Category Archives: phonics activities

Alternative facts about phonics

I’ve just read a new e-book called Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning, edited by Margaret M Clark OBE, a UK Visiting and Emeritus Professor who the About The Editor section says “has undertaken research on a wide range of topics and has developed innovate (sic) courses”.

Its announcement elicited some e-eye-rolling from members of the Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network, and jovial suggestions that others buy, read and comment on it, but apparently I’m the only one with nothing more important to do (sigh).

Also on my reading list at the moment is The Influential Mind, about how to persuade people in the face of Confirmation Bias, our tendency to ignore or dismiss evidence that’s not consistent with what we already believe. Confirmation Bias is why presenting scientific data to the climate sceptic in your life never works. You can watch a video about it here.

Reading the Clark et al e-book thus also became an interesting exercise in thinking about my own thoughts. I’d set aside time to read the book in order to write what I hoped would be a thoughtful, informed response, but my brain kept coming up with other ideas. Did it keep switching off because of my own confirmation bias, or because of the standard of what I was reading?

The rush to e-self-publish

The self-published “Reading the Evidence” e-book was conceived when Clark met Australian education academics Misty Adoniou and Paul Gardner at a Glasgow conference in June 2017, after which they published three UK educational magazine articles, which you can read here.  These formed the basis for chapters in the October 2017 e-book.

The e-book’s other contributors are three education academics from the UK (Greg Brooks, Henrietta Dombey and Terry Wrigley) and one from Australia (Robyn Cox). Appendices include statements from UK and Australian literacy teacher associations querying the evidence for (respectively) UK early years synthetic phonics teaching and the Australian Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Check recommended in September by the Federal Education Minister’s panel of experts.

The opening sentence of the e-book’s acknowledgements is: “I suspect that when my six contributors, three in UK and three in Australia agreed to write for this book they were not fully aware as to the speed at which I work!” Perhaps an editor can improve the book’s grammar and punctuation before its launch at this month’s AARE conference. Page numbers would also be nice, but perhaps most e-books just have a % at the bottom of each page.

Strongly held beliefs

Early in Clark’s first chapter she includes a quote from a 2016 book co-written by “Father of Whole Language” Kenneth Goodman, who argues that phonics is irrelevant because people read for meaning not sound, and that English is too irregular to teach using phonics.

Of course people read for meaning, the question is how, and the answer is by deeply relating sounds and parts of spoken words to letters, and combining this decoding skill with their oral language skills (See this Thinking Reading blog post and/or Mark Seidenberg’s book and/or the work of Stansilas Dehaene for more). So I was surprised by Clark’s e-book Goodman et al quote:

“In this book we take on the formidable misconception: that reading involves the accurate sequential recognition of words and that accurate word recognition is necessary for comprehension (Goodman, Fries and Strauss, 2016:xx)”.

“No, accurate sequential recognition of words is precisely what skilled readers do,” insisted my brain. “Time to do the laundry”. But I soldiered on.

Clark says reading is much more than phonics. Great! Something we can all agree on. However, reflecting on her own researches (sic) about young fluent readers, Clark queries children’s need to read aloud before reading silently, and the need to teach spelling, though she writes, “The fact that spelling was being caught by these children does not of course mean that other children may not need to be taught to spell”. (p7%). “Interesting use of the double negative”, said my brain. “Time to put out the recycling”.

Clark also queries the evidence considered by the US government’s National Reading Panel and the UK government’s independent review of the teaching of early reading. Again quoting Goodman et al, she writes, “A disquieting picture is painted of the power wielded by large commercial organisations to influence government literacy policies, including in many developing countries, often falsely claiming a research basis for the policy” (p8%).

My recalcitrant brain wondered why she didn’t go for the trifecta, and suggest Australia’s government-sponsored National Inquiry into the teaching of reading was also dodgy, but that was possibly because it was Melbourne Cup Day.

Clark goes on to write, “There is not (sic) evidence for synthetic phonics as the required approach rather than analytic phonics” (p9%). “Maybe she’s still getting around to reading the UK and Australian reports,” helpfully suggested my brain. “The bathroom needs cleaning”. Anyway you get the idea of what Clark is on about, so now I’ll turn to the other contributors.

