Phonics study hopes to end reading wars once and for all
The researchers found that while phonics was a key component, it was not enough on its own. (Flickr: Presidio of Monterey)
A new scientific study that aims to end the so-called reading wars has found that phonics is an essential foundation in the early stages of learning to read, but it is only part of the approach.
The paper said the battle between phonics and a whole language approach had become too politicised and they hoped their findings would resolve the issue once and for all.
But an end to hostilities could seem optimistic, with some educators still maintaining their opposition to structured phonics screening checks.
In the one camp are those who advocate what is known as a “whole language” approach, and in the other, those who favour “phonics”, which involves sounding out words.
But the new study done by a team of Australian and UK academics has found a combination of both works best.
‘Stop setting up two camps’
Professor Anne Castles from Sydney’s Macquarie University, who was on the study team, told AM the purpose of the paper was not to reignite the reading wars, but to put an end to them.
“There is an enormously large body of science on how children learn to read … and how best to teach them,” she said.
“Stop setting up two camps and letting that get in the way of really looking at the evidence about how children learn to read.”
The researchers surveyed over 300 existing journal articles and books.
They found that while phonics was a key component, it was not enough on its own, with children needing to move from identifying individual sounds to whole words or sight words, together with comprehension.
“Phonics was a really key, essential foundation at the very start of learning to read … but phonics is just the foundation, it’s just the starting point,” Professor Castles said.
“There’s voluminous evidence that shows that phonics is important.
“What we’ve tried to give is the principles why that’s the case, and the reason that’s the case is because of the way written language is structured.
“It’s structured around representing sound, so it makes sense to teach that to children — let them know how the writing system is set up and then they can crack the code.”
‘There doesn’t need to be a reading war’
Professor Castle said the reading wars had got in the way of teaching children to read.
“It’s become politicised; it’s become a case of ideology rather than science,” Professor Castle said.
“It’s become about which side are you on, rather than taking the evidence in its entirety.”
Rewards for reading won’t build a love of reading in children, Dr Street says. (Flickr: Enokson)
But negotiating a ceasefire in the reading wars might not be so simple, as much debate still rages, even about the type of phonics that should be used — synthetic or analytic.
Dr Paul Gardner, senior lecturer in Literacy Education at WA’s Curtain University, said the reading wars had caused much tension and conflict in education.
“Most literacy advocates would advocate a broad, mixed approach to the teaching of early reading, acknowledging the importance of phonics as one strategy in that approach,” Dr Gardner said.
“I think it has become politicised because there is a particular strand of people that are pushing this particular approach as a panacea — it is not a panacea, it is not the golden bullet.
“Whilst this paper acknowledges the importance of phonics, as do most people, it also recognises that phonics in isolation will not help children to read; that it must be embedded in a much broader approach.”
He said the problem was with those who advocate phonics as the only approach.
“That has been the position by some people, certainly in the UK, and I see that kind of stance being taken up in Australia as well,” he said.
Dr Gardner said teachers were not confused; most literacy experts are already on board with phonics as part of a broad mixed approach to the teaching of early reading.
But it was people outside primary literacy education who were dictating what needs to be done, he said.
“They tend to be people with no classroom experience … from speech pathology, cognitive psychology and think thanks,” Dr Gardner said.
“And they’ve hit upon a particular approach that’s quite simplistic and they’re trying to impose this on teachers, parents and students.”
Study co-author Professor Castle said teachers were not given enough training in the science of learning to read.
“The evidence that we have … [is that] some schools are doing absolutely outstanding phonics instruction, but there are other classrooms where what counts as phonics instruction isn’t really systematic or explicit enough,” Professor Castle said.
She said that due to a lack of training, what some teachers consider to be enough phonics training is actually insufficient.
“For many, many children, they’ll get there anyway,” she said.
“Many children will learn to read well regardless of the methodology, but it’s those children that might have a propensity to struggle … they’re the ones we know benefit most from really explicit phonics instruction.”
Professor Castle thinks it is important to take a national approach, as the UK has done, to ensure an appropriate level of phonics instruction in every school.
But Dr Gardner is concerned by the Federal Government’s moves to implement a national Year 1 phonics screening check because, he said, it was a flawed method of assessing student outcomes.
He said the push towards synthetic phonics also tended to be supported by commercial enterprises promoting decodable books.
“There is profit to be made in this particular approach,” he said.
“If you take a much broader approach to the teaching of early reading, you actually take it out of the economic sphere.”
Federal Education Minister Simon Birmingham is urging all states to get on board with phonics screening, saying bipartisan support for a recent South Australian trial demonstrates politics can be put aside.
“We hope and trust across Australia schools increasingly embrace an orderly, structured program that puts all of the relevant building blocks in place, including phonics,” he said.