phonics · Professor Diane McGuinness. Professor Anne Castles

How to teach some HFWs (Part I)

On the ReadOxford website, an Australian academic recently argued for the teaching of ‘sight’ words. What she didn’t or wasn’t able to say was which words she thought needed to be included in any such list, nor why they needed to be included. Neither did she state explicitly how far teachers should go down this road: how many words should it be? Should it be a hundred, two hundred, three hundred? She didn’t say. What you can bet however is that lots of Australian teachers, many of whom have had no phonics training and have little or no understanding of how the alphabet code works in relation to the sounds of the language, will take this as the green light for teaching whole language.
Of course, in so declaring, what professor Anne Castles, the author of the piece, was doing was endorsing an approach favoured by lots of early years academics, as well as by a host of children’s authors and others. The problem with this perspective, as I hope to show, is that it betrays a total lack of understanding of how the alphabet code relates to the sounds of the English language and of how children learn most effectively.
In this post, I want to try and clarify the problem. Almost all high quality phonics programmes begin by teaching what professor Diane McGuinness called a ‘basic code’. This is an artificially constructed, transparent alphabet. It mostly comprises one letter spellings to one sound, though it also includes some two-letter spellings, such as [ sh ] and [ ch ], etc. In many ways it’s similar to the sound-spelling system in Spanish and, like Spanish, it’s very easy to teach to Reception-age (four to five years) children.
The rub is that, even with the best phonics programmes in the world, there are always going to be words children, in the early stages of learning to read and spell, need to be able to read to make sense of even the most elementary text. These words are made up of sound-spelling correspondences children haven’t yet been taught formally. Knowing what these words are and why they might raise questions about how and when to teach them is at the heart of this post.
As I’ve said, in very simple, decodable texts, there are going to be words that, as yet, are comprised of sound-spelling correspondences which children haven’t yet been taught. For example, in the sentence ‘The dog ran in wet mud.’ all of the words except ‘the’ are straightforwardly transparent: they are all made up of one letter-one sound correspondences. What then do we do with the word ‘the’. ‘The’ is comprised of two sounds: /th/ and /uh/ (a schwa sound).
Quite obviously and because it is such a common word, it is essential that children are able to recognise and read and write ‘the’. Initially, when reading in text, the teacher might tell the child(ren) that some of the words in the text are words they can easily read by saying the sounds and listening for the word. In this formulation, if you say the sounds /m/ /u/ /d/ and you say them precisely, you can hear the word ‘mud’. This is the case with all the other words in the sentence except for ‘the’. In the example of ‘the’, the teacher will read ‘the’ and say to the child(ren), “This word is ‘the’. Say ‘the’ here.” When the word is presented in a dictation, the teacher will read the sentence and then, when arriving at ‘the’, will model it by writing the word and saying ‘the’ as they write it. The children will follow suit and they will also say ‘the’ as they write it.
Of course, as children’s understanding of how the alphabet code works quickly develops, during which time they will be introduced to the idea that many sounds can be spelled with two letters, the teacher will now say /th/ and /uh/ (the schwa sound in ‘the’) as they point to them or, if it’s a dictation, as they write them. Of course, it isn’t going to be long before the sound-spelling correspondence /th/ spelled [ th ] is taught formally in the course of phonics teaching. In the meantime, through frequency of usage, this is a good way of sensitising children to what is soon going to be taught explicitly a short while later.
What is going on here is that a high quality phonics programme is going to be teaching children the skills of segmenting, blending and phoneme manipulation to mastery level as they are introduced to more and more sound-spelling correspondences. At the same time, they will be learning that sounds can be spelled with one letter and, when all of the one-to-ones have been covered, they will learn that some spellings can be spelled with two (or more) letters ( [ sh ], [ ch ], etc.).
In other words, we are building a schema for the sound-spelling correspondences in the English language, teaching the most common ones to begin with and moving forward to teach the complexities only when the basics have been very well established. This solution is generative in that, within weeks, children can read and write literally hundreds of words. They also learn to trust what they hear and write what they hear. 
Let’s make this absolutely clear: the writing system is based on the sounds of the English language, of which there are a finite number. The only constant in the system is the sounds. And what makes the system hard to learn is the fact that there are multiple ways of spellings sounds and that many spellings represent more than one sound. However, what makes this potentially hard system a lot easier to teach is if teachers build into the understanding of the children a schema that builds from simple to more complex.
This may sound as if it’s complicated but actually, as I shall show in my next post, it’s very simple to teach and it’s a good way of introducing words that, as I’ve said before, are made up of sound-spelling correspondences that haven’t yet been taught.

Tomorrow: where high frequency words fit into this schema, the problem with teaching ‘sight words’, and a better alternative to using flash cards and strategies such as ‘Look, Cover, Write Check’.