Phoning in Phonics: why teaching phonics shouldn’t stop after basic literacy training
In contrast to the approach of many Hong Kong schools, phonics improves contemporary literacy education, and should be used beyond preschool and early primary classrooms
There are few things more certain in education than the best approach to teaching a child how to read: synthetic phonics. The research is thorough and convincing, and the effects are tried and true.
Phonics is an approach characterised by teaching the sounds that letters make rather than their names; taking these sounds and constructing words, and using sounds to decode words when reading. It stands in contrast to old-fashioned “look and spell” approaches, where words are learned by visual memory. Look and spell is exemplified in traditional spelling tests, in which students memorise a set of words with no context or any attempt to systematise the language.
It is a surprise then, that the application of phonics in schools can be a mixed bag. Phonics is fairly ubiquitous in the very early years of education in Hong Kong, but it seems to disappear somewhere around Grade 3.
As a result, phonics has been treated as a stepping stone to literacy, not as part of it, and this causes some problems.
As a literacy specialist, I rarely bother to ask concerned parents if their young child has had phonics exposure. This is because their child usually will have learned at least the basic sounds for each letter. The story changes in later grades, however. Classrooms seem to fall back to the antiquated look and spell method, as if the usefulness of phonics stops beyond the simplest words. This is simply not the case. As students get older, teachers often act more like spellcheckers, swooping in to provide a correction, rather than continuing to develop students’ literacy tool kits. As they do so, they teach students how words are spelt or read a certain way, but not why.
This ties into literacy - and even learning - as a whole. Reading, writing, and spelling all benefit from a systematic approach. When teachers set students up with an excellent literacy toolkit, only to undermine it later, we invariably slow their progress. We also send a mixed message: phonics makes literacy sensible and rule based, whereas look and spell makes it seem arbitrary.
If a student’s only option for reading or spelling a new word is having a teacher explain how, then they will begin to understand language as something that is given to them, not something they have the toolset to explore and understand.
In psychology, this is called the internal locus of control. It is the sense a person has that they can control, influence, and understand the things around them. Children need to develop an internal locus of control in relation to literacy if we hope for them to grow into independent readers and writers. Furthermore, it is also essential for gaining a sense of mastery in other subjects too, such as maths and science. A child who is confident in his or her own ability to learn is inevitably a more successful student.
So why is this happening? It seems that phonics has become accepted, but only as a sort of introduction to literacy. Meanwhile, we don’t realise that even as fluent adults we use phonics continually, without being aware of it. Our understanding of phonemic rules is what allows us to read made-up words like “frem” and “freme” with completely different vowel sounds without thinking about them. We learned these rules through brute force, often unable to explain why we know the difference. But that explanation, making those rulesets clear, as phonics does, is crucial to contemporary literacy education.
Whether you were taught phonics or not, you’ve acquired a sense of how sound structures interact. But this doesn’t stop after basic literacy. Phonics stretches into syllable structures and beyond into the morphology of the complex Greek and Latin roots that we use to access so many difficult words. It guides literacy far beyond the basics. Phonics is a not a set of training wheels for the literacy bike, it is the wheels themselves.
This issue is especially pressing for inclusive classrooms, where students who struggle with literacy benefit even more profoundly from structured, systematic approaches to it. If these structures are discarded as they move up in grades, their ability to progress is sabotaged. Difficulty with implicit acquisition of literacy skills is one of the hallmarks of dyslexia, and it is the reason synthetic phonics is a cornerstone of reading interventions.
Children who struggle with literacy sometimes go undetected in earlier years because phonics is actively being used in school. It isn’t until later, when the approach is quietly discarded that they begin to fall behind. So, these days, I ask parents if the school is still using phonics at the child’s current grade level. In Hong Kong, the answer is all too often “No”.