Thursday, September 13, 2012

Phonically challenged!

On a phonics training I ran on Tuesday for graduate teachers on the GTP course, I had a most interesting conversation with one of the trainees. The trainee has been asked to teach some phonics lessons in a Buckinghamshire primary school and showed me a list of spellings that were to be sent home each week.
I should say from the outset that the pupils were working in the Initial/Basic Code. The first list appeared to focus on the spelling ss at the ends of short words. The words included ‘grass’, ‘brass’, and so on. However, one word in particular stood out. The word was ‘ass’, meaning of course ‘donkey’.  Now, anyone speaking English with a ‘northern’ accent would not bat an eye at the list. However, in accents of the children in the area of the country in which the school is situated, the spelling a in all of the words in the spelling list, with the exception of the word ‘ass’, represented the sound ‘ar’, as in ‘father’.
The spelling a in ‘ass’ represents the sound ‘a’, as in ‘mat’. What this leaves the graduate teacher with is having to explain the fact that the spelling a is ‘a’ in the word ‘ass’ but ‘ar’ in all the other words. This, when the focus of the exercise was really on the spelling ss at the ends of short words!
Not that the focus was made explicit to the graduate teacher. The lists are handed out and it is assumed that the graduate teacher will know how they are to be mediated. Neither are the parents of the children told how the children are to learn the spellings, nor what the focus of the exercise is.
You may think that this list an anomaly? Sadly, not! The next list introduced the same kind of confusion. This time between sounds represented by the spelling oo. In this list, all words represented the sound ‘oo’, as in ‘book’ (‘southern’ pronunciation), again with one exception: the word ‘cool’, in which the oo spelling represents the sound ‘oo’ as in ‘moon’.
You might think that these are after all rather trivial examples. I wouldn’t agree. It is this kind of sloppy or just plain ignorant mediation of phonics teaching that causes such confusion in the minds of young children who need systematic, explicit and, above all, clear instruction.
The teachers at the school who produced these lists have, by the way, been ‘trained’ in phonics, using a well-known phonics programme. Unfortunately, the training didn’t extend to the teaching of how the alphabet code works in relation to the sounds of the language, nor how to teach the code.


  1. I do not find this a problem with the children I teach. Regional variations are just part of our anomalous language. I tell them so.

  2. I don't think you've quite got the point I'm making, Robyn.
    I'm more than aware that there are regional variations and that children know perfectly well what is meant when someone says, for example 'bath', where the spelling a represents the sounds 'a', in an area where the children say the sound 'barth'.
    That was not what I was pointing out in the case mentioned in the blog posting. The list sent home with the children was nothing to do with regional variation. It was an example of a teacher not having thought about (I'm being charitable) the words in the list, from the perspective of the sounds-spelling combinations they represented. Which is, after all, what phonics teaching should be about!

  3. I find this to be a symptom of teachers being discouraged from thinking for themselves. I have no doubt that the lists were imposed from elsewhere as being part of the program, and formulated by someone remote from the class they were intended for. I don't take it to be a sign of ignorance by the teacher or parent. We need to get back to the situation in which teachers create the programs for their classes/schools. In this situation they are best situated to explain their choices to pupils and parents, and best prepared to teach the materials.

  4. Dear Anon,
    Not only do I think you're right about the lists being imposed from elsewhere, I know you're right - the graduate trainee told me.
    However, I don't agree with the rest of your argument which suggests that if only teachers (and parents??) were to stop and think for themselves for a minute, they would know how to teach reading and spelling. What is implicit in this type of argument is that the teaching of literacy is intuitive. The evidence indicates otherwise.
    What we at Sounds-Write consistently argue is that because teachers are not taught how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language, the vast majority of them have no idea how to teach it. Neither do they know which skills are vital to achieving success.
    Given the above, encouraging teachers to create their own programmes would seem to be a most unlikely basis for making the nation's children literate.