Policing, political imperative and profit

The chapter by Paul Gardner discusses Finnish educationalists Pasi Sahlberg’s theory that there is a GERM (Global Education Reform Movement) which spreads like a virus, with symptoms including, “schools get ill, teachers don’t feel well, and kids learn less”, and “standardisation and accountability” (p21%). He says Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) is being imposed across the globe via a systematic process of “policing, political imperative and profit”.

Wow. I thought I’d simply gotten fed up with seeing children who could barely read or spell, studied the best available evidence about how to help them, experienced success and encouraged others to do likewise. I hadn’t realised I was covertly working for SSP Big Brother.

While I generally disagree with the Centre for Independent Studies on just about everything, so have some sympathy with Gardner’s concerns about its involvement in literacy policy-making, I see its Five From Five project is a valuable and solidly-evidence-based initiative. Everyone (yes! even big business!) benefits when kids are taught to read and spell well.

Much, much more complexity is needed

Misty Adoniou’s chapter says our flirtation with the Phonics Screening Check is a symptom of panic about declining literacy standards, but that “It is not the basics we require in Australian education, it is complexity” (referencing her own article in The Conversation last August).

Under the heading “Why is (sic) synthetic phonics, and the Phonics Screening Check, failing to yield returns?”, Adoniou’s limited knowledge of synthetic phonics programs is on display. She says they can’t account for morphology, so would spell “jumped” as “jumt”. She says they “focus on phonically regular decodable words such as ‘dog’ and ‘cat’, on the premise that this will lead students to be efficient decoders of non-regular words, such as ‘would’ or ‘one'” (p28%).

She’d be most welcome to visit my office to learn how synthetic phonics programs deal with the complexities of English phonology, orthography and morphology, including words with unusual spellings, any time.

Adoniou writes that, “phonological processing is only one component of the literacy puzzle”,  suggesting that fast and first phonics and “high stakes phonics assessments (sic)” would make teachers neglect work on comprehension, fluency and vocabulary, because, “When we give all our educational policy attention to only one component skill, it is inevitable the other components will be sidelined” (28%). Just to be clear: nobody is suggesting doing any such thing. Also, as far as I can tell, most teachers can walk and chew gum.

Adoniou predicts a Phonics Screening Check wouldn’t work anyway because, “it fails to test some of the most common phoneme-grapheme correspondences in English, and indeed screens for a very limited number of the hundreds of phoneme-grapheme relationships”. Yup, that’s what screening is. If it were a diagnostic assessment, it would be called a diagnostic assessment.

She writes that the Phonics Screening Check “fails to provide useful information about the one skill it is designed to assess – phonological processing”. Any time she’d like to understand the difference between phonological processing, phonological awareness and orthographic knowledge, and how each one is assessed, I’d be happy to help.

Adoniou argues the Phonics Screening Check’s funding should be spent “giving teachers professional learning to support them to make informed diagnostic analyses and perform tailored interventions for struggling readers” (31%), though $22 million is not nearly enough, since these skills are needed by all early years teachers.

I wonder whether the experienced education academics who wrote this e-book ever lose any sleep over not having taught undergraduate teachers how to do informed diagnostic analyses of literacy skills, or how to intervene effectively with struggling readers. I wonder whether any of them are aware of the 2014 meta-analysis showing phonics is the only definitely effective intervention for struggling readers.

Adoniou worries that desperate parents of struggling readers turn to health professionals for help, giving non-teachers “huge influence” on education policy, and causing “the ‘medicalisation’ of general literacy instruction,” using “synthetic phonics programmes, or speech therapy designed for hearing impaired, or eye exercises and tinted lenses prescribed by behavioural optometrists”. Again, just for the record, eye exercises and tinted lenses are not recommended, and no speech pathologist would target literacy skills using a therapy approach designed for hearing impairment.

Adoniou writes “these medical interventions” are unsuitable for normally progressing children, and would be like giving all six-year-olds glasses: unnecessary, expensive and harmful. I hope the teachers successfully using synthetic phonics programs in mainstream early years classrooms can respond to this. Time to move on to the remaining e-book authors.

Fast and furious reform

Sydney academic Robyn Cox writes that we are no longer an outpost of the British Empire, then muses on her experience teaching in the UK, where she came to understand “the OFSTED culture and could understand the place of inspections in pursuit of the then Labor government’s mission to provide ‘…a good school for every child is our mission’ (Blair, 2001)” (sic, p34%).

