Shallow and deep phonics

My last blog post copped a little flak for its focus on the Victorian Education Department’s top two pieces of advice for parents when their children are stuck reading a word, both of which start with the sentence, “Look at the picture.” (see p14 of this document).

This is very bad advice because it directs children’s attention away from the key information required for good word-level reading. It’s based on the idea of multi-cueing/the three-cueing system, which is scientifically-debunked nonsense. A complex but excellent explanation of why can be found here, and the actual role of context in reading is explained well here.

To read an unfamiliar word, children need to take it apart into spellings (graphemes) e.g. “n”, “igh” and “t”, not “ni”, “g” and “ht”, associate these with the relevant speech sounds (phonemes) and blend them into a word. With practice, familiar words are unitised in memory, via a process called orthographic mapping, and no longer need to be sounded out, they become instantly recognised.

Unfamiliar words of more than one syllable must be sounded out a syllable at a time. Earlier syllables must be held in memory while later syllables are worked out, making long words harder.

Once a printed word is converted into a spoken word, its meaning can be accessed, if it’s known. But even if a child doesn’t yet know what a word means (i.e. it’s not yet in their semantic memory), having heard it before (i.e. having it in their phonological memory) kick-starts the process of putting it into long-term memory for instant recognition. Over time the child can learn and refine its meaning(s), and how to use it, by hearing and seeing it in use.

Kids who have heard eleventy million words, because their folks are always chatting with them and reading them stories, are thus at a big advantage when it comes to learning to read new words. Lots of words ring little bells in their phonological memories.

I like to imagine phonemically aware learners’ brains as having phoneme suckers that seek out and latch onto graphemes, noticing their locations and neighbourhoods, and stash them away for future reference. Brains that are unaware of phonemes, and constantly distracted by pictures, cannot gather this vital data.

My last blog post was criticised for not including the full list of departmental advice for parents on helping children work out difficult words, which in fact does include some sounding-out suggestions. Here’s the full list:

The main reason I didn’t write about bullet points 3-6 is that I was writing about points 1 and 2. Not every blog post has to be about everything. Also, I found points 3-6 a bit underwhelming, and didn’t really know where to start. They seemed like a fairly shallow, token effort at sprinkling phonics on the same old stale Whole Language cake.

Book choices that set children up to memorise, guess and fail

The first problem with the above working-out-hard-words advice is the books to which it is typically applied.

Beginning and struggling readers are usually encouraged to read two kinds of books:

  1. Predictable, repetitive texts, typically provided by schools as “home readers”. As I’ve said before, predictable, repetitive texts encourage children to memorise and guess words, not sound them out, so IMHO they mostly belong in the recycling.
  2. Any book they fancy. Specifically, on p12 of the Ed Dept booklet, it says, “Encourage your child to select books, magazines, catalogues, or multimedia stories according to their interests” and then while reading aloud, “Run your finger across the page with each word to help your child identify and remember words and sounds” (which in my experience tends to slow the story down and annoy the child), and then “Encourage your child to take over some or all of the reading if they feel confident”.

Letting beginners and strugglers choose books for adults to read aloud to them is great, I’m all for it. Take them to a kids’ library or bookshop and let them go mad ape bonkers choosing books about dinosaurs, unicorns, underpants, wild rumpuses, quidditch, whatever they like. Read these books aloud to them, have fun together, and build their vocabulary, listening and narrative skills, and world knowledge.

Giving beginners and strugglers open slather choosing books to read themselves sets them up to fail. They can be expected to constantly trip over words with sound-spelling relationships they’ve never been taught, and syllable structures they don’t know how to manage.

Call me old-fashioned, but encouraging vulnerable children to do difficult things they’ve never been taught to do seems kind of mean.

Beginners and strugglers should be reading books that contain the sound-spelling relationships and syllable structures they have been taught, and few words (<5% of words) they can’t decode or haven’t been pre-taught as key, high-frequency words with an unfamiliar spelling or two.

Teaching a child that the letter “e” represents the sound /e/ as in “red” and then encouraging her or him to read books containing words like “are”, “come”, “her”, “great” and “cafe” is like handing over a pair of children’s scissors and encouraging him or her to cut paper, cloth, vegetables, pizza, wood, wire, fur and fingernails. Dumb, unkind and potentially dangerous.

Luckily there are heaps of decodable books available, I have two cupboards full of them at my new office in North Fitzroy. If you’re in Melbourne and want to look through them, let me know (she said, wondering if that might create a lot of unexpected work, but hey, enthusiastic people seeking information about decodable books can only be a good thing).

Shallow, token phonics

The second main problem I have with the Ed Dept booklet’s sounding-out advice is that it seems like token, generic, shallow phonics that often simply won’t work.