  5. Well, I differ from you as I think that a person who can speak, read and write a language to the level of being able to obtain a degree is perfectly capable of reflecting on the way the written language represents the spoken language and putting that knowledge into practice. However, recent developments in the teaching of reading have built up a myth that you need to special expertise in phonics in order to teach children to read and write. This has de-skilled teachers to the point at which entrants to the profession stress unduly about this process and end up relying on commercial schemes to the point of blind adherence. If teachers are really incapable of working out for themselves how the written language relates to the spoken perhaps we should be asking searching questions about the quality of candidates and courses.

  6. Well, as a person who has, for many years, been engaged in the teaching of students on degree programmes in English, linguistics and literature, as well as having a hand in the training of nearly ten thousand teachers on Sounds-Write courses, I can assure you that merely obtaining a degree does not by any means guarantee that a person is capable of working out how the writing system works.
    Why would it? After all, it requires specialised knowledge. Until about seven or eight years ago it wasn't uncommon to have teachers attending our courses not to know how many sounds there are in the language!
    But, again, where I agree with you in part at least is that many teaching practitioners do attend courses that simply tell them what to teach but not why. Many of those courses don't take the time to exlain conceptually how the writing system works.
    Finally, rather than expecting teachers or trainee teachers to work out for themslves what is a complex code, we should be teaching it explicitly on training courses and showing them how it can be taught to beginning readers from simple to complex.

  7. I disagree that understanding how the writing system works necessarily needs specialist knowledge, unless you mean an ordinary secondary education that includes some discussion of word roots, grammar and spelling rules counts as 'specialist'. It isn't necessary to know how many sounds there are in the language in order to teach and learn reading and writing, only to be able to analyse which sounds are represented in words, and how. An emphasis on knowing extraneous stuff like this is what makes teachers think they need expert support to do the ordinary job of teaching reading, at which point they tend to pass responsibility over to some commercial scheme I stead of having faith in their own understanding.
    I don't expect we will reach agreement on this!

  8. You might disagree, Ruth, but what you think or believe flies in the face of a considerable body of research evidence assembled over the past fifty years on how best to teach children to read and spell.
    You say that ‘it isn't necessary to know how many sounds there are in the language in order to teach and learn reading and writing, only to be able to analyse which sounds are represented in words, and how’. It doesn’t seem logical to say that one needs ‘to be able to analyse which sounds are represented in words and how’ if one doesn’t know which sounds are represented by which spellings. As all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings, I would have thought it would be rather useful to pass on this knowledge.
    Although it is very interesting for children if their teachers know the roots of words, most teachers have absolutely no idea of the roots. These days, hardly any teachers have studied Latin, Greek or Old English and therefore simply don’t know the derivation of words in English.
    If we were to follow your preferred path – i.e. of leaving it to the teachers to whom you attribute a level of expertise for which I see little or no evidence – I fear we would soon be reproducing the results found by the OECD in 1997, which revealed that between 47% and 52% of adults in English-speaking countries were either totally illiterate or only partially literate.
    However, where I suspect we might agree is in demanding that the phonics programmes out there are subjected to careful analysis by properly trained researchers and that evidence is produced to support or deny the claims they make. That evidence should then be made public. Bring it on, I say!

  9. But we do know which sounds are represented by which spellings if we can read, so that expertise is what needs to be passed on. It is not an expertise owned by an elite but by everyone who can read. They may need to reflect on it a bit. Which is better than blindly following a scheme, which, as you have pointed out, may in some cases be deficient, either in its relevance to the circumstances or in its consistency and organisation. I think a teacher who has decided to teach 'ss' endings would make a better job of selecting the words him/herself than following the list quoted, because as a teacher she would know the importance of introducing new learning methodically a step at a time. You don't have to be an expert in phonics to know this, just a good, confident teacher.
    Well, I suffered a couple of years of learning Latin without great success. I don't know if my instinct for Latin roots comes from that or from incidental learning. I suspect the latter. Good English teaching will point out these aspects of language. But again, you don't really have to know Latin, do you, but just recognise consistencies within the language and apply them.
    I agree with you re subjecting the current dependence on phonics teaching and schemes to scrutiny. I suspect we will find there is still a reading deficit in children leaving primary school, because the simple view of reading is too simple.

