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High-Quality Phonics

”Phonics is best understood as a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabetic system works, and how to apply it in reading and spelling, rather than one of a range of optional ‘methods’ or ‘strategies’ for teaching children how to read” 
(DfE. 2021)

The English Alphabet Code:

The twenty-six letters of the English alphabet are used, both singly and in various combinations, as a code to represent the individual sounds (phonemes) in our speech. The English alphabet code is very complex. It became one of the most opaque spelling codes in the world due to the mixing of words using Norman-French, Danish, Latin and Greek spellings over time, into the original, transparent Anglo-Saxon spelling system.

”For example, ch is used to spell /ch/ in Anglo-Saxon words such as chair; is used to spell /k/ in Greek-derived words such as chorus; and spells /sh/ in French-derived words such as charade and Charlotte” 
(Louisa Moats. American Educator. 1998) 

The English alphabet code consists of the approximately 44 phonemes (number depends on accent) that we use when we are speaking English and the ways these sounds are represented in our writing, using spellings consisting of one to four letters consecutively or two vowel letters ‘split’ around a consonant spelling (for example, child, pie, fight, height, bite).

All of the 40+ English sounds correspond with multiple spellings (for example, common /ee/ spellings include tree, easy, she and chief) and some spellings represent more than one sound (for example, plastic, paper, squash, water – touch, sound, soup).

”The 40+ English phonemes are the basis for the code and never change. These 40+ sounds provide a pivot point around which the code can reverse…The 40+ sounds will always play fair even if our spelling system does not.” (Prof D. McGuinness)

A Brief Analysis of The English Alphabet Code.

An Introduction to the English Alphabet Code.

High-quality phonics programmes are rooted in the 40+ English sounds.

An English Alphabet Code Chart (phonemes within slash marks): a limited overview that includes examples of words with unusual spellings to show how they can be coded. This chart also illustrates the 4th characteristic of the English alphabet code, that one spelling can represent different phonemes.

/a/ mat, salmon, plait, meringue /g/ gate, eggghost, guest, plague
/ai/ ape, baby, rain, day, steak, eight /h/ hat, whole
/air/ hair, square, bear, mayor /j/ jet, giant, cage, bridge
/ar/ jar, fast, aunt, heart, palm /l/ schwa+l/ lip, bell, sample, pupil
/e/ peg, bread, said, friend, any, leopard /m/ man, hammer, comb, some  
/ee/ sweet, me, beach, pony, people, ski /n/ nut, dinner, knee, gnat, gone
/i/ biscuit, pretty, gym, busy, sieve/ng/ ring, sink, tongue
/igh/ kite, wild, light, fly, height /p/ pan, happy
/o/ log, want, cough, because /k-w/ queen, acquaint
/oa/ bone, soul, boat, no, snow, dough /r/ rat, cherry, write, rhyme
/oi/ coin, toy /s/ sun, sciencecity, castle, psyche
/oo/ book, should, put, wolf /sh/ ship, mission, station, chef, sugar
/oo/ moon, soup, do, shoe, through /t/ tap, letter, debtthyme, pterosaur
/or/ fork, ball, sauce, law, door, bought /ththin, phthalates
/ow/ down, house, bough /th/ that, soothe
/u/ plug, tough, money, flood, does /v/ vet, have, of
/ur/ turn, her, work, first, earth /w/ (/oo/) wet, wheel, penguin
/ue/ (/ee-oo/) unit, dueyou, few /k-s/g-z/ box, axe, exist
/b/ bat, rabbit, build, cube /y/ (/ee/) yes, onion
/k/ cat, key, quick, school, unique, yolk /z/ zip, fizz, is, cheese, xylophone
/ch/ chip, watch, question, tube /zh/ treasure, television, beige, azure
/d/ dog, ladder, rubbed, suede /uh/ (schwa*) theabout, picture, doctor
/f/ fish, coffee, photo, rough, giraffe Colours: examples of one spelling = different sounds.

*The dreaded schwa

The spellings in the chart above are placed according to a Received Pronunciation accent, but synthetic/linguistic phonics programmes recommend teaching to the accent of the children. For example, in a Lancashire accent, the <au> spelling in aunt and laugh will move from /ar/ to /a/. ”(I)f someone in Lancashire says /s/ /t/ /er/ /z/ instead of /s/ /t/ air/ /z/, we put the spelling in the /er/ categories.” (John Walker) The phoneme /x/, which represents the final sound in words such as ‘loch’ and ‘lough’ found in Scottish and Irish accents, can be added to a code chart.

