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A new 'Reading War' ... between phonics and phonics advocates?! Letter names and syllables.

Updated: Jul 7




With most accepting that phonics is a vital component of reading instruction, we now need to pick apart the most effective ways to teach phonics. Those of you who don't spend their lives obsessing over teaching children to read and spell may be unaware of the arguments raging. They certainly aren't new, but with the rise of 'Science of Reading' groups they are perhaps now being more openly discussed. (hurrah!) Three issues are at the heart of this new 'reading war'; whether to teach letter names in the early stages (before letter sounds) whether to teach children to segment words into larger sound units before (eventually) working at the phoneme level, and whether to teaching phonemic awareness in the beginning stages with or without letters. These are issues I have talked about for over a decade, as they come up again and again. With regards to the latter, this is why I added in the Speech Sound Monsters; not just so that my non verbal students could show me which phonemes they can hear, and in what position they are placed in the word (with the monsters as phonetic symbols for kids) but also because it can be difficult for children to understand how we 'talk on paper' without a symbol to map to the speech sounds on paper (which will be the letters) In English our code is so complex that I use these 'phonetic symbols for kids' in Phase 1 (which only lasts about a week) so that they can do this without having to also immediately grasp the complexities (letters can represent multiple phonemes - the letter /a/ can represent about 8 different speech sounds - and phonemes can be represented by multiple graphemes - think of the sound /s/ which can be represented by about 14 different grapheme/ spelling choices) But it's vital that they link up phonemic awareness with print as soon as possible. Without needing to read and spell kids wouldn't need phonemic awareness. Print represents these sound units (phonemes) But the Speech Sound Monsters enable me to teach 'phonics' from day 1, but without showing graphemes in week 1! Many come in to school already knowing letter names, and so if I started with 'this is /a/' and in some words it is used to represent æ they could become confused. We don't want that when they have just started school, when they may have trouble with the phonemic awareness element - which is the focus in the Orange level (phase 1). Molly: ...'...sounds mooshing together, phonemes are not really distinct within a word when you say them, and so having an individual character that represents each one helps you pull them apart' https://youtu.be/LK3UsPvSEZA?t=2073

I will leave aside this one, because the research as far as I know has yet to catch up with this third option (ie it doesn't have to be only phonemic awareness with and without letters, it can be phonemic awareness taught before letters, but with symbols.) If you are a researcher and would like to study my 3 and 4 year old students as they learn to read and spell BEFORE they start school, learning phonemic awareness within the Orange Level, using these phonetic symbols for kids, please do get in touch. You can also follow I Can Read Without You (ICRWY) Toddlers here. Teaching Letter Names, and Phonemic Awareness through a sequence; syllables, onset and rime and then phonemic awareness. There seem to be (and correct me if I'm mistaken) 'Orton Gillingham' type supporters who think children should be taught letter names at the beginning of the learning to read and spell journey, and also that children that they are taught to segment words into large to small sound units ie syllables - onset and rime - phonemes. Synthetic phonics advocates do not advocate for this; they do not teach letter names in the early stage, and they start at the phoneme level. I am referencing how children are TAUGHT. The research tends to focus more on how children learn. I shared a Reading League video recently in my Orthographic Mapping group where a moderator of one, if not the, biggest SoR groups, was seen explaining to the audience how important the teaching of this order was, regarding phonological awareness. If you are in my private Orthographic Mapping support group on facebook you would have seen the clip, which I won't share here.

And yet, as David Kilpatrick tells us;


“I have evaluated hundreds of students who have good syllable and onset-rime skills yet were weak readers because they had not mastered phoneme-level skills. To be a fluent reader, a student must be thoroughly competent at the phoneme level. More precisely, one must display phonemic proficiency, which is best demonstrated via instant responses to advanced phoneme activities of phoneme deletion and/or substitution.

