Don’t be fooled by phonics

There’s an interesting article on the National Literacy Trust’s home page about how children can be inspired to read. It says:

Schools minister Nick Gibb has invited leading authors to advise the government on ways to make books come alive after an international reading and literacy study showed that only 40% of British children read for pleasure.

Michael Rosen told the BBC Radio 4 Reading Between the Lines series that he blamed an over-emphasis on the teaching phonics of in schools. Rosen said that although the government’s favoured system of synthetic phonics was a good way of breaking down single words, it did not necessarily promote reading:

‘We’ve got in place a system in which children can decode words but there’s no indication they can read for meaning. If you can read for meaning …. you will want to go on reading because you find it useful.’

Thank goodness Mr Rosen is speaking out about this. My daughter is learning phonics and while in some ways I can see the benefit of the system on a very basic level, I wonder how any child can become proficient readers in this way, especially since many English words cannot be spelt phonetically at all! Yes, there are rules but how many times are they broken? How many times have I had to explain that this is one of many exceptions in the English language? Take, for example, the ending ‘ough’ in words:

cough, rough, although, bough, through… five different ways to pronounce one group of letters.

Reading aloud to children (not vice versa)

I can only comment from my own experience but it’s my opinion that children learn to spell and read and write through being talked to and read to from a very young age. Before they can attempt reading, they need to hear the language – its rhythms and sounds – as a sort of music. As they get older, they will naturally become interested in what you’re reading to them and will start trying to follow.

This stage takes patience and lots of encouragement – stop to listen, to point out and sound out words. If you keep reading with them, their ability and desire to learn more continues. We did this with Holly and found that her ability would suddenly shoot ahead when she grasped what we were talking about. I think reading aloud to a child is a wonderful thing. How can we expect children to read aloud to us, confidently and fluently, if they can’t practise this at home? Increasingly more children are growing up in homes without a single book in them (I never could believe this fact until I met a few boys who told me they had nothing to read) and it’s a sad shame.

Let children choose

Schools can only do so much in this situation, but where they can hold the advantage is by offering books with wide appeal, not just ones that meet academic or political approval (by political, I mean books that go some way to preparing children to meet targets in their SATs). 

When we go into a bookshop or a library, we don’t head to the desk and wait for a book to be given to us, with the instructions that it is good for us to read or that it will help improve our ability. So why do we do this with children?

Hooray! I can start reading more books than Biff and Chip!

Schools use, as part of their phonics instruction, especially in the early years, those dreadful Biff and Chip books, graded according to reading ability. So, as well as having to read monotonous stories written purely with phonetic instruction in mind, children can see how well or badly they are doing against their classmates. If you’re already a reluctant reader and the only chance you have to practise reading is with these, no wonder you give up. I remember reading with a child, aged 8, who was still on books that he should have grasped two years previously. The look of dejection in his eyes as he sat down, shoulders slumped, to attempt the same old boring book again with me was heartbreaking. So I suggested his pick ANY book from the school library and we’d look at it together – talk about the pictures first and what was happening in the story, and then pick out any words he could recognise.

This method got me into trouble with a substitute teacher at my child’s school when she was seven years old. Luckily Holly is a voracious reader these days but back then, trudging through Biff and Chip, she refused to read for herself and only enjoyed stories when we read to her. In the end, I encouraged her to go for the short chapter books that were in her classroom and not follow the book band that she had been told she was on. She picked something that the teacher told her was too difficult for her reading ability. When she said her mother had advised her to do this, the teacher pulled me aside and warned me about the dangers of becoming ‘a pushy parent’. I ignored her.

It’s not about schools so much as about homes

Now I work in a primary school as an intervention assistant, helping children with literacy problems. It has saddened and shocked me to realise that they get to year 6 (11 year olds) and still struggle to read very basic material.

Some of these children are dyslexic, but are only funded for a certain amount of hours of help by a specialist, then are left floundering when they still cannot decipher words and letters. Some are borderline dyslexic and aren’t eligible for any help apart from what already busy teachers and teaching assistants can spare. Some just aren’t strong at reading and haven’t had extra support and encouragement at home to improve their ability.

Schools can only do so much with children, and if what they are teaching isn’t reinforced at home then we can’t necessarily expect them to leap ahead and meet government statistics that don’t take into account their impoverished backgrounds. 

While I think we have to consider ways to make reading more interesting for children, we have to look at other issues. 

The first is why so many families aren’t supporting their child’s education at home – why are television and technology seen to be more important (many of the kids I work with might not have a book at home but you can bet your bottom dollar that they have a Blackberry or iPod, as well as a Wii AND a Playstation AND a Nintendo DS, PLUS a massive flatscreen TV).  

The second is removing targets that stress teachers and children to achieve minimum levels in exams that happen when children are too young. Instead, children should be encouraged with a wide range of material to explore what it is they like reading, rather than what they should be. Reading for pleasure means just that – reading what you like, not what others tell you to.



  1. I really appreciate this post. And basically I’m with you 100%. However, on the reading for pleasure issue I think the wider stock needed for this is one of the problems. I’ve just been cataloguing (as a volunteer) my daughters’ school’s guided reading programme and I’ve realised there’s almost no non-fiction in this scheme. And yet for many kids, non-fiction is what hooks them. Reading schemes fit how schools work because they are limited – you can be the set of X and believe you have all you need. But with open ended reading for pleasure you need a wider choice, AND teachers who know about books. My girls’ teachers are great, but their book knowledge is stuck in what were their favourites when they were kids. School libraries used to be able to vary their stock cheaply through the school library system, but at least where we are, this no longer exists. Nor does our local library, so kids can’t be taken there by school (as they once were LONG ago). Did you hear the radio programme hosted by Morpurgo on phonics this week? (I’m assuming the quote from Rosen came ultimately from there)


    • Hi
      Thanks for commenting on this post. I absolutely agree with you about non-fiction. Many of the boys I work with love reading it but there doesn’t tend to be a lot available beyond old books. I haven’t seen much new in the school recently. One great series is the Horrible Histories although sometimes the more fiction-type layout makes them harder I think for pupils who have difficulty making out text. I remember in my primary school in Canada we had a full time librarian and a MASSIVE library where we could go during lunchtimes etc and work or read. What a luxury. My daughter’s school library has some great books in it but it’s tucked away in part of a noisy corridor so there’s no peace in there. Thank you for the link to Michael Morpurgo – I missed that so I will definitely listen!


  2. I was wondering, after reading your comments, whether a program for recycling children’s books might be a good idea and perhaps something the literacy people could take up. As I said before, we need to cull books, and that includes son’s bygone reading matter (if I can get him to give them up). So this would included a set of Horrible Histories, etc. My question is whether the schools actually want them or not? You’d think so with tight budgets, but I’ve been baffled by school’s attitudes before. A campaign however may make the take-up of the idea more likely.


  3. I have read aloud to my daughter every night since she was born. She loves books and is a fantastic reader. I got the inspiration from a great book called The Read Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease. I am a huge proponent of reading to children. Thanks for the great post!


    • It’s great to hear you read to your daughter since she was born. I truly believe that if children are exposed to books at such a young age they become good readers. I must look up The Read Aloud Handbook as it sounds fascinating.


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