The teaching of reading without the use of phonics

A few days ago, I wrote a little about the use of synthetic phonics in schools and suggested that it was a more or less perfect way of teaching reading. Some commented, apparently believing that I was saying that this was the only method which should be used. In particular, several people raised the problem of children with hearing difficulties; those with glue ear were mentioned. For these children, who may be unable properly to distinguish between speech sounds such as 'b' and 'p' or 'g' and 'k', other methods are needed. I have put below some of my own writing on this subject. I have written a good deal about this and so have just put a few pages here. If it is well received, I might put some more up tomorrow. If not, I shall simply drop the topic.

With the possible exception of walking and talking, it is the most vital skill that any child growing up in a modern, industrial society will ever acquire. The ability to read fluently is absolutely crucial to every aspect of future educational attainment. Sadly, a large proportion of children and young people never master reading. In Britain, 20% of children leave primary school at the age of eleven still remaining functionally illiterate after six years of full time education. Even worse than this, the reading ability of a sizable percentage of children actually declines during their time at secondary school. This is the case in over a third of our schools! Many leave school at sixteen less able to read than they were at the age of eleven. As adults, many of these children will struggle for the rest of their lives with decoding the printed word. This has a catastrophic effect upon their prospects. It need not be this way.

The problem is essentially that learning to read is being left too late. By the time that children start school at the age of four or five, their brains are already far less receptive to the learning of new skills than they would have been at two or three. The ideal age for picking up the art of reading is probably at the same time that they begin to speak; that is to say around twelve months or so. We shall see later why this should be. Another problem is that the method used to teach reading in British schools , synthetic phonics, makes the whole process vastly more complicated than it need be. In fact learning to read can and should be as easy and natural for a young child as learning to speak.

At this point, some readers are probably scratching their heads and saying, "But you have to teach reading. Nobody teaches babies to speak; it just happens!" Well, yes........and no. It is of course perfectly true that we do not sit our babies down for "Talking Lessons". Never the less, we are in fact teaching them and by the very same method that can be used in order to teach them to read.

Before we look at the teaching of reading, let us look for a moment at the "teaching" of talking. When we listen to people speaking in ordinary situations, it is all but impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. People do not, for example, say, "I am going to go to the shop". They say instead, "I'mgonnergototheshop". Words are slurred together, cut off, mangled and abbreviated until they all run together in a string of sounds. How on earth can a baby make sense of this string of noises? The answer is that she doesn't. She does not have to.

There is a particular style of speaking to infants which has been called "Motherese". The pitch of the voice is raised, the tempo is slowed and key words are stressed slightly, emphasised so that they stand out from the rest. Something like this perhaps, "Can you see the dog? Look, the dog is sitting up. What a nice little dog." Any attempt on the baby's part to reproduce the sound of the emphasised word is met with immediate reward, praise is lavished upon her. She need only make the initial sound and say, "Duh" and her mother will smile broadly and say, "That's right" Clever girl. Yes it's a dog." In effect, the mother is teaching her child how to speak! She models the word she is teaching and then reinforces her child's efforts at saying it herself.

The printed word, like spoken language, is usually presented in a vast jumble of incomprehensible components, only instead of hearing a cacophony of weird noises, the baby sees a forest of black squiggles. Look at any page of a book or newspaper and you will soon see the problem. Just as with so-called "Motherese", the trick is to present individual words so that they may be learnt entire.

Parents are the best people to teach their children to talk, so too are they the best people by far to teach their own children to read. It is not a difficult task, far from it.

The Nature of Language

Before we look at the teaching of reading, it is probably worth stopping to think a little about what language actually is. Once we have done this, we shall be better placed to understand just what is happening when a child learns to read, because of course reading is really just a way of using language.

Broadly speaking, language is the ability to use and understand symbols for thinking and communicating. This covers everything from writing a birthday card to reading War and Peace, from reminding one's self about the important appointment that afternoon to formulating the theory of relativity. What do we mean by symbols? Nothing more than something which stands for or represents something else. Spoken words are symbols, as of course are letters and numbers printed on a page. Pictures are a kind of symbol too and so are toys. Acting or pretending are also symbolic. We shall see in a little while why this is important. For now, all we need to remember is that reading and speaking both entail using symbols; things that stand for other things.

We tend to take it for granted that children operate on the same level of symbolic understanding as we do, but it is not so. Just as they must learn to read words and decode their meaning, so too they have to learn to "read" pictures and toys.

