Sid naps in a pit: making a din about phonics

My son has finally started bringing ‘real’ reading books home. I say ‘finally’, because he has been absolutely desperate to read ever since his sister learned. I put ‘real’ in inverted commas, as his book the other day made me start questioning our whole approach to reading in the UK.

So here I go, wading into the ever-raging argument about synthetic phonics. With my educator hat on I’ve been fascinated by the issue for a long time (so shoot me). Since my own children started to read though, I have found myself developing new opinions as a parent, and as a writer who wants to engage kids in books, stories and language.

I have a theory: not that many people, least of all the government ministers who advocate its use so emphatically, actually understand much about synthetic phonics, or indeed how children learn to read full stop. And yet a quick Google search will find it alternately heralded as the bedrock to our children’s educational achievements, and reviled as the root of all literary evil.

Many years ago I did a Masters at the Institute of Education called ‘Literacy learning and literacy difficulties‘. It was all about how young children acquire literacy – what goes on in the brain as they learn to read and write. I was taught by some of the most renowned early years’ literacy experts in the country, if not the world. These were people at the cutting edge of research into literacy development. And yet they would regularly remind us of two things: 1) English is a difficult language in which to read and spell and 2) we don’t know how children do it (or rather, we have a great deal of knowledge about how children do it, but as every child is different, there is no conclusive way of saying ‘this is how children learn to read and write’, and no one way of teaching them).

Enter ‘synthetic phonics’ (the ‘synthetic’ bit by the way, is nothing to do with phonics being manmade or prone to irritation, but because we ‘synthetise’, or ‘blend’, the letter sounds). In the UK this is how schools are required to teach children to read, from about six weeks in to their school career. The UK government is adamant that this is the only way to get children reading, to the extent that they ‘match funding’ for schools who choose teaching programmes that meet a set of criteria for phonics teaching. The motto on phonics is ‘first and fast’, so that children rattle through the letter sounds (not the names – that comes later) and very quickly learn to blend or put the sounds together to form words. Bingo – by Christmas in their first term they are reading. By the end of Year 1 (when children are 5 and 6), there is a statutory ‘phonics check‘ (aka ‘a total waste of time’, in my humble opinion).

Now, I am lucky enough to have two children who love books, love reading, want to read and have done and are doing so quickly and relatively easily. On the face of it, phonics works, as it does appear to have quick results. For children like my children.

But what if you have a child for whom reading does not come so quickly and easily? Or a child who is more like my son, who understands the mechanics of phonics, but sees words much more holistically and therefore knows what certain, unphonetic words say, just because he has seen them many times and knows their shapes (‘the’, for example, or, bizzarely, ‘desert’). Broadly speaking, there are two routes that need to develop for a child to become a fluent reader: one is certainly phonetic, but the other is visual. If one route is more developed than the other, a child will not read fluently until the other route has caught up. If, for example, a five year-old’s visual route is highly developed but their phonetic route doesn’t develop in the same way for another eight months, that child will struggle to read phonetically – which means that they will not learn to read by Christmas.*

Why does all this matter? Surely the most important thing is that kids learn to read, and that teachers have a method by which to teach them. Synthetic phonics is proven to work, so where’s the problem? Well I have a couple of problems. Firstly, the method doesn’t take into account that the Reception year (that is, the first year that children enter school), will contain children who are almost a year apart in age (because of the school year in the UK going from September 1st to August 31st, a just four year-old could start school at the same time as an almost five year-old). Secondly, the method assumes that all children develop the phonetic route to reading first and most easily, and that they all develop it at the same time – and yet, how could this conformity be, given that we’ve already established that some children are a year younger than others? There is a world of developmental difference between that just four year-old and almost five year-old.

But there’s another issue that goes beyond basic development. My son’s recent reading books have only contained phonetically-spelt, two or three letter words. This means he is reading sentences like ‘Nan sat in a pit’ and ‘Sid nips in’. He could decode these words but then got very upset – “I don’t understand. What’s a pit? Why did Nan sit in it? What is nips?” At one point Sid’s sister Sal sits on a pin that Sid has strategically placed on the sofa and boy does she get ‘mad’. Apologies to anyone reading from north America, but we don’t use ‘mad’ in this country when we mean ‘cross’! This insistence on purely phonetic reading is leading kids to read stories that aren’t just dull, but use words that they rarely encounter. It limits rather than widens their vocabulary and exploration of language.