She also states her main point on p34%: “Most particularly I want to argue that this Phonics Screening Checklist (sic) is just another one of many policy initiatives in which the Federal government is seeking to control what goes on in the schools in States by stealth.” “Ah, States Rights arguments, my favourite,” said my brain. “What’s for lunch?”

She quotes media releases about underwhelming NAPLAN results, which she says “prompted a media focus criticising the profession and the re-emergence of a public discussion of the ‘reading wars’. Resulting in the English teaching profession being maligned, judged and questioned.” (punctuation in original).

Recent Federal intervention has resulted in major changes to initial teacher education (ITE), including a literacy and numeracy test for prospective teachers, which Cox says is robustly trialled and is an effective test for its purpose, “Albeit, one which operates on a view of language which is counter to that underpinning the Australian Curriculum: English. Further to this, the clear line of sight between testing ITE students’ literacy ability and their own preparation for the teaching of literacy cannot be ignored”.

Does anyone know what she is talking about? I’m sorry, I have to move on.

There’s evidence and evidence

Margaret Clark’s Chapter 6 says that phonics should be included in early reading instruction, but “There is no evidence to support phonics in isolation as the one best method” (p44%). Well, of course, nobody disagrees with that.

Having described large quantities of research without saying much about its quality, she further concludes, “There is not sufficient research evidence for synthetic phonics as the required approach rather than analytic phonics”. She doesn’t say what might constitute “sufficient research evidence” for her to be persuaded, so I’ll leave that to you to ponder.

Her Chapter 7 is a critique of the 2006 UK inquiry into early literacy teaching (“the Rose Review”), beginning with the suggestion that it heralded the end of teacher autonomy, and introduced in synthetic phonics a “method not dissimilar to those used in Victorian classrooms”. “Ah, the Satanic Mills, my favourite,” said my brain. “Another coffee?”.

Clark argues that the Rose Review’s process and conclusions were both flawed, and ditto for the Clackmannanshire research. She prefers the conclusions of a 2006 report by Torgerson, Brooks and Hall, a narrow review of randomised controlled trials (thus excluding the Clackmannanshire controlled trial), which found no statistically significant difference between synthetic and analytic phonics.

Weighing the evidence

The e-book’s Chapter 8 is by one of the authors of this review, Greg Brooks, who firstly explains that, “I was convinced then, and still am, that theory suggests that synthetic phonics is more coherent than analytic phonics as a strategy for young learners working out unfamiliar printed words.” (p50%).

He writes that there’s plenty of evidence that systematic phonics instruction is better than unsystematic instruction or no phonics, but “still not enough (yet) to prove the superiority of one variety of phonics over another”.

Machin et al from the London School of Economics in 2016 analysed UK student attainment data and found the introduction of synthetic phonics had made an impact at  ages 5 and 7, but by age 11 other children had caught up. They wrote, “There are long-term effects only for those children with a higher initial propensity to struggle with reading.” The kind of kids who most concern readers of this blog, in fact.

Brooks points out that no other type of phonics was studied to allow comparison of methods in this research, and that data analysed were from 2005-2010, before the Phonics Screening Check was introduced, so “if anything the findings might suggest that things were improving without it” (p51%).

He says the classic 1967 research by Jeanne Chall didn’t recommend one phonics method over another, but that in her 1989 revised edition, “Chall had concluded that synthetic phonics is superior to analytic. But we need to acknowledge that this still lacks experimental confirmation” (p51%).

Then, out of the blue, he calls the Year 1 Phonics test an “abomination” and asks “why has all moral sense of the fitness of things educational deserted those who advocate it?” (p52%). But explains this no further. My brain demanded another coffee.

The development and consequences of the Phonics Screening Check

Margaret Clark again writes the next chapter, first describing the UK Phonics Screening Check: an individual, mandatory test that asks children in the middle of their second year of schooling to read 20 real words and 20 made-up words to their teacher, with an originally public pass mark of 32, leading to a spike in children getting exactly 32 items correct.

Initial concerns Clark raises are:

  • “The pass/fail decision resulting in many children aged between five and six years of age and their parents being told they have failed”;
  • the inclusion of 20 pseudo words (this is SOP in psychological assessment, as it allows assessment of word attack skills), and possible effect of “coloured alien figures” beside each (presumably to make sure children knew they were pseudowords).
  • the fact that older children (of course) tend to pass the test more easily than younger children,
  • the “demand” that children who “failed” resit the test the following year,
  • “possible effects on some successful readers who might yet have failed this test”,
  • “the lack of any diagnostic aspects or suggestion that other methods might be appropriate for some children who have failed” (“whatever that means”, said my tired and cranky brain).

