Have you Been Phoniced? (Guest Blog from Beccie Hawes)

We are delighted to be developing a partnership with one of our local Inclusion Advisory teams, based at Rushall Primary School, near Walsall. In this article, head of service Beccie Hawes asks the question…Beccie Hawes

Have you been phoniced? (Pronounced: “phonicked”)

I think I may have invented a new verb! In terms of tenses and in conversation it goes something like this:

“Today I have been phonicing some children in Year One” meaning that today I have taught synthetic phonics to some five and six year olds.

“Yesterday I phoniced some children in Year Two” meaning that yesterday I taught synthetic phonics to some six and seven year olds.

My problem lies in that sometimes we ‘phonic’ children and it doesn’t work and quite often these children have been phoniced for two or three years before someone scratches their head and says “I thinks we need to do something different!” It is at this point that my phone rings and I am asked the million dollar question “What do we do about our phoniced failures?” I have a simple answer…..send them to phonic rehab! What follows is not necessarily what all children will need but part of what should form a rich buffet of approaches for all learners to taste!

So what happens in phonic rehab? Firstly, we recognise that not all children learn following a synthetic approach. Some children have limited working memory capacity which means that they can’t ‘hold’ all of the sounds that they need to synthesise. Others may struggle to sequence all of the sounds, fail to isolate individual phonemes or get locked into sounding out everything that they try to read. The next step is to explore a range of methods to find the way in which the child learns best such as looking at whole words, using analogy (if you can spell bat you could get to hat, mat, sat….), exploring onset and rime, mnemonics, word shapes, simultaneous oral spelling and anything else in your teaching armoury. All phonic rehab approaches much be multi-sensory so that children can truly experience the teaching focus in all modalities. It’s time to get back out the sandpaper letters, wikki sticks, magnetic letters, sand trays, slime and anything else that you can think of. This needs to be done whilst looking, saying, smelling and – where you can – tasting. Phonic rehab must also offer opportunities to over learn everything and chances to use what we have learnt in a real world scenario are essential! Opportunities to be in control of the learning such as selecting the words to learn foster engagement. The most crucial element is that phonic rehab starts early and acts like a dripping tap: little and often – a constant drip. We must stop phonicing our children and change direction as soon as we suspect it isn’t working and do something else.

Phonic rehab is a bit scary for some teachers because we remove the structured scheme of work that we believe we must religiously follow and bin the tick list of sounds that must be reader to prove that a child can read. I believe that instead of finding it scary we should embrace the opportunity to respond to what the child needs from where the child shows us their starting point is rather than a neat intervention group.

I regularly work with an amazing lady who has a brilliant saying: “Don’t tickle a pig!” Apparently, pigs are not ticklish so you can tickle them as much as you like but no one will get anything from it. I question if it is time to recognise that for some children synthetic phonics is a pig that is immune to laughter!

(Beccie Hawes is one of the workshop presenters at our conference SpLD Central, coming up on June 20th.)

15 thoughts on “Have you Been Phoniced? (Guest Blog from Beccie Hawes)

  1. We have used the verb “to phonic” for years. In our case it refers to the kids we get transferring to our, non UK school, who are failing miserably to read due to not having been phoniced properly in the first place.
    The numbers of children we have falling below the 10th percentile has fallen by over 75% and those who remain are generally those lads who have not been phoniced in their early years.
    I can’t comment on the work you are doing, but I can only say it doesn’t reflect my experience.

  2. This post does not reflect my experience either. I tutor students ages 5-13+. I know of no schools in my state (in U.S.) that use synthetic phonics in initial teaching. What schools in the U.S. actually teach synthetic phonics (U.K. style) in K and 1, especially so thoroughly that anyone could state that the students have been “phoniced”?!
    Those students who have working memory issues and those students who have difficulty with phoneme segmentation are particularly helped by synthetic phonics (U.K.-style). It does the students no service to decide not to build those skills; Only by building them will the students have access while reading texts with unfamiliar words in Social Studies and Science, etc. Teaching by word shape has no empirical support, and there is much research that argues against it. See Stanislaus Dehaene, e.g.
    By the way, I came to this blog because I was so thrilled to learn that Crossbow Education is the U.S. distributor of the synthetic-phonics-based Talisman series, much beloved by my students and me. Bravo for that!

