Young children have to
develop 'phonological awareness' before they can learn phonics
(Ehri, 1975; Goswami and Bryant, 1990; Lundberg et al., 1988)
Simplistic views of learning to read and write tend to present the start of
these processes as the matching of spoken sounds to written signs. However, young children are not aware of
speech as being separable into its constituent phonemes (the very smallest units of speech sound that make a
difference to word meaning). Neither are
adults, unless they read and write using an alphabetic writing system. Phonological
awareness (awareness of speech as, in principle, separable into units of
sound) does not come naturally, but has to be learned. Developing awareness of individual phonemes
is more abstract and difficult for children than learning to recognise whole
written words. But, if children are to
become independent learners, a grasp of the phonological basis of our writing
system is essential.
of an awareness of speech as sound is an essential part of a programme of
initiating young children into the written word.
is developed, at least in part, through
the process of learning to read
Learning in this area is not as straightforwardly linear as many people assume
it is or should be. [See also section (b)].
Children are disposed to learn to identify whole words that hold some
meaning for them before they learn to identify phonemes (the smallest units of
speech sound that make a difference to word meaning). But as they learn to recognise more written
words, children can be helped to attend more closely to their component
letters, especially those at the beginning.
With support, in a context of reading interesting texts, children can become
increasingly aware that spoken words are composed of sequences of sound, that
relate to letters.
Introducing young children to the process of reading should not be delayed
until they have a fully developed phonological awareness. Children need support on a broad front: to
develop their interest in the meanings created through writing, and to support
their attempts at whole word recognition (in the context of familiar and
predictable texts) as well as to help them develop an awareness of speech as
sequences of sound.
The development of
phonological awareness in young children is a slow whole to part process, culminating in an awareness of individual
phonemes, usually about a year after starting to learn to read.
(Treiman, 1985; Goswami and Bryant, 1990; Moustafa, 1997)
It is not obvious to children even that language is made up of words, and that
utterances are sequences of separable words.
Most four year olds possess a complex command of grammatical structures,
demonstrated in their rule bound and inventive utterances, such as 'I seed
three sheeps in the field'. But this
grammatical knowledge is implicit, not explicit: young children find it hard to
think or talk about language, preferring instead to focus on the meanings they
create through language.
The act of following printed text while it is being read aloud contributes to
developing this awareness, as do repeated rhymes and word games. Paradoxically, syllable recognition appears
to be rather easier, perhaps because of more obvious rhythmic cuing. But recognising the units below the level of
the syllable is an altogether more problematic business than either word or
syllable recognition. Terminal
phonemes such as the /d/ in 'mud' are hard and the vowels harder still, as
is shown in young children's spelling such as 'spmn' for 'Superman'. However, simple initial consonants are
relatively easy, as are the rhyming parts of one-syllable words.
This has led to the practice of initiating children into phonics through
attention to onset and rime patterns
in written and spoken words - that is the part of simple one syllable words
before the vowel (the onset) and the part from the vowel onwards (the
rime). So 'cat' is split into 'c' +
'at', yielding elements rather more easily pronounced than individual phonemes. These elements are also better suited to
English spelling and take better account of regional accents than does an
attempt to match individual letters to individual phonemes. Learning the 'ar', 'all' and 'ast' rimes is a
better aid to identifying new words such as 'fall' or 'cast' than is the
'sounding out' strategy, which depends on each letter having a constant value.
When children have a grip on simple onsets and rimes, they can be introduced to
more complex ones, such as 'str' + 'ing' and 'sh' + 'ould'. They can also be helped to identify every
phoneme in such complex onsets, which will assist their early moves towards
accurate spelling. However, splitting
rimes into their individual phonemes is not always so productive in English, as
in words such as 'call', the value of the vowel letter depends on the
consonants that follow it.
Student teachers need to be helped to incorporate attention to onset and rime
in their work, both with children in the very early stages of learning to read and
write, and with those who need to learn to recognise and reproduce the more
complex spelling patterns of English orthography. They need to understand that splitting an
apparently simple word such as 'cat' into its component phonemes is not a
straightforward matter for young children, (and is certainly not the best
starting point for learning to read) and that familiarity with such rime
patterns as 'ight' should help many older children learn to recognise new words
more readily and spell them more reliably than exclusive attention to
individual phonemes would allow.
Teaching can accelerate
The idea of 'reading readiness' - that teachers should wait until children have
a mental age of 6, or can identify the phonemes in 'cat' before starting to
teach them to read - is now disproved.
Young children can learn much about literacy through sharing texts with
adults. Part of this learning should
develop their phonological awareness. As
they listen to stories read aloud, two and three year old children come to see
a stream of speech as separable into individual words. Through 'syllable clapping' of their names or
favourite words, they develop their awareness of words as composed of smaller
units of sound. Through rhymes, tongue twisters and other word play, they come
to see how even smaller units can be identified, played with and combined in
different ways. Children 'trained' in
these ways show a keener awareness of onset and rime than those without such
training, and learn to read more quickly and effectively.
teachers develop repertoires of activities that will develop children's
phonological awareness, while not compromising their enjoyment of written text
or their sense of its power and usefulness. This important area of learning
needs to be made enjoyable rather than the chore that it can become if
conceived and presented too rigidly.
As well as phonological
awareness, to learn to read and write in English, children need to learn the letters
of the alphabet, and the alphabetic principle - that letters and combinations
of letters can represent speech sounds systematically.
Of course phonics learning involves more than phonological awareness. Letter knowledge matters too. In order to read independently, to identify
new words on the basis of their spelling, children need a degree of
phonological awareness together with knowledge of the relations between letters
and speech sounds.
