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When reading unknown words should children use 'phonics' as the only route?

Updated: Aug 8

I was told recently that I should 'ensure that when providing guidance and support for reading unknown words the SSP (Speech Sound Pics) Code Mapping program should promote the use of phonics as the only route, before any subsequent comprehension strategies are applied. Hmmm. if it's the only route does that not mean alternative strategies to figure out the phoneme to grapheme mapping shouldn't be applied at all? What, exactly, is 'phonics' - do they mean 'decoding'? 'To form connections and retain words in memory, readers need some requisite abilities. They must possess phonemic awareness (i.e., the ability to focus on and manipulate phonemes in speech), particularly segmentation and blending. They must know the major grapheme-phoneme correspondences of the writing system. At a more advanced level, they need to know graphosyllabic spelling-sound patterns. Then they need to be able to read unfamiliar words on their own, by applying a decoding, analogy, or prediction strategy. Application of these strategies activates orthographic mappings to retain the words’ spellings, pronunciations, and meanings in memory. Share (2004b, 2008) referred to this as a self-teaching mechanism' Linnea C. Ehri (2014)

So I had a cup of tea in The Reading Hut and thought about the practicalities. After all, if our SSP children know the graphemes in words they would blend them without a second thought, even if they had never seen the word before - and would know how to check if correct. The issue is when they don't know the graphemes in the words, and why I ensure that they have the best chance of figuring them out, and then working backwards if necessary. 'Making use of known relationships between letters and phonological units to identify unfamiliar written words is the basic mechanism for acquiring word-specific knowledge, including knowledge of irregularly spelled words (Ehri, 2005, 2014; Snow & Juel, 2005; Tunmer & Nicholson, 2011). (See Tunmer & Hoover 2019) What about when they aren't known relationships?

Is (print to speech) 'phonics' really the ONLY strategy teachers are being advised to allow or encourage children to use, in order to be teaching children in line with the UK recommendations regarding synthetic phonics? If our children can't decode the word as they do not (yet) know the phoneme-grapheme combinations we want the to use other strategies. We help them figure out the words, and then work backwards - in order to identify the phoneme to grapheme mapping (speech to print - 'linguistic' phonics) That's great, surely? It's still phonics! And supported by 'the science'. If the student can figure out it's the word 'tea'...before they reach the blue code level (and are shown the iː - /ea mapping) doesn't this help establish that orthographic representation? And they don't need to wait for that pattern to be introduced later on ...? Sounds like a win to me! What do the scientists think? Each successful identification of a word strengthens the word specific, sub-lexical connections between its constituent letter sequence and corresponding phonological sequence in lexical memory. This process provides the basis for constructing the detailed orthographic representations required for the automatization of word recognition, which Ehri (2005, 2014) calls “sight word” knowledge. Correctly identifying words on the basis of letter-phoneme correspondences just a few times ultimately establishes their orthographic representations firmly in lexical memory, from which additional letter-sound patterns can be induced without explicit instruction (Share, 1995, 2004).' When I see unknown words and can't figure them out I use clues, and can then work backwards to understand the phoneme to grapheme mapping so I spell it correctly if needed - why can't I let my students do this? I'm a Code Mapping Queen! - I see words as pictures of speech sounds. And if I don't know the mapping? I find out. I'm doing doctoral work, and often come across unknown words:-) I need more than my knowledge of the alphabetic code to read them aloud to an audience, and pronounce them correctly (or use correctly) There are always new words to learn, and map...even for adults. They are 'decodable' (all words are) but maybe not to me the first time I see them in a journal. Within Systematic Synthetic Phonics and assessed using the PSC, the DfE states that children must be taught to ‘read printed words by identifying and blending (synthesising) individual phonemes, from left to right all through the word’ (DfE 2020) and ‘should not encourage children to guess unknown words from clues such as pictures or context’. However Ehri (2014) and others outline the various strategies used when faced with unfamiliar words. Readers might use their knowledge of the writing system to apply a decoding strategy, and in languages with regular grapheme-phoneme relations decoding is straightforward. However, the English writing system includes multiple ways to pronounce graphemes and to represent phonemes, so readers must be flexible and expect variability. This is helped by a meaningful context. The PSC only tests a group of ‘regular’ graphemes, and therefore does not assess alternative strategies used when faced with unfamiliar words, or provide meaningful context so as to ascertain reading behaviours – the behaviours exhibited during the learning to read learning journey. Another strategy for reading unfamiliar words is by analogy, which involves finding in memory the parallel spelling of a known word and adjusting its pronunciation to match letters in the unknown word (e.g., reading thump by analogy to jump). As beginners accumulate a larger store of written words in memory, this strategy becomes more useful. Is this expected by the end of year 1, ie after 2 years of explicit instruction? The PSC again does not assess how students use existing code knowledge. Prediction is also a strategy known to be used to read unfamiliar words. Initial letters, for example, plus context cues in the sentence, the passage, or pictures to anticipate what the word might be. Once a word is predicted, then its pronunciation is matched to the spelling on the page to verify that the sounds fit the letters. This 'Sound Pic Detective' work is useful as they don't always have to rely on the teacher. They are ALWAYS going to end up with mapping the phonemes to graphemes. We are teaching them to use all the clues. Especially as it can take so long for children to actually know the 350+ correspondences used in the 'real words' children will encounter in their 'real' lives - outside of the comforting (and limiting) classroom where 'decodable readers' ensure that they don't have to face those tricky issues of unknown graphemes. But what do the reading scientists say? 'Traditional phonics programs have been used to explicitly teach alphabetic coding skills to beginning readers. However, these programs generally suffer from two major shortcomings. First, they tend to be strongly teacher-centered and have curricula that are rigid, fixed, and lock-step, with the same skill-and-drill lesson given to every child in the same sequence. Such an approach to teaching beginning reading conflicts with the basic principles of differentiated instruction because it fails to recognize that the individual literary learning needs of children vary greatly depending on their specific levels of development across the set of reading component skills shown in Figure 1. Second, most phonics programs incorrectly assume that children can only acquire knowledge of letter-sound patterns through direct instruction in which the teaching of letter-sound correspondences is explicit and systematic. The difficulty with this assumption, however, is that there are simply too many letter-sound relationships in English orthography for children to acquire by direct instruction, probably between 300 and 400 (Gough & Hillinger, 1980).

