Because Reading Was Never ‘Just Phonics’

Mar 7, 2021 | Teaching Struggling Readers

A recent Twitter discussion demonstrated that an old idea is still alive and making trouble, namely, that secondary students with a low reading age need a ‘phonics only’ programme as that’s what they must be missing. This is like saying that if your car isn’t going well, it must need more petrol. Phonics is necessary for reading – period – but it’s not sufficient, in the same way that fuel is necessary for a car to run, but far from sufficient. This principle is well understood by phonics advocates the world over; the misrepresentation of phonics as ‘barking at print’ comes from the uninformed, or the ideologically opposed.

For older students with reading difficulties, intervention is especially complicated. As we wrote in Pulling the Strands Together, there are many skills that need to be addressed at the same time, such as phonemic awareness, comprehension, vocabulary, fluency, and phonics knowledge. In the case of supporting such students at secondary school, there are two issues in particular in which teachers need to become expert.

The first is motivation. There is a very common idea stalking education at all levels that claims that motivation is the key to success. For research-informed teachers, the reverse is true: success leads to motivation. We tend to enjoy things we are good at it, and do not enjoy (indeed, may even avoid) things we are not good at. This can apply as readily to sport, music, public speaking or academic learning.

Yes, of course there are many anecdotes of people who were motivated to persevere at something that they had failed at until they finally succeeded. Such stories are notable precisely because they are unusual. Secondly, the protagonists had almost certainly experienced success in other aspects of their lives, which gave them the confidence and motivation to continue. They had already learned what Engelmann calls ‘the self-fulfilling prophecy: if I keep working, I’ll get it.’

By contrast, students who have experienced seven to eleven years of education and still struggle to read, have understandably learned that they are not good at learning, that reading is for others, not them, and that since their best efforts only lead to frustration, it’s best to avoid the activity altogether. This is too powerful an alliance of forces to yield to ‘passion’ or a campaign to ‘read for pleasure’. If we want these students to become motivated, we have to teach them in such a way that they experience rapid success at a small amount of material from the beginning. This is just one reason why programme design is so important to remediating reading problems at secondary school.

The second issue that teachers have to understand in order to change outcomes for these students is that by this age, they have embedded strategies for reading that are actively unhelpful. These strategies have been acquired as a result of their experience of school, and may have been taught explicitly or unintentionally. Poor readers tend to exhibit the reading strategies promoted by the whole language approach: guessing from pictures, guessing from context, guessing from the first letter, or guessing from the first and last letter. They will often fail to pay attention to endings, dropping or adding inflections. Even though these students have enough phonics knowledge to decode many words accurately, these careless habits frequently undermine them in practice. In these cases (and they are common) the teacher must provide not only instruction in the sound-spelling code (phonics) but actively and consistently coach the student into more rigorous, careful decoding habits. Once more accurate reading is established, the next task is to build fluency of decoding to automaticity.

When we intervene at secondary school, therefore, some students are likely to need phonics; but we will also need to pay attention to coaching effective reading behaviours, building motivation, vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency. Does that sound complicated? That’s because, as Louisa Moats said, ‘The difficulty of teaching reading has been underestimated.’ The most dangerous – and most basic – mistake we can make is to underestimate our opponent.


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