(Kilpatrick, Equipped for Success) See https://youtu.be/SyBu72vVOjU?t=1926


- start at 32.10 'So one of the most important principles of reading instruction is this concept of systematic, sequential, instruction where we explicitly guide students from simple to more complex skills. So in phonological awareness this involves meeting the kids where they are, and systematically scaffolding then through the levels of phonological awareness and we're going to talk about what each of these levels entails. So at the syllable level ... ' Brady points out (A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics (Phoneme Awareness and Phonics): Implications for Instruction )

' One explanation is that the sequence of the development of phonological awareness abilities observed in young children led to a mistaken, though understandable, assumption that a child cannot reach a later skill without having mastered earlier ones. A second

explanation is that since the NRP report was released there has been pushback in mainstream education about adopting evidence-aligned methods of instruction in phoneme awareness and phonics, with discomfort about focusing on phonemes. This has contributed to tokenism (Brady, 2020). In this instance, tokenism has been illustrated by programs that spend more time teaching phonological sensitivity for larger speech segments and insufficiently cover phoneme awareness skills, while claiming to have provided instruction on phonological awareness. Yet, make no mistake: it is phoneme-level awareness skills that directly support learning to read and spell.

Thus, the bottom line is that the necessity of proceeding in kindergarten and first-grade from phonological sensitivity instruction to phoneme awareness instruction is not supported: the

rationale for doing so appears to be faulty. Instead, teachers in these grades should target student mastery of phoneme awareness (Gillon, 2018). If a district persists in focusing primarily on larger syllable, rhyme, or onset-rime structures in the kindergarten year, it will slow students’ development of reading skills'

There is no (or should not be!) argument that working at the phoneme level is vital, but there is argument about how to get there - even though, as Mark Seidenberg said in a recent 'Reading Matters' zoom session - after speaking with Susan Brady where did that idea come from? ie that teachers should be teaching syllable and onset and time segmentation as a lead up to phonemes?

(note from me - program names not mentioned in Reading Meetings- those using the widely promoted Heggerty program will know that young children in their first year of school don't start at the phoneme level. Teachers follow the handbook, regardless of what children can already do, and so won't start working at the phoneme level until week 13) __________________________________________________ Snippets from the follow up to Misunderstandings About Phonological Awareness

by Dr. Susan Brady (See Brady chart )

Mark: There's this debate about what sequence ...what should be taught, when... Molly: It seems very systematic to go from word, syllable, onset and rime...til we get to the phoneme...which of those chunks is important for reading Mark: ...you have to look at the full range of findings..and (it) does not say 'it's really important you master the big units, and then get to the next smaller unit, and then get to the next smaller unit'...There's absolutely no justification for rigidly sticking to that kind of step wise progression...and if there are programs that say you can't move on to phonemes until you've mastered syllables and you can handle the onset and rimes ...that's a mistake. There isn't any evidence to say that's how things should go

People may have their reasons for believing this but its not based on research. You're trying to get children to focus on phonemes and graphemes... English is not a syllabic writing system, it's a alphabet. The level of sound that is relevant in an alphabet is phonemes, so ....do you have to march through a hierarchy...absolutely not. Yes it would be helpful, teachers do need to understand these things...not because a kid needs to know them all but because it will help them what to do. The idea that you have to have this certain level of mastery and this certain level of structure before you can go on...you know, it's like ..you have to finish first grade before you can finish second grade? It's not like that, and very little in childhood is strictly stage like. So, Id like to know where did those extra assumptions (come from) ...the science says certain things and then it gets translated into about much stronger assumptions about what to do in the classroom than the science ever said...anyway, that one in particular is questionable. What about ...are these units of speech or are they units related to print..and how should we be teaching these things.