If you ask a child trying to read a word, “what letter(s) are at the start/middle/end of that word?” they will usually tell you a string of letter names. If the word is “elephant” they’ll say things like “ee”, “aitch” and “tee”. These don’t help you figure out the word, so this is just wasting time.

If you ask a beginning or struggling reader, “What’s the first sound? What’s the middle sound? What’s the last sound? Can you put those sounds together to make a word?” and the word is “cat”, great, these questions are helpful and they’ll probably get the word right. But if the word is “chant”, “craft”, “cabaret”, “combatant”, “concealment” or “conversationist”, the answer might justifiably still be “cat”.

Asking about plural letters rather than a single letter might help in one-syllable words if the child knows relevant digraphs and how to blend any adjacent consonants. If the word has more than one syllable, this still probably won’t work. The word “syllable” doesn’t appear anywhere in The Education State’s Literacy And Numeracy Tips To Help Your Child Every Day, which makes me think this booklet belongs more in the shredder than the Prep bags.

Even the question “What sounds do those letters make?” is baffling to many young children. Dogs make barking sounds, guitars make musical sounds and people make speech sounds. Letters are marks on the page. They don’t make any sounds. If you put your ear up really, really close to a page and listen as hard as you can, you still won’t hear anything.

Instead of “the sounds of letters”, children should be being taught about “the spellings of sounds”. This is not just being pedantic. Teaching from letters to sounds is working from the unknown (print) to the known (speech). Any teacher can tell you that’s the wrong direction. Teaching which starts from letters obscures the main underlying logic of our writing system, which is that speech sounds (phonemes) are represented by spellings (graphemes).

Once children understand this logic, have been taught about a few speech sounds and the letters that most commonly represent them, and can blend two or three sounds into words, they can be given books containing short words made up of these sounds and asked to “say the sounds and make the words”. There’s no need for irrelevant, confusing or verbose questions.

Today’s best explicit, systematic synthetic phonics programs go much further than say-three-sounds-and-blend, cat-sat-on-the-mat type phonics. They gradually add more sounds and their spellings, put these into different kinds of words, highlight homophones (e.g. “see” and “sea”), homographs (“he moped around” v/s “she rode a moped”) and shared spellings (e.g. “ch” in “much”, “school” and “chef”), teach about syllable types and syllabification, and build words from meaningful parts. They include work on vocabulary and word structure/morphology, and often some etymology, so are perhaps better described as word study programs.

“Just do it, and then explain to me what you did”

The last part of the Ed Dept booklet’s advice for parents on helping your child figure out difficult words is an inquiry-based mumbo jumbo classic: “Another good strategy is to ask your child how they worked out the word. This helps reinforce reading strategies they learn from you and from school”.

How this helps a child work out a difficult word remains unclear. What if they can’t? It’s like telling parents, “We don’t actually know how children learn to read difficult words, so just ask them to do it and then explain to you what they did”.

System upgrade needed

I should say loud and clear at this point that my concern is with the prevailing dominant system for teaching beginners and strugglers to read and spell, and not with teachers. Teachers are in my experience fantastic people who always do their best, but too many have not been taught how to help their weakest readers/spellers, because universities mostly fail to teach teachers relevant linguistics (phonology, orthography, morphology) and key reading science.

We don’t expect carpenters, dentists or pilots to reinvent their own tools or methodologies, and we shouldn’t expect teachers to make up early reading and spelling curricula on the fly, usually from a mix of things that are known to be effective and things that simply aren’t. If you haven’t read Pam Snow’s blog post on the appalling instructional bricolage of Balanced Literacy, do it now.

Every primary school should have an established teaching sequence for sound-spelling relationships, which would allow parents to get sensible answers to questions like “When will my child be taught about the ‘igh’ in ‘night’?”. If a Principal can promptly answer this question along the lines of “Grade 1 term 3”, and the school seems to offer everything else that matters most, my suggestion would be “enrol your child at once”.

The spelling patterns in home readers in the first couple of years of school should reflect this teaching sequence, so that nobody is set up to fail, and nothing is left to chance. This would save early years teachers a lot of planning and preparation work, and their middle and later years colleagues a lot of time and effort differentiating curriculum. At the moment teachers are often not sure which phoneme-grapheme correspondences their students have already been taught, which ones they need to cover, and which will be taught by later teachers.

Parents should be told about the difference between books to read to beginners and strugglers (anything G-rated they like), and books for beginners and strugglers to read themselves. The latter should be provided as home readers by the school, and literacy advice to parents should reflect the child’s current stage/learning intention e.g. how to help a child blend adjacent consonants, learn vowel digraphs or break words into syllables.