”Phonics instruction isn’t elocution and it adapts to every accent if taught well. The number of sounds in English varies according to accent but relies on teacher knowledge to adapt instruction.” 
(Y1 teacher & SENCo)

The word ‘alphabet’ comes from the names of the first two letters in the Greek alphabet, alpha and beta. The Greeks created the first ‘sound’ alphabet when they added vowels to the Phoenician consonants-only alphabet. For the next 2,500 years, reading was taught by teaching the alphabet and then the syllables: ba be bi bo bu, da de di do du, fa fe fi fo fu(m!) …etc. It wasn’t until the 8th century that conventions in writing that we take for granted such as spaces between words and the use of lowercase letters appeared, set in place by the English scholar Alcuin.

In 1654 the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal discovered that it was possible to split syllables into smaller sound units – phonemes. This insight enabled the later development of reading programmes based on phoneme and grapheme correspondences (alphabet codes). The use of the word ‘synthetic’ to describe a phonics reading programme is not new; ‘Pollard’s Manual of Synthetic Reading and Spelling’ was published in the USA in 1889. Pollard’s programme used diacritic markings, unlike today’s high-quality phonics programmes. Nellie Dale, a teacher at Wimbledon (London) High School for Girls, created a programme in 1898 that taught a basic/simple code with linked decodable books, similar to today’s synthetic and linguistic phonics programmes.

Nellie Dale’s Book ‘On the Teaching of English Reading’

In the Days When Reading Instruction Was Not a Problem: Nellie Dale and the Dale Readers.

Synthetic Phonics: A Historical Perspective. Emeritus Professor Rhona S. Johnston.
A summary of UK-style systematic synthetic phonics research, including the failure to implement it in Scotland:

The 2006 Rose review recommended that the NLS ‘Searchlight’ multi-cue word-guessing strategies should be dropped and that all children in England should be taught to read using ”a vigorous programme of phonics work…securely embedded within a broad and rich language curriculum.” Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary (Labour party) at the time, agreed and said, ”I accept all your recommendations and will ensure that they are implemented.”

What Do England’s High-Quality Phonics Programmes Have In Common?

High-quality phonics programmes teach the majority of the 176 common (high frequency in print) spellings of the English alphabet code systematically and explicitly, in discrete lessons. Expertly teaching this percentage of the complete code should enable every mainstream primary pupil to ‘crack it’ for reading and spelling, leaving none behind. This should wipe out the considerable tail of underachievement which has persisted in England for decades. As Sir Jim Rose said in his review, ”It cannot be left to chance, or for children to ferret out, on their own, how the alphabetic code works.” (Rose review 2006.p19)

”Phonics is systematic when all the important grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught and introduced in a clearly defined sequence.”
(Ehri. 2001)

“Explicit instruction is instruction that does not leave anything to chance and does not make assumptions about skills and knowledge that children will acquire on their own.” 
(Joseph Torgesen 2004)

A ‘transparent’ version of the English alphabetic code, which is generally the most common spelling for each sound, is taught first. This device of initially and temporarily, only teaching the first level of complexity of the English alphabet code (with an unmodified orthography, unlike the 1960’s initial teaching alphabet: i.t.a)helps to level the playing field between those who are learning to read and spell in English and the majority of their counterparts on the European continent.

i.t.a: a great idea but a dismal failure.

Spelling and decoding are always taught together in high-quality phonics programmes, with an ”equal split between the two activities” (Johnston&Watson 2014), from the outset of instruction. ”Writing should be a part of the mix from the start: build a word, write it; read a word, write it. Writing words gives extra practice in linking sound to spelling and spelling to sound. It also helps to get knowledge into long term memory.” (John Walker. Twitter/X)

– All children are taught to decode and spell using phonemes (and graphemes) from the start, not syllable or rime sound units.

– Phonics is used as the prime decoding mechanism from the very beginning of instruction.

– No common exception or other high-frequency words are memorised as whole units.

– No phonological awareness training (without print) is given, either as a prerequisite or alongside the phonics programme.

– No spelling rules are taught.

– No syllable-type division rules are taught. Instead, children are shown how to read and spell polysyllabic words using the syllables they hear in natural speech.

– Lessons are cumulative, with each lesson building on the code taught in previous lessons.

Once children are secure and confident in reading and spelling words using a programme’s basic/initial code GPCs, the most common spellings of the advanced/extended alphabet code are carefully and systematically introduced.

At each step, children are provided with plenty of phonically decodable reading material to practise segmenting and blending the sound-spelling correspondences all through each word for themselves. Phonically decodable books and texts only contain words that can be sounded out based on what the pupil has already been taught. Because of this, no guessing or whole word memorising is necessary.

Phonics experts recommend at least half an hour of daily, discrete phonics teaching: ”Direct, focused phonics” teaching should take place ”every day in Reception and key stage 1” (Ofsted 2019). Children should then apply (practise) the phonics knowledge and skills they’ve been taught, in their reading and writing throughout the day.

