The Folly of Jolly Old Phonics

A phonics tale of three children(with morals for teachers of reading)
 © Mem Fox 2008

This piece was presented at a conference of Auckland principals in Auckland, New Zealand in April 2008

Thank you. It’s great to be here. My husband is hoping I won’t have free time to buy shoes since shoes are infinitely more interesting in New Zealand than they are in Australia. Many things are more interesting in New Zealand: the scenery, the accent, the passion for rugby and the fact that for most of last century you led the world in the teaching of reading. Your famous educators: Sylvia Ashton Warner, Don Holdaway and Marie Clay blazed a trail for the world to follow, and we in Australia followed in your footsteps like grateful children learning from wise parents. Our school children benefited massively from your wise counsel.

On my last few visits to this country however I’ve heard murmurings of discontent from your very own teachers regarding the direction some New Zealand schools are taking in the teaching of reading. It appears that far from being confident leaders with brilliant theories and practices to share with the world there’s a feeling abroad that perhaps other countries like the United Sates, with its current heavily phonicated methods, have better ideas; that programs such as the Spalding Method, Accelerated Reader and Jolly Phonics—by the very fact of their being so expensive and so well-marketed—¬must be better than anything you had before; that you’re such a tiny nation you couldn’t possibly have the best ideas, and so on. What a ridiculous notion, for heaven’s sake!

I’m here today to beg you hang on to your old way of doing things in literacy education, to continue to be to be leaders still, not followers. Leaders think. Followers don’t. Leaders have a good grasp of their subject. Followers don’t know what they’re talking about. Leaders speak with confidence. Followers fumble. Leaders have status. Followers have no status: they’re pathetic. Leaders have authority. Followers have none. So why, after being leaders in literacy, would you want to follow anyone else? In particular why would you want to adopt a single idea about the teaching of reading from the United States, a country in which literacy standards has fallen drastically over the last ten years?

Before I burst a blood vessel over this let me take a short break and read you a book of mine that seems to me to apply to principals as much as it does to pirates: read Tough Boris.

To return to our former topic, the strength of New Zealand teachers was—and still is in the main, so let’s not panic yet—that they truly understood the nature of phonics and the role that phonics played in the teaching of reading. In this speech I’m going to revisit phonics, through three parables, as it were, as a sort of revision for those of you who might have become a little hazy on the subject. Those of you who know it all—and I do apologize because I know there are many in this audience who do know it all—might like to have a little doze from time to time. Here goes…

Once upon a time in Australia there lived three children. Their names were Sean, Justin and Josephine. Sean lived in Hobart, and still does. Justin lived in Melbourne, and still does. And Josephine lived in Adelaide—and still does, around the corner from me. Each of these children learnt to read before he or she went to school, without any lessons. How this happened is fascinating. And challenging. And ultimately, confronting for those of us in literacy education.

Let me tell you about Sean first. About five years ago I received this message on my website:

Your books hold a special place in our lives, wonderful memories of baby and early childhood. Our son was able to read grade two readers at 3yrs, two months and recently a national show was aired on him called ‘genius kid’. I read to him every day from five months on and now he reads to his baby sister and has done so from the time she was three days old. I followed your advice and think ‘Reading Magic’ is one of the most valuable books ever! Mem, we can’t thank you enough for making it so easy and so much fun. Hope we meet you someday, Angie, Sean and Sarah

Angie had provided an e-mail address so I wrote back and asked if I could phone her and talk about this amazing occurrence, and we chatted for ages one Sunday morning. Lo and behold: it was the same old read aloud story—a story that never ceases to excite me, no matter how often I hear it.

Angie told me she began reading to Sean—who is now nine—from three months and that Time for Bed was the first of my books she bought.

Angie couldn’t remember exactly when she first read Reading Magic, but she was fairly certain it was when Sean was almost two years old and she claims she was an instant convert. She said she couldn’t believe it could be so simple and told lots of her friends about Reading Magic, for which I could kiss her feet. Sean’s reading developed very quickly. At 3yrs 7mths he had a reading age of 7yrs 7mths and a vocabulary understanding of a child of fourteen and half and Angie says it was just from doing the things I recommended. (What a publicist! I should employ her.)

