The Phonics Blog

A commentary on issues and topics relating to the teaching of literacy. By the author of 'Phonics and the Resistance to Reading'

Phonics and the Art of Bonsai

The trend today is towards the tiny. Smaller, leaner, thinner, lighter. Modern innovation and design is a restless drive to miniaturisation. But sometimes less is just….well, less.

In too many primary schools – perhaps it is the majority of those schools – the phonics teaching provided is a cut-down version of what children should be entitled to. The children are short-changed by a version of phonics which is fragmentary, partial and disjointed– and for so many the inevitable price of this cut-down teaching is stunted reading development.

A number of devices are typically used to pare down the phonics curriculum. One of them is to allocate insufficient time; phonics sessions of fifteen to twenty minutes are quite simply too brief to give children sufficient time to learn. To make matters worse, the time that is allocated is often cluttered with extraneous games and activities that divert the focus of the session away from what should be learned.

Another technique of the reductionists is to give too little emphasis in the phonics sessions to reiteration, practice, consolidation and application, so children never have the opportunity to take their learning beyond the superficial. Further dilution is achieved by creating a disconnection – a sort of cordon-sanitaire – between what is taught in phonics and work on reading and writing during the rest of the day. This is often compounded by the use of non-decodable books as home readers.

The teaching of phonics is further diluted by a lack of attention to what children are learning – mistakes and misconceptions are not rapidly picked up and corrected. When children are noticed to be making poor progress, schools are often slow to take action – and when action is taken, it is commonly in the form of poor-quality support. In some schools, setting is used not to narrow gaps in progress, but to legitimise and widen them.

But the most destructive trick of all is to water-down the phonics curriculum by teaching it alongside word-guessing, with phonics positioned as just as one strategy among many. This is fatal to the building of children’s confidence and success.

Two factors seem to me to be particularly at work in encouraging teachers to persevere with this pale imitation, which passes for phonics only in the eyes of those who lack the understanding and experience to know what children should be entitled to receive.

Firstly, teachers lack an understanding of the way in which the sound to spelling system works in English and their lack of knowledge prevents them from understanding the utility of phonics. They simply don’t see how it ‘works’ and they discount the value of phonics teaching because they don’t understand it. You don’t teach well something you don’t value and (equally relevant here) you don’t value something you don’t teach well.

Secondly, teachers seem remarkably unconcerned about the long-term impact of poor teaching of reading. They apparently take it for granted that many will make only poor progress and regard as fanciful the notion that something approaching 100% success should be taken for granted. Teachers often seem unaware of or indifferent to the life-long handicaps imposed by poor literacy skills. As a result too many teachers are not motivated to question the success of their traditional method of teaching reading and see no reason to believe that any changes would make much difference.

The consequence of all this is that, despite the clear requirements of the new National Curriculum, phonics is rarely taught as it should be – thoroughly and professionally. Children instead are palmed off with a watered-down and adulterated substitute for the good teaching to which children should be entitled.

The tricks of the bonsai gardener include such techniques as root reduction and defoliation. In too many primary classrooms the art of phonics teaching is the art of bonsai.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 28 May 2015