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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) 

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, leaf, she and sunny) and some spellings represent more than one sound, called ‘code overlap’ in linguistic phonics programmes (for example, plastic, paper, quad, 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.” 
(D. McGuinness)

An Introduction to the English Alphabet Code.

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

The English Alphabet Code (phonemes within slash marks): a limited overview that includes examples of words with unusual spellings to show how they can be coded. Note that there are no ‘silent’ letters (scroll down for an explanation). There is variation in coding between programmes -for example: build or build, save or save

/a/ mat, salmon, plait, meringue /g/ gate, eggghost, guest, plague
/ai/ ape, baby, rain, day, steak, eight /h/ hat, whole
/air/ hair, square, bear, prayer /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, island /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, ogre, earth /w/ (/oo/) wet, wheel, penguin
/ue/ (/ee-oo/) unit, dueyou, mew /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 code overlap: 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 Phoenicians’ consonants-only alphabet. For the next 2,500 years reading was taught by first 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, and in doing so created synthetic phonics (Rodgers p32). The use of the word ‘synthetic’ to describe a reading programme is not new; Pollard’s Manual of Synthetic Reading and Spelling was published in 1889. Pollard’s programme used diacritic markings, unlike UK-style synthetic phonics. Nellie Dale, a teacher at Wimbledon 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

What Do High-Quality Phonics Programmes Have In Common?

The Rose review recommended that the NLS ‘Searchlight’ multi-cue, word-guessing strategies should be dropped and replaced by the ‘Simple View of Reading’, and that all children should be taught to read using ”a vigorous programme of phonics work…securely embedded within a broad and rich language curriculum” (italics added. Rose review 2006), not ‘only phonics’. Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary (Labour) at the time, agreed and said, ”I accept all your recommendations and will ensure that they are implemented”.

High-quality phonics programmes teach the majority of the circa 175 common (high frequency in print) spellings of the English alphabet code systematically and explicitly. As Sir Jim Rose put it 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)

“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 strategy 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 taught in tandem in all 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)

– All children are taught using phonemes from the outset, not syllables or rimes.

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

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

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

– No spelling or syllable-type-division rules are taught.

– Children are taught how to read and spell polysyllable words.

– 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 common spellings of the advanced 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: first single words, then captions and short sentences, moving rapidly on to decodable books and texts. Phonically decodable books and texts only contain words that can be sounded out based on what the pupil has already been taught, so 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 all 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 https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/spring-2004/ask-cognitive-scientist-practice-makes-perfect)

Incidental phonics is used to decode words that contain a ‘not yet taught’ GPC, that crop up in the course of 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, Hickey’s 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 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)

Phonics International https://phonicsinternational.com/ is an exemplar UK-style SSP programme and is DfE validated for use in KS1.

NB. UK-style SSP and linguistic phonics programmes (see below) differ in a number of significant ways from phonics programs found under the American Orton-Gillingham/Structured Literacy umbrella.

Linguistic Phonics Programmes:

Linguistic Phonics programmes are closely related to 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-clue word-guessing, 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: letter names aren’t introduced until the links from phoneme to grapheme for all the simple/basic code spellings have become completely automatic. They don’t use any mnemonics, flashcards or special terms such as silent letters, short/long vowels, soft/hard sounds, open/closed syllables, regular/irregular 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.

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).

Her 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.

”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)

Directly and systematically teaching the 176 common English spellings over the course of the first three years of primary, and how to read and spell 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 (code overlap)

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)

Sound Reading System’s linguistic phonics English Alphabet Code Chart.

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 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 context-dependent 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 finishing, sniffphone 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 or unique 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>.

Teaching high-frequency words? Stay consistent with your phonics teaching and teach them as you teach the alphabetic code.
Pupils are explicitly taught the important, but often overlooked, 4th level of the code’s complexity, that a single 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: https://theliteracyblog.com/2011/11/26/silent-letters/
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 that ”(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 p.19). 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.”

”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”

Explaining split vowel spellings avoiding silent, magic or bossy letter <e>

”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.”