It also, I should say, leads to some shocking spelling (I am a card-carrying pedant about spelling). My daughter’s spelling is improving, probably because she now reads so voraciously, but last year all her spellings were phonetic. This is fine to begin with, but at some point children have got to learn that English rarely sticks to phonetic rules! Sometimes you just have to know how a word looks to spell it right.

I asked a few friends with similar-aged children for their experiences and opinions on phonics, and had a really interesting response. For some, it ‘really worked’ and their child can read. For others, especially those with children who don’t take to reading so quickly and easily, it has become a frustrating and at times miserable process. I was interested in the experience of one friend who now lives in Spain, who says that her son’s school aren’t particularly focussing on teaching them to read, despite Spanish being a purely phonetic language (although perhaps it’s because it’s purely phonetic that they don’t need such a focus?) Another friend who lived in the US last year, says that her daughter was baffled by phonics on returning to the school in the UK and still uses (non-phonetic) songs taught to her in America to help her with spellings.

I would be interested in what you think of the issue, wherever you live. Are we the only country that is so obsessed with a purely phonics approach? Are we setting ourselves up for a generation of adults with ropey spelling and limited language use? Yes, phonics works, for some children, on one level. But where is the joy in reading that Sid sits on a pin in a pit and Sal is mad?

*I should add – when I talk about children who struggle, I’m not talking about those with identifiable special needs, either literacy-related or any other. I mean children who have no particular special need, who nonetheless are not ‘reading by Christmas’.

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26 thoughts on “Sid naps in a pit: making a din about phonics

  1. Great post! Phonics is a curious thing. As a parent, it’s taken me quite a while to get my head around it – not sure I really understand it all yet actually. I thought it was a very strange way to learn to start with but I see the joy on my 4 year old’s face when he reads a book himself, after only starting to learn to read in earnest in September and see my 6 year old devouring Harry Potter and think maybe the government have got it right.

    • My two are exactly like yours Tess, which makes me think ‘this works!’ as well. But I do wonder what happens to those for whom it doesn’t work (hopefully some will comment on here about that).

  2. I don’t have children and I don’t teach, so I have no informed opinion – but I love this blog post! So generous in spirit and eloquent. I seemed to come out of the womb loving reading and I empathise with your child who just ‘got’ words by seeing them enough times. Which seems a good reason to vary reading experiences! Interestingly, I struggled (and still do) with correct pronunciation – I suspect because I was becoming familiar with words on the page that I wasnt hearing said out loud. ‘Tomb’, for example, from reading the Bible (!!!). I knew exactly what this word was and meant but I had no idea the ‘b’ was silent until an embarrassing episode during a school assembly!

    • Thank you Karen! Love your anecdote about ‘tomb’ – English is such a bonkers language sometimes. And I think that as a children’s writer you most certainly can have an informed opinion!

  3. Pretty hard to disagree with anything you’ve put here. I’m a parent and a special school teacher – so most of my pupils had a lot of problems with reading. My own kids on the other hand seemed to learn to read by osmosis as much as anything.

    My son astonished us at the age of two by pointing at the sign outside the office of a TV company on Knightsbrisge and saying “Carlton” – clearly he’d picked it up from a Tots TV video – although he’d seen the word, but as far as we could tell, never heard it spoken. A couple of days later he spotted the same word. This time on a Vauxhall Carlton – and written entirely in capital letters.

    This and my teaching experience leads me to the conclusion that the best readers will learn by any means and all means – often faster than we can teach them – for those kids it barely matters what approach we take – they’ll use all of them, and demand access to real books at a rapid rate.

    But for others I’ve found that whatever approach you take, there’ll always be a few kids that just don’t get it – and for those kids you need a different approach – There’s not much point in changing the whole approach for everyone – because whatever you change it to there’ll still be kids who don’t get it.