Sean appeared on Today Tonight, a tabloid TV evening program in Australia. The segment was called Genius Kid. He was also on the front page of the main newspaper for southern Tasmania, in an article entitled ‘Smart Sean in a class of his own’. Here’s part of it:

When Russel and Angelea Galloway have trouble with their computer they turn to their four-year-old son Sean for help. ‘He normally works it out,’ Mrs Galloway said at their home near Sorell yesterday.

Sean is a gifted child with an IQ rating of 147. He has already been accepted into the high IQ organisation Mensa…

Mrs Galloway said: ‘He just seems to be good at everything yet he is a perfectly normal loving child.’At fifteen months Sean could identify all the letters of the alphabet. His maths and spelling were also rated equivalent to a seven year old.

The Galloways call themselves as ordinary people. Mr Galloway is a free-lance cameraman while Mrs Galloway is a full-time mum. Their second child Sarah was born four months ago and Sean has been reading books to her since she was two days old. Sean reads up to ten books a day.

So that’s the story of Sean. I’ll skim over the story of Justin because his story is told in full in the chapter of Reading Magic called ‘Proof’

In brief, Justin’s parents, Allan and Donna Bartlett, read aloud regularly to their son with remarkable results. Justin was twenty-one-months old when they first contacted me.

He had been introduced to books at six days old. It had seemed to his parents like a good thing to do—it added interest to the daily baby-care routine—and he seemed to like books and being read to, right from the start. By three months he clearly knew which way a book should be held, and he could even turn the pages on cue, responding to the obvious pause in reading at the end of a page. By three months!

At twenty-one months he had a speaking vocabulary in excess of five hundred words, which his mother attributed to what he had gained from books. He could also sight-read about twenty words. Incredible: before he even turned two.

You and I know that most children learn don’t learn to read at home—they learn soon after they start school, when everything they already know clicks into place with the help of a teacher. But a growing number of children is learning to read before they start school and they’re learning quickly, happily and easily, like Sean and Justin.

I need to read you Koala Lou before I tell you about the third child in my Tale of Three Children. [Read it.]

I’m happy to have made the acquaintance of my neighbourhood wonder-girl, the glorious Josephine, who was able to read anything at the age of three which is when she and I met. She is now seven. She lives in the street that runs into mine, and on Boxing Day 2004 she and her mother Liz dropped by to introduce themselves and to show me how much Josie loved my book Koala Lou. She read me the whole book, self-correcting when she needed to. Her dad is an accountant and her mum is in human resources. Neither has been an educator. They told me they didn’t know how it had happened. When I asked if they had read aloud to her, they both said: ‘Of course. All the time. Ever since she was born.’

Josephine was read the same stories repeatedly, hundreds of times. Her mother told me that Josie taught herself to read using whole words. She did not use phonics to learn new words and is very confused if this method is thrust upon her. When someone tells her that hot is made up of the sounds: huh-o-tuh, Josie quite rightly hears her otter instead of hot. When she doesn’t know a word she asks what it is, and remembers it next time she sees it, because she sees it over and over again as books are read to her and as she reads them herself. From the words she already knows she applies logic to extrapolate what other words will be in the sentence she’s reading.

Which is exactly how our daughter Chloë learnt to read, two weeks after she started school, aged four and half. She’d heard the same favourite books read time and time again, had watched the print, and had joined in. And then, like the prima donna she was, she demanded that she be allowed to read the books herself, preferably on audio-tape so she could listen to herself later. When she didn’t know a word I told her what it was immediately so she was never held up, so she could keep the story going, so she could storm ahead with blind courage.

‘You will tell me the difficult words, won’t you, Mummy?’ she’d say, as she launched, pell-mell and fearlessly, into reading a story she loved. I remember two words in particular, in different books, which she hesitated on: cosy and investigation. I told her what they were. A few pages later, when the same words reappeared, she read them without any hesitation whatsoever. And of course she saw them again and again during repeated, joyful, shared readings of those same books.

