Thursday, 6 July 2017

A Phonics Check of Another Kind

NB - I posted a "sequel" to this post on July 16. Like all good sequels, these blog posts are best read in order, so I'd suggest you start here. I suspect, though, that this is more of a circumquel than a prequel......

There has been much debate of recent times about the proposal to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check in Australia. I have blogged about this before so will not use space here going over the reasons why I think it is justified and a potentially important part of a response to the challenge of seeing more children across the bridge to reading success in the early years of school. The Phonics Check is not a “magic bullet” and any attempt by its detractors to portray this as the view of supporters is of course simplistic and a touch mischievous.

However, the purpose of this blog is to provide a rubric that primary schools can use to self-assess the extent to which they are “already doing phonics”, as is sometimes the response from schools, teachers, and other interest groups, who oppose the introduction of the Phonics Check on the grounds that current classroom practices render it redundant.

Before moving into this rubric, though, I think it is important to have some shared understandings of terminology and the fact that “phonics ain't phonics”. Simply asserting “we do phonics” or “phonics is in the mix” is not enough to ensure strong translation of scientific evidence into classroom practice. As outlined in this open-access explainer (scroll down to the link to whole issue), there are a number of different types of phonics instruction, and they have different levels of effectiveness for beginning readers.

So – assuming then that we have a shared understanding of what is meant by synthetic, analytic, embedded, and incidental phonics, let’s have a look at some questions schools can (and in many cases already do) ask themselves to assess the level of change in teacher knowledge and practice that may be indicated in order to better align classroom practices with the recommendations of three international inquiries into the teaching of literacy. Bear in mind too, that not one of these inquiries makes any reference to so-called “Balanced Literacy” which I have blogged about previously as a re-badging of business-as-usual Whole Language instruction, with some phonics “thrown in” as individual teachers see fit. In some classrooms, it no doubt represents a quantum shift away from Whole Language instruction, while in others, it equally assuredly represents little-to-no-change at all, in line with the fact that it does not have an agreed upon definition.

Here’s my rough do-it-yourself checklist that you might find useful as a starting point for discussion in your school or region. This is not a scientifically robust tool and nor does it pretend to be – it is simply a rough guide, based on discussions I have had with many primary teachers who have sought me out in the last two years in particular, to discuss their concerns about practices in their schools.

The first 9 questions concern classroom practices and the following 6 items focus on teacher knowledge/beliefs in your school.

Teacher practices
1. Does your reading instruction begin with the introduction of a small number of letter-sound correspondences, and explicitly (and gradually) teach children how to blend, segment, insert, and delete sounds in order to produce different words?

2. Do you use decodable texts as the starting point for children starting to read, or  predictable texts?

3. Do you employ a so-called “Three Cueing” process in which beginning readers are encouraged to “guess” unknown words they encounter while reading, with attention to the first letter and its corresponding sound used as a last resort?

4. Do you deal with sound-letter correspondences only “in context” rather than teaching these in isolation as a starting point?

5. Do you introduce lists of so-called “tricky” words (sight-words) to be learnt as wholes, early on in the reading instruction process?

6. Do you base your reading instruction around some version of “The Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency?

7. Do you focus instruction around a “Letter of the Week”?

8. Do teachers in your school discourage parents from helping their children “sound out” words they do not know when they are reading at home?

9. Do teachers in your school tell students that English is a “random” language (or words to that effect)?

Teacher knowledge/beliefs
1. Do teachers in your school have detailed and explicit*  knowledge of concepts related to early reading instruction?  Concepts to consider here include, but may not be limited to:

a. Phonological awareness
b. Phonemic awareness
c. Phonics
d. Alphabetic Principle
e. Phoneme
f. Phonemic blending, segmentation, insertion, deletion
g. Consonant
h. Vowel
i. Syllable
j. Stressed/unstressed syllables
k. Schwa vowel
l. Digraph, trigraph
m. Diphthong
n. Stop Vs continuant consonants
o. Short Vs long vowels
p. Morpheme - bound and unbound
q. Etymology

2. Can teachers in your school explain the characteristics of different types of phonics instruction (as per the explainer article mentioned in the link above)?