    So you need a variety of strategies. My instinct is that often is best to use predominantly the one that the teacher feels most comfortable teaching – but also to have a good complimentary strategy up your sleeve.

    It’s saddened me that at least one Government minister has gone on record as saying that Synthetic Phonics is the only method which is 100% effective. It’s clear to anyone who’s spent any time at all teaching literacy that no method is 100% effective – and the pitfalls of phonics are rather easy to see. Teaching in Milton Keynes for instance – how do I use phonics to teach children the different ways to decode the places Woughton, Broughton, and Loughton – (That’s Wuffton, Brorton, and Lout-on to anyone from outside the area) – or how do we get around the fact that some sounds are the same all over the country Pat, Bat, Cat – some vary consistently – Put, But, Cut – and others are very different – Path, Bath, Cath. In Norhern English, Pat, Bat, Cat, Path, Bath, and Cath all have the same vowel sound. In Southern English Path & Bath have a different vowel sound. But Cath has the same one. One thing is certain – Synthetic Phonics does not have it covered.

    Personally I think a big way forward is by placing as much emphasis on writing as we do on reading – that’s not always the case with struggling readers. I think we should provide them with as many tools as we can to express their creativity, as well as just teaching them to decode.

    Nice Blog – Keep it up

    • Thank you Northernheckler for a really interesting perspective. English can be completely illogical, and that’s before we even get into regional accents. I also think it’s very dangerous to herald something as ‘100% effective’ when you’re talking about individuals – as you say, some will still not get it, or at least not in the timescale that they’re ‘supposed to’ (according to government and curriculum policy).

  4. Hi Lucy – As always a really interesting and thought provoking piece…Even though I’m now feeling paranoid about my spelling I thought I’d respond.
    I just wondered, does anybody recall what happened to “Flash Cards”? My recollections of using them with a 3 year old (both of us having fun) are very positive…and that 3 year old then rapidly progressed with “Peter and Jane and Pat the dog.” Mind you, at that time I don’t remember the (then) government interfering with education in the same way it seems to now!
    PS Your excellent article has spurred me into action to write about my ex-life as an English teacher for my blog!

    • Thank you Lesley! Not being in the classroom now I can’t comment about flashcards. I never used them though, and that was in the 90s, so they must have fallen from favour some time ago.

  5. Sorry, Lucy, but I’m not as keen on your blogpost as your other readers.
    Here’s why:
    While you are of course absolutely right in stating that ‘the English language is a difficult language in which to read and spell’, it isn’t difficult to teach if you understand how it works.
    I’m sure that the Institute of Education taught you all sorts of things about Piaget and Vygotsky and even Bruner. What they didn’t do is to tell you how you can apply their findings in concrete situations, such as learning to read and spell. Otherwise, if they had, you wouldn’t say such things as to claim that words can be ‘unphonetic’. This is clearly not the case. All words contain sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings – or we wouldn’t be able to produce endless numbers of new words and be able to read them. In fact, the way the writing system works is that the squiggles on the page we call letters (I prefer ‘spellings’) represent the sounds in our speech, of which there are around forty-four, depending on accent. Once you understand that it is the sounds that drive the code and that the spellings are anchored in the forty-four or so sounds, you can’t go wrong.
    Spanish is indeed very easy to learn because it is much more transparent than English and this is – you’re quite right! – why the Spanish are relatively relaxed about when reading is taught. I put my youngest daughter into a Spanish school for her Reception year and they weren’t in the slightest bit worried about starting the class reading. With around twenty-two to twenty-four sounds and only just a few over thirty ways of spelling them, Spanish is a doddle to teach. That doesn’t mean you can’t teach English through phonics. You can if you you teach children how the alphabet code works (i.e. how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language) and the three skills needed to access it, and you teach it from simple (‘cat’) to complex (‘catastrophic’).
    It is easy to parody early decodable readers which children are expected to ‘cut their teeth’ on, but these books are designed, in the early stages, to give children practice in what they have just been taught formally. Neither is their use meant to exclude rich, literary texts being read to children at home and at school. So, reading very simple sentences in the beginning is merely a step on the way to reading Scientific American and George Eliot.
    Like you, I too think that spelling is important. Teaching reading and spelling are two sides of the same coin. The principal difficulty lies in the fact that, unlike Spanish, Italian, German, Turkish, etc, in English there are many ways to spell most sounds, and many spellings represent more than one sound. But, good spelling doesn’t come from voracious reading alone. You need to be taught to notice that we spell the sound in a certain way and not in another way. The way you learn this is through good quality synthetic phonics.