Clark is also concerned that phonics experts were involved in test development, but says she doesn’t know if any of them were concerned about the same things she was. “Perhaps not,” said my unruly brain.

In 2012 58% of UK children passed the Phonics Screening Check. Clark gives us to understand that lot more children have been successful since then, but her focus is figures showing younger children do worse than their older classmates.

Clark writes, “Why spend money on developing such a pass/fail test, and why test all Year 1 children (about 600,000) rather than extend the use of diagnostic tests such as Reading Recovery, providing as it does diagnostic information and proven intervention strategies with long term effects?”.

“OK”, my brain said, “Game over. Not only is Reading Recovery not a diagnostic test, but a recent large-scale study in NSW found no evidence it has more than a short-term positive impact.”

Hidden Politics

Terry Wrigley’s chapter heading indicates it’s about political interference in education. He writes that schools in the UK were already teaching phonics as part of a mix of methods in 1990, and that the words “systematic” and “synthetic” phonics sometimes get confused, with solid evidence backing the former but not the latter. He writes that, “Phonics teaching does not need to involve rigid reading schemes which deprofessionalise teachers and marginalise other aspects of reading including the children’s pleasure” (p63%)

I agree, of course, but Wrigley’s example suggests his preference is anything but systematic. He describes incidental phonics while reading a story about Bella blowing bubbles in the bath, which he contrasts with some rather dry sentences from a beginner’s decodable reader: “Kit is in Don’s cot. Pod tops Sid”.

Not all decodable books are like that. Today I gave a beginner one about hens escaping from their pen, with sentences like, “The hens got in the van! ‘Get the net!’ said Mum”, till finally the last kid catches the last hen: “Meg got a hen. The hen got Meg.” (picture of confused-looking child with chook poo on her dress, always gets a laugh).

This child would be simply unable to read Wrigley’s preferred book, because it has digraphs, consonant blends, vowel variations and two-syllable words. Asking him to read it would be setting him up to fail. He read about 95% of the words in my book independently, and enjoyed this success. As we teach him more sounds and spellings and word structures, he will gradually be able to read harder books, till he can tackle the Bella in her bath book by himself. Till then, we’ll just read children’s literature to him.

Wrigley says that Year 2 reading scores on the UK’s equivalent of NAPLAN have only gone up a couple of percentage points (87% to 89% at L4) between the years 2008 (when synthetic phonics was first introduced) and 2015 (after which the test was made a lot harder). However, a couple of pages later he says that there has been a reduction in children failing the Year 2 tests, from 15% in 2011 to 10% in 2015. It all happened after synthetic phonics teaching was mandated, but he says only 3% of it occurred after the Phonics Screening Check was introduced. I’d still be pretty happy with that sort of reduction in national failure rates.

UK Phonics Screening Check scores have gone up from 58% in 2012 to 81% in 2017, which Wrigley attributes to teaching to the test, and says hasn’t helped reading for meaning. He also wants the test discontinued because it doesn’t diagnose individual children’s areas of difficulty, but that’s not the purpose of a screener, it merely identifies kids needing further attention.

Like others in this e-book, Wrigley thinks the Clackmannanshire study of very successful synthetic phonics was overrated, and the West Dunbartonshire study, which used both analytic and synthetic phonics plus a lot of other strategies, was possibly more successful. However, he thinks that the author of the UK’s national inquiry favoured synthetic phonics, ignored evidence that didn’t support it, and set about “finding substitute evidence” that supported his view (p68%). Schools started being forced to use synthetic phonics by school inspectors, and Phonics Check data was used in making decisions about school closure and privatisation. He likewise queries the process and outcome of the US National Reading Panel.

His conclusion is almost as long as the rest of his chapter, and says that UK kids’ reading is not improving, its Education Minister is abusing his power, the privatised school inspections agency is coercive, synthetic phonics fits the UK’s nostalgic conservative mindset and the US’s Christian Right’s “need to uphold a divinely rule-bound social order”, and that all this is alienating and stultifying for children.

