Try reading this line again just using only phonics knowledge.
Was it possible, as an able, adult reader, to revert back to an early reader stage? If it was, was it quick and fluent?
This week, I have been visiting School Direct trainees as they embark on their second experience. Two lessons, in particular, stood out as food for thought. One was a maths lesson, where children were challenged to use small coins to make 10p. The other was a phonics lesson, where children were asked to use knowledge of sounds to make words. As this was a second practice, the trainee reflected on the subtle difference between the schools, as one was working on Read, Write Inc, while the second school was using Letters and Sounds. There was some nervousness in her approach, as she wanted desperately to “get it right”.
The whole coalesced when I bumped into an elderly ex-colleague, who reminisced about her teaching days, including the regular teaching of phonics, as a part of reading.
In my own mind, it brought together a simple premise. In mathematics there is the concept of conservation of number, where a whole number has a known value. Where a child has conservation of number, they are able to hold the value of a number and add or take away another without recourse to counting from one. In the maths lesson, it was interesting to see who was reverting to counting, rather than maintaining the values of coins. Conservation of number and accompanying visualisation supports fluency in mathematical thinking.
While there is a need for direct phonics teaching and, where it is done well, it does impact on learning, once words are built up, it seems eminently logical to me that they are then “conserved” as whole words for ease of carrying around, rather than having a pocketful of small change, reserving phonics as a tool for tackling unknown words when they are encountered. I remember all of my children, and now my grandchildren, asking “What’s that word?”
They wanted a holistic answer, not a “Let’s work it out” approach, as the word, as a whole, embedded some information, whereas the sounds would need a further layer of processing in order to put the sounds together to be able to make the word. In that period a young child will have switched off. However, having shared the word, it was then possible to explore the word for the component parts, depending on the context and the interest of the child on that day.
There is much interplay between the elements that coalesce into what we take for granted as a word. Children when learning to speak, tend to focus on whole words. It is when they need to use their emerging child vocabulary in the context of reading that they have to essentially relearn the elements of the language, which might result in some loss of confidence, or bring to the surface, as yet, undiagnosed issues.
Children need a rich vocabulary, orally, to fully participate in lessons that rely on speaking and listening skills. This is likely to come from a range of modelled sources, home as well as school. A good knowledge of each child is likely to result in almost intuitive engagements with language pitched to the needs of the child. It may, in some cases, require a form of interpretation, where several constructions are used to exemplify the same idea. This may not be only the province of an EAL child need. Issues orally can indicate hearing issue, so this should be checked as a priority, where a concern exists; eg undiagnosed “glue ear” can cause language delay.
Translated to the written word, where a broader range of needs come together, children may exhibit behaviours that demonstrate a need for a sight check; not necessarily uncommon. School can be the first point in a child’s life where this issue becomes apparent, through the needs of a new skill. However, a quick visit to the optician can miss some of the more subtle issues with eye problems. One child whom I taught had an exceptional general knowledge, a journalist, articulate parent, with whom, at six, he would talk philosophically, yet J “struggled with reading”, despite every possible support and level of intervention. Eventually, after some very deep investigation, it was discovered that there was a level of “flicker” in his eyes that distorted words on a page. Once established, and remediated, this child flourished as a reader.
As a class teacher of reading, and while listening to children reading, I would regularly undertake a “miscue analysis”. Where this brought up a possible issue, this was addressed, with either a post read interrogation of the significant misconceptions, or a follow up, with a greater investigative focus, to create as full a picture as possible.
This would focus on:-
- Talking about the book(s) being read, to ascertain the child’s understanding of what they were reading.
- Phonics knowledge; fully identifying the sounds causing an issue.
- Word knowledge, based on the 26 or 100 common word lists available, as read lists, but also, where there were concerns in writing, as spelling lists. Some schemes have additional words introduced within a level.
- Fluency and accuracy checks; words per minute being read, percentage accuracy.
- As this was always within a colour coded scheme, checking these elements with a “lower” colour, to see if there was any change in the above elements. Sometimes children progress through schemes without detailed checks.
- Occasionally a standardised reading test was given.
It sometimes became apparent that the “performance” aspect of reading was a potential issue. Where this was the case, the use of recording was tried, to allow more privacy to the child and to remove that as a possible cause of concern.
It is better to investigate and address, rather than to need to remediate at a later stage.
If a word was worth a penny, a vocabulary of 5000 words would be worth £50, 10,000 would be £100; that sounds quite a reasonable equation.