    • Hello John, and thank you for taking the time to comment so fully – I hoped this blog post would generate discussion on both sides. I know you have a vested interest in your point of view, and I think we’re singing the same hymn but perhaps from a different page. I’m not by any means anti-phonics teaching (and until my own children started learning to read I was very pro-phonics, as an educator). My question lies with the apparent conviction that it is the only and best way to get kids reading. What about those children for whom the visual route develops first? Or the children who aren’t read rich, literary texts at home? Phonics ‘first and fast’ doesn’t necessarily cater for them until later on.

      I do have to take issue with your slightly disparaging comments about the IoE though. It was assumed we already knew about Piaget and Vygotsky from our PGCE or degree courses. The Institute was more interested in guiding us towards current and recent research into literacy development than rubbishing current teaching methods, and as you’ll know it commands great respect because of that.

  6. All that technical stuff is fascinating. I am of the generation that was taught phonetically and I can recall questioning (in my head, we didnt dare open questioning) some daft sentences but we also had regular, rogorous spelling tests, so we quickly absorbed the oddities of English spelling. BUT ..with my child psycholgy-trained hat on, I will add to the discussion in that the body of theory known as ‘attachment’ puts forward the notion that a chld who feels unconditionally loved adn secure, for whom reading cuddled up with mum or dad from an early age has been absolutely part of their developmental expreience , will take to reading readily. Not only because of the part the experience alongside their attachemnt, but also because their inner world has built up good images and feelings, and, fianlly, audible cadences and intonations have strengthened all these associaltions. (PL excuse my sp here but i am rushing, in a house of chaos due to unforseen disasters today). It’s an immensely fascinating subject ……….

  7. Really enjoyed this post Lucy! I’m speaking as someone outside the teaching profession, but with a daughter just learning to read.

    To the average parent I think it’s actually quite confusing to know how to best help your child read, if they are being taught using phonics and it’s something that’s at variance to the way you were taught. I think a lot more could be done to teach parents the methodology, so we can better support our children, but that probably varies from school to school. Anyway, not being confident about the ‘rules’ of phonics myself, I’m finding it hard going. I find myself helping her to spell things out, but because I describe letters as an alphabet rather than a sound, I slip up all the time. For example, pointing out an ‘r’: “that’s an arr, er I mean ruh” – which must be quite confusing for my daughter. Add to that the fact that I have northern vowels and we’re in a world of confusion! I was taught to read using I.T.A in the seventies which meant using an extended alphabet of 44 (?) letters and then basically having to relearn the standard alphabet again thereafter, although apparently it had a large ‘phonics’ element to it. So my understanding of how people learn to read is slightly atypical, and I’m still not the world’s greatest speller!

    Overall, my daughter’s progress has been quite slow. I think the main issue is that she is largely visual, she draws and writes letters beautifully but no matter how many times (at the moment) she sounds out c-a-t it doesn’t register as ‘cat’ to her – it’s still c-a-t, which to her sounds like a completely different word, and one that she doesn’t recognise. I’m sure with perseverance (and some flashcards – thanks for the reminder Lesley!) we’ll get there as she’s always really enjoyed being read to and looking at books, but it’s not very nice seeing her struggling at the moment.

    • What a thoughtful reply Vicky, thanks so much. It’s really helpful to hear parents’ points of view. I think the point about parents’ confusion is such a valid one – our school had a pre-reading meeting for parents so teachers could explain how they went about things, but as only about a third of parents turned up I’m not sure how helpful it was! I do feel lucky having some insight into how they’re being taught, so I can back up what’s going on at school, but appreciate that I’m in a minority. The way you were taught to read is a new one on me – it sounds mystifying!

