Reading methods – defining terms

[Edited to add: I picked the term ‘mixed methods’ as a term to put in opposition to pure SSP without (being new to this) realizing that it has been used as a pejorative term by some. I’m sorry about that: it’s not what I meant to imply, and I hope no-one has been offended or put off answering the questions because of it. I’m truly interested in the viewpoints of *all* parts of the spectrum.]

This is a rather lengthy response to a post by @Par4Ed here, which I thought might be better here than in their comments field. (NB You can get to my post’s comments field by clicking on the grey speech bubble by the heading…)

As a parent who’s new to all this, one of the reasons I think I find myself feeling baffled by the phonics/mixed debate is that it sometimes seems people are using the same words to mean different things.

What I’d find really helpful in understanding the issues is a definition of terms from both SSP advocates and mixed-methods advocates. I think it would help us as parents to see to what extent a like-for-like comparison can be made across the different approaches (NB I’d love to see responses relating to a Montessori approach in there, too, so apologies for the binary nature of the questions).

You could pick a few questions and just answer those…or not, obviously. I’ve only used numbers for reference, not with the intention of creating a Teacher Interrogation. Apologies in advance for anything that’s badly framed – I’m trying not to bring my own assumptions to this, but I’m sure I have anyway…

So, with all that spare time you have(!) I’d find it really helpful to know from various practitioners:

  1. How, in two or three sentences max, would you define ‘reading’?
  2. At what point in the process of learning to read would you basically consider a child to be able to ‘read’, according to your own working definition?
  3. What are your staging-posts (however rule-of-thumb) in observing/assessing/facilitating the process of a child learning to read? (eg Letter recognition, understanding that letters mean sounds and letters make words and sounds make words, words make meaning, word recognition, etc….or perhaps not those at all…)
  4. How would you define ‘decoding’?
  5. Do you think the concept of ‘decoding’ is useful?
  6. If so, why? If not, why not?
  7. In your experience, can letter/sound/word decoding be done completely separately from meaning at any stage in the learning process? (You may not feel that it should, but, technically, in your view, can it?)
  8. If so, why? If not, why not? Can you give examples?
  9. If you are a SSP fan: when, if ever, do you feel children should use other cues? (eg Once a child is mostly fluent, would you advocate a purely SSP approach to new words in the text? How do you approach helping basically fluent readers with non-regular words outside the ‘high-frequency’ / ‘tricky words’ categories? How do you support children who find it difficult to move from letter to sound to word? In your experience is there a place for other approaches when a child is in this situation?)
  10. Also if you are a SSP fan: what methods do you include in your practice to support the development of comprehension? (And to what extent do you see those methods as integral to/separate from your SSP approach/methods?)
  11. If you are a mixed-methods fan:where does a phonic approach sit in your practice? eg Would you start with sounding out and move to other cues later, or start with the pictures, or does it perhaps vary with the text/child/stage? (And do you use elements of branded SSP schemes, or avoid them completely?)
  12. Also for mixed methods fans: what methods do you use in your practice to support the development of comprehension? (And to what extent to you see these as integral to/separate from your mm approach/methods?)
  13. For all practitioners: at what stages in the process of learning to read do you include various comprehension elements? (eg v. simple ‘So what do you think might happen next’ for picture-books; structure, narrative, characters later on….).
  14. For practitioners who have switched from SSP to mixed methods, or the other way around: what (if any) differences did you experience in the learning process, and with the children’s engagement with the text? Did you find that you needed to alter other aspects of your practice to take account of any differences? Can you describe what these were?
  15. For all practitioners: in what ways does your approach support disadvantaged readers? (I’m thinking in terms of eg classes for parents, book swap schemes, etc, as well as methods used directly with the child).

If you’ve got this far, my grateful thanks 😉

Edited to add: I’m expecting that people reading this post and the comments will disagree with one another, sometimes quite strongly (otherwise, there’d be no need for the post!) but I hope everyone will agree that the most constructive thing in the first instance is for each person to use the comment section to  answer the questions themselves and make their views clear that way, rather than, at this stage, answering others’ opinions as expressed in the comments.





