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There’s more to reading than breaking-it-down-and-sounding-it-out

The majority of children will learn to read whatever method we use so long as they are given access and encouragement. For most children, despite the complexities of English spellings (far more complex and confusing than, for example, German or Spanish which are ‘transparent’ languages), they pick up the ability to decode the squiggles and interpret the meaning (and implication) displayed by the written word.

Research into reading programmes will include children who would have picked up reading regardless of whether phonics, whole-word, real-books, or a mixed method was used. In addition, the phonics programmes in question must be ‘rigorously taught’ – this means regularly, every day teaching which familiarises learners with the vocabulary and associated activities used by that programme. Anyone practising any skill on a daily basis will see improvements. There is also absolutely no guarantee that the learners are not using additional strategies to achieve success.

‘Progressive teaching’ champions ‘learning by doing’, so the child who learns how to read ‘lion’ (whole-word recognition as the shared patterns within ‘action’, ‘vision’ and ‘onion’ denote different sounds) through the book which describes life as a lion; the nature of the lion; the challenges faced by the lion, is learning beyond the letters and the words. Ideally, they are accessing, exploring and discovering the words-linked-with-meaning with support and guidance from the author, the pictures, their own experience and that of others helping with their word-decoding skills and understanding of the meanings behind the words. Reading is, ultimately, the ability to extract meaning from text. To stifle reading by steering clear of irregular spellings, is surely restricting access to ‘machines’ ‘swans’ and ‘unusual treasures’.

Furthermore, extracting meaning from text allows for priming. ‘Treasures’ will prime ‘diamonds’ whilst ‘July’ will prime ‘August.’ This means that those learners who are struggling with reading (possibly 10 – 20% in every classroom), who, when faced with an unknown word (such as ‘treasures’), are interrupted from following the meaning of the text by the distraction of employing a sound-to-letters chunking and interpretation route into reading, are losing out on word-prediction.

The irregularities in English spellings not only mean we have the ‘said’ ‘maid’ ‘played’ and ‘weighed’ confusions, we also have the ‘rowed’ ‘road’ and ‘rode’ spellings to addle our brains. A reader might decode ‘peace’ correctly, but do they think it means ‘peace’ ‘piece’, or ‘peas’?

I work with children who are struggling with reading. They attend schools where their peers are doing well, where a staple diet of phonics is provided, where their parents have tried everything to engage, support and develop their reading acumen. These children blossom when they are given alternative and varied routes into reading. Soon, they even ask to do reading, and are themselves happier, chattier and more confident.

I would welcome the opportunity to have my methods researched, promoted and match-funded in order to access more children to success, but I have no friends in high places, nor have a reading method which enables publishers to make lots of money.

One size does not fit all. By promoting a singular approach to reading (whatever it might be) based on research which claims to provide benefits solely achieved through the use of that one and only influence, is appalling.

Phonics is a vital ingredient of reading, but if it drowns out whole-word recognition; the use of context to guess words through meaning; the freedom for the brain to use a variety of tactics and tools to access text; the confidence to tackle reading through different routes; and self-esteem, then it is an oppressor, not a saviour, for the cause.