      It sounds as though your daughter just hasn’t got the hang of blending yet – she has the sounds but not the capacity to blend them into a word. Perhaps you could concentrate at home on her sight vocabulary, so that she at least has a sense of achievement and confidence in her reading ability? Just a thought. Or have a chat with her teachers about it all? Do you know what scheme they follow at school? Most endorsed schemes now will give them little exercises that go with blending so they can do the action to help them remember what they’re doing with the letters.

  8. Very interesting and well written post Lucy.
    I have many gripes with phonics but that may be purely because my son is one of the ones who really struggles with it. My initial problem was that it was totally new to me when my son (now 6) started school and we were given no guidance from the school at all on how to approach it, how quickly to progress or how hard they were supposed to find it.
    I do remember being amazed in the first couple of weeks that he could read words like pig and hop when previously he had not been able to read anything except the word ‘Asda (read into that what you will!).
    A friend told me about the whole ‘magic e’ way of explaining the differences in reading words such as ‘cake’ and ‘cat’ which really helped me guide him further but again this came from a friend rather than the school.
    My son had weekly spelling tests introduced in year 1 and I found this really helped with both his reading and his writing. However when he is writing freestyle now, as in his christmas list, he reverts back to phonics and there are barely any vowels in the whole thing.
    I totally disagree with the whole ‘attachment thing’ in saying that if you read to your child and provide them with a stimulating environment then they will read readily – we have always read to our children and my son loves books and ‘reading’ them himself (looking at the pictures or whatever it is he is doing) but he is still way off what would be considered a fluent reader.
    We are the friends now living in Spain, and this first term we have been there – he hasn’t once bought a book home to read. Now this maybe to do with ‘La Crisis’ and all the cuts but I don’t think it is, I asked him this week if they did any reading during the day in school and he said no not really. We got his first school report back today – much more detailed than anything I ever had in the UK and it doesn’t mention anything about reading at all. Here they seem to be totally obsessed with cursive handwriting which is a total anathema to me.
    Anyway, thanks Lucy for even thinking about phonics when it is coming easily to your kids. When both you and your child struggle with it, it feels like you are banging your head against a brick wall sometimes.

    • Thanks for posting Lucy. Perhaps there needs to be a re-think by some schools about how much they involve parents in the learning to read process. I’d love to know how your son is doing a year from now with his Spanish/Catalan compared to his English reading. Someone I know in France says her daughter’s school is obsessed with cursive handwriting as well – I suppose every country has its obsessive educational tendencies!

  9. Interesting post. As a speech and language therapist, I work with many children who struggle with phonics as they find it hard to sound out words. In fact at just 4, most normally developing children can’t say all the speech sounds clearly yet, which can add to the difficulty for some.
    I think phonics is really good, but as you say, many children need a much more eclectic approach than just that. If reading were as straightforward as “one size fits all”, we would have had it sorted ages ago, and no one would struggle. Reading uses lots of other skills as well as phonics (memory, visual perception, comprehension to name a few) and we need to be wary of becoming overly focussed on phonics to the exclusion of other methods.

    • Thanks Speechbloguk. It’s always good to hear from other professionals who have perspectives on these sorts of issues, as of course you’re coming to it with a whole different set of research theories and methods (like ‘mum’ above). It’s a really good point about some children of this age not even being able to say the sounds clearly or accurately.

