Reading accuracy and phonics

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Reading accuracy and phonics can both be dangerous in the wrong hands. Each has their place, but neither should be adopted with missionary zeal. A narrow focus on reading accuracy, for example, can quickly become detrimental for the dyslexic student. This is because it risks damaging self-esteem by giving them more and more of what they find extremely difficult to achieve.  

Dyslexic students think faster than they read – so putting them in low-ability groups and measuring them solely on reading ability wrongly labels them as ‘failures’ or ‘slow’, impacting self-esteem. Experience shows us that we can push and push a child to improve reading accuracy up to a point, but there comes a time when the law of diminishing returns kicks in.

At this point, the best approach – based on a ‘notice and adjust’ philosophy – is about teaching students to use their literacy skills in the best way they can. The proof that thinking is more important than reading? Weak readers who can think and who are valued for their intellect go on to achieve their potential. Strong readers who can’t think go nowhere.

Likewise phonics has a very important part to play, but should be approached holistically. This means synthetic phonics can be good, but analytical phonics can be equally as good, depending which the student responds to best. Bottom-line, what is good is the approach which best helps students to learn.

Synthetic and analytical phonics + the whole word approach
Synthetic phonics teaches children to identify the letters making up a word, and the sounds those letters make, and then put those sounds together sequentially to form a word. There is typically a strong aural content based around the ability to hear and reproduce the 44 phonemes that make up the English language. Most popular phonic programmes are based around the principles of synthetic phonics though it is becoming increasingly apparent that, while synthetic phonic programmes improve reading accuracy, it may be at the expense of comprehension. Also there is a danger that some students try to decode everything rather than develop the ability to read whole words as sight words.

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Analytic phonics is a more visual approach which looks to break words into sound syllables, and uses similar sounding words to help a child learn to generalise and thereby expand his/her vocabulary. It is potentially a quicker learning process but it does rely on the student’s ability to recognise similarities and make appropriate generalizations. (Mastery of c+at gives f+at, m+at etc). While arguably more effective for developing comprehension skills this can come at the expense of word attack skills. Typically students with an over reliance on analytic phonics struggle to cope with words they have not seen before.

Overall, synthetic phonics provides a foundation of letter names and sounds and blending, while analytic techniques seed the ability to generalise words from those previously learnt. Another technique is the ‘whole word’ approach which is based on the assumption that reading develops naturally in the same way as speaking. Many very effective readers learnt this way, through very early exposure to books in the home - -effectively they “caught” reading through this process and became very effective decoders. However they risk failing to develop comprehension skills. Students with no background of synthetic and analytic phonics are particularly vulnerable when confronted with unfamiliar words.

There is no one way that works for the decoding or spelling of all words in our language just as there is no one way that works best for all learners. Students with strong auditory linguistic skills learn well synthetically – students with strong visual skills often prefer a more analytic approach. At the bottom line there are powerful arguments for the inclusion of both approaches in any teaching programme. They each involve and develop different skills. Each of these skills is important to effective and efficient development of reading and spelling.

Effective reading
The most effective readers no longer need to use synthetic or analytic techniques unless strictly necessary. Instead they rely on cues from the first and last letter of each word, the shape of the word and from the “comprehension big picture” afforded by context, syntax and grammar.

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This is why, when a student cannot read a word in a passage, it is often helpful to say “Miss out the word and read to the next full stop.” Usually knowledge of context, grammar and syntax will enable an informed guess. If that does not work the student can go back to analytic techniques and refer to previously learnt words with a similar patter or try to sound out the letters using synthetic approaches. For dyslexic students struggling to read an unfamiliar word in a passage there is a strong pragmatic case for suggesting they use “Miss out and read on” as the initial strategy, followed by analytic and synthetic techniques when context has not helped.

More advice for improving the learning environment can be found in the ‘notice and adjust’ space on this site, as well as in the Dyslexia Foundation’s revolutionary 4D | 4 Dyslexia programme for schools.


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