Phonics is ‘not best way to teach children’

LITERACY There is a debate over how to teach reading
LITERACY There is a debate over how to teach reading

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RELYING on phonics is not the best way for children to learn to read and write, an expert from the University of Portsmouth has said.

Dr Victoria Devonshire, of the Department of Psychology at the university, said that children would find it much easier to learn to read and write if they were first taught how the English language works and what words mean instead of always using phonics.

Dr Devonshire trialled a new method of teaching reading and writing with 120 children aged five to seven and found the average reading age leapt by 14 months after just six months.

She said: ‘We were surprised at how compelling the results were. When children were taught to understand why English works the way it does we saw a leap in their ability to learn to read and write.

‘The written word is about conveying meaning, not the sound of speech.

‘Expecting children to just figure out the rules of our language is worryingly common and it isn’t helping them become as proficient and confident as young children in many other languages.’

Phonics focuses on the pronunciation of words and there is an exception to every rule. In contrast, morphology focuses on the meaning of words and has strong, consistent rules. For example, in the words ‘saying’, ‘said’ and ‘says’ the root word is ‘say’.

Dr Devonshire said teaching how the language is structured helps with children’s understanding and gives them a boost in terms of their reading, writing and spelling abilities.

She argues that in English there are lots of different rules and exceptions and many letters are not always pronounced the same way in every word.

She said: ‘Phonics is important and can be used to spell base or root words but you need to know about morphology to identify that part of the word.

‘I’m not saying abandon phonics, I’m saying give the other elements the attention they need from the beginning of their formal literacy education, at the age of five years, to make sense of how our language works.’

The research is published in the journal Learning and Instruction.