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'

Roof-top protest about phonics

The sentence in the child’s book is ‘The man got on his horse’ but the child reads aloud “The man got on his house”. This reveals that the child is over-reliant on phonics.

You’ve probably come across this old chestnut before because it’s a genuine example of an argument used by supporters of the whole-language movement to demonstrate the importance of multi-cueing and to expose the limitations of phonics.

Let’s start at the beginning. The child who mis-reads ‘house’ for ‘horse’ is allegedly over-dependent on phonics. Now, some of us think that actually the mistake emerges from insufficient phonics but let us agree to put that to one side for a moment and move on to the next stage of the whole-language analysis which is to assert that the substitution of ‘house’ for ‘horse’ reveals that the child is not reading for meaning. Presumably because the idea of a ‘man on a house’ does not make sense. This analysis is not entirely convincing. You and I have all seen a man on a house; we would probably say we had seen a ‘man on a roof’ but I don’t know that young children should be expected to conform to this usage.

But, once again, let us put our reservations to one side and persevere with the way the whole-language theorists want us to see it. Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that ‘The man got on his house’ is self-evidently nonsense and put ourselves in the shoes of a ‘mixed methods’ teacher. The sentence that the child has supplied doesn’t make sense so we have to ask the child to think again.

But how exactly is this re-thinking to proceed? The only thing in the sentence that tells us that ‘The man got on his house’ is wrong is the letters in the final word. But directing attention to those letters would, according to the whole-language diagnosis, only reinforce the child’s alleged over-reliance on phonics. So what is the child to do?

I know, let’s ask him to read the sentence again from the beginning. And this time he gives us, “The man got in his house”. Now that, according to whole-language thinking, is progress. The sentence now makes sense. It isn’t correct of course but perhaps that doesn’t matter. In fact it had better not matter, because it’s very hard to help the child to put it right without pointing out that the child is not paying sufficient attention to the letters in the words. And since we’ve diagnosed the problem as over-dependence on phonics we can’t be seen to be admitting that phonics is needed to get the sentence right.

Well, still in the shoes of the whole-language teacher, perhaps the cue of prediction can help here. “The man got on his….?” And it turns out this useful prompt enables the child to complete the sentence differently “The man got on his… bike”. Damn and blast! No, let’s be patient and persevere. We can suggest he tries again (“The man got on his…?”) but it turns out that there are a large number of alternatives that the child can suggest – feet, knees, computer… Now it happens that none of those words has a spelling that is remotely like ‘horse’ but we can’t tell him that, because, according to the whole language analysis, it’s looking at those bloody letters that’s got him into this mess in the first place.

This whole-language approach is all turning out to be rather difficult, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that a text is “jointly constructed by the author and the reader” so perhaps it doesn’t really matter if the man is on his house, rather than his horse.

So let’s suggest that the child turns over the page and – Oh Thank God! There’s a picture of the man on his horse! I can tap the picture of the horse meaningfully on its hindquarters and say again “The man got on his…?”

“Horse!” says the child. Oh, what a relief. His reading is really coming on.

Okay, I can now step out of the mind-set of this imaginary whole-language teacher and I admit it feels good to escape. All that getting the child to look here, there, and everywhere except in the right place felt rather silly. But that’s because the multi-cueing strategy inevitably leads to silliness. The fact of the matter is that unless the act of reading is sidestepped altogether (as it is when the picture clue is used) then the clues won’t work because by and large these clues only present themselves to the minds of those who don’t need them. Time and time again the clues so firmly believed in by the whole-language theorists only exist when you already know what the text says. Of course the clue of context tells you that the man got on his horse (rather than say his bike, or his phone or the ladder) when you already know that ‘horse’ is the final word in the sentence.

Now the whole-language theorists might tell us that context would eventually work as a clue because if the child reads further on he will discover that what the man got on was a four-year-old chestnut filly that last Tuesday romped home in the Whole Language Handicap at Kempton Park. Well, all right not that, but some other words that will point the child to the realisation that the man isn’t on his house at all but on his horse and enable him to go back to the previous page and self-correct.

But, in my imaginary scene – invented yes, but entirely plausible - the child has already tried the strategy of ‘read on and then return to self-correct to make sense’. And as a result the child provided ‘The man got in his house.” So the use of context to correct an earlier mistake has already been tried. And it failed. And, come to that, why should the whole language teacher assume that the child will only apply the contextual strategy to correct previous words? Why shouldn’t the child attempt to preserve meaning by applying the same strategy to ‘correct’ the words coming next? (the words that are supposed to make him realise it’s not a house but a horse). So when he does go on to where on the next page it says the man’s horse was trotting, he could be entitled to self-correct this to the man’s house was rotting. Or, for that matter, that the man’s house was ‘beautiful’ – after all the letters in the words are apparently the last thing he’s supposed to rely on.

And all this mess and confusion starts from the bone-headed assumption that a child who reads ‘house’ for ‘horse’ is over-reliant on phonics… How long will this kind of nonsense persist before teachers understand the folly of pointing the children in every direction except the right one? The letters in the words.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 17 September 2013