Teaching phonics: good teacher practice v the phonics screener

Jessica Mantei and Lisa Kervin

Teaching relationships between sounds and the ways they are represented as letters and letter clusters - phonics - is foundational pedagogical work in the first years of school. It sits alongside teaching comprehension, phonemic and morphemic awareness, vocabulary development, fluency, and critical thinking to name a few. While there is agreement that the purpose of teaching reading and writing is to develop the ability to make meaning, it seems there is always debate about how this is achieved. A current focus is the so-called “phonics debate”, a response to the Australian Government’s proposed “phonics screener”. This standardised assessment draws on the UK model where children are scored while reading “real” and “pseudo” words in a list. Children who “fail” are the target of an intervention using “synthetic phonics”, an approach that addresses letter sound relationships in isolation from the act of reading and writing continuous text.

This article shares accounts of explicit and systematic teaching of phonics in early years classrooms. It explores implications of these practices within current debates in an effort to reiterate the expertise of teachers and acknowledge their ability to identify and respond to their students’ learning progress without taking on another standardised test. 

Introduction

Learning to read and write is critical to becoming literate. While the consensus in education is that the purpose of reading and writing is the making of meaning, there is no “recipe” for a best approach. In learning to read and write, a person develops skills and understandings about text. Some skills are fixed, that is, items to be learned are finite (Dougherty Stahl, 2011), they remain unchanged and can be applied consistently. Paris (2005) calls these constrained skills. They include name writing, alphabet knowledge, concepts about print and phonics. Unfixed or unconstrained skills (Paris, 2005) are developed over a lifetime of literacy activity. They include knowledge about language, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. Unconstrained literacy skills allow us to read, understand and create increasingly sophisticated texts that are conceptually and structurally complex, and academically demanding. Educators must support students to master the relatively straightforward constrained skills while taking a continued focus on the sophisticated unconstrained skills that will support engagement with more complex texts. 

A child’s literacy experiences at home, in the community, in prior-to-school settings and early primary years underpin long term academic achievement. Through play and thoughtful interactions with others, children learn to collaborate, solve problems and build relationships, as they ‘try on’ literate identities. Within the context of rich literacy experiences, they accumulate key concepts about texts, and the power of language to achieve their goals, as well as knowledge about letter sound relationships, oral language, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension (Schleppegrell, 2008).

However, there is recent significant pressure on Australian educators to focus particularly on teaching the constrained skill of phonics. Phonics is the study of sounds and symbols that represent them. It is well noted that English offers particular challenges because of the limited number of symbols (26) required to represent its many sounds. As such, the symbols are used individually and in clusters to achieve different representations of sound, requiring from the reader a flexible processing system. For example, the limitations of teaching ‘a’ only in connection with ants and apples are clear when we consider the ways ‘a’ represents sound in the words: at, ate, car, warm, about.  A further challenge comes when a single sound is represented in different ways. For example, ‘er’ (as in her) can be also represented as ir (as in fir), ur (as in fur), and or (as in word). 

Certainly, developing knowledge about letter sound relationships is one component of literacy pedagogy. The US National Reading Panel (NRP) (2000) and the Australian Expert Advisory Panel for the National Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Check (2017) agree that approaches that are explicit and systematic achieve greater learning gains than when there is no teaching, or implicit teaching, or unsystematic teaching of phonics. Furthermore, in their extensive review of classroom practices, the NRP (2000) found teachers used a range of approaches to teaching phonics, including analogy phonics, analytic phonics, embedded and onset-rime phonics, synthetic phonics and phonics through spelling. It is important to note that the NRP (2000) found none of these approaches showed statistical significance in being better than any other.  Indeed, it is the explicit and systematic nature of the teaching rather than any single approach that has been identified as important (Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation, 2017; Expert Advisory Panel, 2017; NRP, 2000). 

Despite demonstrated success using various approaches to phonics instruction, recent Ministerial advice (Buckingham, 2016; Expert Advisory Panel, 2017) advocates a single approach - synthetic phonics. This includes adopting the UK “phonics screener”, a standardised test requiring children to read a list of real and pseudo words by blending together the sounds represented by the letters. Real word examples include: chum, feast, scribe, reptiles. Pseudo words include: ept, murbs, sploam, zued, braits. Responses are recorded as correct or incorrect, and teachers perform an ‘evidence-based intervention’ to address a failing ‘student’s area of weakness’ (Expert Advisory Panel, 2017, p 66) and then the child is retested. 

The recent debates about phonics instruction and the prospect of yet another standardised test for young children led us to ask: 

How are teachers responding to the political push for phonics instruction?
What implications are there for the teaching of reading and writing?

This article shares data collected in a larger Australian longitudinal multiple-method study examining language and literacy experiences of 150-200 children across school settings. Participants were located in three clusters representing diverse social and cultural backgrounds of a region in New South Wales. Each cluster comprises a prior-to-school setting, a primary school and a high school. One cluster is located in a coastal township south of the city, one in the industry hub close to the port, and the third is in the central business district. Each educator and teacher identified moments of practice in their literacy teaching and invited the research team to conduct observations. Shared in this paper are data from prior-to-school and early primary school classrooms across all clusters.

