Nobody advocates phonics-only literacy instruction

An important article by Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle and Kate Nation summarising the process of learning to read from novice to expert, and seeking to end the “reading wars”, has just been published.

It’s written in plain English and freely available online. It says that phonemic awareness and phonics are vital and central during the early stages of learning to read, but that a lot of other things are involved in becoming a proficient reader. Please read it and share the link around.

Of course, the media’s antennae tend to be tuned to conflict not consensus, so one newspaper reports this with the headline, “Call off the reading wars, phonics wins: study“. The ABC also interviewed one of the authors, Anne Castles, who said a lot of tremendously sensible things as she always does (you can hear her in a radio report here), and also sought comment  from Dr Paul Gardner of Curtin University’s School of Education.

Re ending the “reading wars” he said that, “the problem was with those who advocate phonics as the only approach” and added that “They tend to be people with no classroom experience … from speech pathology, cognitive psychology and think tanks”.

Now, I know not everything is about me, but I reckon I’m probably one of the people he is talking about, since I write a widely-read blog about phonics and am a speech pathologist.

If I wrote a blog about cycling, I’d be very surprised to hear anyone claim I was advocating cycling as the only means of transport. If I wrote a blog about pineapples, I doubt anyone would infer that I was advocating a pineapples-only diet.

A straw man argument

I’m not aware of anyone in Australia who advocates phonics as the only approach to teaching literacy. I don’t and never have. Professor Pamela Snow doesn’t, nor does Dr Jennifer Buckingham of the Five from Five Literacy Project, nor do any of the cognitive psychologists or speech pathologists I know, any academics, or anyone from LDA or any of the SPELDs.

I advocate for more and better coverage of phonemic awareness and phonics in early literacy teaching, and in intervention for kids who are struggling to read and spell words accurately. I don’t and have never suggested that teachers stop working on vocabulary, comprehension or fluency. I also work on these things with many students, I just don’t write a blog about them.

I’ve been a language professional for 30 years, and spent a lot of time in schools, including time in many classrooms working with teachers and aides. My first job as a Speech Pathologist was in a school support centre.

I now mostly work with kids who can’t read or spell very well, and need more help with phonemic awareness and phonics than their schools currently provide. Usually once they get this intervention, they do start to make good literacy progress.

I talk to many of their teachers about how this progress was achieved, and find that many want more information about the resources and strategies I use, and appreciate help filling the “phonics black hole” (as one teacher called it) in their university education and professional learning. Many then use this knowledge successfully when teaching other students.

This is a satisfying job, but I’m acutely aware that many of these children would never have fallen so far behind in the first place if their teachers were taught to understand English phonology, orthography and morphology, and the scientific research on how to teach reading and spelling to all kids, not just most kids.

Teachers need to know about the reading science

From my perspective, the main problem in the reading wars is that teachers are often being kept in the dark about what reading scientists know.

This means that, with the best of intentions, teachers often end up using approaches based on faulty models, and without proper evidence, like the three-cueing method, rote visual memorisation of high-frequency words, and writing misspelt words repeatedly in rainbow colours.

It means that many teachers accept Mem Fox’s assertion that “if every parent – and every adult caring for a child – read aloud a minimum of three stories a day to the children in their lives, we could probably wipe out illiteracy within one generation” (back cover, Reading Magic, 2005). Any reading scientist, and thousands of diligently-reading-aloud parents, can tell you this is wrong.

Lacking linguistic knowledge and access to the reading science, teachers have often been ill-equipped to rebut assertions like “English spelling doesn’t make sense” (Reading Magic, p147) and phonics is not only “difficult and horribly confusing, it’s unnecessary” (Reading Magic, p152). Note that Mem Fox will give a keynote address at the Australian Association of Literacy Educators/Australian Association for the Teaching of English conference on Monday 9th July in Perth.

Without access to the best scientific evidence, too many teachers have ended up trying to teach literacy to children with persistent word-level reading and spelling problems, but without much idea how to help them. Here’s a nice video of one US teacher explaining how that felt, and what she did about it.

