Sunday, 16 July 2017

Phonics Check Self Assessment: The Sequel

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a low-key self-assessment rubric, mainly as a conversation-starter for teachers and schools about current practices, knowledge, and beliefs pertaining to the teaching of phonics to beginning readers. Quite a few people contacted me with their views, and asked me to post "answers" to the questions I posed. 

So here goes: 

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?
This approach is at the heart of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). As noted in my previous blogpost, there are different approaches to phonics instruction, but they are not equally effective for beginning readers, and SSP is most likely to see more children off to a good start, especially those children whose progress is likely to be compromised by known or unknown vulnerabilities. Interested readers are referred to this excellent overview by A/Prof Deslea Konza, from ECU University.

See also this excellent brief video of A/Prof Konza discussing SSP instruction and its importance.
I am aware that some teachers say they find beginning reading instruction in this way “boring”. I have a pretty simple response to such teachers: in the nicest possible way, this is not about your needs, it’s about the needs of young children. I have seen great examples of early years teachers making SSP engaging and rewarding, so this really doesn’t wash. Perhaps teachers just need to feel more comfortable and confident with the approach.   
2. Do you use decodable texts as the starting point for children starting to read, or predictable texts?
It is one thing for children to be introduced to the process of reading via SSP, but it is another thing altogether for that initial teaching to be associated with the use of initial decodable texts. Decodable texts are pretty much what it says on the packet: books that contain words that are easily decodable by beginning readers. Such books provide opportunities to consolidate emergent knowledge of sound-letter links, so that these become more automatic for the beginning reader.
There are many commercially-available sets of decodable readers, such as Fitzroy Readers, Little Learners Love Literacy, Dandelion Readers, and Pocket Rockets
If your school has made the move to SSP, well done – that’s a significant step towards ensuring that more children emerge from the first three years of school as confident and competent readers. If, however, you are juxtaposing SSP with predictable texts, it is likely that your students are receiving mixed messages about the reading process, and may, as a consequence, develop some unhelpful early habits, such as “reading” from picture cues.
I have blogged previously about the uncritical acceptance of the importance of “authentic texts” for beginning readers. What does “authentic” even mean, and who decides which texts will be anointed with this descriptor? These are big questions that can sit on the table for now.  
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?
Three-cueing is a Whole Language zombie that can be found in many Australian classrooms. How many? Who knows, but it comes up often enough in my discussions with classroom teachers and parents, for me to be of the view that it is alive and well. I am happy to be presented with evidence to the contrary.
I encourage you to read Alison Clarke’s terrific summary as to why it is not aligned with SSP teaching. In fact, as pointed out by Professor Mark Seidenberg, in his 2016 publication, Language at the Speed of Sight, the Three Cueing strategy simply teaches the habits of poor readers, and why would we want to do that?  
4. Do you deal with sound-letter correspondences only “in context” rather than teaching these in isolation as a starting point?
As you would realise, SSP has a focus on early teaching of specific skills, in isolation, to reduce the cognitive and linguistic load imposed on young children early on in the reading process.
Any reference to teaching reading skills in isolation typically elicits protests from the Whole Language die-hards who fervently maintain that meaning making is at the heart of reading, or words to that effect. Meaning making is certainly at the heart of reading for skilled readers, but beginning readers need to familiarise themselves with the apparatus first.
5. Do you introduce lists of so-called “tricky” words (sight-words) to be learnt as wholes, early on in the reading instruction process?
The ultimate aim of reading is for most, if not all words, to become “sight words” – words that are instantly, and in fact, unavoidably recognised and understood as wholes. No-one wants to engage in the laborious and unrewarding task of sounding out every word in a sentence. That would result in poor fluency, low comprehension and a generally unrewarding experience.
However, that does not mean that the “fast track” to filling children’s brains with sight words is to present them with lists of words (in many cases with at least one irregularity in phoneme-grapheme correspondence from the perspective of the beginning reader), and requiring them to memorise them.
By all means, introduce sight words, but do so systematically, and via discussion with children about their composition. Most sight words contain some regular features, plus one or more irregular features. These can be discussed with and explained to beginning readers, as part of the word-study process and the wonder of learning about the origins of the English language.
6. Do you base your reading instruction around some version of “The Big Five” (phonics, phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency?
It must always be stressed that effective phonics instruction, and the knowledge of the alphabetic principle that it confers, is necessary but not sufficient for beginning readers. Beginning readers also need to be developing their phonemic awareness skills, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Some authors, such as A/Prof Deslea Konza, argue that we should upgrade the “Big Five” to the “Big Six”, to  specifically include oracy- see full-text of her excellent paper here. As a speech pathologist, I can’t argue with this position. Broader language skills (e.g. with respect to narrative language) contribute to, and are strengthened by, effective reading skills. Language and literacy have a symbiotic relationship, as I have described in detail in this open access 2015 paper.
7. Do you focus instruction around a “Letter of the Week”?
Many students arrive at school “knowing their letters”, e.g. as evidenced by the ability to recite the alphabet and/or to sing the Alphabet Song (the one that is sung to the tune of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, and annoyingly for us folk outside North America, has the final letter pronounced “Zee”). Knowledge of these 26 letters is a vital starting point, but as they need to work together to represent the 44 sounds that are used in English, teaching via a letter of the week is slow and cumbersome, and sometimes confusing for beginning readers. You can read more about this here. 