  10. Dear Ruth,
    You say, ‘we do know which sounds are represented by which spellings if we can read’. This is far from my experience. many people are able to read but have no idea how the writing system works.
    This is what most teaching practitioners coming on to our courses don’t know: 1) that spellings are symbols for sounds; 2) that sounds can be spelled with one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings; 3) that all sounds in English can be spelled in more than one way and that most can be spelled in multiple ways; 4) that very many spellings in English can represent more than one sound.
    Virtually none of the teachers attending our courses have any knowledge of the three key skills required to enable children to use their conceptual understanding and their factual knowledge (which spellings represent which sounds).
    Then, of course, there’s the order in which all of this is taught. And, you would be very surprised by how many teachers aren’t able to teach ‘methodically a step at a time’ because they don’t know what constitutes the simple and what might be more complex. A useful analogy might be that one wouldn’t teach more complex aspects of mathematics before teaching simple addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, etc., making sure that the conceptual understanding behind these procedures is understood, as well as teaching the skills to ensure fluency/automaticity.
    I agree that it isn’t necessary to know Latin and so on to be able to teach the English alphabet code. It only makes the teaching more interesting if a teacher has this knowledge to impart.
    You say that ‘good English teaching’ will point out these aspects. But what is ‘good English teaching’? As a teacher trainer of both primary and secondary teachers, I find that teachers who understand how the grammar of the language works, who understand what differences there are between dialect and accent, not to mention other formal aspects of language teaching are few and far between.
    Finally, I have no interest in establishing an esoteric discipline that is designed to exclude others. Our interest at Sounds-Write has always been to provide and share the very highest quality of training and expertise with other people involved in teaching and learning. This is why we provide training on our courses, training that will enable a teacher to go to any English-speaking country in the world and be able to teach young children how to read and spell with a stick in the dirt, if those are the only resources available.

  11. I must say I am gobsmacked, if you'll excuse the expression. How can any person get as far as teacher training without knowing that letters and groups of letters are symbols for sounds? I wonder how you have come to this conclusion John. It would be quite impossible to read without using that piece of knowledge either explicitly through 'sounding out' in the initial stages of reading, or implicitly by recognising, having learnt whole words, that collections of words follow consistent letter/sound patterns. Automaticity and the ability to tackle unfamiliar words would not occur without this awareness being in place.
    I can understand your mission to educate the educators if you believe this ignorance to be common place. In fact, I can see that a trainer would want to draw attention to these facts, that readers already know, so that readers can reflect on them and make careful decisions in their teaching. So perhaps our disagreement on the use of commercial schemes and training is simply based on degree of use and dependence.
    It is my view that if we take the 'problems' away from the teachers and offer them ready made solutions the teachers will become less effective because over-dependent and less engaged.
    To go back to the original posting the materials the student was using were clearly inadequate to the task in hand and she would have been better off devising her own.
    I think we will probably have to agree to differ, but the discussion has been interesting.

  12. ‘How can a person get as far as teacher training without knowing that letters and groups of letters are symbols for sounds?’ you ask. Very easily if they haven’t been taught this on their training course!
    Neither does being able to read necessarily ensure that readers explicitly understand what they are doing. Young children learn the sounds of their own language from the last trimester of pregnancy onwards. However, after forming whole words, their awareness of individual sounds almost always falls below the level of conscious attention and reflection. They have no need to pay conscious attention to individual sounds when they are paying attention to words and meaning.
    Certainly, children learn to speak and listen ‘naturally’ – i.e. through exposure and practice. This is long how some educationists have tried to explain what happens when children learn to read. However, as Steven Pinker of MIT says, ‘reading and writing are bolt-on extras’ and need to be taught systematically.
    You keep referring to readers but although most teachers can read - it may shock you to be told that not all can read everything that is put in front of them (!) - young children beginning school for the first time can’t. They need clear instruction or they become confused, which is what we have been arguing is the case in so many schools. How else would you explain the appalling number of children entering secondary schools without being able to read well enough to cope with the secondary curriculum?
    I think really my point about training is this: why would you expect children or adults for that matter to ‘discover’ their culture for themselves and to engage in a trial-and-error procedure to try and work out how something is structured. This would be like asking them to behave like an ape. Human progress takes place when one generation appropriates the knowledge generated and accumulated by a previous generation.
    And, to go back to the original posting, the teacher (a man, by the way) realised that the examples were confusing but didn't know how to go about explaining the confusion, hence the need for training.

