Gill Jones · Gordon Askew · The Future of Phonics in Education and Learning conference

A game of two halves: first half

Yesterday I attended ‘The Future of Phonics in Education and Learning’ conference in London, organised by ‘Inside Government’.

Gordon Askew, literacy adviser and phonics expert, was one of the keynote speakers tasked with the job of providing guidance on the direction in which government is going to take phonics. Both of Askew’s talks set out clearly where writing comes from – it’s a system invented to represent the sounds in speech –, how important it is to teach it in the manner for which it was designed, and what the expectations are for the new National Curriculum.

For reasons of space I’m not going to go into the ins and outs of everything he said but what came through loud and clear was his assertion that:

“Systematic synthetic phonics, well taught and consistently applied as the prime strategy for word reading and fully balanced by both the enthusiastic sharing of a love of literature and the development of comprehension, is not the door to a very small room. It is a door to the vast cathedral of all books have to offer.”

Anyone who has taught reading and spelling would wholeheartedly agree with Askew in his contention that guessing is neither a reliable nor an acceptable strategy and that phonics should always be used first before other strategies. As an aside, a boy in Year 8 I was working with today read the word ‘baseball’ as ‘basketball’, as well as a host of other similar unforced errors. This is because the boy has been taught to guess and look at the first sound or sounds and then guess. It doesn’t work and when there are two or three errors like this every couple of sentences, all meaning is quickly lost and the pupil gives up.

Askew is surely right too when he calls for consistency: phonics needs to be school-wide and everyone involved in teaching should be giving the same messages and, as far as possible, using the same language. For that reason, he says, good quality phonics teaching should also be reviewed regularly, discussed and updated.

In terms of content, all of the code should be taught. It is not enough to teach bits of the code and stop. On this question, he didn’t elaborate but we at Sounds-Write would argue that all the common spellings of the vowel and consonant sounds should be taught. It follows from this that phonics teaching should be taking place right across the curriculum; domain areas taught in KS2 are the obvious place to fine-tune and introduce much less frequently encountered spellings of sounds and broaden discussion to etymology.

Acknowledging that children don’t progress at exactly the same rate, Askew also insisted that provision be made for differentiation and catch-up.

When handing books to children, Askew is unequivocal: the pace of teaching needs to be fast and speedy decoding is going to the watchword of the inspectorate. Teachers will also need to be fully aware about why they are giving a particular child a particular book at any particular time. If the child needs to practise the knowledge, skills and understanding they have been learning in their phonics programme, they should be given decodable books that are commensurate with that programme. If the purpose is to develop language skills, build vocabulary and foster an enjoyment of reading, then the child will be given books they can share, with a mentor/carer taking responsibility for some or even all of the reading. What’s more, there should be a balance between the two.

On the subject of writing, Askew was also at pains to say that phonics isn’t just an approach to the teaching of reading; it’s the way the writing system works! Which means it is going to be the basis for writing. Writing should be taught in parallel with phonics for reading because they are two sides of the same coin and he was adamant that blending and segmenting are reversible processes.

Gill Jones, Ofsted’s principal officer for policy and guidance for maintained primary schools, was also unambiguous about the government’s determination to do something about the 40% of children leaving primary school still ‘not secure in their literacy’.
She went on to say that Ofsted would, in future, be looking carefully at how schools performed on the phonics screening check and would not be accepting the excuses put forward by some schools that their children are ‘falling down on the nonsense words’. The check, she said, was about ‘how well children can decode’.

Of course, this will be music to the ears of phonics advocates, though I felt that, in some of the other presentations, the principles of systematic, synthetic phonics had not been entirely absorbed. My feeling was that the biggest problem with the conference was that no opportunity was given to the delegates to draw out some of the more contentious issues or discuss what had been presented. Perhaps because of this lack of intellectual commitment to the core principles behind phonics teaching, the last speaker of the day was able to undermine some of what had been established by Gordon Askew and Gill Jones, but more about that tomorrow…