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We Need to Talk About Phonics #FullyFunctional

Sheila Mulvenney, Director, Attuned Education Ltd

The 2018 Functional skills reforms have brought about a number of changes to the curriculum. One which has caused some debate is the introduction of phonics in the English Functional Skills curriculum.

As a phonics trainer I welcome this but I am also aware of the need for planning preparation and training if the reforms are yield the desired outcome – helping learners build their reading skills.

In recent history there have been two broad approaches to teaching reading:

1. Whole language approach

A whole language approach which concentrates, as the title suggests on whole words, (sometimes called a look-say approach) using a range of strategies like flash cards, repetition and word shapes to ‘teach’ children whole words.

In this method little attention is paid to learning strategies for spelling, though some guidelines or rules, which rarely work in every situation, may be used to assist learning.

This method encouraged ‘guessing’ based on accompanying pictures or the first letter of the word and relies heavily on memory and this has been shown to be less effective as a method for teaching reading than a phonic approach.

2. Phonics approach

Though it is recognised that there are two strands to reading, word recognition and language comprehension – phonics is concerned primarily with word recognition.

With phonics the emphasis is on the sounds and how these sounds are represented in written form by letters. Learners are taught how to blend the sounds represented by letters together to read words and separate or segment the sounds they hear in words to write and spell the words. The emphasis in this approach is on developing skills to decode words rather than memorise whole words.

Every word we say consists of sounds and as we represent these sounds in written form, every word is decodable. It’s a bit like teaching someone how to dig a well to access water as opposed to giving them a few bucketsful. Once they have the skills any word can be read or spelled.

The phonics approach recommended by the government to be used in schools is systematic synthetic phonics where learners are taught how to spell the 44 commons sounds of the English language using combinations of the 26 letters of the alphabet in a systematic way.

The Rose Report emphasises “the importance of phonics as the prime approach to teaching word recognition for the vast majority of children, including those with English as an additional language.”

There also exists analytic phonics where the sound symbol correspondence is inferred by comparing words rather than explicit teaching, but this has not been found to be as effective as systematic synthetic phonics (SSP). 


Having taught a 4 day Sounds-Write phonics course to teachers and staff in a number of schools it is my observation would be that that many teachers in primary schools are not themselves well versed in phonics – something borne out by the (relatively small) study “From training to teaching early language and literacy The effectiveness of training to teach language and literacy in primary schools“, which found “not enough new teachers had consistent high quality training during initial teacher education and induction to ensure that they developed good teaching skills, underpinned by a deep understanding of language development and the acquisition of literacy skills.”

In many secondary schools there are often no teachers who have the necessary skills and knowledge to teach a student to read or know where to start with a student who struggles to read and spell, and there are many such students.

These students somehow manage to get through the whole of their primary education and still not be able to read, surely one of the most fundamental tasks of education.

In secondary school every lesson will present problems as students may be unable to access many aspects of the curriculum. There may also be the constant fear of humiliation at not having mastered a skill that others have conquered with ease, and this in turn might lead to behavioural issues as well as issues with self-esteem.

We also know that poor literacy rates are linked to social isolation, reduced job prospects, and even imprisonment, surely it is time as educators that we got it right and ensure that every child (unless there is a significant cognitive impairment) leaves school being able to read.

Post 16

When a student who either can’t read or struggles to read or spell (which is not related to intelligence and ability but often rather to the learning approaches and effectiveness of teaching methods they have been exposed to) starts college or an apprenticeship they do so often with a firm belief that they have or are the problem.

They believe that there is something wrong with them because they were never able to ‘crack the code’ of reading.

So, while they may be delighted to be studying a vocational course of their choice, they will probably be dismayed that they must continue trying to gain a qualification in functional skills English.

To add insult to their already low self esteem, anyone who has tried to teach them using a phonic approach will have found it hard to access age appropriate resources.

Thankfully now some have been developed – even a set of decodable readers for adults and I’m sure more will be on the way.

What needs to happen now

I know from experience that using SSP is effective, as both initial teaching strategy when children are in reception and for those who slip though the net. I am delighted that phonics is now part of the functional skills English curriculum. But I have some concerns for the staff who will deliver this.

They will probably never have been taught phonics in their teaching studies and may not have been taught to read themselves using a phonic approach. Because they can read, write and spell we must not assume they will be able to teach phonics without first learning it themselves.

As effective readers our skills are automatic and many readers will find it hard to sound out a word and will only use their decoding skills when faced with an unfamiliar word.

As effective readers that doesn’t matter, they have the skills to read – but to teach phonics they will need to be able to identify and teach these skills.

The importance of staff who teach functional skills being given the time and resources to be able to teach it effectively is of vital importance.

Their students have already experienced years of failure and frustration. We could say they have already been badly let down by a school system they have been in for 10 years plus yet one which lets them leave without functional literacy skills.

We need to make absolutely sure they are not put in a position where this can happen again so it is essential that those responsible for delivery of the English functional skills curriculum make sure staff who will deliver are equipped to carry out this crucial task with the confidence that comes for knowledge and personal skill development.

Sheila Mulvenney, Director, Attuned Education Ltd

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