When Phonics Falls on Deaf Ears by Diane Philipson

I began teaching in NSW, Australia, in 1964 and always used phonics, though at that time systematic synthetic phonics had not been thought of. In those days, it seemed that children simply learnt to read and whole classes of older children with reading problems were something for the future. In the mid 70s, we were told by the Department of Education, to no longer use phonics. To my knowledge, we all continued, behind closed doors. That no doubt skewed results, as children were learning to read with phonics, while the powers-that-be thought they were learning without phonics.

I retired from teaching in 1999, studied linguistics and developed a reading scheme of my own. In the following years, hundreds of children came to me and other teachers I trained, for private lessons.List-4-Sight-Word-Bingo-Card-5

Recently, my grandson’s kinder teacher issued the following instructions: “Do not allow children to sound out the regular lists of sight words sent home.” This was all the more galling as, when his sister was in kinder four years ago with the same teacher, who was Reading Recovery trained, I had already spoken to her about the teaching of reading and offered her free use of synthetic phonics apps that a friend has developed. She showed no interest in the apps and there was no change in her method of teaching reading. (Fortunately, I had taught my granddaughter to read before she went to school, using my own systematic synthetic phonics method.) I am currently teaching my grandson at home and judge his reading to be outstanding for his age, yet the school half-yearly report shows him at a Basic level. (Basic at sight word reading, that is.)

logo55-140x461I have had an interview with the principal to explain my involvement with the teaching of reading, but he showed no interest, either. I attended the ‘Five from Five’ launch and emailed the report, as well as sending a hard copy to him. No response.

Yesterday, I received this from my friend who has a son in kinder in a Sydney school, closely associated with Sydney University:

“Home reading has started back from today. Please encourage your son or daughter to look at the whole word, “chunk” the word, reread from the start of the sentence and use the picture to support meaning-making. Just a reminder that ‘sounding out’ will be difficult now that the students are beyond lower level readers.”

Ironically, this friend is the developer of the synthetic phonics apps, which he would gladly supply free of charge.

It is unbelievable that the battle for the correct way to teach reading has been going on for more than half a century!

Diane Philipson

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6 thoughts on “When Phonics Falls on Deaf Ears by Diane Philipson

  1. Jocelyn Seamer

    Hi Diane. Thank you for your post. I often find myself wondering how these situations can exist when we have so much evidence about how to effectively teach reading. I have been so lucky to have excellent undergraduate training, then my early teaching experiences involved synthetic phonics and I have spent the last 4 year honing my skills in systematic synthetic phonics. These methods just seem so obvious to me. Not because it’s all that I’ve known, but because they WORK! I forget that we phonics supporters are somewhat on the fringe of the mainstream and have to remind myself of the fact from time to time. Well, I’m more than happy to be on the ‘fringe’ and engaged in good work that sees results for all students, not just some. Let’s hope that a way presents itself for the path ahead to be an enlightened one!
    All the best,
    Jocelyn Seamer

  2. Grace Vilar

    It is amazing to think that educators could have joined forces to support a conclusion that we now know was wrong: The inefficiency of the whole-language approach! Several researches have demonstrated that whole language system does not perform effectively. Research concludes that: mere exposure to written words, without any explicit training in letters and sounds, is not enough to allow for the discovery of spelling regularities. Second, the whole language method provides no ground for generalizing to new words. The mastery of reading lies, above all, in our ability to decode new words. Only the teaching of letter-to-sound conversion allows children to blosson, because only this method gives them the freedom to read novel words in any domain they choose.
    Results from studies support a conclusion: Teaching methods based on whole-language approach are systematically less efficient than phonics. Contrary to what is frequently claimed by whole-language advocates, tests reveal that children taught with a whole-language approach not only score below their grade level when reading new words, but are also slower and less efficient in sentence and text comprehension. This refutes the idea that phonics transforms children into robots unable to attend to meaning. The children with the best scores in decoding single words and pseudo-words also perform best on sentence and text comprehension.
    Fluent decoding is indispensable for comprehension. The faster the speech-to-sound route is automatized, the more a child will be in a position to concentrate on the meaning of what he reads.
    this is based on STANISLAS DEHAENE studies and analysis in the field of neuroscience and education phsycology.
    It is a shame that some educators , still support so inefficient methods such as sight words/whole language and mixed methods, it is a shame they do not listen to the studies of experts, such as Jim Rose or Stanislas Dehaene. …
    I strongly recommend to share The reading brain by S. Dehaene with educators and authorities!
    And….also…why don´t we listen to children….and ask them what is best for them?
    I always do it, and they have been my guide!