”It is difficult to overstate the value of practice. For a new skill to become automatic or for new knowledge to become long-lasting, sustained practice, beyond the point of mastery, is necessary.”
(Willingham. D. italics in original)

The Practice Gap https://howtoteachreading.org.uk/the-practice-gap/
”We simply don’t get pupils to read enough, & worse, we usually ask the kids who need to read the most, to read the least.” (Monique Nowers)

Incidental phonics teaching is used to help pupils decode words containing a ‘not yet taught’ GPC’ which crop up during the school day.

A Journey to the Dark Side: From Phonics Phobic to Phonics Fanatic

UK-style Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) Programmes:

Synthetic, in this case, doesn’t mean artificial, it means ‘blend together’; beginning readers are taught to read words by segmenting and blending (synthesising) the grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) all through the written word to arrive at a pronunciation for the whole word.

The first GPCs taught are those (for example, s, a, t, i, p & n) that make plenty of two and three-letter words for early reading and spelling practice. Each new GPC is introduced as an individual grapheme on a flashcard.

Multi-sensory mnemonics are used initially, to help young children remember the individual sound-spelling correspondences of the code (for example, Read Write Inc. flashcards have the basic code spellings as embedded picture mnemonics).

Common exception words (high-frequency words containing a ‘not yet taught’ GPC) are drip-fed into lessons systematically and taught using phonics all-through-the-word, not memorised as whole shapes.

Letter names are introduced early on, usually through singing an alphabet song.

”People say that there are no silver bullets in education, but I think systematic synthetic phonics comes pretty close. A method of teaching reading that has scientific backing and is proven to be effective for all children – especially those who are disadvantaged because of socio-economic factors, have English as a second language, or struggle with dyslexic-type difficulties – is one worth fighting for.” 
(Anne Glennie)

”The most efficient and therefore most pleasurable method of teaching decoding is called ‘synthetic phonics.” (E.D. Hirsch. Why Knowledge Matters. Notes p251)

Linguistic Phonics Programmes:

Linguistic Phonics programmes have much in common with UK-style synthetic phonics programmes as they also teach the common GPCs of the alphabet code systematically and explicitly, going from simple to complex in discrete lessons. They also shun all whole language elements (whole word memorising, multi-cue word-guessing, invented spelling, predictable text reading schemes..) and work with phonemes from the beginning, not larger sound units such as syllables or rimes. There are some differences though:
Linguistic phonics programmes are designed to be free of any cognitive overloading* ”clutter or noise” (D. McGuinness ERI p3) and for this reason letter names aren’t introduced until the links from phoneme to grapheme for all the initial/basic code spellings have become completely automatic. In addition, there are no mnemonics, flashcards or special terms such as silent letters, short/long vowels, soft/hard sounds, open/closed syllables, regular/irregular words, sight/red/tricky/heart words, silent/magic/bossy letter <e>The GPCs are always introduced and taught in the context of real words, using a sound-to-print orientation.

*Cognitive load theory: Research that teachers really need to understand

Word building – the foundation stone of beginning literacy.

Linguistic phonics programmes are informed by the research and prototype of cognitive-developmental psychologist Professor Diane McGuinness. She analysed the probability structure of the English spelling code: ”A probability structure is the calculation of the number of spellings used the most to those used the least. This calculation must be based on frequency in print (how often these spellings appear in print)” (D. McGuinness). McGuinness used a corpus of over 3,000 of the most common words in print for her analysis of the English spelling code.

McGuinness’s analysis revealed that ”Of the 350-400 spellings [Gough & Hillinger 1980] only 176 are common, and these spellings account for around 90% of the words in print.” (D. McGuinness. Allographs1 p2). These are the spellings that need to be taught directly and systematically (in the context of real words) in every high-quality phonics programme. They provide a firm foundation, driving the implicit statistical learning necessary for acquiring the rest of the code: ”Explicit instruction is there to scaffold statistical/implicit learning.” (Prof Mark Seidenberg. Yale talk. 2023)

”Instruction is the visible tip of the learning iceberg; implicit statistical learning is the mass below.” 
(Prof Mark Seidenberg)

”(E)xplicit teaching feeds the process of implicit learning.” 
(Dr Steven Dykstra)

Explicitly and systematically teaching the 176 most common English spellings over the course of the first three years of primary, and how to read them in monosyllabic and polysyllabic words, ensures that virtually every child is enabled to swiftly and accurately decode around 90% of the words in print they might meet throughout the rest of their time in education and beyond. ”(T)hough the words that are used most often are only one syllable long”, at least 80% of words in the English language are polysyllabic (McGuinness. p291 WCCR).