On the subject of letters, I was reminded too, by one of my Tweeps, that letters do not "make" or "say" sounds - they represent sounds, and often work in combination to do so, e.g., in digraphs such as th, ch, and sh

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?
It should be apparent from all I have written above that this is not a recommended approach. Parents are natural teachers of their children and are accustomed to breaking complex tasks down into manageable chunks. That is exactly the approach they should be encouraged to take with respect to early reading.
Sending decodable books home with parents encourages this natural approach and has a hidden benefit for parents whose literacy levels are low* – it makes the process of supporting their young child more enjoyable and achievable.

*This is also helpful to parents from non English-speaking backgrounds, who may, themselves, be learning to read in English. 
9. Do teachers in your school tell students that English is a “random” language (or words to that effect)?

This is yet another piece of Whole Language excess baggage and is incorrect. As I have explained in an earlier blogpost:
About 50% of English words do have a transparent orthography, meaning that they can be read by someone who understands letter—sound correspondences. A further 36% have only one sound that deviates (typically a vowel), 10% can be spelt correctly if morphology and etymology are understood, and a mere 4% cannot be decoded from knowledge of these principles.
Literacy experts should not be promulgating this myth. 

The "irregular" aspects of English spelling create more, not less need for explicit and systematic teaching.

I would be very pleased to add to / amend these responses on the basis of reader comments and feedback. The purpose of this blog is, after all, to share information and ideas.


You may also be interested in The Story of an Ugly Duckling: aka Phonics Check Furphies

(C) Pamela Snow (2017).


  1. Yes yes yes!! Thanks so much for putting so much crucial information into such a concise and easy to read format. I would love to just print this out and deliver it to every school in our area with a post it note saying: "Let this be your guide to making changes!!". With regards to point 5- I would love it if you or some of your very talented blog readers could provide some guidance or links to articles/blog posts that outline how to introduce sight words in a systematic manner, and with regards to whichever sight words are recommended to introduce first, some tips on how to explain the composition of these early sight words to our students who are very much only at the 'beginning reader' stage.

  2. Thanks for your encouraging response - I hope this post is of some use to you in your conversations with colleagues.

    On the subject of sight words, have a look at this by Alison Clarke, on her Spelfabet site:

    This was written by Professor Anne Castles (Macquarie University) and aroused quite some discussion at the time:

    Alison Clarke then wrote this piece in response to the debate around Anne Castle's piece:

    Happy reading!