When children learn to read before school without any lessons, they do so because they’ve been looking at the same print over and over again as they’ve listened to the same language, in the same stories, which have been read so many times that their parents are driven to distraction. Not only does the print become familiar, language becomes familiar. Learning to read is much more about learning language that it is about making sounds from the letters on a page. It stands to reason that it’s going to be easier to read driven to distraction if we’ve heard driven to distraction over and over again, than if we’ve never heard that phrase. In certain situations, the moment we read driven to we’re going to expect a word like distraction to follow, and the print will confirm it.

Anyway, that’s the end of my Tale of Three Children and Chloë. What implications does my tale have for teachers of reading?

Most methods, at most schools, tend sooner or later to get most children reading. Research tells us it’s the teacher, not the method, that makes the difference. However, in the light of recent movements and arguments in the teaching of reading, it’s important to understand the intricacies and meaning of phonics which is basically the ability to sound to break words up into smaller pieces and sound them out, as in: c-a-t says cat.

And where does phonics fit into reading education? Before we go any further we need to ask ourselves a more fundamental question: what is reading? It’s making meaning—please hang on to that piece of information—it’s making meaning, not sound, from the marks we see on the page. Take this sentence: ‘There was a tear in his…’ We can’t say the sound of the word ‘tear’ unless we know its meaning in the sentence: is it a tear in his eye, or a tear in his shirt? Merely sounding out the phonics of t-e-a-r gets us nowhere: context is all important. Which is why random words lists are such a idiotic idea.

It transpires—and I find this fascinating—that children like Sean and Justin and Josephine, who learn to read without any lessons, and could read fluently at the age of three, never sounded out words phonically as they learnt to read. In other words advanced readers don’t use phonics, even at the age of three. They, and we who are fluent readers, use phonics only after we have learnt to read, when we meet difficult, multi-syllabic words that we can’t make sense of by the usual logical means: through print, or grammar, or a prior understanding of what we have just read, or through general knowledge.

We use phonics when we realise we’ve spelt something incorrectly, as I did earlier when I was writing the word ‘capability.’ I had to break it up into the five syllables to get it right. Phonics was really useful in that situation. In fact we can’t write without phonics which is why we should be teaching reading at the same time as we’re teaching writing—as we’re teaching reading—as we’re teaching writing—as we’re teaching reading—and so son..

Phonics is also useful when we come to a word we don’t know, such as the Polish surname that the Sydney entrepreneur, Richard Pratt was born with: Przetitzki, which is very difficult for English speakers to read, unlike: ‘The cat sat on the frigging mat.’

But a capability in phonics doesn’t mean competence in reading. It’s quite possible to read with all the correct phonics in place and yet not to be reading at all. For example, I can read phonically correctly the entire Indonesian edition of my picture book Hattie and the Fox without understanding a word I’m saying:

‘Ya, ya, ya!’ kata babi.
‘Peduli apa?’ kata domba…

Correctly sounding out the words is not reading, it’s barking at print, retrieving no meaning at all from the text. So it’s disappointing to discover that many parents, politicians and even a few principals think that decoding phonics correctly is indeed reading. I’m sure you’ll agree that getting the phonics right is completely pointless in the ‘”Peduli apa?” kata domba’ situation,.

Only 50% of the words in English are phonically decodable This is a a nuisance, especially for the mad keen phonic-ators among us. It’s my sincere hope that we’re able to go beyond a 50% literacy level in Australia and New Zealand. We have, actually. We’re always in the top four in the world after Finland, and sometimes Canada. The Finns have an unfair advantage over us: their language, like Indonesian and Italian, is phonically simple.

And if phonics is so important, so fundamental, so essential—as so many claim—and so crucial to our ability to make meaning from text, how come we can read the following with ease?

Aoccdrnig to rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is that the frist and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclae: the rset can be a toatl mses but you can still raed it wouthit a porbelm. This is bcuseae we don’t raed ervey lteter but the word as a wlohe.

So, hey, waht does this say abuot the improtnace of phnoics in raeidng? Prorbalby that phonics ins’t very imoptrnat at all. How apcoltapyic is that, in the cuerrnt licetary wars!