Much, if not most, of what children learning to read in English come to know about its written orthography is acquired through implicit learning, especially knowledge of context sensitive letter-sound correspondences that depend on position-specific constraints or the presence of other letters (Bryant, 2002; Tunmer & Nicholson, 2011; Venezky, 1999). In contrast, letter-sound correspondences acquired by direct phonics instruction are fewer in number and are largely context free, involving one-to-one correspondences between single letters or digraphs and single phonemes.'

(again, check out Tunmer and Hoover - Australian Journal of Learning Difficulties) I teach children to use their brains, figure out words using the available clues and then work backwards if they haven’t been exposed to the grapheme. I also ensure that they learn the high frequency phoneme to grapheme combinations as quickly as they can - my approach offers children the opportunity to learn at their pace, not the pace of the class - or in line with one size fits all lesson planning. There's no 'formal teaching sequence' because my focus is on the 'learning sequence' of each child. Some don't need the same steps, some don't need the same amount of time. Some don't even need explicit phonics instruction - why waste their time makin them sit through stuff they already know? That's why you'll see our children using the Coding Poster lesson (online) and Coding Poster. Teachers aren't really needed (they are there to observe and monitor progress) Maria would be proud.

I'm always reminding everyone that books are only decodable to the child if the child knows those graphemes. We can call any book 'decodable' - if you aren't teaching graphemes in that sequence (and they aren't learning them) then the books are not decodable - and they may need alternative strategies. Here is an SSP Green Code Level 'decodable reader'. It's one of my books, designed to help children reinforce blending skills - in this book I am helping children who are learning the phoneme to grapheme mapping combinations: s æ t p ɪ n s a t p i n Some Code Mapped high frequency words are included, and shown at the beginning of the book. I also like to add in some OBVIOUS words to get the kids to using a strategy not encouraged by some phonics advocates. We teach them to 'UCS' *