  3. Keryn Johnson

    Thanks Diane for yet more evidence to support the use of synthetic explicit phonics instruction. I have been teaching for nearly 30 years and sadly, I only discovered synthetic phonics five years ago. While I have always taught a very strong phonics base in my prep classroom, when it came to actually reading instruction, I would revert back to the whole language approach. Boy, was I wrong!!!! And the coloured words, or magic 100, or M110W or golden words – whatever you call them? I’ve since learnt most are decodable (and this can be done at what I call ‘Super Man speed’). So, the system of learning high frequency words needs to be changed too. When I discovered synthetic phonics by attending Maureen Pollard’s (creator of Little Learners Love Literacy) program, a light bulb went off and I’ve been a convert ever since. Of course, this new found discovery has changed my teaching practices forever and for the better! I no longer work in the school system, but run my own business where I teach pre-schoolers and Prep/Grade one students to read, write and spell successfully and easily using the synthetic phonics approach. The results that these children make speaks a thousand words about synthetic phonics. Yes, we still teach comprehension. As if we wouldn’t as it is part of learning to read. I’m with Diane – with all the evidence supporting synthetic phonics out there, can someone please tell me why it is in a small minority of schools?

  4. Debbie Hepplewhite

    Thank you everyone for your comments thus far.

    Sadly, even in England where systematic synthetic phonics has been promoted by successive governments for several years, and is now by description (but not by title), in the statutory national curriculum for English, nevertheless, many teachers and others still promote multi-cueing reading strategies and don’t appear to fully understand the dangers and detractions of multi-cueing reading strategies which amount to guessing words.

    Guessing words without phonics application, in any event, can only ever be at the level of the readers’ existing spoken language and cannot take them any further forwards to learn new vocabulary through the literature. Whilst MEANINGS of new words can be deduced through the overall context, without coming up with a pronunciation, such new words cannot be added to SPOKEN language.

    Please keep contributing to our blog and message forum – IFERI appreciates your support.

  5. Debbie Hepplewhite

    Someone has written to me via email in response to Diane’s guest blog posting. I have obtained permission to post the message here anonymously (for obvious reasons) – but I feel it is very important for readers of IFERI to understand how common it is even in schools that are supposed to be teaching the systematic synthetic phonics principles (statutory in England) for persisting with multi-cueing reading strategies (which are not part of the SSP teaching principles). See how heartfelt and upsetting this message is:

    “Dear Debbie,

    I’m very interested in all that you have to say about phonics teaching in schools and I’ve completed your course. Your views totally reflect my views which have developed out of many years experience as a T/A, trained in Dyslexia support. However, my opinions are not listened to. This has made me very frustrated and quite angry as I feel that I don’t have a voice!

    Our recent inspection rated us as good, and for some it seems, that is enough. However, it was noted that we need to improve in reading. My views exactly. I am keen to share and discuss PI with our senior leaders, but it seems they do not wish to, nor have the time to listen. We are a primary school with a large percentage of EAL children; many with non English speaking parents. We would, therefore, benefit enormously from teaching phonics well, throughout the key stages. I can see this as the only way to improve the literacy.

    I strongly feel that the children have the right to be taught phonics fully. I spend my days trying to undo bad reading habits and teach phonics in structured, cumulative programmes. Sadly, I’ve witnessed children leaving school in year 6 with very low reading ages. Still, we are training our staff to use Fischer Family Trust, a clone of Reading Recovery. Some children have had this intervention three times, with little or no effect in their progress. I have tried to express my views on this intervention to the advisor but have been shouted down. They continue to recommend it as the most effective intervention.

    Your course has helped me enormously with my wave 3 interventions and I am so pleased that at last, after many years, there is support out there. I am very happy to support IFERI in whatever way I can and do whatever it takes to further this important cause.

    Thank you for listening.”

  6. Rhonda Jessie Roe

    Dear Debbie,

    Hi from Western Australia.

    My heart bleeds for the T/A. I beg her/him to go back to Diane Philipson’s article and reread the bit that starts with, “Yesterday, I received this from my friend who has a son in kinder in a Sydney school, closely associated with Sydney University: …. Please encourage your son or daughter to look at the whole word, … Just a reminder that ‘sounding out’ will be difficult. ……” Groundhog Day!

    The problem is deep-seated, widespread and enduring. The solution is deep-seated, widespread and enduring belief that we can do something about the problem. Please Debbie let the T/A know that she/he is not alone in her/his struggle, as she/he tries to make a difference. Not one of us can, or should try, to change the system on our own. For our physical and mental health’s sake we must lean on each other, and trust that God’s in His/Her Heaven, and everything will work out as it should. DESIDERATA.

    My favourite antidote to despair is to read about the IFERI committee members. Yvonne Meyer’s story is wonderful. There is nothing in the world as tough as a mother on a mission to right a wrong done to her child. Go girl!

    Rhonda Roe

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