Sound~Write’s longitudinal study of literacy development, following 1607 pupils through KS1

Exemplar linguistic phonics programmes include Sounds-Write (DfE validated for KS1) and the Sound Reading System 

Phonological / Phonemic Awareness:

Phonemic awareness (PA: able to consciously identify and manipulate individual phonemes) is the subject of much controversy and confusion. Children who enter pre-school with low or no PA and then fail to acquire sufficient PA ‘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 avoid this brain ‘glitch’ 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)

Should we teach phonemic awareness?

2020. Meta-analysis of the Impact of Reading Interventions for 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.”

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.

– ”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 phonemic awareness very efficiently without any prior PA training: The phonemic segmentation of the synthetic phonics group improved far more in 16 weeks than either of 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)

”Activities that had no impact, positive or negative (correlations at zero), were time spent….on larger phonetic units, such as clapping out syllable beats, and time spent on auditory phoneme awareness tasks (no letters).” 
(D. McGuinness. A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code)

”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)

For discussion of the ‘phonological brain defect’ theory see Myth 2 Dyslexia Myths and Facts

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, 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 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 consciously 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 unravelling is necessary because speech consists of co-articulated sounds blended into a rapidly produced sound stream.

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)

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 06/03/18)

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” tinyurl.com/yce55pcz 
(John Walker. Twitter)

The Simple Model / View of Reading:

Simple Model of Reading: Reading is 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)

Morag Stuart and Rhona Stainthorp re-presented Gough and Tunmer’s Simple Model of Reading in an annex to the 2006 Rose review, re-titled it the Simple View of Reading, and described it as ”a useful conceptual framework”. They 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”.

2021. The DfE’s new Reading Framework includes the following on the Simple View of Reading:
”Language comprehension.
Comprehension does not refer to reading itself but, rather, to the way in which we make sense of words, sentences and the wider language we hear or read. Language develops through interaction with others. Inevitably, by the time they start school, some children understand more and know more words than others, because of the quantity and quality of the interactions they have already had with adults and others. Children who begin school with a poor understanding of language will need considerable support to develop their spoken language.
Decoding refers to:
– reading unfamiliar words (words that have not been decoded 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’ [Prof. D. Willingham] that is, no longer saying the sounds consciously” (p16)

Listening comprehension & word decoding explains 96% of the variation in early reading comprehension

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

This flowchart is based on The Simple View of Reading. It will help you identify whether a child is struggling with decoding, comprehension – or both.

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.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7147813.stm)  

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?
”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.”

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:

High-quality phonics is not taught in isolation. 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.”

The importance of storytelling: ”Research has shown that the vocabulary of general conversation is surprisingly impoverished, compared to the vocabulary we find in written material”

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

Alphabet Letter Names:

It is well established that pre-school 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 can be hazardous to your spelling…The message is clear: Discourage and eliminate the use of letter names and encourage the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences” 
(D. McGuinness ERI p275 ->278.)

”In a study of 3000 Australian students…[30%] of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds”
(Research quoted in 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)

”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.” 
(J. Solity 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. 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 English words are mostly ”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, Levelled, Banded and ‘Real’ Books:

Another widely circulated piece of misinformation is that teachers who use high-quality phonics, engage in the ”rather cruel” (Goouch & Lambirth p39) practice of ”hiding other text that does not fit phonics teaching”, or are even said to ”forbid” (Wyse. Twitter) the use of so-called real books until children have ”cracked the phonic code” (Hileryjane blog 27/01/10). Certainly, as systematic synthetic phonics teaching positively excludes the use of whole word memorisation and multi-cue word-guessing, beginning readers are not expected to use the early levels of patterned-text scheme books (Book Bands: pink, red, yellow, blue and green), or ‘real’ books, when practising reading. As Debbie Hepplewhite says, ”There is a myth that children who get synthetic phonics teaching are totally deprived of real books. The reality is that children who get true synthetic phonics teaching are not expected to read independently a book which they cannot decode so they are forced to guess the words or memorise the sentences by heart”. Fortunately, there are plenty of attractively illustrated and well-written decodable book schemes available nowadays. These schemes are written using controlled phonics text, making them suitable for beginning readers (or those having reading intervention) from the very earliest stages. By Year 3 virtually all children should be able to read age-appropriate ‘real’ books independently.

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

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 as yet untaught GPCs or words with tricky spellings so no multi-cueing (guessing) or whole word memorisation is necessary.

See – 3) ”I’m just saying phonics is not the only part of reading”

”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)