Arguments for using Systematic Synthetic Phonics

Arguments for using Systematic Synthetic Phonics

Is your school using Whole Language approaches to teach reading and you don’t quite know where to start with your argument to change to Systematic Synthetic Phonics?  

Is your school reluctant to leave Whole Language behind and begin with Systematic Synthetic Phonics?

Does your school have lots of children that slip through the cracks and fail to become independent readers? 

Have a look at the following arguments and counterarguments you can use in your school to effect change:

"Teachers have been trained to teach reading in their pre-service training, we don’t need Systematic Synthetic Phonics!"

Since the 1950s teachers have been trained to teach reading using an approach called ‘Whole Language’ which is a way of teaching reading in context, which sounds like it is a great idea but in reality it means that most of the mechanics of reading are left to implicit teaching methods resulting in some children that slip through the cracks because not all children learn via implicit methods. 'Systematic Synthetic Phonics' is an explicit teaching method that has been evidenced to be effective in teaching all children how to read but this is not taught in pre-service training.

There are lots of analogies you can make with this but I will use the one Pamela Snow (fantastic blogger on the importance of early language, literacy and youth justice) uses about learning to drive in her blog ‘The authentic illusion in early literacy education’.

When you learn to drive, you are explicitly taught how to shift gears, use breaks, signals, accelerator etc. You do not get into the car and start driving, only to be corrected when you make a mistake. And for good reason, safety on the road is very important.

It should be the same with teaching reading. Sure, teaching reading via Whole Language works for some but it doesn’t work for all. The thing is if you don’t learn to read very well or at all, it’s not like a car accident happens, nobody dies. What schools do is set some children up to fail, fail to be literate, fail to achieve academically and fail to leave school with the necessary skills to reach their potential and have successful careers. Take a look at these two alarming statistics:

“1 in 4 Australian children don’t have literacy skills to achieve educational progress.” DyslexiaMNC
“44% or 7.3 million Australians aged between 15-74 years lack sufficient literacy skills for everyday life.” Australian Bureau of Statistics

Systematic Synthetic Phonics on the other hand is an explicit way of teaching children to read. It systematically provides students with learning opportunities that incorporate regular phonological awareness and phonics as well as vocabulary, fluency and comprehension. But most importantly, programs based in these principles target all learners in the classroom, so no one gets left behind and that’s the big difference between ‘Whole Language’ and ‘Systematic Synthetic Phonics’.

"Systematic Synthetic Phonics is boring; children need to be immersed in beautiful stories."

Of course they do! But they cannot independently immerse themselves in beautiful stories until they are the independent readers that we expect them to be. The quickest and most effective way to train children to become independent readers is the use of Systematic Synthetic Phonics. This does not mean they spend the whole of Primary School painstakingly learning repetitive phonics and not putting learning into practice, far from it! They need to learn vocabulary, fluency and comprehension at the same time, otherwise what is the point in lift words off the page without having any meaning or appreciation for what is being read? Systematic Synthetic Phonics is a way of getting students to be independent readers and spellers in the quickest possible way with the least amount of casualties in the process. Whole Language approaches cannot profess to accomplishing that.

"We have Reading Recovery for those children who fall behind."

Reading Recovery is an expensive and time intense way of picking up the reading casualties that do not make it to the expected independent reading level. It results in those children being excluded from their classroom, missing lessons and being taught in a small group environment where they get to interact with a similar type of ‘Whole Language’ program to the one they already failed at. I refer to one of my favourite quotes now by Albert Einstein:

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

It does not make sense financially but worse than that it is putting students in another miserable position where they are not succeeding. How many happy children have you seen that are constantly failing? Systematic Synthetic Phonics includes children from the beginning, it gives children the best chances to succeed because reading is taught explicitly, so why not do this from the beginning? It would save money but more importantly it would save some children from the distress of not being able to learn to read through implicit methods.

"We teach phonics already."

There’s phonics (or analytical phonics, embedded phonics) and then there’s Systematic Synthetic Phonics. There is a big difference. Systematic Synthetic Phonics is taught in a structured way that introduces sets of sounds in regular intervals and regularly revisits them in a systematic way until they are successfully learnt. If the phonics your school is teaching does not do that, then they are not teaching Systematic Synthetic Phonics. It is not enough to teach one sound a week (or letter of the week as it is so named) and it is not enough to only revisit a sound when a child is experiencing problems with it because one correction is not going to solve the error. Children need to be exposed multiple times in a systematic way before they have grasped it.

"We have readers at our school, we don’t need decodable readers."

There’s readers and then there’s decodable readers. No one can deny that children need to learn to read step by step and a great way for them to practice is to give them readers that get progressively more complex as they gain more skills. But there is a fundamental difference between the majority of readers that you find in many primary schools and decodable readers. Most readers found in primary schools consist of numerically levelled books that are designed with the principles of Whole Language in mind. They are set up to encourage the three-cueing system. When children come across a word that they are not familiar with, this system teaches them to guess the word by first drawing on its possible meaning through context or by looking at a picture, secondly by using syntax to decide which type of word it might be i.e. verb, noun etc. and lastly by referring to the first letter in the word. This strategy might work sometimes but there will come a time when using the context, syntax or first letter will not be sufficient for guessing the word or when books have no pictures to aid the guessing process.

Decodable readers are readers that become progressively more complex as children gain more skills but they are levelled by the amount of phonemes they contain. If children have only learnt 20 out of the 44 sounds in the English language, then they should only be reading decodable readers that contain those 20 sounds that they have learnt. So that when they come across an unfamiliar word, they are able to decode it by sounding it out because all of the words that they read in that book should be decodable to ensure that they have the skills to read the words, not guess from the pictures or from any other prediction method. Readers like these make for children who will always experience successes in reading. Children who experience success, enjoy learning.

If you are interested in finding out more about evidence-based practices in education like Systematic Synthetic Phonics take a look at our publication available on iBooks. Free for a limited period!


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