Reading Longer Words: Insights Into Multisyllabic Word Reading:

Further reading on teaching decoding and spelling of polysyllabic words – see McGuinness. WCCR pp291/292

Diane McGuinness also set out the 4 characteristics of the English Alphabet Code, making its complex structure transparent. These levels of increasing complexity are used to guide the teaching progression through a linguistic phonics programme. 
(D. McGuinness. 2011 RRF conference).
1. A phoneme can be spelled using one letter: p-e-t / d-o-g / s-w-i-m / s-p-l-a-t
2. A phoneme can be spelled using 2 to 4 letters: h-i-ll / sh-i-p / l-ear-n / d-augh-t-er
3. A phoneme can be spelled in multiple ways: d-ay / t-r-ai-n / l-a-k-e / b-r-ea-k / s-t-r-aigh-t
4. A spelling can represent more than one phoneme: g-r-ea-t / c-l-ea-n / b-r-ea-d

2002. A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code by Professor Diane McGuinness.

One sheet to print: A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code aka ‘The Golden Ticket’ 
(Anne Glennie)

In linguistic phonics instruction, the GPCs are always introduced and taught in the context of familiar words; flashcards showing isolated spellings such as <ea> or <o> are not used, as the practice may cause confusion when those spellings are later encountered in the context of whole words: for example, does the isolated spelling <ea> represent /ee/ (bead), /e/ (head), or /ae/ (steak)? Does <o> represent /o/ (hot), /oe/ (no), /oo/ (to) or /u/ (son)? A second issue with introducing graphemes in isolation is one of relevance. For a young child, the isolated letter <t>, for example, lacks meaning. Better to begin with word building using familiar words, which gives the activity an immediately transparent purpose. Thirdly, anchoring the GPCs in real words, from the very start of instruction, activates the process of learning, implicitly, the contextually sensitive and statistical nature of the English spelling code.

Linguistic phonics teachers don’t use flashcards with isolated graphemes.

At the advanced code stage, several alternative spellings are taught together. For example, an advanced code lesson, focusing on phoneme /f/, would use common single-syllable and multi-syllable words with the spellings finish, sniffing, phone and laughter. Comparing the alternative spellings in the context of real words increases the brain’s ability to analyse the code’s statistical spelling patterns, and this aids memory – see Spelling for further explanation of the contextual and statistical nature of English spelling.

One sound, different spellings:

A hundred or so high-frequency words with unusual GPCs (common exception words. DfE) are introduced systematically during the appropriate lesson/s ensuring a phonics all-through-the-word approach. For example, <many> and <friend> would be taught in lessons with the focus sound /e/, alongside familiar words with the common spellings for /e/ such as <shed> and <bread>.
Pupils are explicitly taught the important, but often overlooked, 4th level of the code’s complexity, that a a spelling can represent more than one sound (for example, chip, school, chef).

One spelling, different sounds

Bomb, Comb, Tomb – why strugglers need to know how English works

Silent Letters?

Shh Silent letters at work – again!

Albrow, a university lecturer in linguistics, rejected ‘silent letters’. Giving the <kn> and <gn> spellings as examples, he described them as ”complex consonant symbols”. He added, ”(T)he concept of a silent letter is avoided in this description; since all letters are clearly silent, silence cannot, therefore, be a distinction. This has already been implied by the treatment of <ie>,<oa> etc. as single symbols.” 
(Albrow. The English writing system: notes towards a description. Vol 2. 1972)

Educational psychologist Dave Philpot described the concept of silent letters as ”nonsensical for a language that contains no silences, e.g. in the word know, the k is silent but the w isn’t. Logically, either kn and ow are both digraphs or else both k AND w are silent!”

Silent letters? http://www.spelfabet.com.au/2013/02/silent-letters/
”I don’t find “silent letters” a useful way to describe or explain such spellings. Pretty much every letter in a word is there for a reason.”

Long and Short Vowels?

”Children have no idea what the teacher means when she says vowels are ‘long’ and ‘short’. They think she is talking about physical size, a long A and a short A
(D. McGuinness. WCCR. p97)

Avoid the confusing language of ‘short’ and ‘long’ vowels.

”To them, long and short describe visual length – so the <ou> in double is long and the <a> in table is short, but they’re not and that’s confusing.”

Regular and Irregular Words?

”Anyway, my point is that the great divide between “regular” and “irregular” words is IMHO a false one, and sounding-out is still a useful strategy to apply to written words in general, including the ones that contain funny spellings.”

”However, the regular/irregular dichotomy is a false one…teaching an advanced code of correspondences removes any need to refer inaccurately to regular and irregular words.”
(Christopher Such. The Art & Science of Teaching Primary Reading. bold in original)

”The thing is that the idea that spellings of sounds in words are regular or not regular simply doesn’t have any logic to it. What does make sense is to talk about the gradations between common (i.e. frequently encountered) spellings and highly unusual spellings.”
(John Walker. https://theliteracyblog.com/2016/02/16/the-ill-conceived-idea-of-regular-and-irregular-spelling/)

Note, linguistic phonics (speech-to-print) programmes differ in a number of significant ways from phonics programs found under the Orton-Gillingham/Structured Literacy/Specialist Dyslexia (UK) umbrella:
A Speech-to-Print, Linguistic Phonics Approach: What Is It and How Does It Compare to Orton-Gillingham?” was originally published by Miriam Fein in The Educational Therapist, Volume 44, Number 2. Copyright 2023 by the Association of Educational Therapists. Posted with permission.