In our data:

Teachers in this study were observed teaching letter sound relationships explicitly and systematically. Some lessons had high levels of teacher control, while others afforded experimentation and practice. Some experiences focused on individual letters in isolation, while others worked at word or continuous text level. All teachers were observed making anecdotal assessment notes during and after the learning experiences. Following are examples taken during invited visits. 

Letters as items:

All teachers were observed working on single letters and commonly associated sounds. 

Figure 1 shows a collection of common items jumbled together. The children sort and match beginning sounds with the symbols that represent them. 

Sorting and grouping by initial sound

Figure 1: Sorting and grouping by initial sound 

As an oral task, the children must collaborate, solve problems and negotiate as they match individual sounds represented symbolically, and listen for the initial sound as they identify items for sorting. Known items provide clues to the focus letter, while items that do not match required differentiation. 

The children make connections between sound, symbol and a concrete example. The teacher gathers evidence of the children’s mastery of the alphabetic principle.

The activity in Figure 2 required a more abstract understanding of letter sound relationships as the children worked with letters on paper tiles: a, c, g, m, o, p, s, t. 

Responding to letter names with symbols and sounds

Figure 2: Responding to letter names with symbols and sounds

The teacher directed they “wake up” a certain letter, requiring them to isolate the paper tile and articulate a single sound. Accepted answers were: /a/ as in at, /c/ as in cat, /g/ as in go and so on. 

A feature of this task was the expectation of rapid responses to the instructions.

The children match the teacher identified letter name with its symbol, and then generate a sound it represents. The teacher monitors students’ automatic recall matching letter name, symbol and the ‘right’ sound. 

Working with whole words

All teachers were observed working on letter sound relationships within whole words. 

Figure 3 shows posters of word families generated by manipulating the onset of a word while keeping the rime consistent. 

Onset rime lists

Figure 3: Onset rime lists

Interesting in these examples is the resources. The left reflects considerable teacher planning and time in its creation. Images and words are carefully cut out and laminated for longevity. The texts on the right were generated between teacher and children as they manipulated onsets to create new words while maintaining the rime. There is capacity for newly discovered words to be added to this second list if required. 

The children have a repository of word lists that teach about the ways letters and sounds in words work. The teacher assesses their uptake of this knowledge in writing samples and reading assessment (running records).

In Figure 4 a child has unpacked a pile of words, which he must reproduce, check it against the model, read and then erase it. 

Writing words

Figure 4: Writing words

The child is working to familiarise himself with the recording of alphabet symbols, and to practise mastery of the handwriting. 

Children learn about forming letters to make common words, even if they are yet to read them. The teacher observes letter formation and fine motor control.

Reading continuous text

All teachers were observed working on letter sound relationships within the context of reading whole texts.

Figure 5 captures a shared reading session. The teacher points to the print as the children read aloud and follow along with their eyes.

Shared reading

Figure 5: Shared reading

This story is familiar, offering opportunities to develop reading fluency and understandings about text. It also frees the children’s attention so that new knowledge can be developed. For example, here, the teacher’s lips are pursed to make the initial sound in the word path

The children learn about letter sound relationships within the context of solving unknown words in a story. The teacher observes the children as they interact with the text and notes the development of their problem-solving skills. 

In Figure 6, the child reads a text assessed by her teacher as offering opportunities for personalised instruction.

Teacher led reading instruction

Figure 6: Teacher led reading instruction

As a basal reader, this text is contrived to offer specific challenges the reader must solve to make meaning. These relate to understanding letter sound relationships, to syntactic structures at sentence and whole text levels, and the ability to draw on the story’s topic.  

Children take up opportunities to develop a reading process that orchestrates letter sound relationships with other contextual information. The teacher carefully plans the teaching focus and makes acute insights into the ways knowledge is being utilised for reading. 

Creating continuous text

All teachers were observed working on letter sound relationships within the context of writing whole texts.

Figure 7 shows a joint construction in response to a shared picture-book. The content is chosen carefully to support the teaching focus of hearing and recording sounds in words. 

 Explicit teaching of hearing and recording sounds in words

Figure 7: Explicit teaching of hearing and recording sounds in words

As a whole class activity, the teacher leads the children in creating a story. Together they monitor the composition of the plot and tackle the challenges of recording the symbols to represent the sounds in the words. 

The children are engaged as authors: composing, recording, monitoring, and editing. The teacher differentiates the learning through questioning and invitations for different children to share understandings. Without deep knowledge about what her students know and what they are yet to learn, this level of individual differentiation is not possible. 

Figure 8 shows children writing with different levels of support, reflecting the teacher’s knowledge of their skills and ability. In this example, they are writing the story I am at school.

