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.