The Importance of Phonics Instruction – Damian Mitchell
IFTS staff recently undertook professional development in teaching phonics. At the beginning of last term the junior school began to roll-out a program called MiniLit. MiniLit is an evidence-based, early literacy program that entails systematic and an explicit model for teaching reading skills. The foundation of this program is in phonics. The MiniLit program comprises lessons that are delivered in short 15 minute bursts twice a week. Each lesson comprises three main components:
Sounds and Words Activities
Story Book Reading
There is much debate and research that both favours and condemns the explicit teaching of phonics. 1 Phonics is about teaching the sounds made by individual letter or letter groups (for example, the letter “c” makes a k sound), and teaching children how to merge separate sounds together to make it one word (for example, blending the sounds k, a, t makes CAT).
Controversially, education has moved away from phonics as a pedagogical model for spelling and reading. It now leans toward an immersion philosophy where the strategy is something like; look at the pictures, what could the word mean and does it fit into the sentence, look at the first letter and guess. This strategy also underpinned the NSW Government Reading Recovery program which is now proven to be ineffective and they have finished the program.
For some of us, reading was not something that came naturally. The first thing we do as children is to talk and listen. Letters are the code to our writing and reading system and evolution did not equip us to read and write in the same way that it equipped us to listen and speak. There is a large amount of research that raises the question as to whether children need to be taught explicitly about how their writing system works and how it maps to the language they already know.
Over the last 5 years many schools rolled out a program called “Language, Learning & Literacy” or “L3” for those in the know. This program is also being wound back as results are showing its not a one-stop shop. The underlying pedagogy of L3 is strongly constructivist (children are their own interpreter of meaning and knowledge), exposing them to print and allowing them to discover its patterns and links to language.
L3 focuses on words, letters and sounds being chosen for explicit lessons from a given text. There is a strong emphasis on reading aloud to children and using ‘levelled’ readers for teaching and assessment. Research informs us that children’s readiness to master something can develop at different ages. Not all boys and girls are going to be ready to read a “Level 10 Reader” by age 6. Arguably the ‘levelled’ books are predictable picture books, where children who have no phonic awareness but rather, good guessing skills or sight- word reading that may slip through the gap. Schools have invested heavily in the the levelled reader model and this makes it hard to change course.
Whilst many literacy programs do have a phonics competence, in my opinion there are many that are not systematic. Systematic phonics is supported by cognitive science research on the processes that take place in the brain when children learn to read. This research shows that reading is not like speaking: “the human brain is not innately wired for reading to develop automatically with exposure to print. Making the cognitive connections between print, sound and meaning requires making physical neurological connections between three distinct areas of the brain”. (Wolf, M., Ullman-Shade, C. & Gottwald, S.)
Effective phonics instruction is important because letter-sound knowledge is the foundation needed to build up reading and writing abilities. Phonics builds on innate language and while some children create these neural connections relatively quickly, others require methodical, repeated and explicit teaching and this is why we feel Minilit provides a strong foundation for reading, writing and spelling.