Teachers are given commercialised training and required to deliver a packaged curriculum, instead of adopting developmental approach where (here he quotes Jonathan Glazard 2017 p178) “blending and segmenting at the level of the whole word is a logic (sic) place to start developing this skill. Children can be asked to blend and segment compound words (tooth brush/tooth/brush)” and then syllables, onset and rime and finally phonemes. This runs so completely counter to everything I’ve read about what’s effective that I will have to save commenting on it for another blog post. He’d rather let teachers choose their own assessment tools “as appropriate to the individual child”.

Neglected lessons from successful classrooms

Henrietta Dombey says that the introduction of synthetic phonics in the UK has led to headteachers urging early years staff to “stop spending time on books and concentrate instead on reading” (??), money being spent on synthetic phonics materials and a focus on phoneme-grapheme correspondences.

She says an exclusive focus on synthetic phonics is not based on good evidence. Correct. Young children learning to read need to work on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency, and of course keep building their oral language skills. Nobody disputes this. But that doesn’t mean the instructional chaos of “balanced literacy“.

However “balanced literacy” is what Dombey advocates. She writes that “Teachers in the most effective schools constantly adapt to the children in their classrooms, rather than faithfully follow a plan” (p75%).

She also writes that “It has been known for well over a hundred years that fluent readers do not process texts one word at a time, much less one letter at a time (Cattell, 1886)”(p76%). My brain wonders what she thinks reading scientists have been doing since then. Then she also quotes Ken Goodman and I’m sorry, that’s me, over and out.

I can’t tell you for sure whether I didn’t learn much from this book because it doesn’t say much that is interesting or useful, or because of my own confirmation bias.

What’s the purpose of this e-book?

Clark’s stated rationale for the e-book is “to enable readers to make their own judgement as to whether the claims being made for synthetic phonics as the method of teaching reading are justified and indeed whether it is true that academics are, as (UK Education Minister) Nick Gibb claims, against phonics” (italics in original, 13%).

Australia’s education ministers are meeting in Hobart on December 8, and the proposed Year 1 Phonics Check will be on the agenda. I discovered this from the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association facebook page which adds, “Now is the time to lend your teacherly voice to this important moment in time,” and encourages teachers to buy Clark’s e-book.

What exactly teachers are supposed to do after reading it is not made explicit by ALEA, but Clark says that the (ALP) WA Education Minister has been persuaded to tell the (Liberal) Federal Minister she won’t be implementing the Phonics Check in WA, and suggests that other state ministers might also be so persuaded.

If you’d like to apply a little countervailing pressure, see this petition.

Write this word backwards

Looking for a fresh early-level spelling activity? Inspired by the old board game “Backwords”, lately we’ve been having competitions to write words backwards.

For example, I say “write nip backwards” and learners have to write “pin”. This requires and builds awareness of the sounds in words (phonemic awareness) which is crucial for spelling.

Sometimes we use paper and pencil, and sometimes mini whiteboards, which are often somehow more exciting (novelty, I guess). For the hardline “I’m not picking up a pencil” brigade I also have an embarrassment of colourful and novelty pens and pencils, and coloured paper.

If working on four sound words, words like “spin” (nips) and “nuts” (stun) can be reversed.

If working in a group, children can take turns being the quiz master. When working with just one child, I ask the child’s parent to play too, and not-very-subtly encourage the parent to make a few mistakes, so that we end up with a grinning winner.

If keeping both letters and sounds exactly the same, this activity is limited to targeting two-letter vowel spellings in “oo” and “ee” words like “pool” and “keep”. A more difficult game would involve saying the word backwards, sound by sound, blending into a word, then writing the word, adjusting spelling choices as necessary e.g. club = /k/, /l/, /u/, /b/ becomes /b/, /u/,/l/,/k/ = bulk.

You can throw in a few palindromes for a laugh, like mum, dad, nan, pop, stats, noon, toot, peep and deed. Yup, same in both directions, pretty funny. There are even a few two-syllable ones like civic, level and madam.

Word choice is very important for this activity, because at least initially, you need words that are reversible in both their sounds and their spelling sequence. Here are some you might like to try:


4-5 sound

oo vowel

ee vowel










































meet-teem (with life)



If working with beginners, I hope you can have some fun with this activity, and that it helps build your learners’ phonemic awareness and spelling skills.