...watch whole video. https://youtu.be/LK3UsPvSEZA?t=29

________________________________________________ So what are teachers to think and do, if getting this conflicting information? The second issues is of the importance of letter naming in the early stages of learning to read and spell. A recent post in a large SoR group included this, with no evidence/ research sources. Teachers may think this is a black and white, clearly established position. Weak letter naming knowledge Weak phonemic awareness Weak letter-sound knowledge Weak practice opportunities = weak decoding And when someone asked the simple question about how letter naming influences decoding the teacher asking the question was bombarded with incredulous responses, as if she had asked something strange, like 'how do we know the earth is round'. That is when the underlying assumptions of teachers (and researchers) becomes apparent. It's why I often prefer to read the comments to an article than the article itself - we can see what regular folks out in the fields think. We should be paying more attention to the comments, perhaps. This 'questioner' was told things like 'without the ability to identify and individuate letters, you will not be able to acquire the alphabetic principle and map letters to graphemes'. This was telling, as the responder was not separating letter NAME knowledge with what those letters represent in our alphabetic system. Many do not see letter names, and understanding of letters as sound symbols, as separate. This is what the 'questioner' was asking. Letter naming refers to knowing the letter ...names:-) I have asked in the Mark and Molly Meetings group if this could be addressed. I said ' Firstly thank you for the meetings! The raising of the issue with regards to sound units recently (should teachers be teaching syllables, onset and rime before finally moving to phonemes) was great as got so many talking in SoR groups. I start at the phoneme level; I'm obsessed with phonemic awareness.

Here is another question that I would love to hear discussed? Should children learn letter names in the early stages ie before they understand those letters are used to represent phonemes? The fact that children knew letter names on school entry and then went on to read successfully - causation or correlation (involved parents?) Always difficult to isolate variables of course. But in the UK phonics programs are currently going through a validation process, and knowing letter names not included in the core criteria. UK kids use their knowledge of sounds to help in the mastery of the letter names rather than the other way around.

Although many children, especially it seems in the US, are encouraged to learn letter names very early on, in the UK children tend to be taught using synthetic phonics (as the UK gov phonics approach of choice) and this seems to also be spreading to Australia with regards to the advice shared by education depts. eg ‘Once children can discriminate separate phonemes (that is, can answer questions like those in the phoneme isolation section), letter-sound relationships can be introduced, as both phonemic and phonic skills can be taught simultaneously from this point. When letters are first introduced, they should be referred to by the sound they represent, not by the letter name. Teaching sounds along with the letters of the alphabet is important because it helps children to see how phonemic awareness relates to their reading and writing’ (Deslea Konza, Associate Professor, Faculty of Education and Arts, Edith Cowan University, Western Australia- her findings/ recommendations shared in South Australia quite extensively)

I have found this to be true - and I know many who followed McGuinness knew of her strong stance in this regards. NO LETTER NAMES !:-) So it's not just UK and AU based professors saying this. All cite their own evidence of course. As there are no programs that totally omit letter names, and children aren't empty vessels, Im not sure we can really research which is more effective? Professor Siegfried Engelmann’s method of direct phonics instruction ( DISTAR) was found to be the most effective programme for teaching reading in Project Follow Through and in his book, Teach Your Child to Read, Englemann stated: “DISTAR does not initially teach letter names, because letter names play no direct role in reading words.” So it's not a black and white issue for those interested in the science.

Letter names are used as labels when I am teaching - if asking me which grapheme is used for the a: sound in the word 'father' I would show the word, mapped. That phoneme is also the way we say the letter name 'r'. But when children understand letters simply represent speech sounds (and they have a name but that doesn't often help us when reading and spelling - knowing the sound value does) then I don't find any children are confused. However, I am a practitioner. So my voice doesn't seem to 'count' when discussing SoR questions. Its partly why I am doing a doctorate (can wear both hats) As teachers we are being told to follow the science - and often, it seems, without question. I see questioning as an essential element if positive change is the goal. As far as I can tell, one could choose research to support the view that letter naming is essential and the opposite is also true. So I am not asking for an answer, just wondering if this could be a question posted in a meeting? Because some SoR group moderators post this kind of stuff as if a black and white fact (and how dare we challenge it). It's possibly why teachers don't get involved - we get shut down (or removed from groups) So Id love to see a discussion about this in your meetings; not to validate what I have found as an action researcher, but because those citing SoR don't often put both sides forward - its very polarised.