Explicit Phonemic Awareness:

Explicit phonemic awareness (explicit PA: able to consciously identify and manipulate individual phonemes) is the subject of much controversy and confusion. Children who enter preschool with low or no explicit PA and then fail to acquire sufficient PA skills ‘naturally’ when taught using a balanced approach for word reading, are deemed to have inherited a neurodevelopmental defect, the hallmark of dyslexia. Many literacy experts advocate phonemic awareness training (no print) for all children prior to any teaching of reading, to help overcome this brain ‘defect’ that appears to be present in so many.

”(T)he research conclusively proves there is no benefit to phoneme-only training programmes as opposed to instruction using a good synthetic phonics programme from the outset, one which teaches segmenting and blending using letter symbols and lots of writing practice. Phoneme analysis sufficient to be able to decode is acquired much more rapidly in the context of print than in isolation.” 
(D. McGuinness. Response to Hulme).

”Lots of studies show kids do better when phonemic awareness tasks are tied to print. Phonemes emerge in part from exposure to print.” 
(Prof. Mark Seidenberg. Twitter/X)

2020. Meta-analysis of the Impact of Reading Interventions on Students in the Primary Grades:
”Interventions that included instruction on phonological awareness were associated with significantly smaller effects, whereas interventions that addressed encoding or writing yielded significantly higher effect sizes.”

– ”Teaching children to manipulate phonemes using letters produced greater effects than teaching without letters.”
– ”It is important to note that when phonemic awareness is taught with letters, it qualifies as phonics instruction. When PA training involves teaching students to pronounce the sounds associated with letters and to blend the sounds to form words, it qualifies as synthetic phonics.”
(USA 2000. National Reading Panel. Chapter 2, Part 1: Phonemic Awareness Instruction

Researchers Johnston and Watson found that UK-style synthetic phonics develops explicit phonemic awareness very efficiently without prior PA (without letters) training: The phonemic segmentation of the synthetic phonics group improved far more in 16 weeks than the other two groups. At the start of their research in Clackmannanshire, the synthetic phonics group got 4.1% right, while the other two groups got 2.7% and 4.5%. After 16 weeks, the figures (in the same order) were 64.9%, 17.2% and 34.7%. (Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2004)

”Scores of developmental studies show that phonemic processing is one of the most “buffered” language skills humans possess, and is least susceptible to disruption and malfunction. Chaney showed that by age three, children are highly sensitive to the phoneme level of speech. Nearly all of the 87 three-year-olds in her study could listen to isolated phonemes (/b/ — /a/ — /t/), blend them into a word, and point to a picture representing that word – with nearly 90% scoring well above chance.” 
(D. McGuinness. RRF message board)

PA training (without print) is not a necessary prerequisite to learning to read and spell. The ability to hear the individual phonemes in speech is innate as all babies need it in order to acquire their native language (biologically primary knowledge. Geary 2016), but they are not consciously aware of this ability. ”In fact, no one needs to be explicitly aware of phonemes unless they have to learn an alphabetic writing system.” 
(italics added. D. McGuinness LDLR p36).

”Sounds are ephemeral, short-lived, and hard to grasp, whereas letters provide concrete, visible symbols for phonemes. Thus, we might expect children to have an easier time acquiring PA when they are given letters to manipulate.” 

People who have been taught to read using a non-alphabetic writing code such as Chinese, which is based on the syllable unit of sound, lack explicit phonemic awareness; studies ”show the strong impact of the type of writing system and type of instruction on the development of phonemic awareness -an environmental effect, and restates the point that you do not acquire this aptitude unless you need it.” 
(D. McGuinness WCCR p135)

The ease with which a child can be taught how to explicitly unravel speech in order to hear the individual phonemes appears to be heritable. ”Good/bad phoneme-awareness runs in families, just as musical talent does…the ability to access the phoneme level of speech is heritable…on a continuum of innate ability.” (D. McGuinness WCCR p151).  This unraveling is necessary because speech consists of co-articulated sounds blended into a rapidly produced sound stream.

