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The Problem with Phonics

TT Education consultant, Julie Watson, asks how we can support children for whom a focus on synthetic phonics is not the key to reading.

It is with great interest that I observe teachers (myself included) as we prepare ourselves to judge the comparative ‘fairness’ of the KS1 and KS2 statutory tests every year. The realisation that as we sit the children down in front of the paper, we could – almost to 100% accuracy – predict those children who, on the spelling and reading aspects, will fare badly. Sadly, in many cases, it is a foregone conclusion. At this time of the year we should, therefore, be reflecting on our spelling and reading curriculum and pedagogy, and planning ahead to support our future ‘poor spellers/readers’ having to endure the hopelessness of tests they are underprepared to face for a number of reasons. 

So how do we prepare them? To unpick the process, we must look as far back as FS1/2 and the pattern that has long been established. The reality is, in a number of schools I visit, that since the introduction of the KS1 phonics test, the focus on ‘Letters and Sounds’-based approaches (synthetic phonics) is the only pedagogical approach teachers use to support spelling and reading. The companies and organisations that have based mainstream teacher/pupil materials on these often miss out one key factor: not all children learn in this way. This is a fact. From my perspective, I then tend to find a similar pattern in many schools: those children underperforming in Y1 are provided with ‘more of the same’ in order to be retested in Y2. Only when this test shows little improvement is the SENCo called upon to intervene (if the child is lucky) at some point in KS2.

It was the pithily titled ‘The Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics on Spelling and Reading Attainment’ in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, which informed the national requirement for all schools and early years settings in England to teach ‘phonemic awareness’ and ‘phonic knowledge’. To provide some background for those who are unaware, this was a study that based its findings on 300 pupils, focusing mainly on social deprivation and gender. This objectively limited study now informs the teaching of 8.6 million pupils (as at June 2016). We can but ask ourselves whether these figures make sense.

Another issue with the teaching of phonics is the accessibility of phonics to children with SEN. The British Dyslexia Association reports that 10% of the population has dyslexia with 4% ranked as severe. With dyslexia being simply the most common form of a number of language based learning difficulties, the statistic for pupils struggling with written language acquisition in real terms is closer to 1 in 5. In an average class of 30, around 5-6 pupils may be affected. Considering a typical cohort, I submit that most teachers would agree with this figure, and could quickly name those individuals affected, particularly as the gap between those underperforming and those succeeding widens significantly, which is often apparent by the end of Y2. So how can we begin to tackle this issue before the panic of September in Y6, when it appears a whole four years’ worth of teaching needs to be crammed into one?           

Early identification is key. As a SENCo with a strong Foundation Stage background, my main interest was always in understanding our Foundation Stage pupils, particularly those that teachers had concerns about on their entry to the school. As professionals informed me there was ‘no nationally agreed definition of dyslexia’ and that education psychologists were not going to test for it or even use the term officially with regards to pupils, I looked elsewhere for support. It appeared that online, teacher-led assessments for dyslexia required pupils to already have a basic level of literacy in order to complete it, or to be 7 years old which made the job all the more difficult. It was therefore down to class teacher observations and discussions that early dyslexic tendencies were noted. Some of these include:

  • Struggling to dress or put shoes on the right feet
  • Jumbled words/phrases
  • Inability to remember the name for known objects
  • Difficulty with rhyming words or remembering nursery rhymes
  • Enjoys being read to but shows no interest in letters or words

As systematic phonics is gradually introduced to these children, it is generally at the segmenting and blending stage that the problem can be detected. Pupils who have an inability to move on from ‘c-a-t’ to ‘cat’ and vice versa are your main cause for concern, as this skill features in dyslexic assessments. Some children require further support, which can take the form of marbles dropping in jars to represent the phonemes or 1:1 quick fire practice on a regular basis. But how long do we persist? What can we do when phonics just is not working?

‘Analytic phonics’ or ‘embedded phonics’ may not have shown to be as successful for a majority of pupils from backgrounds of social disadvantage in Clackmannanshire. However, to make a broad assumption, one could theorise that perhaps more time needs to be spent on reading regularly (at home), to learn through this manner. The study did show that it was more successful with pupils from a higher socio-economic background – is this significant? Perhaps the answer lies in flexibility. Resources from the ‘embedded phonics’ era of teaching reading are still easily available, and maybe should – if not lie parallel to synthetic phonics – at least sit alongside as another option in all schools. Through action research with special needs pupils, success in taking a child from a learned hatred of reading to being a confident reader is an amazing step, not just in terms of confidence and self-esteem, but for lifelong learning.

I find it heart-breaking to hear stories of adults being diagnosed as dyslexic at the age of 30, having struggled with reading, writing and/or spelling through their entire schooling. The underlying assumption of these individuals that they are (in their words) ‘stupid’ is suddenly removed and the realisation that had it been identified earlier, a whole different career path and indeed life chances could have opened up.

The questions for us, as teachers, to ask ourselves, are therefore: does the fault lie with the test writers when children do not achieve success in these aspects of the curriculum; when, by Y6, they are still unable to read or spell confidently? Or should we be looking to ourselves, the educators that have been in charge of their learning for 7 years? Can we intervene sooner, respond earlier, and be brave enough to take the plunge and prepare for the needs of those pupils who can, given the correct support early enough, learn in a different way? Can we unyoke ourselves from the rigidity of ‘synthetic phonics for all’ and expand our pedagogical horizons? In all honesty, it’s really not for me to answer these questions. It’s for you.


To find out a bit more about the TT Education approach to reading, check out our Raising Attainment in Reading course...