  10. Hi Lucy
    As a nursery teacher and a mum I agree with much you have written. I am very frustrated by the ‘one way fits all’ approach to teaching in general, which is heralded by this government (and the last one too), not just the phonics approach. My first child learnt to read quickly, without much ‘teaching’ from me or her nursery school – she was reading simple texts at four and now she is nine she is reading at level 5. My son was completely different – it has been a struggle to maintain his interest at all! He finds the sythetic reading texts such as the ones you metioned ‘boring’ (his words) and wants to read books that capture his imagination, usually about dragons, knights, castles and dinosaurs – not a lot of phonetic words there to create synthetic reading books for 4/5 year old. His reading has improved but mainly through his fantastic class teacher this year who was very supportive and proactive when I discussed the fact that he needed to be motivated to read first and formost! The phonics approach in my class, which is dictated by the school, is Letters and Sounds – phase 1. I don’t mind this too much as it is mainly about listening to sounds in a variety of situations and is very focussed towards fun activitites in short bursts, often mixed up with the rest of the curriculum. I know there is a problem higher up the school – sometimes children reading phonetically and seemingly well but their understanding and comprehension of the text is not good. I believe you have to give children a love of reading before bombarding them with ‘Sid sat on a pin’!!

  11. Finally I’m finding a spare 3 minutes to respond to your post, Lucy!
    I have two children a boy, 7 and a girl 4.5. Both have attended the same pre-school and same Reception class but each is chalk and cheese when it comes to their pathway through the EYF curriculum.
    My son is a winter birthday, so considered ‘old’ in the year. He started reading organically; he’d had an alphabet book with sliding windows which I gave to him during nappy changes from an early age and he understood the appearance and sound of letters from very early on. But crucially, it wasn’t phonics that got him started, he simply learnt to recognise many words from the age of 3 and a half. Words like ‘Stop’ ‘Go’ ‘Play’ ‘Next’ ‘Skip’ ‘On’ ‘Off’ ‘The’ ‘Park’. These were words from his environment – on walks into town and he would spot Wash, Post, Turn, Shop, Hair and he would point them out with glee. Some were learnt from DVD or Cbeebies menus!
    By the time he started in Reception, I knew he was reading. The 100 ‘basic’ and ‘tricky’ words he knew and I was frustrated to be told that he was ‘probably guessing’ how to read because they were stories he knew or could ‘work out the narrative’. Because he hadn’t been plodded through the phonics first term, no one believed that he could read, the result was a boy who puzzled his way through peculiar Chip and Biff stories querying the plot lines and hungry for ‘real’ adventures. To this day, I do feel this was unnecessarily pedantic on the school’s part however I do have to acknowledge that learning phonic building blocks (di graphs and tri graphs) enabled him to work out longer trickier words as he progressed to more difficult levels of reading.
    My daughter on the other hand is 4 and a half (a summer birthday) and is no where near starting to read. She’s enjoying learning letter sounds, but doesn’t seem to recognise the synergy of stringing letters together to make words. She’s desperate to read and I hope this coming term will lead to a leap in early reading.
    For me, phonics is a great tool, but it limits the most able and the least able readers. I don’t know what the solution is, but I do think it needs to be complimented in some way by other methods or schemes to aid ALL children. On the flip side, I constantly remind myself that in the Scandi countries, children aren’t placed in a formal education setting until the age of 7, by which point they are ALL ready, willing and very able to take leaps and bounds in their first term! Perhaps the issue here is less to do with the inadequacies of phonics and more to do with the tender age our children are shoehorned into formal education…

  12. Really interesting mrscbeebies. This really jumped out at me: ‘it limits the most able and the least able readers’. It would be interesting to hear what pure phonics advocates would respond to that. Also interesting point about Scandinavia. Is it that lots of our children are just not ready to read at 4/5, because they simply don’t have the developmental tools yet?

    • That’s certainly my feeling Lucy. Speak to any primary school teacher and they all talk about an evening-out in ability by the time children reach the age of 7. Of course you’ll have ranges of ability, but broadly speaking, the age / gender differences are less acute at 7-8 vs 4-5. Whilst phonics is a great tool, I do believe it shouldn’t be the ONLY tool.

  13. thanks for directing me over here Lucy. Really great to read all the comments and different points of view. I really understand Vicky’s point that as a parent there isn’t so much proactive support on phonics and making sure you are sounding letters in the same way.

  14. Over here in Australia we have books called DK readers which are designed for different grades(years) and ages. They have a section for parents to help the child, but they show different styles of reading . Some are information (non fiction) whilst others are fictional. They are great books for younger children starting out to read. Much with sentences much more appropriate than “The cat sat on the mat”.

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