My students learn to read and spell really quickly and easily when I help them USC. They aren't confused by seeing a word with an 'h' in it. They figure it out! It's a h/a/t ! When children UCS I end up not being needed at all. It's like they are 'self-teaching'. It means that there is less teaching and more learning. I admit that the current guidance worries me. It does not align with what we know about reading development, and is unlikely to result in the highest number of children actually READING by 6, which is my aim. High quality phonic work is essential but not sufficient for teaching children to read. The Ofsted inspection handbook states that the sequence of reading books should show a cumulative progression in phonics knowledge that is matched closely to the school’s phonics programme and that children should read and re-read books that match the grapheme-phoneme correspondences they know. This expectation is consistent with the English programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2 National curriculum in England which states that pupils should read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words. But the teaching of that phonics knowledge is NOT fast paced or differentiated (as it is within Speech Sound Pics classrooms) and also limiting. When do they jump from blending the graphemes they know, to actually reading? And where is the focus on all other skills needed to actually read? Unless we are facilitating some type of hyperlexia, we want children to read. According to the DfE ‘a complete systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programme is one that provides:

*all that is essential to teach SSP to children in reception and key stage 1 years of mainstream primary schools

*sufficient support for children in reception and key stage 1 to become fluent readers

*a structured route for most children to meet or exceed the expected standard in the year one phonics screening check

*all national curriculum expectations for word reading through decoding by the end of key stage 1 What of the significant role of oral language and comprehension, for example? In the ‘Essential Core Criteria’(https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/phonics-teaching-materials-core-criteria-and-self-assessment/validation-of-systematic-synthetic-phonics-programmes-supporting-documentation#essential-core-criteria) the term ‘read’ or ‘reading’ is only used 5 times, and in every case as it relates to decoding of a single words, and that those words consist of the graphemes taught systematically, along with a few ‘exception’ words – and only as they encounter them within their ‘decodable readers’. If children are to become fluent readers, then more is needed to achieve this than systematic synthetic phonics, according to the science? Ofsted know this! Within the January, 2019 Ofsted report entitled Education inspection framework: overview of research the dept claim to support systematic synthetic phonics together with phonemic awareness, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. One might question why systematic synthetic phonics needs to be taught together with phonemic awareness, if this core phonological awareness skill is understood to develop as part of the approach? Those of us teaching children known to struggle to learn to read because of these phonemic awareness deficits understand the importance of this ‘foundation’ on which all other skills can then develop. However, understanding what is needed, according to decades of research, does not necessarily equate to improved learning outcomes. We know more about the science of reading than about the science of teaching based on the science of reading (Seidenberg et al 2021) And the TEACHING is my passion - based on how children LEARN. Everything outlined within the criteria is more than achieved by Speech Sound Pics (SSP) teachers within 2 academic years, for all but the small percentage with a severe cognitive impairment. So if not validated...? Why not? And on a final note, I understand that those pushing for synthetic phonics have often claimed it has improved reading skills in the UK since being mandated over a decade ago. But is that really enough? And what of those still overwhelmingly being failed? 1 in 5 children left primary school in 2018 unable to read or write properly (DfE) The estimated yearly cost of functional illiteracy to the UK economy (World Literacy Foundation) is 37 BILLION pounds. And those who may read, but not for pleasure? Perhaps much, much more is needed than for schools to embrace systematic synthetic phonics? And that is where my 'I Can Read Without You' (ICRWY) Project comes in - children reading for pleasure before they even start school. Interested? Want to help? Reach out! Th/a/t/s i/t f/or t/o/d/ay. C/u/p o/f t/ea t/i-e/m! Miss Emma MA Special Educational Needs. Support@TheReadingHut.com References

Ehri, L. C. (2005) Development of Sight Word Reading: Phases and Findings, in M. J. Snowling and C. Hulme, (eds), The Science of Reading: A Handbook. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Seidenberg, M.S., Cooper Borkenhagen, M., & Kearns, D.M. (2020). Lost in Translation? Challenges in Connecting Reading Science and Educational Practice. Reading Research Quarterly, 55(S1), S119– S130. https://doi.org/10.1002/rrq.341

Share DL. Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition. Cognition. 1995 May;55(2):151-218; discussion 219-26. doi: 10.1016/0010-0277(94)00645-2. PMID: 7789090.


Tunmer WE & Hoover WA (2019) The cognitive foundations of learning to read: a framework for preventing and remediating reading difficulties, Australian Journal

of Learning Difficulties, 24:1, 75-93, DOI: 10.1080/19404158.2019.1614081 *USC Use common sense