This blog is one thing I can do to help address this problem. I hope one day it won’t be necessary, because universities and education departments do such a good job of preparing teachers to teach even children with severe phonological core deficits. There should be only 3-5% of kids needing individualised Tier 3 intervention for reading and spelling skills of the type people like me provide. But the data on Australia’s persistent long tail of reading underachievement show far too many are struggling, as does the stream of kids coming in my door wanting help, and leaving me very little time to blog.

No advocates but widespread use: the sight-word-only approach

To my surprise, the Castles, Rastle and Nation article refers to one of my first blog posts, written in July 2012, back when my website had about three subscribers and six readers, half of them bots. If you’d told me then that my website would have nearly two-and-a-half million hits in six years, and that it would be referenced in an important article by leading reading scientists, I would have said you were dreaming.

Castles et al say that I’m among phonics advocates arguing that teaching sight words is “not only ineffective but also dangerous, causing children to become confused about letter-sound mappings and setting them up with bad reading habits that interfere with their ongoing phonics instruction”.

Allow me to clarify my perspective and position. In 2012, I was working with many struggling readers, targeting their phonemic awareness and phonics, and teaching them to sound out words, usually in weekly sessions plus homework.

The rest of the week at school, these kids were mostly being taught to visually memorise high-frequency word lists, and read predictable texts by guessing words from pictures. Many of their Individualised Learning Plans included a single literacy target: “memorise the 100 most common words”. Sometimes they also had a target like “read PM Level 8 books”. Most were receiving no ongoing phonemic awareness or phonics instruction at school, and sometimes their teachers told their parents “we don’t do phonics”.

So, I was trying to consolidate “a as in cat” with these students, but at school they were being told not to sound out words, and instead to visually memorise long lists of words containing a vast array of spelling patterns: “a”, “was”, “day”, “said”, “wanted”, “are”, “made”, “birthday”, “want”, “all”, “because”, “cake”, “came”, “car”, “dollar”, “grade”, “played”, “scarecrow” (!!), “Sunday”, “teacher”, “alive”, “ball” and “bread”, as well as some words consistent with the “a as in cat” I was trying to teach: “and”, “had”, “am”, “at”, “Saturday”, “dad”, “ran”, “an”, “have”, “having” (!!), “mad” and “angry”. Too right, it made me mad and angry.

Of course this inconsistency of approach meant that I struggled to get “a as in cat” to stick. Kids would look at the word “bag” and say “bug”, because from day one at school they’d been taught to look at the word “a” and “say” “u as in cup”, because teachers aren’t taught about the unstressed vowel, see this earlier blog post.

Even the ten-year-olds who had been working on the 100 most common words for years still kept forgetting them and mixing them up. They were simply using the wrong strategy – paired associate learning – and trying to arbitrarily link far too many whole spoken words with whole written words, while spending most of their learning time in a phonemic awareness and phonics vacuum.

It was only once they learnt that words are composed of strings of sounds (phonemic awareness) represented by letters and letter patterns (phonics) that they started to remember the words.

Six years on, I understand that this is because they were able to use their phonemic awareness and phonics to make linguistic (not visual) sense of the regularly-spelt parts of these words, and then fudge the irregular spellings in context via set for variability (see this earlier blog post for the theory) long enough to put them into long-term memory.

Misunderstanding and inadvertent misuse of high-frequency word lists

Of course the academics who devise high-frequency word lists don’t intend them to be taught in a rote, visual-memorisation way, or in a phonemic awareness and phonics vacuum. They expect them to be taught just a few at a time, in the context of systematic and explicit phonemic awareness and phonics teaching. But things get lost in translation from theory to practice.

When teachers are equipped with the relevant linguistic and scientific knowledge they will be able to ignore or challenge people who say phonics is unnecessary, and won’t use the sight-word-only approach. I’m happy to report that most ILPs for kids with persistent word reading and spelling difficulties do now seem to include phonemic awareness and phonics targets.

I agree with Castles et al’s statement that “the judicious selection of a small number of sight words for children to study in detail has its place in the classroom alongside phonics” (my italics). In fact, most of the phonics programs I use and recommend include a few such words with harder spellings at each stage.

Little Learners Love Literacy calls them “heart words”, Get Reading Right calls them “camera words”, Jolly Phonics calls them “tricky words”. Phonic Books just calls them high-frequency words, and has a free, downloadable chart that organises them by spelling pattern.

