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'
Teachers and the alphabet
In another posting here (The Knowledge Deficit) I commented on teacher reluctance to engage with up-to-date knowledge about the teaching of reading – preferring instead to stick to the mixed-methods approach of teaching children to word-guess from clues. This is essentially the same methodology that has characterised the teaching of reading in this country for a hundred years or more. And exactly the same approach that has consistently led to about one in five children being excluded from the state of fully-functional literacy.
In that posting I was directly critical of those teachers who bury their heads in the sand and refuse to engage with the professional knowledge needed to teach systematic, synthetic phonics. In the hope that my article might prompt – directly or indirectly – some teachers to seek out that knowledge I provided some signposts to places where they could usefully begin to learn.
In this posting I want to point to what I think is the essential first base for phonics teaching – the area of understanding that I believe is fundamental to effective phonics teaching. That area of knowledge is a proper understanding of the alphabetic code.
There are several elements to that full understanding, but the first step is a firm grasp of the fact that in any word the alphabet is used to encode the sound of that word when spoken. The concept of representation is key – the letters don't 'make' sounds; they encode phonemes. As those pioneers, Hunter Diack and J C Daniels so colourfully put it more than sixty years ago: "An alphabet is a system of symbols for sounds and these symbols are written down in the order in which the sounds are made. A printed word is a time-chart of sound."
When that concept has been properly internalised, the next step is to learn how this is realised in our own sound-spelling system (in practice studying how it is achieved will also help to embed the concept). The best resource for this is a chart that clearly shows the set of GPCs to be found in English spelling. Resources like this are widely available. Debbie Hepplewhite has prepared a range of them and has generously made them freely downloadable from http://alphabeticcodecharts.com/free_charts.html
This grasp of the 'go of it' – the way the spelling to sound system works in English – is clearly fundamental to the successful teaching of phonics. It is at the core of the essential professional knowledge. But it has an additional value too – it helps to inoculate teachers against many of the myths, misrepresentations and misunderstandings that populate the arguments of the anti-phonics brigade.
For example, I don't suppose many days pass without one teacher or another popping up on Twitter to pose a rhetorical question about how this or that word could 'work' in phonics. It is in the nature of these comments that they are not posted in search of enlightenment – their purpose is that of a self-satisfying 'put-down', a smug demonstration that 'phonics doesn't work'. No teacher who has really understood the alphabetic principle could be taken in for a moment. The success of those tweets depends on a ready audience amongst teachers who haven't got a firm grasp of our sound-spelling system.
Often similar in intention are attempts to use the history of English spelling as an argument against phonics. This is usually done by taking the spelling of some particular words and showing that their spelling is somehow 'wrong' – for example because the spelling was fixed as a result of a misunderstanding of etymology. Now the history of spelling is interesting in its own right – and for children in Key Stage Two and onwards it can be rewarding and instructive. It can also help to illuminate GPC charts. But, all too frequently, bits of spelling history are used to muddy the waters around the teaching of reading – to suggest that spelling is often idiosyncratic, capricious and disconnected from the sound of the spoken word. Once again, teachers who have mastered the concept and details of the sound-spelling system can see at a glance when stories about the derivation of spelling are being used not to enlighten but to misdirect and mislead.
A firm understanding of the alphabetic principle is, of course, not the only professional knowledge a teacher needs to teach phonics successfully. But without that understanding teachers will never become effective teachers of reading – firstly because they do not understand what it is that children need to learn and secondly because as teachers they are dangerously compromised by their susceptibility to anti-phonics propaganda that sets out to undermine confidence in phonics.
Because the sound-spelling system is such an essential starting point, it would be sensible for all initial teacher education courses on the teaching of reading to begin by thoroughly establishing the alphabetic principle – and explicitly exposing the falsity of the many arguments put up against it. This seems to me essential – but so far I haven't heard of any ITE courses that approach things that way.
As I pointed out in my last posting, the Teachers Standards (that lay down the minimum requirements for teachers' practice and conduct) say that teachers must "if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics". If teachers who need it don't have a clear understanding of the alphabetic principle and its application in English spelling, then it seems to me that they are not even at first base in terms of meeting that requirement.
Mike Lloyd-Jones 18 February 2017