Explicit phonemic awareness occurs as a direct result of the teaching methods found in high-quality phonics programmes; it is the process of learning the grapheme-phoneme correspondences, translating the letters into sounds in words and vice-versa, which makes the phonemes explicit. ”(A)s their literacy improves it should again become an automatic process for literacy purposes and drop below consciousness unless it is actually needed to deal with an unfamiliar written word.” (Philpot. RRF message board)

Recommended reading:
– Prof. D. McGuinness’s book: Language Development & Learning to Read p37-> ‘A Theory Becomes Dogma’
– Prof. Elliott’s book The Dyslexia Debate p42-> The phonological deficit hypothesis.
For discussion of the ‘phonological brain defect’ theory see Myth 2 Dyslexia Myths and Facts

Avoiding the Gender Gap:

”I still can’t help but be concerned about the fact that only 44% of disadvantaged, white working-class males achieve an acceptable outcome by the end of reception year.” 
(Quirky Teacher. Twitter/X)

The gender gap disappears when a high-quality phonics programme is taught with fidelity, starting early in Reception Year. In the Clackmannanshire study, children starting school were taught for 16 weeks to read and spell using synthetic phonics. Boys spelling: ”(I)n Primary 4 the boys started to pull ahead of the girls. They were significantly ahead in Primaries 4, 6 and 7, being around 8.6 months ahead by the end of the study.” (Johnston and Watson. 2005). 

When Sir Jim Rose closely examined synthetic phonics teaching, he found that ”A common feature of the best work was that boys’ progress and achievement did not lag behind girls: an important outcome given the generally weaker performance of boys, especially in writing.” (Rose review 2006 para 57)

”If we really want boys to read voraciously, first we need to teach them to read. On a properly normed and standardised spelling test, of the 1607 boys and girls we followed through KS1, there was no statistical difference between them.” 
(John Walker. Twitter/X)

Illiterate boys: The new international phenomenon
By Dr Bonnie Macmillan (RRF newsletter No. 51. 2004)

The Simple Model / View of Reading:

Reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension: R = D x C

Gough and Tunmer first proposed the Simple Model of Reading in 1986. In their paper, the authors wrote, ”To clarify the role of decoding in reading and reading disability, a simple model of reading is proposed, which holds that reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension…we are reluctant to equate decoding with word recognition, for the term decoding surely connotes, if not denotes, the use of letter-sound correspondence rules.” 
(italics added. Gough & Tunmer. 1986, Remedial & Special Education Vol 7)

“The ability to decode is at the core of reading ability, such that learning to decode is tantamount to learning to read.”
(Gough & Tunmer. 1986)

”Decoding refers to:
-reading unfamiliar words (words that have not been read before) by saying the
sounds corresponding to the letters in the words and then blending the sounds
together, either aloud or silently.
-reading familiar words accurately and silently ‘at a glance’ [Daniel Willingham. 2017], that is, no longer
saying the sounds consciously.” (DfE. The Reading Framework 2023 p18).

Morag Stuart and Rhona Stainthorp re-presented Gough and Tunmer’s Simple Model of Reading in an annex to the 2006 Rose review. In the annex, they substituted the word View for Model and changed Gough & Tunmer’s component word ‘decoding’ to ‘word recognition’. They went on to describe the model as ”a useful conceptual framework” and explained ”When trying to understand something as complex and multifaceted as reading, it is helpful first to simplify –in this case, by delineating two major, essential, interacting but different components of reading.”

”The hallmark of skilled reading is fast context-free word identification. And rich context-dependent text understanding.”
(italics in original. Dr Charles Perfetti)

Reading Comprehension and Phonics Decoding:

A myth, disseminated by the whole language advocates, is that using synthetic phonics to teach word decoding and spelling leads to lower comprehension levels. The Clackmannanshire researchers Johnston and Watson say, ”Much is made of the fact that the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire led to much greater increases in word reading and spelling skill than in reading comprehension, implying that reading comprehension did not benefit from the intervention. However, it should be noted that at the end of the seventh year at school, reading comprehension in the study was significantly above age level, in a sample that had a below-average SES (socio-economic status) profile.” (RRF newsletter 59. p3)
A follow-up study by Johnston and Watson found that ”The children in the Clackmannanshire study (taught using synthetic phonics) were reading words about two years ahead of what would be expected for their age. Their spelling was six months ahead of what you would expect for their age, and their reading comprehension was about right for their age. However, although the pupils in England (taught using the NLS balanced approach to word reading) from similar backgrounds were reading words about right for their age, their spelling was 4.5 months below what is expected for age, and reading comprehension was about seven months behind.” 

When students struggle with word decoding, their comprehension also suffers: 
”One way we overcome this limitation of working memory while reading is by learning how to make a rapid, automatic deployment of underlying reading processes so that they become fast and unconscious, leaving the conscious mind (i.e. the working memory) free to think about what a text means. This is why fast and accurate decoding is important. Experiments show that a child who can sound out nonsense words quickly and accurately has mastered the decoding process and is on the road to freeing up her working memory to concentrate on comprehension of meaning.”

“Successful decoding doesn’t guarantee comprehension, but poor decoding guarantees poor comprehension.”
(David & Meredith Liben)

Decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking.

Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?

Specific Reading Comprehension Disability: Major Problem, Myth, or Misnomer?
Spencer, Quinn and Wagner. 2014.
”Although poor reading comprehension certainly qualifies as a major problem rather than a myth, the term specific reading comprehension disability is a misnomer: Individuals with problems in reading comprehension that are not attributable to poor word recognition have comprehension problems that are general to language comprehension rather than specific to reading.”

”Education systems that want to improve reading comprehension need to care about phonics…
phonics proficiency (Y1) is the strongest predictor of reading comprehension (Y4).”
(Prof Kathy Rastle. Twitter/X)
p64. ”Figure 4.5 presents the mean PIRLS scores of pupils in England with respect to their raw
mark in the Year 1 phonics check. It shows that there is a moderate, positive relationship
between performance in the phonics check and performance in PIRLS 2016.”

”The highest predictor of a child’s comprehension score on a standard reading comprehension test is a measure of decoding skill, the ability to read one word at a time out of context.”
(McGuinness. WCCR p.293. Italics in original)

”Primary concern to prevent reading difficulties is decoding; it is the most serious threat to reading achievement. Studies with thousands of children, replicated 3 times: nearly all poor comprehenders had decoding AND vocabulary deficits. Only .2% to .5% of poor comprehenders were adequate decoders”
(Prof Richard Wagner. See slide 35 https://slideplayer.com/slide/7404429/)

The importance of early phonics improvements for predicting later reading comprehension

The effect of phonics instruction on the reading comprehension of beginning readers.
“…phonics taught children had higher reading comprehension…”

Building Vocabulary and Comprehension in the Early Years and Beyond:

Every primary school’s ”vigorous programme of phonics work” must be ”securely embedded within a broad and rich language curriculum” (Rose review 2006). The need to ”develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding” is specifically mentioned in the statutory requirements of the National Curriculum – see for example p11.

In the new Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, schools are told that inspectors will look at whether ”stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen for reading to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love of reading. Pupils are familiar with and enjoy listening to a wide range of stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction.”

”Written language contains far more vocabulary words than oral language. In fact most of the words that comprise a student’s reading vocabulary will appear in their lives only in written texts…”
(Doug Lemov https://teachlikeachampion.org/blog/reading-aloud-students-critical-vocabulary/)

A new study finds children hear more unique words when adults read to them than in ordinary conversation.

”There are a variety of ways to build knowledge, but one crucial method is to read aloud to children from texts that are too complex for them to read themselves. Children’s listening comprehension exceeds their reading comprehension, on average, through middle school.”
(Davidson and Wexler. The Importance of Knowledge)

David Didau explains Why we need to read aloud to our primary and secondary age pupils (video and ppt. slides) https://learningspy.co.uk/reading/why-we-need-to-read-aloud/

What reading does for the mind: Cunningham and Stanovich

Read non-fiction books to your late talkers and preschoolers: here’s why

What words do children encounter when they read independently?
The Children and Young People’s Books Lexicon (CYP-LEX): A large-scale lexical database of books read by children and young people in the United Kingdom:
– ”It is widely accepted that reading ability is a strong predictor of how much children choose to read. Our work suggests that a failure to acquire good phonic and morphological knowledge early in reading acquisition is likely to have a negative snowball effect on a child’s reading habits.”
– “We found that around 40% of words used in children’s books do not appear on BBC television programmes aimed at children of the same age.”
– “The large numbers of unfamiliar words mean that books present a unique opportunity for enhancing children’s vocabulary.”
– ”Because the number of rare and morphologically complex words increases as children transition through primary and into secondary school, texts will often be too difficult for readers with suboptimal reading skills, which is likely to result in an unrewarding reading experience and, consequently, a desire to expose themselves to even less text.”

Alphabet Letter Names:

It is well established that preschool knowledge of the alphabet letter names is one of the best predictors of later reading attainment. However, those who, as a consequence of this information, advocate the early teaching of the names, are confusing correlation with causation. Letter name knowledge, ”is just an indirect marker of high print exposure, literate household, good paired-associate memory etc.” (Monique Nowers)

”Letter names are a source of ‘noise’ which block an automatic connection between sounds and their spellings. ‘Catch-up’ readers, in particular, rely on a strategy of mixing sounds and letter names when they try to decode.”
(Prof D. McGuinness)

”In a study of 3000 Australian students…[30%] of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds”
(Research quoted in Dr Hempenstall’s NIFDI blog ‘Older students’ literacy problems’)

”Teaching letter names and sounds is harmful to some. The problem is cognitive load and confusion about the nature of the code: sound to print not letter name to print” 
(John Walker)

Researchers Treiman and Tincoff found that letter name learning, focused children’s attention on the syllable rather than the phoneme, impeding their understanding of the alphabetic principle:
The Fragility of the Alphabetic Principle