  13. But however automatically and confidently a person can read, if you ask them what sound an individual letter of group of letters represents they will be able to tell you, John. perhaps you have been asking the wrong questions. They may be out of the habit of considering the individual sounds and need a moment to analyse but they will not say, "Represents sounds! What the heck do you mean?" or "Gosh, I've never thought of it like that before!"
    Of course children starting school are also starting on the journey to become readers; when I referred to readers I was referring to the adults teaching them. And the fact that the children cannot read and the adults can means that the adults are ideally placed to teach the children to read. They do not need to re-learn to read in order to do it. They may need to reflect on how they will teach the children to read, and take advice on questions they have, but they do not need to adopt a commercial approach lock stock and barrel. Especially if it inhibits the approach they would normally regard as useful for the children they know and work with (with particular accents for instance). Surely the clearest instruction (which I agree is the best) would come from adults who know and work with the children in question. The teacher does not need to 'discover the culture' for themselves. He/ she can already read. The teacher needs to pass the culture on in the best way possible. It is questionable what the best way is, for sure, and I guess that is what this discussion is about, but to say that a teacher would be returning to 'apehood' for the lack of training in the prevailing phonics method is a bit strong.

  14. Dear Ruth,
    I remind you that we have trained almost ten thousand teaching practitioners now and I would say that this does give us a fairly good basis for making the claims we make. They are based on evidence and I am telling you that there are many people who can read but can’t successfully segment sounds in words and identify the spellings for those sounds. If you are working in a school, here’s a list for you to try on your colleagues as a sample: bend, stop, twist, gone, brightly, December, although, distraught. You’re not allowed to help them. You can only give them the list and ask them to separate each sound in each word with a line. Don’t tell them what it’s for and make sure your sample is representative of the staff. If there are TAs at your school who teach literacy, you should include some of them.
    On the other issues you raise, I would contend that it does matter very much that instruction is clear. It also matters what the curriculum contains. Does it give systematic practice in the three skills of blending, segmenting and phoneme manipulation? Does it teach conceptual understanding, as well as the factual knowledge needed (i.e. which sound is represented by which spellings)?
    As for the remark about apes, I wasn’t suggesting that teachers or children be thought of as regressing to a simian state! I was saying that neither pupils nor adults are apes and therefore shouldn’t be treated as such by expecting them to work out things by trial and error. If I want my youngest daughter to decide what category of creature a whale belongs to, I would expect that she is first presented with all the salient characteristics of fish and mammals in order to formulate a general concept before then applying it.
    By the way, we have collected evidence on over 1500 pupils in KS1 to show how well our programme teaches children to read and spell. If you're interested, you can access the report here:

  15. The information that adults have which makes them able to read is awareness of letter/sound correspondences in words. This is the information they are well-qualified to transmit to pupils, teaching them the principles and skills for reading, not expecting them to find out for themselves but basing their teaching on what the children already know of the language.

    I can't imagine any teacher having problems segmenting the words to which you refer. I agree that some TAs might struggle a little because unused to such exercises, however the TAs who assist in early years literacy would know how the children are taught to segment.
    Of course the skills and jargon used in teaching reading have changed over the years. A few years ago we would be asking if staff understood what blends were, or onset and rime. An earlier query would be about the searchlights. These were all representative of different routes to reading, and at any point in the history of reading tuition you could find trainers worrying about the ignorance of people who simply weren't quite with the programme.
    Anyhow best wishes with your mission.

