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Decoding in reading – why we need to settle this argument

Neil Almond settles an age-old educational debate, once and for all…

Neil Almond
by Neil Almond
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PrimaryEnglish

Teaching children to read is one of the most rewarding parts of being a primary teacher. It is also, in my opinion, the most crucial.

Being functionally literate is one of the greatest gifts that we can provide our pupils, as it not only opens up other areas of the curriculum – the rich tapestries of stories that make up the other subjects – it also provides a vast number of opportunities for them both within and outside school: the importance of reading a certain warning sign or the joy of reading a book that was recommended by a friend or adult, to name only two.

It is no wonder that teaching such a life skill is one of the most researched areas in education. However, despite this, arguments rage over teaching pupils to read.

Historically, the arguments usually come from one of two camps. The first is those that favour a ‘whole language’ or ‘balanced literacy’ approach to teach reading, where pupils are surrounded with high-quality literature and invited to guess meaning based on context, pictures and perhaps the first sound of a word.

The second group believes that systematic synthetic phonics – carefully teaching students the way sounds of spoken language are spelled in print in a coherent way – is the superior way to get students reading.

I have my preference between these two, so I am heavily biased in what follows. 

How to teach reading

You will have noticed that reading was italicised when outlining the two approaches. This was done purposefully.

Many of the arguments that occur over Twitter on this subject conflate what reading is. I believe many people will agree that to read successfully one must be able to comprehend what has been written.

Research is quite clear that the act of reading is a multifaceted process made of two central components: language comprehension (understanding everyday and increasingly specialised language) and word recognition (decoding letter strings fluently back into their sounds).

The relationship between these two components is multiplicative, not additive, and is commonly understood like this: 

Reading Comprehension = Word Recognition x Language Comprehension 

To use an equation analogy – for us to comprehend successfully, both our word recognition and language comprehension must be greater than zero.  

To understand why these arguments about reading happen (and to prevent more in the future) we need to, in my opinion, separate reading and decoding when talking about the use of phonics.

Phonics is the body of knowledge that all fluent readers possess. It is what you are using to convert the abstract symbols on the page (or screen) that you are seeing now into sounds.

To understand this, you rely on your comprehension of language. You understand what these words mean because of what you know about the conventions of the English language but also your specialist knowledge – not many people outside education may know what ‘phonics’ is.  

Phonics for reading

The purpose of those phonics lessons is not to get students to ‘read’, as defined as decoding and understanding the text.

Rather, it is to ensure that the word recognition component of the above equation can get to 1 as soon as possible.

Our lessons in other curriculum areas and the day-to-day lives where students gather a myriad of experiences of language and knowledge will support language comprehension. We should, therefore, be precise with our language.

Phonics lessons are there to teach decoding, not to teach reading. This distinction seems small, but it is important to understand for those tasked with teaching students to read.

Phonics never has been, and never will be, the sole way that pupils learn to read. It is, however, an integral, part of the process.   

An easy way to experience for this yourself would be to learn the sounds of a shallow orthographic language (a language where the sounds used in that language can only be spelled one way) that you cannot speak.

Welsh is an excellent example. As a result, it would be easy for a Welsh speaker to teach you the sounds and the corresponding spellings of those sounds.

Armed with this knowledge you would stand an excellent chance of being able to decode any word in the Welsh language.

Of course, however, you would not understand what those words meant unless you were told, despite being able to decode them.

So, let us bring an end to these arguments and understand that phonics does not teach reading. It teaches decoding, which is necessary for reading. 

Neil Almond is deputy head at a south London school. Follow Neil on Twitter @Mr_AlmondED and read more about his work at nutsaboutteaching.wordpress.com 

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