I usually just call them “words with funny spellings” or “words with spellings we haven’t done yet”. We pull them apart and have a good look at their entrails, just like other words. We talk about other words that help make sense of their weird parts e.g. the “tw” in “two” makes more sense if you think about “twin”, “twice”, “twelve”, “twenty” and “between”.

I remain wary of the term “sight word” because it has too many different definitions. David Kilpatrick says that to reading researchers, a sight word is any word a person can instantly recognise. In education, “sight word” is often used as a synonym of “high-frequency word”, though most of the spellings in high-frequency words are completely regular.

Anne Castles et al say sight words are words containing tricky spellings that children can and should be taught to read at the word level. However, the teaching method supported by research is a far cry from the rote-visual-memorisation-in-a-phonemic-awareness-and-phonics-vacuum approach that had me so mad and angry in 2012.

Teaching of words with unusual or difficult spellings should focus on pronunciation, letters and letter order as well as repetition to mastery, and only commence after children can recognise letters, have developed basic phonemic awareness and understand the alphabetic principle (click here for more details). Until then, asking kids to memorise Oxford, Dolch, Fry, Magic, Golden or any other colour of the rainbow words is just a waste of precious time.

Only someone with a brain of straw would suggest that teaching kids a few words with funny spellings after they have a solid grounding in phonemic awareness and phonics could be ineffective, dangerous, or likely to lead to confusion or bad reading habits. So hurrah for consensus! Let’s make it happen.

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8 thoughts on “Nobody advocates phonics-only literacy instruction

  1. Christine Calabrese

    It’s funny that Heidi is from New York State! Here she was many years after I found a program that helped me and yet she did not know about my work! I was a NYC public school teacher who experienced the exact same thing and I found a system that worked, stuck with it, tried to tell everyone, but I all my efforts did not result in any change whatsoever.

  2. Rosemary Simpson

    Well written and totally agree with your comments about a lack of evidence in the selection of new approaches. As an educator who has always worked alongside speech pathologists, I believe that if every school had enough SP FTE to work across the school at a tier 1 level, literacy problems would be significantly reduced. Teachers are not trained to explicitly teach vocabulary, text structure or grammar. Wake up universities! Improve your training!

  3. Tricia Millar

    Brilliant. Thanks, Alison.
    And if people think memorising high frequency word lists features only in primary education, I have a few stories to tell. A specialist teacher recently emailed to say she had a year 8 (13 years old!) with dyslexia and autism who could finally read the first 100 and was working on the next 100. Could TRT help? Only if you want him to be able to read thousands of words and not 200. This is not as rare as you’d hope and not restricted to young people with SEN.
    Keep blogging!

    1. alison Post author

      Thanks! At some point I am going to get onto reviewing your spelling book, it’s nice, I just keep getting swamped with other things, sorry. Alison

  4. Ann Webb

    Thanks for this. I was fortunate to have been trained in the early days (’60’s) of the use of the classic Orton-Gillingham approach before it became monetized almost beyond recognition. I use it with individual students, and applied it across the curriculum in content areas with small classes (14). This was in a small private school where such things were possible. You will be interested to know that our wonderful speech path. and I taught an oral language class together twice a week. It gave me such an appreciation for the role of oral language in written exp.
    Regarding non- phonetic words, high frequency or not, we called them “red words.”” The phonetic ones are green words, and words requiring a spelling rule were called yellow words. This classification system worked really well on the spelling lists from my private students’ scbools. The lists had too many elements and needed the color organization, for sure. Many teachers would let me supply the lists for my students.
    I’ll stop with that, but I did want to ask if you were able to hear any of the Maryanne Wolf interviews or presentations. I believe she is spending the year in Australia. Ann Webb, Colorado.

    1. alison Post author

      Hi Anne, lovely to hear from you, great to hear you’ve been having success teaching kids to read and spell for years, interesting to hear about the colour-coded lists. I was one of the organisers of a Maryanne Wolf seminar here a couple of years ago, and knew she was in Sydney at the end of last year, but I wasn’t aware she was staying for a year. Perhaps she’s locked up somewhere in a cabin in the forest writing her next book?!


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