Balkanism – decoding separate from reading comprehension?

A few months ago I wrote a post describing my first encounter with phonics instruction and some of the early lessons I learned as I tried to understand more about its principles and approaches.  In this post I am trying to work my way through a couple of observations that are troubling me a bit; I don’t quite know what they mean.   

In Australia, most schools would indicate that they include phonics in their early years reading programs. This inclusion can range from homeopathic doses through to a program using the understanding of the alphabetic code as its guiding principle. Despite the range of incorporation, phonics as an add-on or back-up seems to be more of the rule than the exception – the AITSL website includes a demonstration video showing a school which uses phonics as a secondary strategy.


I understand that decoding doesn’t fully equate to reading and that there also needs to be focus on comprehension. Given the work of work of McGuinness and others indicating that most of the variance in reading comprehension can be explained by decoding and oral comprehension skills, decoding is an integral part of the reading process.  Therefore the development of an understanding of the alphabetical principle should underpin the work we do with early readers.


On Saturday I was lucky enough to attend a symposium presented by Learning Difficulties Australia, in which Pr Julian Elliott presented some of his research and thoughts on dyslexia, its diagnosis and the implications of diagnosis in a range of settings. There was disagreement and debate around a number of the opinions presented by the panellists which helped to engage the audience. Even those who were put off by the frank views of the panellists on Reading Recovery and Arrowsmith (and there were a few!) would still have walked away learning more about reading and the factors affecting decoding. As an added bonus I had the opportunity to speak to a number of teachers from various schools across the state about the ways in which they approached early years reading in their school. 


In two separate conversations an odd approach was described to me: the schools in which the teachers worked had separate times in the day for the “Phonics Program” and the “Reading Program”. What was gobsmacking for me was that the principles of the two never overlapped. The approach described by the teachers goes a little like this:


In the morning kids come in and work on the grapheme-phoneme correspondence of the day, practise encoding using the graphemes they have been working on and read decodable texts. Then, later in the day, they head off to the “Reading Program” where they use “authentic” texts and multi-cueing strategies. In the “reading” session students aren’t expected to use any of the decoding strategies they learnt in the morning session to makes sense of the text they are reading. They wouldn’t point to a grapheme in a book they are listening to and enquire about the associated phoneme. They wouldn’t try to decode a sentence that contained words that the students were able to decode.


What has me a little confused is that the teachers talking to me were enthusiastic advocates of phonics approaches. They not only demonstrated that they have more than a passing familiarity with various phonics teaching strategies but they celebrate the progress kids have been making in decoding non-words. They were not averse to phonics nor terrible at their application within the prescribed session. Yet they seemed comfortable with the idea that the elements of the alphabetic principle they taught in one session were not applied at all in a session referred to as “Reading”.


Meeting representatives from schools running this way at the symposium may just have been fortuitous but it matched some similar observations I have made when visiting other schools. It makes me think that there is a cluster of schools that have programs that run like this.


So now I am left musing. Why is it, when you have an obvious support for the development of the alphabetic principle, that “decoding” and “reading comprehension” gets Balkanised like this? Pushing aside the methods used to teach reading comprehension for a moment, surely it makes sense to embed the use of the alphabetic principle whenever using text. What I am wondering about is: What makes this balkanisation occur? 

I am interested in your thoughts.

Published by Reid Smith

Teacher interested in how data can inform decision-making in classrooms. Forever learning the ropes. Currently working with Prep teachers on reading/decoding.

7 thoughts on “Balkanism – decoding separate from reading comprehension?

  1. A collective madness is what makes this type of nonsense occur! There appears to be a delusional belief amongst many teachers that reading is some amazingly complex thing that can only be taught in a complex manner.

    In reality reading is talking on paper/screen. If you can talk you can read, all you need to learn is the code that links the sounds that come out of our mouths with the symbols on the page. It is that simple and there lies the problem.

    In my opinion too many primary teachers are obsessed with their own cleverness and wish to see this reflected in their chosen profession, teaching. What teachers do has to be seen as amazing, inspiring, creative etc etc. No, primary teaching is simple, reading is a simple thing, adding is a simple thing, history is a simple thing etc.

    To teach you need to be organised, be able to communicate, be able to maintain order and that is BASICALLY it. Some of the most successful educators I have seen are parents, classroom assistants who don’t over complicate the basics and thereby obtain great results.

    This unwillingness to accept the simplicity of primary education is one of the reasons the educational establishment, particularly teaching colleges, in many countries is resistant to the teaching of phonics and the complex code in particular.

    I said at the beginning of this comment that the reason for the Balkanization of reading was madness, perhaps I should have said ego.


  2. Good question!
    In the UK the balkanisation started with the emphasis on teaching phonics in a ‘discrete’ way and also ‘first, fast and only’ (both phrases from the Rose Report). The simplification of the phonics approach (by government, by reporters, by some publishers) left schools thinking a) if we teach discrete phonics, all our children will learn to read and/or b) phonics is separate from our normal teaching of reading which can continue unaltered.
    Yes, teaching phonics discretely is important. But you may as well not bother if you don’t make it explicit to the child that they need to apply these skills in their ‘other’ reading and writing.
    The balkanisation of all aspects of literacy from each other is dating and concerning. Speaking, listening, reading, writing (and phonics as part of them), building arguments > these are all connected skills and part of the same overarching literacy goal – communicating meaning.
    That’s my perspective on your question! Thanks for the blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would agree with this analysis of what is seen in the UK.

      The discrete teaching of phonics suits the teaching of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP). Advocates of SSP are of the opinion that other strategies used for decoding printed text should not be used, and government policy supports this method. The Simple View of Reading (SVR) – that reading is the product of decoding and comprehension – implies that decoding and comprehension are separate skills. This suggests that words can be decoded out of context by sounding out graphemes left to right – in fact, that words are best taken out of context, to prevent the use of unhelpful strategies.