Pip and Tim decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy

Before I buy a book, I like to pick it up and look through it properly myself.

I also like to hear about it from independent reviewers, not rely on information from those  selling it. They’re hardly going to tell me if there’s something wrong with it.

Unfortunately, a lot of excellent books and other resources to help kids learn to read and spell aren’t readily available in mainstream shops.

They’re only available online, or from specialist shops that aren’t always easy to visit. So they’re hard to leaf through, and it’s also difficult to find independent reviews of them.

I’m thus using this blog to help get the message out about good resources I use and recommend from publishers and specialist stores without huge marketing budgets.

I hope this helps more learners get access to them, plus helps those selling them compete with huge companies peddling nasty look-at-the-picture-and-guess books and other dross.

Here’s a video I’ve made about the Pip and Tim decodable books from Little Learners Love Literacy, which I think are perfect for Aussie 4-6 year olds. I use them with some 7-year-old strugglers too. They’re cute, funny and designed to help kids learn to sound out words quickly and well. They’re also available very affordably as iPad apps.

No, I don’t sell these books or get paid any commission on them. I just like them a lot, and hope that (if you have 4-7 year-old literacy learners in your life) you do too.

Balanced Literacy: phonics lipstick is not enough

The ACARA media release on the latest NAPLAN data says, “compared with 2016, there is no improvement in average results across the country that is significant”.

Sigh. So many teachers working so hard to improve results, and still 10% of Australian kids are not meeting basic minimum standards. Add to that the many strugglers who didn’t even sit the NAPLAN tests. Sigh.

Teacher-blogger Greg Ashman writes, “The blame for this situation lies squarely with a widespread adherence to bad ideas“. Whole Language – the idea that literacy is “caught not taught” – was a massively bad idea, inculcated into almost our entire teaching workforce at university, but now thoroughly discredited.

What-works-in-education expert John Hattie even puts Whole Language on his pedagogical “disasters” list, see slide 11 here, whereas Phonics Instruction is on slide 21’s “winners” list.

However, the Whole Language pig still has not been put out to pasture where it belongs. Our literacy education brains trust simply applied a bit of phonics lipstick, changed its name to Balanced Literacy, and carried on much as before. Continue reading

New Spelfabet workbooks and other resources, 30% off till June 30

I’ve finally put all my Version 2 workbooks, games and two moveable alphabets into my shop, and made videos about all of them so you can see what they’re like before deciding whether they would be useful to you.

Everything is now available at 30% discount till 30 June 2017. Just enter this coupon code when you get to the shop checkout:


The main differences between the new and previous versions are:

Workbook overhaul

There are now nine workbooks, since I’ve combined the old workbooks 2 and 3 into a single workbook 2, and added a workbook 3 which provides a gentle introduction to vowel spellings and syllable types before diving into their full complexity in Workbooks 4 and 5. I’ve added more words with more than one syllable to Workbooks 4 and 5, and Workbook 6 covers additional consonant spellings much more extensively than the old version, and takes out the overlaps section, which is more about reading than spelling.

Workbook 7 covers homophones and prefixes, Workbook 8 covers suffixes including stuff like changing y to i and Latin suffixes, and workbook 9 deals with additional Latin and Greek word parts. So there is much more about long words and morphology in this version. There are video tours of all the new workbooks here. You can download the first few pages of each one to check out the table of contents and instructions, and try out some pages with your learner(s) here. Continue reading

Questions about the ALEA PETAA infomercial on the Year 1 Phonics test

The Australian Literacy Educators Association (ALEA) and the Primary English Teaching Association Australia (PETAA) have just released an “infomercial” about the proposed Year 1 Phonics test. They oppose it, but watching their infomercial left me with more questions than answers.

What’s the point of the Year 1 Phonics test?

Given the way NAPLAN data have been used to encourage schools to compete not collaborate, and teachers’ often crazy workloads, I completely understand that many teachers are wary of yet another mandatory test.

However, the point of the Year 1 Phonics test is to help teachers better identify which children are struggling to read words, in order to provide early, well-targeted intervention. NAPLAN only starts in Year 3, so can’t do this.

Nonsense words are included on the phonics test because they clearly show which children can crack words open by matching sounds to letters/spellings and then blending, and which can’t. Not having ever seen the words before, kids can only tackle them by sounding out.

