Why reading skills are not improving

Since 2007 primary teachers in England have been obliged to use phonics for teaching young children to read and write. They risk failing their Ofsted inspections if they don’t use one of the government-approved synthetic phonics courses.

The use of phonics has increasingly become regarded as the best means of improving reading standards and reducing persistent educational underachievement in all Anglophone countries, especially for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or with learning disabilities. It is however becoming clear that this has failed to make much of a difference. Roughly 1 in 6 pupils, or around 18%, still leave primary school with the reading ability expected of an average 7-year-old and have trouble coping with secondary education.

Phonics tries to teach the relationships between sounds and letters, and how to decode the sounds of single letters and longer spellings (or graphemes) in reading, and how to encode them in writing https://www.tes.com/news/problem-phonics-eyfs-and-how-solve-it.  It usually starts with making children aware that words consist of discreet sounds, as in C-A-T,  SH-I-P  and  F-I-SH, which become blended together (cat, ship, fish). This works well when the relationships between sounds and letters are predominantly one-to-one, as in most Latin-based writing systems.  In most countries phonics enables children make rapid progress in both reading and writing. Most Finnish children, for example, learn to read fluently in a couple of months and write well by the end of their first year at school. English-speaking pupils learn to read and write much more slowly. Children of average ability take around three years to achieve basic reading fluency, but many need much longer. Nearly one in five are still far from proficient by age 11, after seven years at primary school. ,

To become fluent a fluent reader and proficient writer of English is harder and takes much longer, because the relationships between English sounds and letters are frequently not one-to-one. Many spellings have more than one pronunciation, like o in ‘wobble – woman, women, wonder, who’; and most sounds have more than one spelling (stop – swap, cough, sausage). Anglophone students have to shoulder a much heavier literacy learning burden than in languages with more regular writing systems.

Teachers can invent various clever means and materials to help pupils cope with the learning load, like synthetic phonics courses, but they cannot lighten it.  Around 2,000 English words continue to pose decoding difficulties and make learning to read much harder than in most other languages. At least 4,219 quite common, non-specialist words have unpredictable spellings which must be learned word-by-word.

This learning load remains too heavy for about 1 in 6 children, and is the main reason why in the UK alone around 170,000 pupils still start secondary school each year with inadequate reading and writing skills. Other English-speaking countries have proportionally similar numbers of students with literacy problems. The irregularities of English spelling continue to prevent an effective reduction of them, regardless of teaching methods or how hard pupils and teachers are made to work.

     Main differences between English and other alphabetically written languages

Average for Latin-based writing systems   English
Sounds          40        44
Spellings          50      205
Spellings with irregular sounds           0       69
Words in which some letters  have irregular pronunciations           0   2,000+
Words with some irregular spellings        300   4,000+
Time needed for learning to read      3 – 12 months     3 years+
Time needed for learning to write       1 year   10 years (at least)

But not all words with decoding difficulties impede literacy progress equally. The worst are 100-150 tricky words which most hinder the reading progress of beginners. Their irregular sounds undermine the main letter-sound relationships that children learn first. Knowing only the main pronunciation of their spellings does not enable learners to decipher all their sounds. They make the early years of learning to read English exceptionally dependent on one-to-one help from adults. Until pupils have learnt to sight-read most of the words shown below, they keep being tripped up by them and their reading stays slow and laborious.

The pronunciation of  o and o-e in 100s of words like ‘Dot got hot’  and ‘home alone’ is undermined by:  Another,   brother,  other,  mother,    both,   cold,   do,   does,   don’t,  shoe,  most,   oh,   old,    once,   only,  to,  into,  rolled,   told,  two,   who, wolf,  word, work. Come,  coming,   done,  glove,  love,  gone,  moved,  one,  oven,  some,  women, woman.      
Ou and ow of  ‘Shout out loud sound now are irregular in:                                                         Could, should,  would, wound,   you,   your,  although,  bought,  brought, coughcountry,  cousin,   four,  group,     shoulder,  soup,   thought,  through,   tough.          Grow,   know,   slow,   snow,   window.  
E, ey, e-e   of ‘Then the men wentand ‘they slept here, are irregular in:                                     Be,  English,  every,   eyes,   he,    key,    me,     never,    seven,    she,                                                     there,   we,   were,   where,  very (merry).  
Ea of  ‘Near the beach have different pronunciations in:                                                            Bear,  break,  breakfast,  great,   head,   health,   heard,  heart,  meant,  measure,   ready.
A and au of ‘A man ran, then paused’ are irregular in:                                                                             Any,  also,  many,     table,     want,     was,   water,    what,       laughed.                       
 I  of  ‘Pip sits with his sister’s children’ is different in:                                                                             Childish,   find,   I’ll,   I’mkind,  ninth,    wild.

Several other variable pronunciations retard reading progress considerably too (bus – busy,  roads – abroad, food – good). The irregular sounds in the words above are worse, because they begin to confuse children soon after they start of learning to read. They keep reappearing in all normal stories, i.e. ones which are not written specifically for the teaching of basic phonics and deliberately avoid them.

All spellings with irregular pronunciations impede the effectiveness of phonics for learning and teaching to read English so some extent. The ones above are most responsible for making the early years of English-speaking pupils much more difficult and bewildering than in countries with more regular writing systems.

Teachers have always used some phonics. It became the most widely used method during the past two decades largely as a result of Dianne McGuinnes’s 1998 book  Why children can’t read. She had discovered that in most countries teachers use nothing but phonics for the initial teaching of reading and writing. This led her to conclude that the persistently high rate of literacy failure among Anglophones was due mainly to insufficient use of phonics. She failed to notice that English spelling is vastly less phonemic than all other alphabetic writing systems.

The many unsystematic English spellings limit the usefulness of phonics for teaching reading and writing. Good progress depends heavily on memorisation and lots of sustained practice and getting one-to-one help at home in the early years at primary school. Being reading-ready at the start of primary school is also more important than in other languages. Anglophone children who have not been regularly talked to and read to from early infancy and get little educational support from their parents, or have learning disabilities like a weak visual memory or dyslexia, are far more disadvantaged than speakers of other languages. That’s why 1 in 6 keep failing to become adequately literate.

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