Why parents should cut themselves some slack on phonics

Last updated: 05-11-2020

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Why parents should cut themselves some slack on phonics

The timetable that once hung proudly on your fridge – a colourful emblem of your unwavering commitment to homeschooling – is looking a little tattered.

The edges have curled and you simply can’t be bothered today. 

You glance over. Reading is on the agenda. A sense of duty kicks in and you soldier on.

The importance of reading is etched in most parents’ minds. But millions of young children are missing school at a pivotal point during their reading development and, understandably, many parents are worried. Especially when it comes to decoding.

Decoding involves children breaking down words, including how they sound and how they are spelled, and understanding the complex relationship between sounds and spelling, and then meaning. 

Decoding is vital and best approached systematically, according to literacy expert Tim Shanahan, who saysthat “all students make greater gains in their reading when they receive systematic phonics instruction”.

Systematic phonics, however, is not easy to teach. Primary school teachers receive training and, in their evaluation of effective phonics interventions, the Education Endowment Foundation assert that “pedagogical expertise is a key component of successful teaching of early reading”. 

It’s no wonder that teaching foundational reading skills feels daunting for some parents.

Fortunately, additional support is available. The Jolly Phonics website, for example, has been updated to includesupport for homeschooling parents. The Department for Education is also offering dailyLetters and Sounds phonics lessons, helping to lighten the load somewhat for parents.

There has never been a more important time for parents’ confidence in teaching reading to flourish, and it’s OK if that involves forgetting about phonics (for some of the time, anyway). 

Shanahan explains that knowledge-based competencies are equally important and highlights some fundamental misconceptions: foundational skills cannot stand alone and young children do not need to learn to read before they can read to learn.

In fact, Shanahan reassures us that children do not need to be reading independently to build important knowledge about the world or to develop their vocabulary. On the contrary, they need to be read to. 

Shanahan maintains that young children’s oral language abilities exceed their reading comprehension abilities, meaning young children learn more from listening to texts than they do from reading them. 

So, here are three easy ways in which parents can further maximise the potential of reading to young children:

When reading to a child, choose more challenging texts, with more unknown vocabulary and concepts. The opportunities for incidental learning will be much greater this way. Pause, reflect upon and discuss new vocabulary, ideas and concepts. Promote vocabulary development, not by solely exploring unknown words, but by reflecting on known ones too. Ask lots of questions about lots of different kinds of words. Where have they heard a word or similar idea before? Can they think of a similar word or a contrasting one? How do words relate to real-life? Most importantly, all learning builds on previous learning, so reading regularly will help children develop important background knowledge. Children will develop a richer knowledge base and retain more information by relating things they are reading to things they already know. So, where possible, help children to connect new ideas to existing ones.

Above all, know that reading to children isn’t cheating. Greaterbackground knowledge will assist with children’s language comprehension and this, as Shanahan confirms, helps to improve bothdecoding and reading comprehension. 

To misquote Dr Seuss, the more that you read to children, the more things they will know, and the more that they learn, the more places they will go. 

Suzanne Jabarian is an English teacher and lead practitioner at Olchfa School, Swansea. She tweets @SuzieJabarian

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