Early years teachers can try such a test for themselves by downloading the 2016 UK version, available free online. Many Aussie teachers already are, apparently.

This test is quick, objective, and based on a model of reading (the Simple View) which stands up to scientific scrutiny, unlike the widely-used but slow and subjective Running Record, which is based on a model of reading so far from reality that nobody has ever come forward to admit they made it up (Multicueing or the Three-Cueing model).

What does the ALEA PETAA infomercial say about the Year 1 Phonics test?

The video opens with a nice bit of Star Wars style music, and then the President of ALEA says (quotes from the video are in red), “The standardised year 1 phonics test will result in precious teaching time being spent on teaching phonics in a stand-alone model and with nonsense words.”

My questions are:

  1. What is a stand-alone model of phonics, and who advocates it? Nobody I know proposes that teachers only teach phonemic awareness and phonics in the early years, and not teach vocabulary, comprehension and fluency (whether fluency strategies focus on orthographic mapping or not). All are important for reading success. Find me a single expert who says otherwise, and I’ll eat my whiteboard eraser.
  2. How would the phonics test make teachers teach nonsense words? I use them for assessment, as do Psychologists (but they call them the terrifically sciency-sounding “pseudowords”), but only a few phonics programs use them in teaching, and only in a small number of activities. If teachers don’t want to use those activities, they don’t have to.
  3. Does ALEA/PETAA consider nonsense words unsuitable for children? Does this mean they want to stop children reading The Lorax, Jabberwocky, Harry Potter and The Hobbit? Would they like to ban reading and writing about Pokemon and Star Wars?

Next in the video is the statement “Reading is a complex process of making meaning with text. As readers engage with text, they use the cueing system”.

“The cueing system” seems to refer to the approach promoted by Marie Clay, who wrote in 1998 that beginning readers should be encouraged to use “their knowledge of how the world works; the possible meanings of the text; the sentence structure; the importance of the order of ideas; the size of words or letters; special features of sound, shape, and layout; an special knowledge from past literary experiences before they resort to left to right sounding out of chunks or letter clusters, or in the last resort, single letters”.

Any reading scientist can tell you, this is about the worst advice you can give anyone teaching beginners, especially children with weak phonemic awareness. This wonderful cartoon captures what I think of it perfectly:

My questions are:

3. Why is ALEA/PETAA still talking about reading as though it is a “psycholinguistic guessing game”, long after this 1980s idea from father of Whole Language Kenneth Goodman has been comprehensively debunked by reading scientists? We now know reading is simply not a psycholinguistic guessing game. For starters, children do not, and cannot, read words using context cues. The brain’s context processor has almost no role in word identification. Context comes into play in reading comprehension after a word is identified.

4. Would the ALEA/PETAA leadership be prepared to read what scientists now know about reading? The best bits of the huge volume of research available are distilled in books like:

The next statement on the ALEA/PETAA video is: “We teachers employ a wide range of teaching strategies, based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and write, and on the individual needs of learners.”

My questions here are:

5. Are the “wide range of teaching strategies” all based on good evidence? The more I think about the term “Balanced Literacy”, the more I think it means “We like to mix strategies that are backed by sound evidence, and strategies that are not”.

6. Does “individual needs of learners” mean the same thing as “learning styles?” There is no evidence that learning styles actually exist.

The ALEA/PETAA video goes on, “There is a need for explicit instruction in letter-sound correspondence and word analysis skills but this should always take place in the context of a meaningful literacy event and in contexts that are meaningful for the child.”

I’d be keen to know:

7. What exactly is “a meaningful literacy event”? I’ve googled it and searched glossaries and indexes, and am none the wiser. The ALEA/PETAA Presidents’ 2016 statement on phonics also talks about “a genuine literacy event”, but again this is not operationally defined. I think it  means pointing out letter-sound correspondences during an activity that’s really about something else, e.g. wombats, pirates, or (as in the video) blocks.

There is actually a name for this type of phonics teaching, “Embedded Phonics”. Sadly the scientific research shows it’s not very effective. See, for example, this 2006 large-scale controlled study, which compared children explicitly taught about spelling using phonics and children taught about phonics in the context of literature, and found “At the end of 5th grade, spelling-context children had significantly higher comprehension than did literature-context children.”

No, that wasn’t a typo. The children taught explicit phonics went on to be better at comprehension, AKA “making meaning”, which is (kind of hilariously) what ALEA/PETAA says is the most important thing about reading.

