“There is strong empirical evidence in support of phonics for the development of literacy, with phonemic awareness (an individual’s ability to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes) being the strongest predictor of reading capacity.” (Evidence for Learning, University of Melbourne)1
“Children’s success in beginning reading is very highly correlated with their level of phonological awareness.” (Peter Westwood, Reading and Learning Difficulties, ACER)2
The ‘reading wars’
For over three decades, the literacy education field has been divided much of the time by the so-called ‘reading wars’. This is the often acrimonious dispute between advocates of phonics based instruction, and those who support and champion ‘whole language’.
While definitions themselves are disputed, ‘phonics’ largely concentrates on teaching letter-sound relationships (c-a-t), while ‘whole language’ concentrates on ‘making meaning’ and often embraces ‘whole word’ recognition, ‘look and say’, ‘predictive’ texts and other methods that focus on the child recognising the entire word as a unit, rather than its phonemic elements.
Most schools in Australia will argue that they teach phonics in some form. Often it is part of a ‘balanced literacy’ program which also embraces whole language. But something is not quite right.
We have a problem
In the 2012 NAPLAN tests, 38,000 Year 3 students (nearly 14%) were at or below the minimum standard for reading. Australia ranked 27th (out of 45 countries) in the PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study) in 2011.
Despite a massive injection of funds over the past decade, and despite everyone’s best intentions and hopes, many children’s reading skills either stay the same, or go backwards.
If this was a trivial matter, it wouldn’t be worth discussing. But it is not. It has profound consequences throughout school and life. Children who don’t make the minimum standard are struggling to “find directly stated information, connect ideas across sentences and paragraphs, interpret ideas, including some expressed in complex sentences, [even to] identify a sequence.” (NAPLAN website, minimum standards, Year 3).
There is no magic to fixing this problem. But there is strong evidence that underperforming children lack one basic skill. One expert says:
“What is often lacking in initial reading instruction … is effective, specific instruction in what is known as synthetic phonics - how to relate letters to sounds and to blend letter sounds into words … phonics instruction provides a self-teaching mechanism by which children can teach themselves an increasing number of new words, initially by sounding them out.” (Professor Kevin Wheldall, University of Melbourne)3.
The importance of systematic phonics instruction
“The [National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy] committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency.” (NITL)4
A reading program strong in explicit phonics instruction is not a regrettable ‘back to basics’ mistake. It is a way of helping children break the code.
Ziptales is not a phonics based website at all. It takes an integrated or balanced approach to reading - offering a wide variety of high interest, ‘whole language’ texts across more than twenty genres and text types.
But it does have phonics based modules. ‘Learn the ABC’ offers simple instruction in the alphabet, ‘My First Words’ and ‘Letter Fun’ deal with recognition of letters and simple words, and ‘Easy Readers’ offers teachers a set of ‘phonics families’, ‘decodable’ readers. The latter, which takes a cheerful ‘Dr Seuss’ approach, has 40 units on short vowels, consonant blends, long vowels and digraphs - all taught painlessly in the context of short, amusing texts, with text highlighting.
Phonics is not the whole story. But it is terribly important for beginning readers.
1 University of Melbourne Faculty of Education, “Summary of Australasian Research”, Evidence for Learning website [http://evidenceforlearning.org.au]
2 Peter Westwood, Reading and Learning Difficulties, Approaches to teaching and assessment, Australian Council of Educational Research, 2001
3 K Whendall, ‘Opponents have got it wrong on phonics’, Sydney Morning Herald, April 2006
4 National Inquiry into Teaching Literacy, Department of Education, Science and Training, Canberra, 2005