I hope one day education bureaucrats will be more interested in putting decodable books in Prep bags than glossy documents suggesting a dog’s breakfast of literacy strategies, some of which are downright unhelpful.

Featured image by Heather Aitken,

16 thoughts on “Shallow and deep phonics

  1. Jayne

    Great work as always Alison. Thanks.
    I’d like to say to the critics that it’s your blog so you can write your thoughts as you wish. I’m happy to read their researched, well worded professional pieces that take time to write but oops- maybe they don’t write one.

    1. alison Post author

      Thankyou, Jayne. Yes, I think we all need to keep open minds, and be polite, and sooner or later this debate will have to come to an end in the interests of struggling kids.

  2. jseamer30

    Well done! So many important points, but my favourite part (and the bit I’m going to use whenever I can) Eleventy Million Words. 🙂 Seriously though, that distinction between books to read to children and books read by children is so important. Thank you for another great post!

    1. alison Post author

      Thank YOU for the lovely feedback. Yes, i think eleventy million needs to go into the vernacular, I didn’t make it up but I think the person who did would like that.

  3. Diana Steedman

    I always enjoy your excellent posts Alison. Thank you and please keep them coming. Hard to understand why there is still debate over the explicit teaching of phonics in the early years. I also find your workbooks very useful .

    1. alison Post author

      Diana, thank you for the lovely feedback, and let’s hope the debate ends this year, so we can all get on with giving kids the teaching and intervention they need, when they need it.

  4. Denise DeWolfe

    An excellent response to those who need to keep bamboozling the teaching of reading! Thankyou Alison for continuously bring the discussion back to the research and what really matters for teaching reading.

  5. Kathleen Parer

    Great post as always. I’ve printed your free resource & plan to use it with my preppie this year. Our school has just announced that they need to work on spelling and have chosen smart as their whole of school approach. Do you have a view on this approach? As a parent, it is difficult to tell from their website what kind of approach it is.

    BTW thank you so much for your blog & website. You have been very helpful for us in our journey to identifying why our older son is such a poor writer and getting him help. We’re armed with more information for our youngest who is starting school this year. Luckily he is at a different school as well.


    1. alison Post author

      HI Kathi, sorry to take ages to reply, I’m pretty snowed under at present. Smart Spelling is pretty good for a stand-alone spelling program, but ideally reading and spelling are taught in a reciprocal and mutually reinforcing way, rather than spelling being treated as a kind of add-on. Thanks for the nice feedback and may your kids both have great teaching and intervention and soon both be reading for enjoyment. All the best, Alison

      1. Tess Mothersdale

        Hi Alison, What do you think about the focus of using letter names when teaching spelling (as well as sounds) as used in SMART SPELLING program? I find some of my kiddos get confused by the focus on both, or go off and revise their spelling words by memorising letter names which is not useful and gets them into trouble later on.
        Thanks for any advice here.

        1. alison Post author

          Hi Tess, I think Smart Spelling is intended as a mainstream classroom program and for some kids it includes a bit too much cognitive load, and since sounds are more useful in learning to read and write than letter names I think the letter names are something that can be postponed till the sounds are learnt well. For vowels, the letter names ARE actually also sounds that those letters represent, so they’ll have to be learnt sometime, though usually as secondary sounds. I really don’t understand the argument that the letter names contain the sounds, so they help children learn the sounds – why not just teach the sounds first??!! However most children tend to be taught letter names in preschool, before they get near me, and then I’m trying to retrofit sounds and often they are mixing them up and writing things like “slf” for self and “nd” for end. Sigh. Anyway for kids with low working memory, it’s essential to reduce cognitive load, and if that means we have to choose between doing sounds first or letter names first, my vote is for the sounds, they just give more reading and spelling bang for their buck.

  6. Byron Harrison

    Hi Alison, Thanks for taking the time to summarise the phonic process. I have been struggling all morning to present this information without writing an article that rivals the length of ‘War & Peace’. I’ll just supply a link with your article…problem solved!
    Our research relates to new understandings of why whole word processing is difficult for many beginner readers. When we read, our eyes jump along the print, pausing to pick up information. The volume of information absorbed during the pause is called the VAS (Visual Attention Span) level.
    Some beginner readers, particularly males, may only pay attention to 1 or 2 letters, usually the first and last letters, because their proximity to space attracts visual attention. These infants therefore process misguess m____t as meat, mist, must, magnet, midget (there are about 40 words that fit this visual pattern). The software that describes this process then forms the basis for predicting reading performance generally.
    Again, my thanks to Alison.
    Byron Harrison.


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