Next in the video is the statement: “Conversations about texts support children’s reading skills. Reading a wide variety of texts also supports children’s ability to write effectively.”

Well yes, if you can get words on and off the page. So far this week I’ve worked with 36 children and one adult whose schools haven’t taught them to do this very well.

The video continues: “Phonics, the relationship between letters and sounds, and phonemic awareness, the awareness of sounds that make up spoken words, together with the ability to segment and blend sounds to form words, is an important part of reading and writing. However, phonics and phonemic awareness is only one tool that children use to make meaning from a diversity of texts.”

Nobody disagrees with the first sentence, though reading researchers would be more forceful, for instance Snowling, Hulme, Snow and Juell wrote: “Explicit teaching of alphabetic decoding skills is helpful for all children, harmful for none, and crucial for some”. “Crucial”, not just “important”. If it does not occur, some kids will always struggle with decoding and thus also comprehension, vocabulary and fluency.

Regarding the second sentence, I’d like to know:

8. Which children are you talking about? Novice readers need to use most of their cognitive horsepower just to get words off the page, but expert readers can instantly recognise thousands of words, so have plenty of attentional resources to focus on things like genre, inference, author perspective, linguistic diversity and narrative structure. If we conflated novice and expert performance in sport like we do in education (e.g. the Australian Curriculum expects five-year-olds to study genre, inference etc), would we then all stand around scratching our heads about our declining performance in international competition, and saying the only problem was not enough funding? (though of course I give a Gonski).

More video: “Effective readers use knowledge of text structure and knowledge of grammar and at the same time they activate their knowledge of the topic”.

Well, yes, but we don’t observe effective basketballers and draw the conclusion that children who can barely throw and catch should be encouraged to dribble the ball between their legs and slam dunk. We teach them all to throw and catch first.

“Skilling and drilling young children in synthetic phonics or with nonsense words is meaningless to them and demotivating.”

My questions are:

9. If I were to observe a teacher “skilling and drilling young children in synthetic phonics”, what would I see? Would the children all look sad? Would they march up and down? Would the teacher be shouting? It’s possible to watch children doing explicit, systematic phonics activities on the internet (in videos like the ones here, here, here and here) but I can’t spot anything that stands out as evidence of skilling and drilling. They look a lot like normal classrooms, and the children look reasonably happy and interested. Perhaps someone from ALEA/PETAA can provide a helpful list of what it is I’m missing.

10. What measures of meaningfulness and motivation were used, and in what peer-reviewed journal can I read the research showing synthetic phonics is meaningless and demotivating to children?

The video goes on: “Finally, teachers use their expertise to respond to the needs of all the students in their classroom. and they employ a wide range of literacy-teaching strategies based on a deep knowledge of how children learn to read and the needs of their learners.”

I think I just want to repeat questions 5 and 6 here.

The video ends with a typed onscreen blurb reiterating support for embedded phonics, saying phonics assessment should be built into ordinary teaching (though most teachers aren’t taught about phonics at university, and don’t have or know about the relevant tests) and saying “the proposed Year 1 Phonics test doesn’t reflect current evidence-based research” (begging the question “what is non-evidence-based research?” I know, I shouldn’t be flippant).

I fully understand indignation about politicians imposing stuff on teachers, but the public pays for our education system, and in the context of a real and measurable decline in children’s literacy skills, some accountability is necessary.

I remain hopeful that most early years teachers will smile politely at this infomercial, inform themselves about the teaching approaches most strongly supported by scientific evidence, and boost their students’ and their own success by implementing these in classrooms.

Ruth Miskin’s top tips for parents

OMG it’s the end of the term 3 holidays and I had planned to write a blog for parents of children starting school in 2017, as a kind of antidote to any well-meaning but incorrect advice to encourage children to guess written words from pictures, first letters and context rather than sounding them out.

The internet to the rescue! I found some nice, short videos by the UK’s Ruth Miskin called “top tips for parents” about the following topics:

  1. Saying sounds correctly
  2. Linking sounds to letters
  3. Two letters, one sound
  4. Practise, practise, practise
  5. Putting sounds together to make simple words
  6. Tricky words
  7. Reading books
  8. Using pictures
  9. Writing letters
  10. Read to your child as much as you can

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