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Teach children to love stories: The only way to impart Literacy Skills

Phonics isn’t working. According to British government data, a significant number of five-year-olds in England are not meeting the expected standard for literacy at the end of their reception year at school.

This is particularly concerning as literacy is the area of learning where the lowest proportion of children reach the target level.

Recent research from think tank Pro Bono Economics has revealed that this lack of early reading skills could have a substantial economic cost, amounting to £830 million for each year group over their lifetimes.

Additionally, a report from the National Literacy Trust in 2023 found that less than half of children aged eight to 18 enjoy reading, with enjoyment levels at their lowest since 2005.

It is widely recognized that developing a love for books is a crucial part of learning to read, and enjoyment in reading is strongly linked to academic achievement. If children do not enjoy reading, it suggests that our current methods of teaching are not effective.

One of the reasons why many children do not find joy in reading is the excessive focus on synthetic phonics in early education.

Synthetic phonics is a reading method that teaches children to decode words by connecting letters to their corresponding sounds. For example, children are taught that the letter “g” corresponds to the initial sound in “get”.

While synthetic phonics has always been a part of reading instruction, it became the primary approach in England following recommendations by Sir Jim Rose in 2006. However, we believe that this approach is not supported by research and may not be the most effective way to teach literacy.

The government often points to England’s high ranking in the Progress in International Reading Study (PIRLS) as evidence that phonics is working.

However, other research, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), tells a different story. PISA looks at 15-year-olds’ performance in reading, and UK students’ reading performance was at its highest in 2000, before the heavy emphasis on phonics. In comparison, children in the Republic of Ireland and Canada, where synthetic phonics is not as central, outperform their British peers in reading.

Furthermore, England’s PIRLS scores have remained fairly stable since 2001, indicating that there has been no significant improvement in reading achievement despite the focus on phonics.

One of the key issues with synthetic phonics is that it encourages children to focus on individual words and letters rather than engaging with texts as a whole.

Children are often asked to read word lists that include nonsense words, which does not help expand their vocabulary or foster a love for reading. Additionally, they are given “decodable books” that focus on specific sounds, but these stories often lack the richness and context of real-life texts.

It is difficult to imagine that children’s attention will be captured by these artificial stories, as they do not reflect the kind of reading material they would encounter outside of school.

Educational researchers argue that the government’s emphasis on synthetic phonics is not supported by the research literature.

The relationship between sounds and spelling in English is complex, making a heavy reliance on synthetic phonics a questionable decision. Instead, there are alternative approaches that integrate phonics into a broader reading strategy.

In countries like the Republic of Ireland and Canada, phonics is taught alongside strategies that encourage children to consider the wider context, look for meaning, and identify words. For example, a child may not have learned the sound corresponding to “ou” or that an “e” at the end of a word is not always pronounced, but if they have understood the preceding sentences in a story, they can still figure out the word based on context.

Research has shown that a comprehension-focused approach, which encourages children to engage with texts and images in various ways, is more effective than a phonics-led approach.

Instead of solely focusing on synthetic phonics, it is crucial to prioritize stories that children enjoy reading and that capture their attention. By fostering a love for reading, we can create a solid foundation for literacy and academic success.

In conclusion, the current British government plan for literacy, which heavily relies on synthetic phonics, is not yielding the desired results. It is essential to consider alternative approaches that prioritize comprehension and enjoyment in reading.

By focusing on stories that children find engaging and encouraging them to interact with texts in meaningful ways, we can foster a love for reading and improve literacy outcomes.

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