Sunday, 12 June 2016

Can phonics help us spell better?

Children’s author and high-profile opponent of phonics instruction, Michael Rosen recently wrote a blog casting doubt on the idea that learning phonics could help people spell. He was writing in response to an article written by Debbie Hepplewhite in Primary Matters. Here’s the extract with which he takes issue:

The job of teaching and applying the English alphabetic code for spelling is NOT done by the end of the infants – it is just the beginning of a long-term need to be attentive, and to get to grips with, English spelling as an ongoing part of reading and writing.*

Michael’s argument is that understanding the alphabetical code, or applying phonics knowledge as he interprets this, might help with spelling some words but is little help when trying to spell others.

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He says, “I know that these words can be sounded out and/or learned by sight (ie not totally and solely phonically) but if I come up with alternatives … how will phonics, and phonics alone help me choose the right one?”


It might be that Michael doesn’t know about comprehensive phonics teaching (or he probably wouldn’t have highlighted his list of words above. he may not be aware of spelling alternatives and pronunciation alternatives, and it’s possible that he has a limited understanding about the English alphabetic code and its complexities. On the other hand, it could be that as he has campaigned extensively against extensive phonics instruction he does know about all these things and is being disingenuous, but that would be an uncharitable reading of his position, so let’s assume he really wants an answer.

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The free Alphabetic Code Charts on this page demonstrate what teaching a comprehensive alphabetic code can look like. The words Michael mentions as being problematic actually aren’t. They are made up of code just like other words. If a student is finding them tricky it suggests they may need further instruction.

Phonics for spelling means continuing with oral segmenting (identifying the constituent parts from beginning to end of the spoken word) then allotting graphemes (letters and letter groups) that represent the sounds. Specific word banks and words do have to be taught in order to raise awareness of the spelling of the words, but oral segmenting and building up knowledge of spelling word banks has a lifelong utility. The more comprehensively children are taught the code, and introduced to the notion of spelling word banks, and the need to pay attention to tricky parts in specific words, the more attentive to the detail of spellings people can be when they are reading widely.

So, to reply to Michael’s question, “phonics alone” may not be enough to ensure children always choose the correct spelling option, but then nothing in what he reports Debbie as having said implies that this is something she either thinks or has said. What a thorough knowledge of the alphabetic code can do is make it easier to spell correctly.

Debbie’s point, as I understand it, is that phonics isn’t just ‘baby stuff’ and is worth continuing to teach beyond Key Stage 1. A good quality phonics programme will include phonemic awareness, vocabulary enrichment, fluency and comprehension as well as phonics instruction. Systematic Synthetic Phonics teaching explicitly covers knowledge of the alphabetic code and practice of phonics skills.

Whenever we come across an unfamiliar word in a text, our first strategy generally tends to be to phonically decode it. Try reading calceolaria integrifolia aloud. Most readers will not have these words as part of their working vocabulary and so you’ll try to sound them out. What did you need to know in order to do that?  What role in the spelling process
do letter names play?  What do literate adults commonly and sub-consciously think when they write  longer and more unusual words?

The vast majority of adults use some form of phonics for reading and spelling new, longer and more challenging words, but even literate adults habitually skip words they can’t be bothered to fully decode to the extent of giving the new words a pronunciation. Of course they can still deduce the meaning of any new words not pronounced, but deducing the meaning alone will not increase the vocabulary bank for one’s spoken language. We really struggle to remember words we don’t know how to pronounce.

As teachers we have little idea what happens in the private world of students – of all ages – when they read silently. Without good knowledge of the phonics code and decoding skill, how many pupils  ‘stall out’ and skip words habitually as vocabulary becomes increasingly challenging and beyond their spoken language?

At the end of his blog, Michael writes

If no one can back up Debbie Hepplewhite on this can someone at least offer me a suggestion for what it is she actually meant? By the way, does Debbie really mean that we have to go on doing phonics forever? I mean how long-term is ‘long-term’?

I hope this proves useful, but if he or anyone else still has questions about phonics, Debbie can be contacted here. I’m going to be taking a leaf out of Michael’s book and closing comments on this post to head off the trolls.

*Unfortunately the article isn’t aware online so we can’t see what else Debbie might have written.

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