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  • Writer's pictureAnn Sullivan

Is there an alternative to phonics?

From time to time (with more frequency than I’d like) I see posts on social media literacy groups asking about alternatives to phonics. This question is grounded in a misunderstanding that phonics is just one of many methods of teaching reading and spelling.

Phonics is not a method of teaching reading and spelling, it is in itself the curriculum. I would encourage you to read Monique Nowers’ excellent blog ‘Is Phonics a ‘Method’ for Teaching Reading?’ to explore this in more detail than in this blog.

Written English is a ‘code’ where the individual speech sounds in words are represented visually by symbols made up of one or more letters from the 26 in the alphabet. To be able to access, manage and use the code, i.e. read and spell, we need to learn the following:

· some simple concepts about how the code works,

· knowledge of the sounds and their relationship to the graphemes,

· some key skills that enable us to use the code to read and spell.

If we want our pupils to be good readers and spellers, there is no choice but to teach them the curriculum that is ‘phonics’. We cannot escape the nature of the code.

For many years we have made assumptions about learners with SEND, especially where their needs appear more severe or complex. Many children have been assumed to unable to learn phonics, after all, isn’t English really complicated? Doesn't phonics involve identifying sounds in words and isn't that something they can't do?

We have greatly underestimated these children and what they can achieve - with the right teaching. Of course, we will need to adapt teaching materials, adjust activities, include super-scaffolding, provide much repetition, provide additional strategies to enable access for some children and accept that we are looking at a much longer timescale, but this is all doable.

The only actual alternative is for children to learn words as whole words visually. These are stored as single images in long term visual memory. The storage capacity in visual long term memory is very small so by relying on this route it means that we are automatically accepting that there will be a limit on the number of words a child will be able to read. For us as educators, it goes against the grain to consciously limit anything for our pupils.

If we teach phonics, the information about the word (graphemes-phonemes-meaning) are connected and stored in long term phonological memory. Crucially, there is no limit to the storage capacity here, so we are not automatically putting a cap on the number of words a child will be able to read.

When we think about it this way, we realise that we are faced with a stark choice. It's a no-brainer.

There are lots of myths about learners with SEND and historically we have made assumptions about what they can and cannot do. We are going through a period of intense research in this area and studies are highlighting that much of what we thought, is simply wrong. We should be aspirational for these children and be putting our efforts into finding ways to make phonics accessible for as many children as possible. In my opinion this means the majority of children - not quite all but very, very nearly!

There is a very small number of children who are unable to access phonics for different reasons. I trawled the DfE SEND data a couple of years ago and I estimated these to be less than 0.001% of all pupils.

Some (but not all) children with profound and multiple learning difficulties PMLD would be unable to access phonics instruction because they are working at a very early developmental stage. These children could potentially benefit from the inclusion of phonemic awareness activities (in the context of letters and words) into their curriculum as a way to potentially prime them for any phonics instruction ahead, as they mature. I have a small scale study on this in progress at the moment in five special schools and I hope to have some data and outcomes to report in the autumn.

Some children with hearing impairment (those who have absolutely no hearing, even if aided), some children with visual impairment (those who have no vision) and some children with multisensory impairment (those who are deaf-blind) will not be able to access phonics because they have no auditory and/or visual input.

Children who have some vision or hearing can access phonics with some adaptations and adjustments. Incidentally, blind children access Braille, which has a phonics component in its instruction – the symbols are tactile rather than visual.

So what happens for these small number of children who genuinely cannot access phonics? Unfortunately, there is an inevitable impact on their reading and spelling attainment because the phonics is absent and they have to rely on visual whole word learning.

For the majority of our children there is no need to look for an alternative to phonics. The onus is on us to make the phonics curriculum accessible for them, whatever their needs and whatever barriers they have to learning. It’s a tough job, but the impact on children’s lives is significant and life-long.

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