As part of a wider initiation into literacy, children need to participate in
engaging activities to enable them to relate the initial phonemes (which should
be simple onsets or simple vowels, as below) of interesting words to the
letters of the alphabet that represent them.
There is no clear
evidence for the superiority of either Synthetic
Phonics, which starts with the smallest sound/symbol relationships and
builds on these, or Analytic Phonics,
which starts with whole words, then progresses to syllables, and the
sub-syllabic units of onset and rime, eventually reaching the smallest
(National Reading Panel, 2000; Juel and Minden-Cupp, 2001)
Assertions about the superiority of synthetic phonics are not supported by hard
evidence. Research projects should be
examined critically in terms of:
- the soundness of their methodology (Are experimental and control
groups fairly matched in every respect except for the approach to teaching
- the validity of their criteria for success (Is success judged
solely in terms of word, or even nonsense word recognition, or is reading for
- the freedom from bias of the investigation (Do the investigators
have, for example, a financial interest in a particular outcome?).
An example of research
that fails to meet these criteria is the 'Clackmannanshire' research of
Johnston and Watson (2004, 2005). This
is nevertheless cited approvingly by the report of the Rose Committee, set up
to advise the Secretary of State for Education and Skills for England on the
best way to teach early reading (Rose, 2006).
Johnston and Watson endeavoured, in a small Scottish Local Authority, to
demonstrate the superiority of synthetic phonics over analytic phonics in the
early stages of learning to read. But in
their experimental study with the first two years of schooling, Johnson and
Watson failed to:
- ensure a fairly matched
'analytic group', taught with enthusiasm and structure equal to that of the
teachers of the experimental group;
- demonstrate an absence of bias, since both
investigators had published material for use in a synthetic phonics programme.
In their seven year
study (2005) in which they involved all the children in one age cohort, the
effect of the synthetic phonics teaching was obscured by a number of other
initiatives adopted by the LA, including the distribution of large numbers of
new books, a focus on developing thinking skills, an ambitious home-school
liaison programme, extensive professional development in literacy teaching for
all teachers, and a rigorous system of monitoring all children with support for
the lower achievers.
However, the vaunted
three-year superiority of the synthetic cohort rested on a test of word
recognition. They scored much less well
on tests of comprehension. And in the
National Tests of reading taken in their last year of primary school, these
children did not score significantly better than their predecessors. In its subsequent inspection report on
Clackmannanshire, HMI observed that performance in reading was 'below the
average for comparator authorities' (HMIE, 2003).
Meanwhile, Juel and Minden-Cupp have provided sound evidence of the superior
success of a structured phonics programme including both onsets and rimes, and
the sounding and blending of phonemes within the rimes.
A principled combination of analytic and synthetic approaches is the best
classroom approach to phonics - one that
fits both the pattern of children's developing phonological awareness and the
spelling patterns of English.
Phonics alone will not unlock written
English. Children need to attend to
other aspects of English orthography, such as rime patterns.
(Ziegler and Goswami, 2005; Castles, 2006)
[See also section (a)] Castles is one of a number of investigators who have
proposed a 'dual route' model of reading.
In this two-path model, the straightforward phonological path, operates
through individual letters or pairs of letters representing single phonemes,
and readily yields words such as 'cat' and 'dog'. This is the route amenable to a phonic
approach. For many languages with
simpler orthographic systems, this path is enough: it does for Finnish and
Spanish. But the orthographic complexity
of English means that this path does not take you to the pronunciation of such
common words as 'one' and 'two', or even 'ball' and 'fast'.
So a number of researchers
have proposed an additional orthographic path for reading English. This means that to identify such words, the
reader draws on a repertoire of spelling patterns representing units larger
than the individual phoneme. Ziegler and Goswami (2005) argue that a range of
units of different sizes must be considered, such as the rimes of words (the
'all' in 'call' and the 'ast' in 'fast') or even, as with 'one' and 'two', the
whole word. They see the business of
identifying words in English to be a matter of attending to varying 'grain
size', that is to units of different sizes, from individual graphemes, to
complex rimes and morphological units.
It is vital that we do not teach phonics as the only
strategy for identifying written words.
they meet more complex words, children learning to read English tend not to
restrict themselves to a simple phonic approach, but to use a wider range of strategies.
(Brown and Deavers 1999; Goodman et al., 2005)
It is instructive to look at what children actually do when they come across
words that don't obey simple phonic rules.
Brown and Deavers have shown that children learning to read English do
not limit themselves to processing words one grapheme at a time, but instead
adopt 'flexible unit' size strategies, complementing synthetic phonics with
attention to rimes, syllables and whole word patterns.
Children also use other kinds of linguistic knowledge to identify words. Decades of work on 'miscue analysis' by Yetta
Goodman and colleagues, through observational studies of children in ordinary
classrooms tackling normal classroom texts, have shown that, to identify
problem words, children learning to read make use of semantic and syntactic
cues from the surrounding text to supplement the information from the letters
(Goodman et al., 2005).
Student teachers should observe what children do as they puzzle words out and
help them build on productive strategies rather than dismissing them.
Analogy is a
powerful learning strategy for young children, particular for the learning of
While adults may learn from having principles, or rules defined and explained,
this tends to be less fruitful with young children than an appeal to their
powers of analogy. A child who can
recognise the word 'cold' can use analogy, together with her knowledge of
simple onsets, to recognise words such as 'bold' and 'told'.
It is highly productive to draw children.s attention to analogies between known
and unknown written words. It can also
be useful to help them group words by their onset/rime structure, and to point
out similarities with phrases such as .It's like ... A list of known words sharing the same rime
structure can be followed by a couple of 'unknown' words, with challenges such
as: 'If you know these words, I bet you can tell me what these are'.