I attach this video that was shared by one of our parents recently- to show that 3 and 4-year-olds understand the concept of letters representing sounds - and as she has the letter 'r' in her name, as mentioned earlier (f/a/th/er) The second phoneme is pronounced a: - like the letter name /r/ - and if she then looks in the spelling cloud for that phonemes there is no /r/... and demonstrates the complexities of learning to read and spell in English! But imagine trying to use letter names to figure out her name (the mapping of sounds to sound units)

As I often have to tell children that 'yes! You're right, that is the letter name! But what speech sound (phoneme) does it represent in that word?' It 'works' for me - my pre-schoolers are reading before they start school (less than 5% aren't, and I send them to school with an intervention plan) Most of my work in the early years is really early intervention; protecting them from becoming instructional casualties.

I have found, as a humble teacher, that 'weak letter naming' does not even factor into my work - it is poor phonemic awareness, which results in poor skills relating to the mapping of phonemes to graphemes, that causes issues with decoding (and especially encoding) and therefore reading and spelling. If we tell parents and teachers that something that leads to 'weak decoding' is 'weak letter naming' I would worry about parents and teachers rushing to teach children letter names before their sound value. I'd love to see this issue discussed, even if not resolved:-)

Thank you again for this group and the meetings as they seem to offer a more neutral stance, actually exploring issues rather than proving points/ reinforcing beliefs?' This was the video attached.

So I will let you know if this is something that is covered. I found this clip of a child giving the letter names. We must ask ourselves how the letter names will help him to decode an unfamiliar word. As he is very unlikely not to know this is Nutella (any more than a child seeing a McDonalds sign wouldn't know the word, even if they don't yet know the phoneme to grapheme mapping) I suspect this was set up for entertainment purposes. It still does make my point rather well though:-)

41 MILLION VIEWS of the next video! And it clearly demonstrates how most American kids view 'spelling' activities ie thinking that the letter name is the priority, rather than the sound unit it represents. Consider moving through the learning process towards orthographic mapping, how does 'cee ai tee' link with the spoken word 'cat' (phonetic symbols kæt ) With regards to teaching spelling there is so much to worry about here for the viewers! But this is what kids see.

So, understanding what kids are exposed to, and the messages parents and teachers are being presented with on a daily basis, I would like to see those who post statements in SoR groups, especially if as an 'expert', to clarify their position, and link it to research. Unfortunately this can highlight that the research is often clear, broadly, but then rather fuzzy as we dig deeper. And this is why it is so important to be better consumers of programs and materials. Loved this!

This is in part why I will show 'consumers' how I teach 3 and 4 year old children to read, and how I support parents to do this at home, even if on the other side of the world. It's easier to control the variables, and get down to what is actually happening as the child learns. The issues relating to letter naming and also sound units will be clearly shown by watching the children. The process might be a shock to many, as much of what I do to get them there is not what is happening in the majority of schools. Every child reading by 6, for pleasure! That's my goal. I look forward to showing you the process - from a child who is at the very beginning stages, through to when they can read. Although you will already have seen clips sent by parents - eg 'six month progress of using the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Code Mapping program at home' shown on the decodable readers page; parents and teachers want to see every session with me, and to understand in detail. I think that this is why so many started following me when I went into schools and was videoed each week actually mentoring teachers. Consumers want to SEE the learning, in action. What do you want to know and see? Miss Emma BEd Hons. MA Special Educational Needs Doctoral Student, University of Reading (yes, really) Director of The Reading Hut Ltd. Creator of the Speech Sound Pics (SSP) Approach - Code Mapping to Orthographic Mapping!








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