There is extensive research on how children learn to read and how best to teach them. One of the most consistent findings from methodologically-sound scientific research is that learning to decode words using phonics is an essential element of early reading instruction. Language comprehension (vocabulary and understanding of semantics, syntax, and so on) is also essential to gain meaning from reading, of course. But children must first be able to accurately identify the words on the page or screen before they can bring meaning to what they are reading.
Many high quality studies over the last two decades in particular, including systematic reviews, have shown that classroom programs and interventions with an explicit, systematic phonics instruction component are more effective in teaching children to read than those without such a component. More recently, a teaching method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its favour. In synthetic phonics, teaching starts with a sequence of simple letter-sound correspondences, building to the more complex code as children master the skills of blending and segmenting.
Systematic synthetic phonics is well-researched in school classrooms and in clinical settings. It is also supported by cognitive science research on the processes that take place in the brain when children learn to read. This research shows that reading is not like speaking: the human brain is not innately wired for reading to develop automatically with exposure to print. Making the cognitive connections between print, sound and meaning requires making physical neurological connections between three distinct areas of the brain. Some children create these neural connections relatively quickly but others require methodical, repeated and explicit teaching. This is particularly true for a complex language like English where the relationships between letters and sounds is not uniform in all words.
Despite the clear evidence supporting systematic phonics instruction, there is still debate about the role of phonics in learning to read and how to teach it effectively. The reasons for this are many, and interrelated. While the points listed here are drawn from the Australian context and experience (particularly in the state of New South Wales), they are also relevant in other countries.
For example, the NSW government reading program ‘L3’ is inconsistent with a document on effective, evidence-based reading instruction produced by the same government.
Despite all of this, there are reasons for optimism. The NSW government has recently allowed public schools to use funding that was earmarked for the Reading Recovery program for other reading interventions; the Australian government is negotiating with the state and territory governments to introduce a Year 1 Phonics Check; and the newest version of the Australian Curriculum has a much greater emphasis on phonemic awareness and phonics. Acknowledgement of the importance of explicit instruction is growing and becoming more accepted, even if it is not always put perfectly into practice. Much has been achieved but there is still much to be done.
Dr Jennifer Buckingham is a senior research fellow and director of the FIVE from FIVE reading project at The Centre for Independent Studies (www.fivefromfive.org.au). Jennifer’s doctoral research was on effective instruction for struggling readers and she has written numerous reports and peer reviewed articles on reading instruction and literacy policy. She is a board member of the Australian Institute for Teaching and School Leadership, an Associate Investigator at the Centre for Cognition and Its Disorders at Macquarie University, a member of the Learning Difficulties Australia Council, and recently chaired an Australian Government expert advisory panel on the introduction of a Year 1 literacy and numeracy check.
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 Misty Adoniou, How the national phonics test is failing England and why it will fail Australia too. EduResearch Matters, Australian Association for Research in Education 6 November 2017. http://genius.it/www.aare.edu.au/blog/?p=2533
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