2010. Learning to Label Letters by Sounds or Names: A Comparison of England and the United States
”(T)he English children—especially the younger ones—produced more phonologically plausible spellings for most types of nonwords in our study…(O)ur results show that children can start to read and write without [LNs]. Several of the English children in our study performed at the first-grade level on the standardized spelling test even though they knew the names of just a few letters”

Spelling using letter names, ”involves an unnecessarily complicated sequence of events…He is using two distinct codes…and one does not immediately evoke the other.”
(ML Peters. Spelling: Caught or Taught? 1967)

”Although the ability to correctly recognise all 26 letters in the English alphabet is essential for early reading, there is little evidence that teaching children letter names improves reading (Rayner et al., 2012).” (The Reading Ape)

”Teaching both [letter sounds and names] potentially confuses children and doubles the amount of information they are required to learn. Letter names are best introduced after children have gained fluency in their application of letter sounds and can distinguish between letter names and sounds with fluency. Teaching names is a redundant skill in both early reading and spelling and takes instructional time which could more usefully be devoted to other activities.” 
(Dr Jonathan Solity 2003. p20)

”It is most efficient to teach students from the very beginning to associate a sound with a letter…Letter sounds are much superior in this work than letter names because letter sounds can be used directly both to read and spell words.”
(Dr Michael Bend)

Let’s not sing our ABCs

”Sometimes the child knows the names of the letters. Unfortunately, this knowledge, far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading.”
(Prof Dehaene. Reading in the brain 2009. p200)

Letter names or sounds?

When and how to use letter names.

Sight Words, High-Frequency Words and Common Exception Words:

The widely held belief that most English words are ”non-phonetic” and therefore ”cannot be sounded out” occurs because so many common English words such as <straight>, <their> and <people>, contain an unusual or unique sound-spelling correspondence that is hard to decode initially without direct instruction. These are called common exception words in England’s National Curriculum.

”An exception word is simply a word with (a) sound-spelling correspondence(s) that are beyond the systematic teaching sequence; exceptions are not words that ‘’cannot be sounded out.’’ 
(Charlotte MacKechnie)

Sight Words.

Teach 100 first spellings, not 100 first words

”Let’s look at two of the most common, short-cut approaches to teaching so-called ‘sight words’. The first is the use of flash cards. If a child cannot decode a word on a flash card, they are being asked to remember the word as a whole, something that is very difficult to do given that thousands of words contain the same number of letters and often begin and end with the same letters. The words ‘house’ and ‘horse’ spring to mind here…”

”Any teaching using flash cards, where the children are expected to read words visually, seriously undermines the synthetic phonics method.” 
(Johnston & Watson. Teaching Synthetic Phonics p36)

<One> is a common exception word, often held up as a word that can’t be sounded out (phonically decoded). It has two GPCs; the single letter <o> represents two sounds /w-u/ (just as the letter <x> represents two sounds /k-s/ in the word <fox>) and the digraph <ne> represents the sound /n/ as in the word <gone>. The common words with ”grotty graphemes” (Ruth Miskin) need to be taught directly and systematically in every early reading programme using a phonics all-through-the-word approach.

How to respond to the ”But some words can’t be sounded out” objection to phonics

Decodable, Predictable and ‘Real’ Books:

Another widely circulated piece of misinformation is that teachers who use a high-quality phonics programme, engage in the ”rather cruel” (Goouch & Lambirth p39) practice of ”hiding other text that does not fit phonics teaching”. Teachers are even said to ”forbid” (Wyse. Twitter/X) the use of so-called real books until children have ”cracked the phonic code” (Hileryjane blog 27/01/10). Certainly, as high-quality phonics teaching positively excludes the use of whole word memorisation and multi-cue word-guessing, beginning readers are not expected to use predictable-text scheme books or ‘real’ books when practising reading independently. By Year 3 virtually all children should be able to read age-appropriate ‘real’ books independently.

In England, the DfE has mandated the use of programme-linked decodable books in Reception and KS1:
”The texts and books children are asked to read independently should be fully decodable for them at every stage of the programme.”

Beginning readers in high-quality phonics classrooms will have plenty of access to real books (fiction and non-fiction), with complete freedom to browse the text if they want to do so. When doing a shared reading of a ‘real’ book, the teacher (or parent if it is a home book) takes responsibility for reading any words with as yet untaught GPCs so no multi-cueing (guessing) or whole word memorisation is necessary.

”My book area has two or three hundred books that the children can choose freely.”
(Y1 teacher and SENCo)

”It doesn’t matter how many wonderful books you surround children with, or how engaging and exciting you make reading – if they can’t decode the words on the page, then they will fail. No one can read for pleasure if they can’t read.” 
(Anne Glennie)