    • Hi Jennie – thanks for your post!
      I agree – it does children no service to decide not to build those skills; and for most of them it’s the key to unlocking reading. But for some, particularly those with dyslexic or other short-term memory difficulties, their processing systems simply do not have – in computer parlance – the “RAM” to decode and blend the individual phonemes in a word; whereas they do succeed with an Onset and Rime “chunking” approach (see Goswami – around 1993 I think, also work by Bryant and Bradley). You can’t teach by word shape, certainly; although word shapes are useful in supporting recall. Beccie’s point about children being phonicked is that teachers (particularly in the UK where synthetic phonics is championed by the government) need to understand that there is no One Size Fits All when it comes to the complex process of teaching children to read. For a creative and resourceful SEN advisory teacher this attitude can become very frustrating.
      And thanks for the Bravo! Aren’t those books great!

      • .” But for some, particularly those with dyslexic or other short-term memory difficulties, their processing systems simply do not have – in computer parlance – the “RAM” to decode and blend the individual phonemes in a word;”

        Two points:
        1) since you mention ‘dyslexics’, the ‘not very pro-phonics’ commentators seem to have entirely forgotten that systematic instruction in letter/sound correspondences was what Dr S Orton said was *necessary* for teaching ‘dyslexics’. Ever since phonics became flavour of the month the direct opposite is being claimed; that somehow ‘dyslexics’ can’t learn with ‘phonics’. Very strange.

        2) With reference to your ‘RAM’ analogy, or, in the words of the blog, “they can’t ‘hold’ all of the sounds that they need to synthesise. ” . you and the blog writer are clearly unaware that it’s not absolutely necessary to hold all the sounds in memory before blending them. I suggest that you investigate a technique called ‘successive blending’ devised by Resnick & Beck

        “Beccie’s point about children being phonicked is that teachers (particularly in the UK where synthetic phonics is championed by the government) need to understand that there is no One Size Fits All when it comes to the complex process of teaching children to read.”

        I’m so glad that you recognise that Beccie’s use of ‘phoniced’ violates one of the very few consistencies in English orthography; that ‘e’ after a ‘c’ turns the sound from /k/ to /s/. It was such an irritating word to read and inexcusable, I think, in one who has such firm opinions on ‘phonics’.

        As to the ‘one size fits all’ which is trotted out like a mantra in every ‘let’s denigrate phonics’ discourse perhaps you should recognise that phonics is not so much a methodology (there are a number of ways it can be taught) as a body of essential knowledge which children should be taught and not left to ferret out for themselves. What Becci is advocating (as are you, by implication) is like teaching half your students that the Earth orbits the sun and the other half that the sun orbits Earth. What makes your stance very sad is that it is usually the weakest and most struggling readers who need most to be explicitly taught phonic knowledge and skills.

  3. I think that Goswami research has been discredited; people don’t learn to read by using onset and rime or word familes. Also, teaching using whole words doesn’t work either – if memory load is an issue this only makes it worse.

  4. I’m afraid Beccie is very misguided – and her advice that phonics does not ‘suit’ some children is very wrong and very dangerous. Look into the teaching effectiveness and/or phonics programme used if children are slipping through the net. Going back to pink and fluffy bits and pieces of equipment could not be more of a waste of time. Whilst children are definitely different in so many ways from one another, it is exactly the same complex English alphabetic code and phonics skills they all need to learn for lifelong literacy – for reading and for spelling.

  5. Beccie’s post demonstrates that nouns in English can be “verbed,” but it’s a dubious practice. Both the noun, “phonics” and Beccie’s verb coinage overlook the inescapable “one size fits all” in reading instruction; the English Alphabetic Code. The grapheme-correspondences that define the Code are the link between our written and spoken language. Written communication is a human invention; the English Alphabetic Code is what it is because of the history of the English language.

    There are various possible ways to go about teaching children how to handle the Alphabetic Code to “read speech” as they “speak prose.” These alternative instructional architectures differ in efficiency and effectiveness and some can be ruled out on the basis of logic without any further empirical investigation. For example, it is indisputable that one can “read” by discriminating whole word shapes. But this instructional architecture entails far too many different words to warrant any attention. It’s also indisputable that one can read by looking at the first letter, and possibly guessing about the word, or guessing about the word based on it’s context of preceding and subsequent words. But this architecture fails too often to make it a reasonable option.

    “Chunking” (i.e. “beginning sound” and “ending” sound” works effectively for many single syllable words, but the architecture breaks down for multi-syllable words and for many grapheme-phoneme correspondences.

    There are other architectures, such as “skipping unfamiliar words” and so on.

