Following are two posts I wrote way back in 2007. I’m re-publishing because the right/left polarisation of education keeps cropping up. It’s appalling to think that teachers will reject a useful educational tool because it is perceived as “right wing”. It’s a tool – not a political statement. Let’s create a new narrative of literacy. I’ve edited a little for this 2020 version.
For a long time now I’ve been frustrated by the polarisation of educators and the claim that Phonics is for Traditionalists while Whole Language is for the Progressives. Not long ago I outed myself as a Prog on a phonics discussion board. Here’s what I said:
Hello, my name is Tricia Millar and I am a progressive educationalist.There…..it’s out in the open. I believe in students of all ages learning through discovery, in educational settings being adjusted to meet the needs of ALL learners, in teachers being as creative as they can be to help their students discover the wonders of the world around them.I am a product of the early 70’s West Coast Open Education (home of Frank Smith) and I bless those experimenting teachers for their willingness to step outside the stuffy classroom teaching of their day. I also believe that all children should understand how the English language works. I’m not that fussed how it happens. I obviously favour the way I do it but I’m sure there are lots of other fuzzy creative types who could figure out alternatives. Finally, I am convinced as an experienced literacy teacher that reading is not learned in the same way as speaking. For that reason we need abandon our overly-optimistic views about learning to read by reading. I wish it were true. I wish I could sit and read with my teenaged strugglers and they would learn to read. It just doesn’t work that way. Synthetic/Linguistic/All-through-the-word phonics is NOT about a specific style of teaching; it is about some knowledge and skills that learners of any age need to discover in order to become proficient readers. I have no doubt that a good and committed teacher could facilitate that learning outside during a Welsh gale.
And I encourage all other synthetic/prog hybrids to come out of whatever closets they find themselves in.
Over on the Reading Reform Foundation site, there’s been a discussion, in part, about what constitutes “Explicit, Systematic Phonics Instruction”. I’m always worried that some teachers will read through these discussions and leave thinking, “I’m not that kind of teacher so phonic-based instruction isn’t for me” (but with more colourful language).
So I’ll say it again: No matter what your philosophy of teaching, whether you’re a die-hard “ist” with a defined “ism” or just a teacher who is frustrated daily by students who can’t read very well, your learners (whether 4, 14, or 54) need to learn how to get from sound to print and back again – or print to sound and back again, depending on your preferences.
I happen to be slightly obsessed by discovery in education and here’s how I define the main terms relating to linguistic/synthetic/explicit & systematic/all-through-the-word phonics. (must think of a more concise title)
Explicit Instruction – This means that we are teaching reading, not teaching history or car mechanics and expecting reading to be picked up implicitly, though you can certainly plant a reading lesson into a car mechanics course. It doesn’t mean standing or sitting in front of one or more people and telling them how to read or making them memorize all the ways to write the “ay” sound in English.
Systematic – The grapheme/phoneme correspondences are controlled so learners can discover that the language is both limited and learnable. The purpose of this controlled system is to create a safety net so that educationally vulnerable people can get on with learning to read without worrying about being weighed down by the crushing sense of failure that has followed them through school.
Discovery – This is the very best process by which a person learns anything to one who was raised, educated and teacher-trained that way. In the case of reading this means discovering how the code works by using it over and over again in the context of whole and meaningful words, sentences and and texts. Success is aided hugely by a safe and friendly learning environment. See The Deal. And discovery works best in the context of a system which is largely invisible to the student but evident to the teacher/facilitator.
Teach/Facilitate – The prime function of the teacher/tutor is to facilitate discovery. A good reading programme will aid this. I realise this is might be a case of “You can take the kid out of the 70’s but you can’t take the 70’s out of the kid” but this is the very best thing to come out of that era of education. (God bless Neil McAllister and the other “facilitators” in the Bayview Open Area..)
Starting with sounds – If you want to facilitate discovery then it’s best to start with something that your learner can already do. Assuming they have no serious hearing or speech impairment then you can start with the words that they can hear and say and use in meaningful speech. By saying the word aloud, attaching a written symbol to each sound and writing the symbols in order whilst saying the sounds, they are discovering how the English code works. No one has to give a formal explanation of how it works. It is possible to learn to spell and read without ever knowing the words phoneme, grapheme or digraph. (Edit 2020 – it’s till true but these words are now used in primary school so we use them more often.)
Right and Wrong – There is absolutely such a thing as right and wrong in this type of instruction and this is what separates it from the “woolly and useless” instruction that I think some people are picturing when they hear the term “discovery learning”. I’ve heard a kindergarten teacher say “good number!” to a child who has clearly given a wrong answer to a sum; that is anti-education. I’ve also encountered literacy tutors who’ve told me they don’t correct errors because it might damage self esteem; that is patronising.
Correcting Errors – There has to be a good way to get to the right answer without the instructor making the correction. Therefore, instead of correcting an error with an answer, guide the learner towards making their own correction and furthering their process of discovery.
If you’re a teacher who thinks phonics advocates are somehow right wing Brexit voters, come and join us in the world of That Reading Thing where it’s all about discovery. And it’s explicitly about reading. And it’s systematic. And it can start with whole spoken words and develop in the context of meaningful text. And it works, (no matter what the teacher’s philosophy of education).