      In fact, the original conception of decoding in the Simple View of Reading is not the same as the concept as currently understood in SSP and in general. In the SVR decoding is a more complex procedure dependent on a familiarity with deeper consistencies in English spelling than the grapheme-phoneme correspondences emphasised in SSP. In original explanations of SVR there is an acknowledgement that readers need a combination of phonics knowledge and this deeper convention knowledge to be able to pronounce words they see in text. The convention knowledge is gained through familiarity with English spelling gained through the practice, and practise, of reading. It is bound up with reading texts, self-teaching spellings and arriving at a knowledge that enables the instant recognition of whole words. While the discrete learning of phonic correspondences has a place in the process, so does the learning of the way phonic correspondences differ according to the whole words in which they are used – essential in an opaque orthography.

      Unfortunately the approach favoured by the UK government, with support given to SSP taught discretely and enforcement of that teaching through a phonics screening check administered in Year I, supports this approach of teaching phonics ‘first, fast and only’, an approach which is not supported by the original concept of the SVR, and which risks neglecting the consequences of the opaque nature of English orthography. Furthermore, the emphasis on phonics taught in order to enable children to pass a test of nonword reading, risks the neglect of teaching children to read real words. Nonwords can be pronounced correctly as long as the pronunciation is phonetically plausible. But we all know that real English words have specific spellings.

      There’s much more that could be said. This is the tip of the iceberg which is the reading debate.


  3. I think that a significant contribution to the Balkanisation of reading instruction has been the relentless repetition of the phrase ‘decodoing isn’t reading’ in the years since the importance of teaching phonic knowledge and skills has been emphasised. Originating, it seems, from old school Education academics, whose careers have been built on the promotion of any strategy but phonics for word identification, and enthusiastically repeated by their many ex-tutees, who teach in schools all over the UK, it has transformed from a possibly useful reminder that there is more to reading than just phonics (I’m trying to be generous here) into a ‘truism’ on the same lines, and with the same lack of rational thought, as the belief that High Frequency words are ‘not decodable’.

    Consequently, if phonics ‘isn’t reading’ it can be safely ignored when it comes to the nitty gritty of ‘making meaning’ from text. Because *that is* ‘reading’.


  4. Well, Reid, the answer to your question is that there should be no barriers between speaking and listening and reading and writing. Except that, as has been pointed out many times before, speaking and listening are learned without any formal teaching, whereas an alphabetic writing system is something which has to be taught – we are not hard-wired for learning to read and write.
    So, the next question is: how hard is it to teach? The answer should be obvious, given the failure rate of pupils in English-speaking countries. It is very hard to teach (unless teachers are well trained) and the degree of difficulty is directly related to the complexity of the alphabet code in English.
    This degree of complexity to which your other respondents have alluded already should indicate that, for beginning readers, we need to teach from simple to complex, teaching mutually implied one-to-one correspondences and moving forward from there. However, and this is where decoding and comprehension should go hand-in-hand, pupils as young as four can be taught and quickly come to understand that spellings represent/stand for the sounds in their own language. This is most easily achieved by teaching sound-spelling correspondences in the context of whole words from the start. From there, words quickly build into whole sentences and, from there, into short, easily decodable stories.
    To make sense of text, the reader must first be able to ‘lift the words off the page’, or turn spellings into sounds and blend the sounds together to produce words. Once decoding has taken place, only if the word or words are within the reader’s spoken comprehension will the message be understood, even if the reader is a super-efficient decoder.
    It’s also true that our definition of what constitutes good comprehension will vary according to age and according to the amount of cultural background knowledge any particular reader possesses. For beginning readers (YR to Y2) and for students who can’t read fluently, we should, for the most part be presenting texts that focus on practising fluency. Those texts should also, for most students, be fairly literal – as opposed to the kinds of more sophisticated, interpretive (figurative) meaning we expect of more mature readers.
    This is quite different from the kinds of texts we might ourselves as teachers or carers read to young children, which can and should contain all kinds of figurative meaning. The reason for the focus in teaching beginning reading and writing to be on literal meaning is that literal meaning is innate. For L1 speakers, literal meaning is straightforward and doesn’t need to be taught because children’s vocabularies vastly exceed what they are, as yet, able to read. So, in the beginning, teachers need to focus attention on teaching children to decode fluently.
    Why should decoding be our prime (not our only!) concern? It’s important because to understand textual meaning, we must be able to hold sufficient amounts of text in working memory. If decoding ability is insufficiently automatic, the strain on working memory is enormous. Being unable to read more than about 60 words per minute is going to result in the reader being unable to remember the beginning of the sentence or paragraph by the time they get to the end. If reading speed does not increase, children won’t be able to understand more complex text.
    Therefore, in the beginning of learning to read, automatising the decoding process must be our primary goal. In order to teach all of that well, teachers need to understand exactly how the writing system works in relation to the sounds of the language, they need to know which skills and concepts beginning readers need to understand to generalise across the whole domain of reading and spelling, and they need to understand the basics of how young children learn.


  5. One way to integrate phonics teaching, learning and application to wider reading and writing is by not only teaching the alphabetic code in discrete, linear lessons from the planned route of introducing a ‘simple code’ followed by expanding to the ‘complex code’ but by a ‘two-pronged systematic and incidental phonics teaching’ approach supported by the constant use of an Alphabetic Code Chart (from the get-go). This opens up teachers’ and learners’ understanding of the nature of the English alphabetic code and the phonics skills for decoding and encoding can then be used more widely, very readily. I write about this here:

    Click to access Debbie_RRF_Two_pronged_handout.pdf


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