"Phonics and phonemic awareness are most important when students need the clearest understanding of the alphabetic principle."

"Phonics and phonemic awareness are most important when students need the clearest understanding of the alphabetic principle." Photo: Chris Lane

Controversies about children’s literacy learning have raged throughout our careers as educators. The latest this week around the NAPLAN writing test underlines some of the myths about how children learn to read and write.

This is partly because of a limited understanding of what literacy is – too often it is seen as just about learning to sound out text. Literacy encompasses reading and writing. Reading is not just about decoding a text by sounding out words: it is a complex process of constructing meanings from a text.

The debate has often been characterised as using phonics to teach reading versus using what is often called a ''whole language approach''. Phonics is the complex relationship between patterns of letters, known as graphemes, and patterns of sounds, known as phonemes.

Few literacy educators deny the importance of understanding phonics and phonemic awareness: most would argue that phonics is more important when learning to spell and write, than when learning to read.

Research demonstrates that promoting heavy phonics-based approaches to reading instruction, can often result in children achieving better results on tests that ask them to pronounce lists of words than on tasks requiring them to understand what they are reading. Children excel in reading comprehension when they undertake wide reading of books selected for pleasure. Low socio-economic students are unlikely to have as many opportunities to read in this way, as their more affluent peers.

When we read we sample just enough visual information to grasp meaning. We bring our past experiences and knowledge of language to the information in a specific text, and use prediction and questioning strategies to test and re-test our understanding of the author’s purpose in this particular context.

Over-emphasis on the letter-sound relationship is very confusing for children learning to read.

The important point about a phonics approach is that it teaches an analytic approach to words, one that is designed to exploit the alphabetic principle. The major criticisms of this approach include that it can seem nonsensical to the learner, that it obscures the function of reading (that is to say extracting meaning from print) and that many of the contrived texts lack coherence beyond the sentence level.

Phonics and phonemic awareness are therefore most important when students need the clearest understanding of the alphabetic principle – for writing and spelling processes rather than when learning to read. 

In English there are 44 sounds and only 26 letters, so it is almost untruthful to suggest to children that English is predominantly phonically regular. Think of the phonetic value of the “y” in the word Pyne (as an apposite example!), and in the words yes, and happy. And then of course there is the value of “ough” in tough, though, through, bough, trough, nought, cough, hiccough, borough, plough.

The danger with promulgating solely a phonics approach to the teaching of reading is that the primacy of oracy is lost. If students learn to decode words but do not know what these words mean, they will be merely ''barking at print'' and missing the most important part within this definition, that of comprehending the meaning of text.

Research shows that using a mix of strategies and approaches shaped to meet the learning needs and strategies of individual children, is most effective. It is important to share rich and authentic texts that engage children, to introduce a balance between words that need to be learnt by sight (such as ''said'') and those that can be easily decoded (such as ''cat''), and to talk about the possible meanings and different perspectives raised in a text.

Of course, some children may need more time with a repetition of particular skills and strategies. Sometimes this will include more emphasis on phonics and phonemic awareness.

We must stop perpetuating outdated misunderstandings. There is no single recipe for literacy learning. To propose a solely phonics approach will short-change many children and may even discourage them from reading. Teachers need to employ a repertoire of strategies and approaches carefully chosen to suit the intellectual needs of individual children, to ensure they learn to read for meaning and deep understanding. 

Professor Robyn Ewing is the acting pro-dean of the Faculty of Education and Social Work, at the University of Sydney, and national president of the Australian Literacy Educators Association. Professor Marguerite Maher is dean of the School of Education at Notre Dame University.