Writing with and without a model

Figure 8: Writing with and without a model

The lower-case symbols of the English alphabet printed above the writing page support both children as they write. Extra support has been added in the photograph on the left where the teacher has written the story as a model for the child to replicate underneath. The children draw on the available resources to match the sounds they make as they articulate the story with symbols that might represent those sounds. 

The children practise and demonstrate their knowledge about letter sound relationships in story writing. The teacher gathers evidence of the connections made and uses their approximations as next steps for learning.

Discussion

It is clear, even from the small number of examples shared here, that these teachers indeed teach and assess letter sound relationships in explicit and systematic ways. They move from a focus on letter sounds as individual items to embedding them within continuous text. These teachers have expert knowledge about reading and writing processes. They assess and know their students. They have deeply informed philosophies about how their students can best learn letter sound relationships. And it is this knowledge that underpins the planning and teaching of lessons that operate at the cutting edge of a child’s learning. No published program has that knowledge. No program can respond to individual needs or adapt to new learning environments. That is the work of teachers. 

So why are we being steered towards another standardised test and a publisher’s program? It doesn’t matter what it’s called – a screener, a “check” or a “light touch” (Buckingham 2016). The reality is that it’s another standardised test with all the expense in its purchase, production, and no doubt the professional learning required for an approach to teaching phonics that is proven as no better or worse than any other. Dougherty Stahl (2011) and Paris (2005) tell us that the constrained skills of phonics are relatively easy to assess, unlike the complex and changeable nature of unconstrained skills. Could it be that we are measuring what’s easy to measure because we can’t standardise assessments of unconstrained skills such as critical thinking or knowledge about language? Who benefits from this approach? Who doesn’t? Standardised tests such as the proposed phonics screener sit outside what we know to be good pedagogical practice, consume valuable teaching time and generate anxiety.

Our research has shown the “push down” for reading and writing instruction is impacting children earlier and earlier. We have particularly observed the push down in the area of phonics instruction through the first year of formal school and into prior-to-school settings. There is undoubtedly increasing parental pressure on early childhood educators to teach constrained skills and code-based practices including phonics. This push, particularly in the prior-to-school context, stems from heightened media and political campaigns that create hysteria and discredit the important professional role teachers play. 

We know from Dougherty Stahl’s (2011) work that over-emphasis of highly constrained skills compromises the development of unconstrained skills. Demands from parents, politicians and the media threaten to overshadow the development of broader literacy repertoires so important for emergent readers and writers. There is a real need to help those who are not educators to understand how the specific skills of reading and writing are integrated into rich, engaging and meaningful literacy programs.

Pressuring teachers to adopt a solely interventionist approach to teaching letter sound relationships is not constructive. Teachers must be trusted with the responsibility for reflecting on and adjusting professional practice in the light of their knowledge of the children in connection with their own research evidence, knowledge and experience.

References

Buckingham, J. (2016). Focus on Phonics: Why Australia should adopt the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check. Centre for Independent Studies.

Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation (2017). Effective reading instruction in the early years of school: Literature Review. NSW Department of Education.  

Dougherty Stahl, K. A. (2011). Applying new visions of reading development in today's classrooms. The Reading Teacher65(1), 52-56.

National Reading Panel (US), National Institute of Child Health, & Human Development (US). (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.

National Year 1 Literacy and Numeracy Check Expert Advisory Panel, (2017). Advice to the Minister.Australian Government Department of Education and Training. Accessed online at https://www.education.gov.au/national-year-1-literacy-and-numeracy-check

Paris, S. G. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading research quarterly40(2), 184-202.

Schleppegrell, M. (2008) The language of schooling.Taylor and Frances: Mahwah, New Jersey.


 

Dr Jessica Mantei teaches and researches Language and Literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Wollongong. Jessica’s research interests focus on teacher pedagogies and on children as consumers and creators of text as they explore and respond to the messages they are exposed to and those they might convey in their own compositions. Jessica currently serves as State (NSW) Director of the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. [email protected]

Lisa Kervin is Associate Professor, Language and Literacy in the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Wollongong. Her research interests include: children’s literacy practices, how children use technology and understand Digital Literacies and how teachers may be supported in using technology in classroom literacy experiences. Lisa has collaborative research partnerships with teachers and students in tertiary and primary classrooms and prior-to-school settings. Lisa leads the Play, pedagogy and curriculum in contemporary theory and practice research group within the UOW Early Start Institute. [email protected]


 

This work was supported by the University of Wollongong and the Australian Government (formerly DEEWR) through the Transforming Literacy Outcomes (TRANSLIT) project. ($400,000 2014-2017). Investigators:   Jones, P.T., Chen, H., Derewianka, B., Freebody, P., Kervin, L., McKenzie, B., Mantei, J., Matruglio, E., Mehorta, B., Rutherford Vale, E. & Turbill, J.

This article appears in Professional Voice 12.2 The improvement factor.