Phonics ‘still useful’ for reading
"Phonics is more than merely sounding out words, and remains a useful tool when teaching pupils to read."
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Phonics is more than merely sounding out words, and remains a useful tool when teaching pupils to read, say leading literacy researchers at Massey University’s College of Education.

Professor Tom Nicholson says that recently released research from the University of Otago has sparked an exciting and much-needed debate about the types of readers we want, as New Zealand literacy levels continue to slide internationally.

The Otago research found that children are primarily geared towards learning to read through storing words in the brain and that phonics, used for “sounding out” words, is not necessary past the initial stages of learning to read.

However, Professor Nicholson says that there is much more to phonics and that it remains a useful tool for literacy instruction. “I have a student whose latest research shows that teaching children to use phonics combined with book reading is more effective than using either a whole language or phonics approach alone,” he says. “I think the Otago research shows that you can be a good reader without phonics – but I would question the extent to which that made you an effective, well-rounded reader. Some 25 per cent of pupils still struggle to read at age six – a year after starting school.

“The Otago research says that Scottish children are more accurate when reading words and they comprehend better than New Zealand children, but ours read significantly faster and are better at reading irregular words, of which there are plenty of in English.”

Professor Nicholson says there must be a better way to teach reading than relying on the whole language approach.

Pro Vice-Chancellor of the College of Education, Professor James Chapman, agrees. “Phonics is about pupils learning individual sounds for individual letters. This doesn’t mean other phonological (key word) approaches are of no use – quite the opposite,” Professor Chapman says. “Children need to hear the sounds in spoken language and then understand the letters and letter combinations that represent those sounds in print. Knowing how printed letters stand for spoken sounds is the key to decoding words in print.

“We argue, on the basis of a wide range of research studies across many countries, that children need a more explicit form of instruction that makes clear the links between letters in print and the sounds in spoken language they represent. This is not necessarily phonics.”

Professor Nicholson says the research is fascinating because it shows how New Zealand children know very little about phonics yet still can read even though teacher education providers insist that teachers are taught how to teach phonics and that the debate is sterile.

“Clearly it isn’t, and we must continue to have discussions that challenge the methods behind literacy instruction. Do we need to teach phonics? Does it create a reader who is not very effective? They say it does, but I don’t necessarily agree. “

Both researchers believe further investment for research from all sides is highly important as New Zealand literacy rates continue to slide.

Editor's Note: Original news release can be found here.