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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is a Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.

Recent good news for literacy on two fronts.

First, Nick Gibb was right to claim credit for improved results in the phonics check for six year olds, that, as our friends at The Guardian noted, are now reflected in an improved performance in the PIRLS international reading tests. Labour had some understanding of the importance of phonics in early reading – Conservative ministers took the necessary action to put this into practice.

Our opponents were soon on the case, represented by Professor Steven Krashen from Southern California and Dr Jonathan Solity, followed by an ill-informed session on the BBC Daily Politics, presented by Jo Coburn and featuring Professor Sandra McNally of the LSE as the sceptic.

Professor Krashen’s theory of language learning – he calls it acquisition – has done great damage to language learning in schools, and neither he nor Professor McNally have carried out research into the teaching of reading. Dr Solity has his own reading scheme, which makes extensive use of learning words at sight and “real books”. In the BBC programme, Professor McNally was not challenged on her assertion that the benefits of phonics were washed out by the time children were 11 – the research shows otherwise – while Jo Coburn hit rock bottom with her comment that “everybody has learned to read in the past”. I replayed the clip to check that she really did say this. Professor McNally also produced the old chestnut about “different types of phonics”, as if there were no essential distinction to be made between the blending and word-building of the government’s approach, and word-breaking and guessing from the first letter used in “analytic phonics”.

These people must not be allowed to win the argument. If children do not learn to use the information contained in letters as they begin to learn to read, they must guess, and guessing does not work. Most of this information links letters to sounds, and to use this, children need to be taught these links, and to reinforce their learning in the early stages with books that can be read using them. The “Ditties” in the Read Write Inc scheme make an ideal start, as they contain no irregular words at all, and there is a high degree of regularity in the books that follow. Other schemes are available, and teachers need to know what they are and how they work. Most include questions to ensure that children understand what they are reading – the idea that phonics are an alternative to understanding is fiction and deliberately misleading. Jo Coburn threw in the idea that phonics might have a poor effect on children’s spelling. The Clackmannanshire research shows that this is not the case.

Everyone agrees that phonics are not the whole of reading, and regular readers of this column will know that my approach is different from that of most phonics advocates and, in this case, from that of Dr Solity.

One complication of early reading is that many of the most frequent words in the language cannot be blended by using the most frequent sound represented by one letter at a time. T in cat does not represent the same sound as the t in the, when it is combined with h. The standard approach is to teach these words as “sight” words, requiring children to suspend what they have just been taught. Most manage this, but a lot don’t, and I frequently have to teach children whose idea of phonics is sounding out each letter of a word and then trying to put them together – I currently have three such pupils.

The solution is not to ask the child to suspend belief, but to add words like “usually”, or “most of the time” to the early teaching, and then to explain what happens when letters don’t behave as we expect. Explaining how “th” came to be used as it is teaches not only the “the”, but provides a way into all other words beginning with or containing “th” – the equivalent in reading of teaching them to fish, rather than giving them a fish. The next stage is to build reading into everything a primary school does in every subject, so that children learn vocabulary beyond everyday speech, and develop the comprehension skills needed for secondary school.

The second front is in the work of Jackie Hewitt-Main, who is successfully tackling the most severe consequences of illiteracy, in prisons. Jackie’s book, Transforming Prisoners’ Lives, shows the difference between the bulk of literacy problems, which are usually caused by mis-teaching, and genuine dyslexia, in which people are unable to make any sense of letters and so can’t succeed in any element of education. In over ten years of voluntary teaching, beginning in HMP Chelmsford, she has taught men of all ages using the multisensory methods developed by pioneers in the twenties (Fernald, Orton, Gillingham and Stillman), enabled many to become volunteer teachers and mentors themselves, and made a huge impact on prison morale and reoffending rates. Jackie’s current project is based in Doncaster.

The report from the Centre for Social Justice, Dyslexia and Desistance, lists a wide range of benefits from the work, including unanimous support in a survey of prison staff, who note improvements in attitude, focus, confidence, social interaction and calmness. Only one of 32 prisoners released during the year studied in the report had re-offended. This is important work, to which I’ll return.

47 comments for: John Bald: The alternative to phonics is guessing – which does not work

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