As if that weren’t proof enough that phonics is useful but not essential, here’s more: how can it be possible that the billions of people in China and Japan, Korea and Taiwan learn to read when there is no phonics possible in their written language, which is displayed, instead, in pictographs? Children in China have to be told what a word is and then learn to recognise it and memorise it. Amazing what they achieve, isn’t it? All those billions of people, deprived as they are, poor things, from the apparently essential benefits of phonics, becoming competent in literacy.

Sadly, let me say this again: phonics-mad literacy terrorists truly, madly, deeply believe that’s making sounds is all there is to reading. How sad. How pitiful. As if we’d lie in a bath on Friday night and read The Da Vinci Code aloud. Most of us read silently when we read at all. Within that silence meaning is made, and within that silence we’re able to read much more quickly than we do when we read aloud.

When we force poor little reluctant readers to read to us and when we tell them to sound out words they don’t know, instead of simply giving them the word, they tend to read so slowly that they make little sense of the print and receive no joy from it. (‘Giving the word’ is what the parents of young early readers are know to do.) Children who are reluctant, remedial readers may perhaps be able to complete a little book tortuously and phonically correctly, but there’s no reward in it, no excitement or passion, or emotion of any kind.

These unfortunate children don’t love reading because they’ve never been read to. They can’t see the point of reading, because they don’t receive meaning or fun or value from it, even though they can decode words nicely. How ironic it is then, that we tend to each phonics heavily to the very children who need phonics least: the confused children, the ones who can’t yet read.

Sadly, because of the money to be made from phonics programs, and the ease with which these programs can be tested and ‘researched’ phonics has been claimed in the USA in particular to have been ‘scientifically proven’ to be the best method to teach reading. If we scratch a quick-fix, sure-fire method of ‘curing’ reading difficulties we will often (but not always) find behind it a core group from an education publishing house, or a government department, or an institute in a university which stands to gain massively, financially, from their endeavours. Many expensive programs that you and I see in use in classrooms are earning bucket-loads of money on the basis of a flawed understanding of reading, and a willful misinterpretation of research. It sickens me.

The current methods used to teach reading in the USA are causing such a worrying decline in reading standards that many American states have hired teachers from Australia and New Zealand who are working at this moment to improve literacy in failing schools. There are in 536 of these teachers in New York alone.

Why would you and I even contemplate changing from the best methods in the world to the least effective? In Australia, due to the methods we use to teach reading, 66% of Australian children list reading as one of their favourite pastimes. How good is that?! I feel inordinately proud of that statistic.

[As I re-read this article in August 2013, I’m drowning in sorrow: Australia is copying the methods and testing regime of the USA instead of sensibly following in the footsteps of Finland which has the highest literacy rate in the world. Anyway, to continue…)

It’s simple: children who arrive at school without any exposure to books, print, pictures, page-turning, and gorgeous stories that lighten up their lives need only that when they arrive in school: an enormous and intense exposure to books, the same books over and over and over again; an exposure to print through Big Books and to the details in the pictures; they need to experience page-turning; lots of chat about what’s going on in the story and about the funny things in the pictures; gorgeous stories that lighten up their often sad lives; and lively teachers who switch them on to loving books, and who create a longing to be able to read. A phonics-first-and phonics-only approach can never in its wildest dreams achieve the same effect. I mean, compare this kind of literacy-learning with a phonics lesson: read The Magic Hat. A multitude of explicit phonics lessons can be taught from the pages of joyful books by expert teachers who are excited by teaching—teachers who make children excited about learning.

Do we want children whose backgrounds (both rich and poor, let’s get that clear: this isn’t about financial disadvantage it’s about a read-aloud disadvantage)—do we want children whose backgrounds have lacked books to be resurrected into literacy in our classrooms or crucified on the cross of phonics? I certainly know which I’d choose.

The funds currently directed into the miracle cures and quick fixes in reading—out of which publishers make billions of dollars—would be better used in schools by providing children with a class library of appropriate classics that have been adored for years, instead of the mind-numbing ‘readers’ currently in vogue. With this kind of action—who knows?—we might even wipe out illiteracy in a single generation. How about it? We could at least try.