Able readers damaged by phonics, academic says

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Image caption,
A minority of children are already beginning to read by the time they start school
Media caption,
Durham University's Andrew Davis: "It's not reading for meaning"

The interests of able readers are being threatened by an insistence primary school pupils are taught to read using phonics, an academic has said.

The Department for Education wants English schools to use the reading system, which requires children to blend common sounds into words.

But Durham University researcher Andrew Davis says those already starting to read are likely to be put off.

The DfE insists synthetic phonics is the best way to teach reading.

The teaching method encourages children to sound out words rather than recognising the whole word and reading it for meaning.

The government strongly encourages schools to use reading schemes based on synthetic phonics, and part-funds a range of books approved as meeting its criteria.

Phonics test

It has also introduced a phonics test for all Year 1 pupils to ensure they are using this method to decode simple words, as well as some made-up words.

It argues this is the best way to ensure no child falls behind with their reading.

But Dr Davis, a former primary school teacher, says in his pamphlet a small minority begin school able to read and understand sentences, while a larger group are able to recognise some words.

He argues those well on their way to reading could be put off by reading books featuring only words for which they have been taught the phonetic rules in class.

He says: "To subject either the fully fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons.

"To require this of students who have already gained some maturity in the rich and nourishing human activity of reading is almost a form of abuse."

He agrees that phonics can be very useful for teaching reading, but argues it should not be rigidly imposed on all.

'Mechanical exercise'

"Being forced to move back from reading for meaning to a mechanical exercise of blending and decoding is likely to be off-putting," he said.

Media caption,
Headteacher Shahed Ahmed tells 5 live: "It's the best way to get children to read quickly"

He added that a strict approach to synthetic phonics "threatens the interests of a minority of children who arrive at school already able to read".

"The vast majority of early years teachers handle this kind of challenge with their usual professionalism, and will continue to do so if they are not troubled by rigid prescriptions from policy makers," he said.

But there was a defence of the value of phonics from another academic at Durham University, the director of primary PGCE, Dr David Waugh.

"My experience is that the majority of children benefit from such an approach and that children's reading is improving as a result."

He said there were many myths about teaching synthetic phonics and that the Rose Review which had promoted the idea had emphasised "phonics being taught in the context of a broad, rich language curriculum, with lots of experience of good quality literature".

"While I have reservations about the use of pseudo words in tests, I do feel that the emphasis upon developing children's phonic knowledge has brought important benefits.

"After years of many teachers having few ideas about how to teach reading beyond listening to children read, we now have structured strategies in place and teachers are trained to teach reading rather than simply to listen to it," said Dr Waugh.


A spokesman for the National Association for the Teachers of English (NATE) said that it had published a survey of its members last month and had found concerns about an "over-emphasis" on phonics, which it warned "can do more harm than good".

In particular, there were concerns about children being confused by the teaching of made-up phonetic "non-words".

"Our research concluded that the government case for an exclusive focus on 'systematic synthetic phonics' in early years instruction is poorly argued and unsupported by the evidence cited in the government's own documentation," said the NATE spokesman.

A Department for Education spokeswoman said: "Too many children are not reaching the expected levels of reading at a young age, do not catch up, and then struggle in secondary school and beyond.

"Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities, enabling almost all children to become confident and independent readers.

"Thanks to the phonics check 177,000 six-year-olds will this year get the extra reading help they need to catch up with their peers."

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