War of Words | Living North

War of Words

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How can schools decide what's best for our children?
'A love of reading and books, not the ability to de-code phonic systems, is one of the most precious gifts a child can receive'

The Department for Education says that schools should be using the synthetic phonic system to teach reading, but Durham University researcher Dr Andrew Davis stated that this can be off-putting for children who have already begun learning to read.

'A love of reading and books, not the ability to de-code phonic systems, is one of the most precious gifts a child can receive, but learning to read is a complex task. Each child comes to school with their own experience of books. Each child has strengths and weaknesses. Educational psychologists know that we all have different learning styles, so one particular method of learning to read, such as an intensive synthetic phonics programmes, is not realistic, if it is used in isolation.

Dr Andrew Davis, research fellow at Durham University, has claimed that the DfE’s imposition of this approach upon teachers in state schools is 'almost a form of abuse'. In his publication To Read Or Not To Read, Dr Davis highlights how using synthetic phonics as a standalone system can hold children back. He says that an emphasis on this approach to phonics can give children 'the illusion that “proper” reading is mere decoding and blending'. At Casterton, Sedbergh Prep School, every child is treated as an individual – whether they start reception reading or whether they join nursery with little knowledge of letters and words. We place great importance on sharing lots of books at school and we encourage parents to do the same at home. We don’t hold children back because they can read; we give them individual attention to progress. A love of stories and poetry is the key to the majority of children’s reading success. Learning not only to decode words but to grasp the meaning conveyed by the text, in other words children need to comprehend as well as read.

The teaching of phonics at Casterton is embedded in a language-rich curriculum. It is part of the process of teaching children to read – with the ultimate goal being comprehension and fluency. Teachers are responsive to the children’s needs; they are experienced in assessment and are able to devise programmes to facilitate each child’s learning needs. You simply cannot limit children by only allowing them access to books at their phonic level.’
Helen Dootson, head of lower school, Casterton, Sedbergh Preparatory School

‘Learning to read is an emotive topic, and recent high-profile media discussions cannot fail to be of concern to parents. In order to understand whether synthetic phonics is always the correct method to teach children how to read, we must first define ‘reading’. Reading has two important strands; word decoding and word comprehension. Synthetic phonics gives children the tools they need to successfully decode words. At Clifton, we teach phonics through interactive sessions, in small groups, as a class, or on a one-to-one basis, which – vitally – allows each child to learn at the right pace for them.  

However, an early years child who is simply able to decode words and therefore romp through a reading scheme at top speed is not what we should aim for. Word decoding does not equal word comprehension – without comprehension, children cannot understand the full meaning of the written word. Young readers must be asked questions about a book and discuss characters, plots, events, and what might happen next. Without this vital element of comprehension a child is only accessing one mechanical aspect of reading. Word decoding and word comprehension should have equal importance and run parallel with each other at this important stage. By providing tools for word decoding, synthetic phonics is therefore an important factor – but it cannot teach early reading on its own.

At Clifton the profile of reading is high. The children all have one book from our diverse reading scheme, and independently choose a book from our new library to reinforce the idea of reading for pleasure. This is the key to the whole world of reading.’
Phil Hardy, Head, Clifton School and Nursery, York

Published in: March 2014

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