Consider the simple case of a photograph of an orange. We of course see a splodge of orange printers ink on a page and identify it at once with the sweet, slightly tart citrus fruit that we have to peel. To a baby though, all this is nothing more than a patche of colour. It certainly doesn't represent anything. Similarly, we see a toy car and recognise at once its symbolic nature. Although it is small, light and garishly coloured, we know very well that it is meant to represent the large metal object that takes us to work. Again, this is far from obvious to babies.

It has been said that a child's play is his work. That being so, toys are the tools of his trade. Their importance in the development of the growing child's understanding of the concept of symbols cannot be overstated. It is only by such activities as the use of a toy car and the growing realisation that it in some strange way represents Mummy's big car that the baby becomes familiar with the whole idea of one thing standing for another. Since this peculiar notion underpins not only reading, but also speaking and listening, we must make sure that the baby acquires a sound background in the use of symbols. The reason for this is that the interpretation of two dimensional symbols, whether pictures, numbers or words, is the culmination of much mental effort on the child's part. To achieve this breakthrough in symbolic understanding requires a great deal of spadework beforehand. We shall look later at what this might entail.

Learning to read

Let's return now to the subject of reading. There are basically two ways to teach reading. There is the complicated way and the easy method. The complicated way involves studying a lot of strange words and alien ideas such as morphemes and phonemes, blending and sequencing, synthetic phonics and whole language teaching. No need to panic at this point, because we shall be using the easy, and incidentally far more effective, method.

Most traditional techniques for the teaching of reading involve breaking the word down into little pieces and then building it up again. Most of us have some vague idea that the alphabet is the basis of reading and that children must first learn this and try somehow to combine the letters into words. This is the difficult way and it is quite unnecessary. Consider the following sentence;

The little dog ran across the road to his owner.

When you read this sentence, did you laboriously sound out the letters and so decode the meaning of the words? When you read "dog", did you say to yourself, "Duh...oh...guh..spells dog"? I am guessing that nobody who read this did anything of the kind! Instead, we glance at the word as a whole and simply see "dog". We don't even need to know the letters of the alphabet in order to read the word, much less sound it out. It wouldn't really have helped you to do that any way with three of the words in that simple sentence. Look at "the" and try and sound it out. the. Or how about howaboutruh...oh...ah...duh...spells road. Or even owner.

I'm sure that you are getting the idea. We actually read words as wholes. We don't split them up into little pieces to decipher their meaning. We teach children to do this when they are learning to read so that they will have what teachers call "word attack" skills to decode unfamiliar words which they encounter. It is a good aim, but unfortunately it has the effect of making the whole business seem very hard for many small children. Most importantly of all, it is completely unnecessary..

So if we do not actually break words down into little bits when we read, what do we actually do? It is very simple; we look for familiar shapes. We really read by spotting the shapes of words, based largely upon the ascenders and descenders which they contain. This will be the only technical jargon used in the whole of this course and it really is impossible to avoid discussing ascenders and descenders. What are they? Simply the bits of letters which stick up above the rest of the word, in the case of ascenders or hang down below, on the case of descenders. For instance, in the word'


there is an ascender in the letter "d" and a descender in the letter "g". These bits jutting out give words a characteristic shape or pattern. If we look at a few words in the light of this, we will soon see that they most of them have distinctive shapes;

ball, aeroplane, cat, it, and, the, tree

The individual letters which they contain need not concern us and there is certainly no reason at all to tax a small child with untangling these letters and then trying to remember their names, sounds or correct position in the word! How can we be sure that this is what we are doing when we read? Very easily as it happens. If we actually read by looking at the letters and then understanding the words, then the following lines should not be any more difficult to read than the ones which go before. ThE lEtTeRs ArE hErE fOr AlL tO sEe BuT tHE WoRdS tHeMsElVeS aRe NoT aLwAyS iMmEdIaTeLy ApPaReNt. I am pretty sure that even the most fluent readers will have had to slow down in order to make sense of the last sentence. This is purely and simply because the words do not have their usual and characteristic shapes. After all, they contain exactly the same letters as they normally do. Let's look at another example. Here is a passage which specifically leaves out all the letters without ascenders and descenders;

I thxxk thxt xxxt pxxplx xxll bx xblx tx xxxd thxx xlthxxgh x lxt xf lxttxxx xxx xxxxxxg.

Now compare the above sentence, still fairly easy to read because it includes all the ascenders and descenders which give the words their familiar pattern, with this;

xn xxis xassaxe axx xxe xexxers wxicx xux oux axove xxe xine or xexow ix xave xeen xefx oux, maxinx ix mucx xarxer xo reax.

(In this passage all the letters which jut out above the line or below it have been left out, making it much harder to read).