So what's changed? First and foremost, we know a great deal more about how children learn and, specifically, how they learn to read. Victorian teaching was governed by behaviourist ideas with imitation and reinforcement at its heart: drilling was the order of the day. More recent learning theory (drawing from the work of Vygotsky, Bruner, Mercer and Alexander among many others) has taught us that children need to be active in their learning, that learning is essentially social. The importance of the teacher has not diminished but s/he is there to scaffold children's understanding rather than drill facts into children who were viewed as empty vessels waiting to be filled with knowledge.
A challenging language
The teaching of phonics in the 21st century is still based on the idea that children need to be able to crack the alphabetic code. In the case of English, it's a tricky code because we have more phonemes than we do letters. The linguist David Crystal traces the reason for this: the alphabet we use was not originally intended to fit English sounds, and dates back thousands of years to the Middle East where a north Semitic language very similar to Hebrew was spoken.
This was passed from the Phoenicians to the Greeks and Romans. When Christian missionaries arrived in this country in the sixth century they brought the Roman alphabet with them. To address the resulting misfit between symbols and sounds, some letters have to work overtime to address this (digraphs and trigraphs such as ch, sh, ai, igh).
Teaching reading now
As well as developing their understanding of the alphabetic code, children today must learn that reading is a wonderfully rewarding activity: they need to know that time spent cracking the code is worthwhile. Hence the amazing efforts that teachers make to provide engaging and welcoming reading classrooms. A teacher can be the best teacher of phonics in the world, but if the children are not motivated to read, then all their efforts have been for nothing.
While children in the Victorian classroom were typically learning words by rote for testing, there is much more emphasis now on applying phonic knowledge to real, authentic reading. This is why phonics is often taught today using a four-part lesson structure: ‘Revisit and Review’ (running through previously learnt knowledge); ‘Teach’ (learning a new grapheme-phoneme correspondence); ‘Practise’ (practising it in a word - either reading or spelling) and ‘Apply’ (applying the new learning in a sentence).
What else is different? Well, it's how we teach. Teaching phonics today can be fun, active and multi-sensory. Children are not passive recipients of phonic knowledge; they should be engaging actively with it. It's for this reason that teachers make use of a wealth of games in delivering a four-part phonic lesson. Here are just a few examples:
Revisit and review
- There are graphemes (letters) scattered over the classroom or playground floor. Children are given a picture and have to find the matching grapheme (or vice versa).
- Children sing songs with actions to accompany different sounds.
- Children have grapheme baseboards. When the teacher calls out a phoneme the children have to match it on their board, using a counter.
- Teachers provide an engaging imaginative context in which to learn a new grapheme-phoneme correspondence, eg “Santa's Christmas e-e-e-elf has got a special box. Can you help him find the presents that start with *e*?” (This would work well in Revisit and Review as well).
- The teacher hides the new grapheme behind a whiteboard. Children have to hiss each time it peeks out.
- The children are given little smelling pots to introduce a new sound (soap, strawberries, sweets, salt and vinegar crisps).
- Full circle: the children are all given grapheme cards. They are asked to form a starting word, eg ‘ship’, and change one phoneme at a time until the game comes full circle to ‘ship’ again (eg ship, chin, thin, than, can, cash, rash, rang, ring, rip, ship).
- Snowballs: a great game for practising different pronunciations of the same letter. There are alternatives attached to two buckets (eg 'down' and 'snow'). Children have pieces of paper with words from both groups. They scrunch them up and throw their 'snowball' into the correct bucket.
- Bucket game: the children are in four teams. Each team has to run to a bucket which has pictures of words, for example, with the *aw* phoneme (‘paw’, ‘lawn’, ‘saw’ etc. Children run in turns to the bucket and collect a picture. They run back to team who decide on the word and make it either using post-it notes (p - aw) or magnetic letters.
Children also need plentiful opportunities to practise and apply their knowledge outside the four-part lesson. Skilful teachers leave out props and materials used in the lesson for the children to play with later. And playing is good: it reinforces understanding and supports the new learning. Watch children uncovering buried pebbles with graphemes on them; shooting grapheme ping-pong balls down a chute and returning another one with the same phoneme but different grapheme and playing teacher with the grapheme and picture cards used in the session. This playfulness is key in enhancing all the rigour of the phonics lesson itself.
Phonics is fun: enjoy!
Do you teach phonics? Share your experiences and tactics below!