3. Do teachers in your school know how many sounds (as opposed to letters) are used in the English language?

4. Do teachers in your school believe that explicitly teaching decoding skills equates to a “drill and kill” approach to early reading?

5. Do teachers in your school espouse so-called “Balanced Literacy” as an appropriate pedagogical approach for early reading instruction?

6.     Are teachers in your school aware that there was a National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy in 2005, and of the recommendations it contained about early instruction and teacher knowledge?

As mentioned above, in recent years, I’ve been contacted by a number of teachers who are questioning the received wisdom of their classroom practices and in particular the utility of these practices for children who may not easily make their way across the bridge to early reading success – many of whom start from behind and stay behind.

This self-audit tool might come in handy as a basis for the discussions that many such teachers find challenging to initiate in their schools.

You know who you are.

There are strong ideological forces that make it difficult for you to be courageous and lift your head above the pedagogical parapet to signal your openness to change. You are to be applauded however, for your  insights and determination to do better by reflecting on, and potentially changing, your knowledge and teaching practices.

As a researcher, it’s my job to do what I can to support you.

* Explicit knowledge is knowledge that we can talk about, explaining underlying rules and principles. Implicit knowledge, on the other hand, is an understanding that something is “right” or “wrong” but without the ability to articulate a rule that has been violated. For example, when shown the sentence “The boys goed to the beach” most adults would agree that it is grammatically incorrect, but not all can articulate that it is incorrect because the past tense of “go” takes an irregular verb form “went”. This requires explicit knowledge of grammar.

(C) Pamela Snow (2017)


  1. Hi Pamela,

    Thank you for your informative posts on reading instruction.

    I like this rubric of questions. If I've been reading the research correctly, schools should be able to answer the first 9 questions as follows:
    1. Yes
    2. Yes
    3. No
    4. No
    5. No
    6. Yes
    7. No
    8. No
    9. No

    If this is not correct, please advise (or append with an answer key).


    Chris Lightfoot, SLP

  2. Hi Chris thanks for your interest and comment. I'll write a follow-up post in a week or so - hoping for some discussion etc in the Twittersphere in the meantime.
    I'll definitely get back to this though.
    Cheers, Pam

  3. Interesting ideas, I'm looking forward to reading your other posts. As a balanced literacy proponent, I'm particularly looking forward to reading more about your thoughts on balanced literacy. Indeed phonics is an important part of reading instruction. In fact, it is inseparable from direct reading instruction in lower grades. However, I like to think of phonics having a place throughout a balanced literacy day, so student have a chance to revisit the skills, apply the skills, and most importantly see the skills in contexts of meaningful literature in other moments of a literacy day. Examples include during guided reading, writing workshop, mentor text, and read alouds. When students have the opportunity to interact with the phonics skills multiple times, in multiple ways their learning becomes more permanent. I'm looking forward to reading your other posts. Thanks for sharing.
    Kendra Strange

  4. Hi Kendra
    Thanks for engaging - I will also be interested to hear and understand more of your views too. As you will see from my recent post on Balanced Literacy, one of my chief concerns abut it is its lack of specificity, meaning that it is open to wide interpretation by schools and teachers. I would like to see more consensus and rigour around the early introduction of phonics as a learning tool for beginning readers, with an understanding of course, that phonemic awareness, vocab, comprehension, and fluency all require a close focus as well.
    Thanks for making contact and joining the conversation.

  5. This is exactly the information I needed. Many thanks!

  6. I agree with Castles Et al (2017) that balanced literacy should be reclaimed, properly.
    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the importance of the language of the book and how reading itself is one of the most efficient ways to improve reading - once foundational skills are in place.
    In my view, balanced instruction is where shared story reading with quality literature is taught alongside systematic phonics; where children are given access to a range of appealing reading material they can choose to engage with whilst also continuing to advance their morphological awareness and vocabularies through explicit instruction.
    Castles et al (2017) argued that there was room for a judicious selection of sight words to be taught and that this does not undo the hard work of phonics instruction.
    Balanced literacy to me means teaching the skills but also ensuring that children are motivated to read and understand the many benefits of reading to both their present and future selves.
    The year 4 slump is still occurring even when systematic phonics has been taught and when children have attained a basic level of skill.
    We need to listen to the science but we also need to continue questioning.