Where do you stand on phonics?

Donna Thomson Oct. 2013 (article for ‘Education for Everybody’ magazine)


Primary literacy specialist, Donna Thomson, has spoken out, against the practice of teaching young children only synthetic phonics.

She believes there is a “narrow-minded and bullish obsession with synthetic phonics, which is proving harmful to our children’s futures.”

The method has been used in England for nearly 10 years and is often described as a “back to basics” system. It first teaches children the sounds of letters and how they blend into words, before moving to combinations that make up words.

Donna Thomson said: “Successive governments have made synthetic phonics the lynchpin of their efforts to improve literacy, but too many children are reading without understanding; they simply learn to ‘de-code’ the words.”

Her views come hot on the heels of a report by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) which placed England near the bottom of an international literacy tests league.

The OECD study showed England had slipped to 22 out of a total of 24 countries.

“If we want our children’s literacy to improve and for reading to become a pleasure, we need to give them the skills that support ‘a whole reading’ experience from the start,” says Ms Thomson, a researcher, primary educational writer and reading comprehension specialist with 15 years’ experience of supporting and extending children with reading and writing difficulties.

She says teaching children how to make meaning gives them the tools to question, understand and make sense of words, images and concepts within context as well as make links to problem solve and understand others’ points of view. It also allows them to develop curiosity, to reason, justify and express themselves clearly.

“All of these skills are the sorts of soft skills that employers are crying out for, yet we are not even furnishing our youngest children with them – we are giving them a shameful diet of synthetic phonics that does not produce the independent readers, and cross-curricular learners we are led to believe it does,” adds Ms Thomson.

In a bid to redress the balance, she is now working with individual headteachers in England and Wales who also think ‘phonics is not enough’.

Wales for instance, has developed a new literacy framework – after the Education and Skills department recognised the need to tackle the teaching of comprehension and cross-curricular literacy head-on.

A recent pilot project with very young children in Wales has been a resounding success, Headteacher at Coed-y-Lan school, Robert James said: “This Think2Read project fulfils most of the skills of the new curriculum in Wales because it asks children to summarise, predict, evaluate and make connections when they read text – in other words to understand, and enjoy, what they are reading.”

Interestingly of the parents who responded to a questionnaire about the Coed-y-lan pilot 94.6 per cent thought their child was beginning to ask more questions when reading a book and the same number reckoned their child was more interested in books.

Ms Thomson said: “‘When you see how empowering it is for six- year-olds to ask and answer their own in-depth questions about text and pictures as they read to support their understanding, it makes you realise just what could be achieved if you begin the reading journey for them at an earlier age through ‘talk’ and discussion about books at school and at home with their parents.”

Next year Ms Thomson will be working with primary schools in South Yorkshire – in an area of high social deprivation, with generations of jobless.

She explained: “The project in Yorkshire is unique. While working with young children (four and five-year-olds) we will also be focussing on parents. Many of these parents will have never been employed and come from a long line of poor education and unemployment. By learning the skills that develop and support their children’s reading and learning – the process will unlock their own potential and provide them with aspirations for further learning alongside their children’s experience. It will also foster important relationships between the community and the school.”

The Yorkshire project is in line with a report last week, which said millions of children in England, and Wales were being held back by their parents’ poor basic skills.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education – NIACE – report said involving the whole family in learning can boost educational attainment across generations and should be integral to schools.

Governments, it said, should give family learning more support.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Ms Thomson. “If we want a nation of literate young people we need to start teaching four and five-year- olds how to use strategies for making meaning and asking and answering their own questions about information at home and in school.

“Changing the way that we teach children reading and literacy in their formative years will have a profound and positive effect on our children’s futures for generations to come, I don’t think I can overestimate the effect this could have on our economy in years to come.”