacher for literacy is on, and, in turn, where they received their education. In the absence of a government mandate, it is a lottery that determines how children learn to read – arguably the most important thing they will learn at school. Australian schools have been trending downwards on international literacy scorecards for several years, and it doesn’t seem unreasonable to link this decline to the lack of a coherent approach to the teaching of reading in the schools.
For expert analysis of the issues, there are several articles on the Five from Five website, as well as this debate:
Clearly, I’m on the side of SSP, but I will try and summarise the ‘anti-SSP’ approach here – I say ‘try’, because it’s not a coherent or unified approach.
The terminology of the ‘anti-SSP’ approach has shifted over the years. The terms ‘whole word’ and ‘look-and-say’ seem to have morphed into the ‘whole language’ approach, and, more recently, the term ‘balanced literacy’ is being used, along with ‘phonics in context’ and ‘analytical phonics.’ You will find a very clear explanation of the difference between analytical phonics and SSP in this short video:
Whole language/balanced literacy/analytical phonics/phonics in context
The objections to systematic synthetic phonics seem to relate to the sequencing of activities, the type of activities used, and, most importantly, decodable readers.
The fundamental premise of the ‘anti-SSP’ side is that reading is essentially a process of making meaning, and that the focus should be on making meaning from the beginning.
So, instead of beginning with activities designed to teach sound/letter relationships, as in SSP, the starting point is books – so-called ‘authentic texts’. Novice readers are expected to develop comprehension and fluency at the same time as deciphering the little black marks on the page. In order to be able to ‘read’, children are taught to rely on ‘cues’ or clues, such as context, pictures, the ‘shape’ of a word, and the first letter in the word. In the absence of decoding strategies, this approach can encourage a lot of guesswork.
Type of activities used
One of the speakers on the anti-SSP side of the debate (on the Five from Five website) describes the SSP process as ‘robotic, mistrustful and mechanical’. Others refer to the ‘drill and kill’ processes of SSP, where all children follow a set of carefully sequenced activities that introduce the sound/letter relationships. (It should be pointed out that SSP activities can be a lot of fun, and involve good, interactive learning)
The ‘balanced literacy’ ideal is for each child to find a way into reading by a unique and magical process of discovery. However, in practice, the process is likely to begin with the teacher reading a book to the class, the class reading it together (guided reading), children reading it in groups and/or pairs (shared reading), and then taking the book home to read to their parent/s. By this time, they often know the text by heart.
With the ‘balanced literacy’ approach, more of this potentially harmful memorising happens in the process of learning High Frequency Words (see What is Phonics?). Early in the kindergarten year, lists of 100 or 200 of these words are sent home to be memorised. It isn’t necessary to memorise words that are decodable, but they are lumped together with words that have irregular spelling. All the words have to be learned as ‘sight words’ outside of any meaningful grammatical context.
While many children will learn to read regardless of the method used, there is a sizeable minority who will have difficulties that only appear later. With the ‘balanced literacy’ approach, this may be because children become adept at guessing, and because initially they can memorise enough whole words to create the impression that they are reading well.
With the ‘balanced literacy’ approach, the emphasis is on ‘authentic texts’ - ‘real’ texts that haven’t been manipulated with a particular learning goal in mind. One problem with this is that the ‘levelled readers’ used in most Australian schools can’t be called authentic. On the PM Levelled Readers website, it is stated that the readers have been ‘carefully crafted’ to meet readers’ needs. The criteria for levelling are opaque, but ‘crafting’ seems to involve sticking to certain word limits, and to short, simple words and grammatical structures, with highly repetitive use of language.
Alison Clarke provides an excellent critique of levelled readers on her blog:
The other, more important, problem is that levelled readers are not designed to ensure that the words included correspond with a child’s current knowledge of sound/letter relationships. Children are likely to encounter unfamiliar words, which they cannot read because they have not been given appropriate strategies. This reduces their agency over the process of reading.
[For parents in New South Wales, it should be noted that since 2019 the government has allocated $50 per kindergarten child to be spent on decodable readers. It would appear that many schools are choosing not to spend this money.]
From the SSP perspective, it’s very clear that readers must be decodable – that is, they must be matched to the child’s current knowledge of letter/sound relationships. However, I want to draw attention to one aspect of the ‘balanced literacy’ approach with which I have some sympathy. This is the insistence that children should experience the joy of reading and be engaged by ‘rich and imaginative text’ from the beginning (to paraphrase one of the speakers for ‘balanced literacy’ in the Five from Five debate).
The question is whether ‘rich and imaginative text’ can be combined with ‘decodability’ from the beginning: I hope you will read Why Phonics with Feeling Readers? to see what I am proposing in this regard.