  16. Dear Ruth,
    Thanks for your comments and for your good wishes.
    Just one final thing: in regard to 'Searchlights' and other strategies which have been encouraged over the years, you'll find some very informative and lively (!) threads on these topics on the Reading Reform Foundation website at

  17. Thanks John, it's been interesting chatting things over with you. I am familiar with the RRF forum and do occasionally take a look. I find discussions of reading and the value of synthetic phonics a bit more lively when they rear their heads on the TES forums.
    All the best, Ruth.

  18. I would just like to point out that the people who learned to read and write without being taught through explicit synthetic phonics (or linguistic phonics) teaching are the people who are most likely to have 'deduced' the alphabetic code and blending and oral segmenting skills for themselves - and often don't even appreciate that they use their 'phonics' code knowledge and skills to read and spell as adults. Thus, many teachers take for granted their own phonics knowledge and skills and do not know what it is like to be 'little' or a 'struggling reader'. The fact that they have deduced the code themselves does not put them in the best position to be able to teach the alphabetic code and blending and segmenting skills to beginners and strugglers - I suggest that they are often the least able until they have opportunities for training which make clarify understanding of the alphabetic code and phonic skills.

    Like John, I have trained and given talks to many adults who are very able and literate teachers and teaching assistants, who have gained clarity from the information and resources we provide.

    Of course there will be varying degrees of 'quality' and 'content' in commercial phonics programmes and I agree with John that they need evaluating. It takes a huge amount of time and thought to design and provide a systematic phonics programme, and teachers should not have to devise such content for themselves.

    Furthermore, it should not be pot luck as to the quality and content of phonics programme that support teachers of children and young people - based on the knowledge and experience of teachers as individuals. I suggest that Ruth presumes far too much about teachers along the lines of suggesting that because they are literate themselves they are capable of devising their own phonics course of work. That is simply not my experience as a teacher-trainer and I agree with John's findings.

    Kind regards to Ruth and John.

    Debbie Hepplewhite

  19. I agree that it must be very time-consuming to create a phonics scheme. It's not something a teacher would have time to do. However, to return to the original posting, the danger with the adoption of any prescriptive scheme whether for reading, Maths or anything else, is that a teacher or school may use the scheme without showing discrimination.

    My point is that teachers know their children. On a simple level, they know what accents their children use. But if they use a CD of Jolly phonics songs to teach the /s/ sound they are saddled with a song that uses a long 'a' sound for 'grass' etc. I heard this yesterday being used in a classroom in which all the children (and the teacher) would normally use a short 'a', so I think we can be fairly sure that, as this one was found so effortlessly, there are all sorts of unintentional faults in published schemes which will cause problems to any teachers and schools using them without adapting them to their own circumstances.

    So teachers need to agree on some principles but then apply them with discrimination to their particular children. And this extends to the strategies they use to teach the children. Obviously for yourselves, Debbie and John, synthetic (or linguistic) phonics is the answer. There is not universal agreement on this, as you may have noticed. Synthetic Phonics programmes not only fail teachers and pupils by being over-prescriptive but also by deliberately ignoring' other routes to reading which may support children.

    But I guess that might start a whole other discussion (where angels fear to tread).


  20. "So teachers need to agree on some principles but then apply them with discrimination to their particular children."

    This is precisely the conclusion reached by Clackmannanshire and Strathclyde Uni who monitored their work for years and the reason why they decline to become involved in the politicised box-ticking soap opera which SP has become in England.

    On the point about 'teachers agreeing' since they cannot agree on a definition of reading, I fear there is little chance of their agreeing on how to teach it. The fact that one of the contributors on this thread uses the words 'decoding' and 'reading' interchangeably is sufficient evidence of the confusion which annually condemns thousands of children to illiteracy wholly unnecesaarily.

    Eddie Carron