Hello. How’s things?
So, I asked for some suggestions as to what to write a blog about. I didn’t get many. But I did get this one:
@sputniksteve Trad vs progs through the eyes of phonics debate 🙂
— Naureen (@5N_Afzal) April 3, 2017
And then Naureen beat me to it.
The discussion around this topic has been fascinating, and has been going on for a long time. Specifically, the debate over phonics continues to be an issue around which the debate spins. Of course, this has been an issue for some time now, with proponents of phonics claiming it is the best way to teach reading, and critics claiming that reading is about more than decoding – which is what phonics is all about. I don’t intend to retread this tired debate, but I am interested in its recent resurfacing following two recent conferences which occurred on the same day: #rEDLang and #OxReadingSpree.
I wasn’t at either event. But reading through both hashtags was interesting. The former, unsurprisingly, has a lot of material about research and evidence informed approaches to language, whilst the second shares discussion of some fantastic and lovely kids’ books. As a teacher of English at secondary level, I appreciate the need for, and value of, both strands of this reading debate. However, these two events help to serve as perfect symbols of the wider debate in education. This debate is often framed as trad vs prog, as alluded to by Naureen in her tweet. However, as I wrote about previously, I think it is more reflective of a dichotomy that goes even further back than the phonics debate.
On the one hand, reading is the physical act of decoding and deciphering written or printed shapes on a page which represent phonic articulations that we call speech. Learning to decipher the phoneme/grapheme code is crucial for children to do well in school and beyond, and I’m sure there’s lots of research to support this position. However, on the other hand, reading involves far more than decoding and deciphering the squiggles. It is about comprehension and understanding.
Following these two events, a discussion – often a little heated – arose following this tweet from @oldandrewuk:
As an outsider to literacy teaching, I am amazed at the gulf between those who talk about the mechanics & those who talk about feelings.
— Andrew Old (@oldandrewuk) April 1, 2017
Inevitably, I think a lot of this discussion was about crossed-wires. Some of the reaction to Andrew’s comments revealed a passionate (yes, I used that word) love of childrens’ literature. I particularly enjoyed my conversation with @redgierob about the ways in which picture books convey narrative, as exemplified here:
— Rob Smith (@redgierob) April 5, 2017
which included this image:
I am a big fan of this kind of work, and can see how reading includes this sort of text. But here’s the crux of the problem. For Andrew, this ain’t reading. For me – a teacher of GCSE English, A Level English and sometimes media studies – this is partly about semiotics.
Have a look at the Eduqas GCSE English Assessment Objectives:
AO1 gives us the phrase “identify and interpret explicit and implicit information and ideas”. This is a kind of deciphering, but it is about what isn’t written just as much as what is. And look at this question from the old version of AQA GCSE English Language: “Explain how the headline and picture are effective and how they link to the text. ”
And now have a look at the National Curriculum for KS2:
So, case closed? Reading really is about more than just decoding via phonics. Sorted.
And yet. In order for kids to really be able to do any of that other stuff, they really do need to be able to read in the strictest, basic sense of decoding.
The more I think about this sort of stuff, the more I’m inclined to see Martin Robinson’s Trivium as a good model. And, as I tweeted to Old Andrew:
@oldandrewuk I think your Kirk is off balance. You need a bit more McCoy to counter all that Spock.
— Sputnik Steve (@sputniksteve) April 2, 2017
Will that do? I’d like to eat my Bournville now.