    An architecture that has been statutorily mandated in England is known as “Systematic Synthetic Phonics.” All teachers and schools in England are required by law to “phonic” children” (to borrow Beccie’s verb for the moment. How is this working out? Well, variously, as Beccie’s post exemplifies. In 2015 90% of Year 2 students “passed” the Alphabetic Code (Phonics) Screening Check, but there is still a large “rehab” matter to deal with, and the variability in LEA and school effectiveness remains to be untangled.

    What we can say, however, on the basis of available data is that the ” dyslexic or other short-term memory difficulties” of the students is NOT the limiting factor.

    There will be “more information forthcoming. Australia is in the process of implementing the administration of an Alphabetic Code Screening Check to all Year 1 students, and this data base will contribute to our information.

    • Hi Elizabeth – I assume you’re “Liz”? I’ve been away for the last month and haven’t been monitoring the blog site. I’ve approved your comment now, and everyone else’s.
      It’s great to see the sudden influx of comments (and unexpected – this article was posted a year or so ago): I’ll be writing a response as soon as I have some time. For now, though, I have to say that it is as inaccurate to say that “onset and rime doesn’t work” as it is to say that “synthetic phonics always works”. There are plenty of children out there who have succeeded – and failed – with both systems. Researchers are adept as disproving each other, because at times their own professional reputation depends on it; but unfortunately what research sometimes “proves” or “disproves” is far removed from the real world of human response and interaction. More later.
      Bob Hext

      • All very true, Bob. Sadly. one can cite “research” to support just about any proposition about reading instruction that anyone cares to make, so the “reading wars” and skirmishes have largely cherry-picked .research to fuel opinion and ideology–to mix a lot of metaphors.

        Children learn to read how they are taught–or at least they try to–not by stages of development. The logic for teaching children how to handle grapheme-phoneme correspondences is that this is the most parsimonious link between written and spoken English. How reliable the instruction proves to be depends on the characteristics of the specific instructional products and protocols involved–“the real world of human response and interaction” (to borrow your terms. These characteristics have yet to be investigated, but the current scene in England provides a “proving ground” for Natural Experiments in reading instruction, and this “experimental bread board” will soon extend to include Australia.

      • Thank You, Dick. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes out of Australia! The truth is that we know so little. The problem is the people who think they know everything…


  6. If we keep letting teachers “make up” interventions without understanding scientific research, then this is the most egregious “tickling the pig” action. Rehab certainly is warranted, but not for phonics, as dyslexia is NOT sn educational problem. Rather it is medical/neurobiological with multisensory neurodevelopmental effects that impair phonological awareness, memory, decoding and spelling, to name dome of the deficits.

    Unfortunately, this evidence-based, neurodevelopmental multisensory knowledge is not commonly taught to teachers and thus their rehab approaches are NOT grounded in evidence-based science. The true rehab these children need is neurorehabilitation that improves sensory, motor, language, memory and reasoning skills that are the foundational abilities necessary for latervbuilding phonological awareness, phonological working memory, phonological decoding skills, sight words, spelling, reading fluency and reading comprehension.

    Unfortunately, when we don’t teach educators how the brain works from a neurodevelopmrntal and evidence-based perspective, then we really are allowing more “tickling the Pig” and not supridingly the same outcomes of no improvements in literacy rates for over 20 years will continue.

    Struggling readers and those with dyslexia need evidence-based interventions that are highly effective. We already have muliti-million $ five-year studies that show how prevention of reading difficulties with a neurodevelopmental multisensory program is far superior to phonics (>90% of high-risk 5-year-olds read onngrade-level bybend if grade 2, but this did NOT occur for those who received phonics, equsl-time-and-attention or no treatment. This post shares the research and explains the findings and is THE step towards teaching children how to climb the tree of reading skills without the educational system leaving them with one-hand tied behind their back: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/how-neuroimaging-fmri-advance-dyslexia-assessment-tim-conway-ph-d-

    • Thank you for this, Tim. A speedy reply from me: I just happen to have the blog open at the moment! You are quite right of course: this whole thing is a learning journey, and who knows where we are on it. We are certainly not at the end!

    • Not only do “struggling readers” need “evidence-based interventions” that are highly effective, ALL students in ALL aspects of schooling need this wherewithal. But we are talking here about reading instruction.

      The merit of the Alphabetic Code Screening Check, which can be used at any age, is that it provides a virtually no-cost and unobtrusive means for directly comparing (interventions/treatments/programs)–rather than referencing and comparing (students/learners/readers) as has been done in the past. The resulting “evidence” is in terms of reliability of a specific intervention, its time, and its cost–the same criteria we use in comparing alternatives in all aspects of life other than instruction.

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