Teaching phonics - the basics


There are decades of research into how we read, how children learn to read and how best to teach it. Anyone training to be a teacher can find shelves of books in university libraries about the complex combination of skills and experiences involved in being a reader. Each book may offer slightly different advice; some authors may make bold statements about the efficacy of one teaching method or another, but all the authors will have set out with the genuine intention of enhancing learning experiences for children and improving general ‘standards’ of reading in society.

Once qualified, however, it doesn’t take long for most primary teachers to realize that, though very helpful, all the advice on offer cannot take into account the diverse range of needs within a class of up to 30 young children. For example, just one aspect of reading – learning to interpret the alphabetic code into meaning – has generated many different approaches from which to choose. As no one teaching method will be successful for every child, the rational teacher will look for and use whatever is helpful.

There is no doubt that for beginner readers a main element of learning to read is the process of making sense of written language as a symbol. If children are to become independent readers, they need to know how the symbolic system works and they need to be able to use and manipulate the ‘code’. This is the aspect of reading referred to as ‘phonics’, and it involves learning the relationship between the speech sounds (phonemes) and their symbolic representation in the form of one or more letters of the alphabet (graphemes). It sounds surprisingly simple, yet it causes more debate among teachers, academics and politicians than any other aspects of the reading curriculum. It is essential that teachers understand how to navigate the debates, acquire a confident knowledge of literacy learning and provide pupils with positive learning experiences.