A Phonic Tonic

The Clackmannanshire study was limited to a relatively short, but crucial period of education, the first sixteen weeks of primary school. The blending and word-building, referred to as “synthetic” phonics, took  just 20 minutes of each school day. The key research introduced by the paper in support of the approach is a series of studies of pre-school children by Byrne and colleagues that showed that simply exposing children to words did not enable them to grasp the alphabetic principle – “that symbols represent sounds”. This had to be taught, and once it was understood, later learning was  “robust”.  This explains the most remarkable result of the Clackmannanshire research, which was that the work of these sixteen weeks still had a significant effect on children’s word identification skills when followed up seven years later.

However, there is more to this than phonics, or indeed, than science. English spelling was changed radically by a huge influx of French words after the Norman conquest, and investigation of computerised dictionaries over the past twenty-five years has shown that around a third of English words are either identical to the French words, or very nearly so. In addition, William and his scribes were averse to any Anglo-Saxon influences, and developed the letter group “th” to represent the sound previously represented by single Anglo-Saxon letters, most often “thorn” (รพ).  This information can be presented in plain, child-friendly English – there is no need for Greek terminology – and gives children an accurate idea of how English spelling works.

Sites of the Norman Conquest 1066 Amitchell125

The key point is that, as we have so many more sounds than letters, letters sometimes need to work together to represent the full range of sounds. The idea of working together and helping each other is more easily understood by children than “grapheme-phoneme correspondence”, and it is worth pointing out that the use of such terminology in the National Curriculum is not statutory.  A clear and comprehensive description of the development of English spelling is contained in David Crystal’s Spell It Out. John Bald’s scheme, Slimmed Down Spelling, demonstrates a simple way of using the idea in practice.

John Bald’s explains how he stumbled into the ‘reading wars’ as far back as 1981, with a his critical review of Frank Smith’s “Reading” in the Times Educational Supplement.

“Smith had an entertaining  journalistic style, and his brilliant conference presentations had people in stitches and led to thunderous applause. One had to concentrate hard to remember the absence of evidence for nearly everything he said.”

John Bald

The review provoked a furious letter denouncing Bald for failing to see the obvious truth of Smith’s dictum “We learn to read by reading.” The exchange was widely noticed. It led to over a decade of hostility with most of the primary inspectors in the local authority, and with most – but not all – of those responsible for teacher training in the UK.  Smith had an ally in the Arizona academic Kenneth Goodman, who described reading as “a psycholinguistic guessing game”, in which we did not pay attention to individual letters and words, but constructed meaning as we went along by lightly sampling the print to confirm or reject our guesses.

The tide began to turn in the late 1980s with the research of Stanovich, Schatz and Baldwin, and Roger Beard, who demonstrated the fundamental errors in Smith’s and Goodman’s theories, and work in schools, including a survey by Sue Lloyd that associated successful teaching of reading with phonics in Norfolk, and St Clare’s, Birmingham, which won an award for successful reading teaching based on phonics.  The later stages of the revival of phonics are well-known and further documented in this paper, which accepts the validity of the Clackmannanshire study in Scotland that became the basis of the UK government policy of making phonics – blending and word-building – the basis of early reading teaching in schools. This is one of the review’s most important features, as it implies rejection of the criticisms of this study’s methodology by a series of academics, which John Bald discusses here.

These studies show that phonics plays a key role in enabling children to adjust their thinking as they add to their knowledge of spoken language the skills of communicating through symbols, confirming the analysis of the transition first advanced by L S Vygotsky in Chapter 6 of Thought and Language. It does not suggest that phonics are the whole story. Advanced devices for tracking eye movements have shown that fluent readers track text, and every letter in it, very closely, but fluent readers do not continue to sound out words one letter at a time.   A typical adult will read comfortably at more than 200 words per minute, and it is simply not possible to sound out three or more words per second.

The Clackmannanshire study clearly does not cover the study of reading beyond the initial stages and it is unfortunate that its results have been extrapolated in ways that give some people the idea that synthetic phonics are not the basis of learning to read, but the whole story. The authors say that, “to become confident, successful readers, children need to learn to recognize words and compute their meanings rapidly without having to engage in translation back to sounds,”  a point which raises two problems. First, how do they move from sounding out each word in order to begin to do this and, second, do we ever move completely to reading without reference to the sounds of words?

An important contribution to understanding the first part of this process is the late Katharine Perera‘s PhD, The Development of Prosodic Features in Children’s Oral Reading, Manchester 1989. By using an ingenious three-line stave to track the grouping of words and intonation, Professor Perera identified phrasing, rather than separate reading of words (sometimes called “barking at print”) as emerging once children could read  60 or more words per minute accurately,  which in her sample normally occurred around the age of six and a half. This link between fast, accurate word identification and fluency is one of the most valuable discoveries about reading in recent years, and the methodology of this thesis should be developed further. It ties in with Vygotsky’s identification, at around the same age,  of “inner speech”, the language in our minds whether or not we are communicating with others. Inner speech is maximally compact, containing all of the shortcuts we may wish to take, and it is almost certainly linked to the development of silent reading.

Katharine Perera receiving the Freedom of the Parish of Bowdon award in 2016

Whether, and how far, this involves identifying words independently of sound, or simply reproducing the sound in our minds, is an issue that may be impossible to resolve with the means currently at our disposal.  One hint comes from the study of English as a foreign language, which identifies stress patterns in words and sentences – one principal stress in each sentence, and one on a syllable in each polysyllabic word (photograph, photography, photographic). These stress features are crucial to the construction of meaning in English sentences and our communication is entirely dependent on them.

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