21 thoughts on “Reading methods – defining terms

  1. These are good questions. Here are my answers:

    1. Written English is a code where symbols (letters) represent sounds and reading is the product of decoding these symbols and understanding the language. If you look at a word and can pronounce it (aloud or silently), then you have decoded it. If you also understand the word you have decoded in context, that is meaningful reading.
    2. There is not a precise moment when a child is able to read. If the child can decode and understand any word, they can read that word. I would say they can read in a general way, when they can independently decode and understand a simple text that has not been designed for teaching reading.
    3. At first decoding and understanding of language develop separately. As children learn to decode, the two begin to come together, until children who can read easily develop their understanding through their reading. So, “rule-of thumb staging posts”: First for decoding: a) can see a letter and say a sound that the letter usually represents, b) can say sounds and blend them to pronounce words, c) know common correspondences for most of the sounds of English, including where one sound is represented by more than one letter (e.g. ‘sh’), d) can read some common words that have correspondences they have not yet been taught or are very unusual (e.g. “were”), e) know that the same sound may be represented by different letters and have learned a range of common correspondences for sounds (e.g. ‘ai’, ‘a-e’, ‘ay’), f) can read an increasing number of familiar words automatically, without consciously sounding and blending. Now for understanding language: a) learn to understand spoken language in a natural way from birth onwards b) listen to stories, poems, rhymes, facts, etc., read aloud to them, c) recognise words they have decoded as familiar words in their vocabulary, d) understand stories and other texts they read independently. The coming-together of decoding and understanding: Throughout this time, children understand words that are in their spoken language as soon as they have decoded them. As decoding becomes more automatic and subconscious, their understanding of language increases through their reading. They read texts with words and grammatical structures that are new to them. First they decode the words (silently and often with little effort) and then they work out the meaning from the context.
    4. Decoding is seeing the squiggles on a page that are letters and form a word, and then pronouncing the word, either aloud or silently.
    5. Yes.
    6. It is useful because it makes it clear that written English is a code where letters represent sounds and to read the words you have to decode them.
    7. Yes, decoding can be done completely separately from meaning.
    8. This is because the letters represent sounds and, if you can decode them correctly, you can pronounce the words they represent, even if you don’t know what the words mean. I have been told that it is common for people to be able to decode Arabic without understanding it and the concept is the same for English.
    9. For decoding unfamiliar written words, readers (of any age) should nearly always use phonics. (The only exception is for words like “read”, which can be pronounced in different ways depending on context. With the small number of words where this is true, the reader first uses phonics and then uses context to decide how to pronounce the part of the word that varies.) All this is done speedily and silently by experienced readers for whom most written words are familiar. For beginners, the process is slower , because most written words are unfamiliar. Basically fluent readers read non-regular words by sounding and blending and using knowledge of root words, prefixes and suffixes. They tend to do it speedily, silently and often sub-consciously. Children who find phonics difficult should be given extra phonics teaching and practice. There is no place for other approaches to word reading in this situation. Children who find phonics difficult and are told they can use other approaches will not use phonics willingly, even when they have been taught to as one of a range of strategies. As a result they get less practice using phonics. As they grow older, they are asked to read texts with unfamiliar words, no pictures and no other clues. In these texts other approaches do not work. The children fall further and further behind their peers, they cannot access the curriculum and their confidence sinks. Some of them develop unsociable behaviour while others withdraw. It is much more difficult to help children who have developed the habit of using other approaches, although it is possible.
    10. Developing language comprehension is even more important than learning to read. That is because language comprehension is essential for both oral and written communication. Comprehension of spoken language is developed through listening and talking throughout the curriculum at all stages, but it is especially important when children cannot read easily independently. It is developed through conversation, rhymes, poetry, listening to stories, following instructions, retelling stories, learning new vocabulary across the curriculum, role play, drama, etc. When children are able to decode words accurately and easily, reading the words becomes automatic and they are ready to concentrate on reading comprehension.
    11. Not relevant.
    12. Not relevant.
    13. It is important to discuss comprehension of books that are read to children separately from comprehension of books children read independently. When a story is read to a child, questions such as, “So what do you think might happen next?” can be asked in nursery and earlier. When a child begins to read texts independently it is a gradual process. At first, a child may be asked a few questions or given the meaning of an unfamiliar word, to make sure the text has been understood and to help the child enjoy reading, but the emphasis is on decoding. Most language development and comprehension is developed through listening and talking. Once the child can decode words accurately and easily, the emphasis changes from decoding to reading comprehension.
    14. I switched from mixed methods to SSP. I found the children were more excited about learning to read and began to read books independently earlier and with more enthusiasm. My teaching of reading became more direct and focused. I taught a daily class phonics lesson, followed by some independent practice and application. I stopped trying to integrate teaching reading with other subjects in the early stages. For example, once, before I knew about SSP, the children in my reception class had collected tadpoles and were very excited about what would happen. I showed them a big book about frogs and started to read it to them and then I asked them to read some of the words using a mix of guessing from context and the phonics I had taught them. In retrospect, this spoiled their excitement about tadpoles and frogs and didn’t help much with their reading either. I would not do that now. I would read the frog book to them for the science and fun it provided, with no suggestion that they read it. I do not think children should be asked to read books that they cannot read independently.
    15. It is useful to have a session for all parents to explain how reading is taught and how they can support their child. The importance of sharing books and reading to children should be made clear to parents. So, with book swap schemes, parents are encouraged to read the books to their children if their children cannot read them independently or they look at the pictures and talk about them (in case the parents cannot read). For supporting children who are struggling to read, it is essential that the books they take home to read themselves include only words they can be expected to read independently. Parents can be invited to observe phonics lessons, especially one-to-one or small group lessons for children who are struggling to learn. Parents should certainly be made to feel welcome and encouraged to help. However, in the end, if a child comes from a home where parents are not able or not willing to support the child, it is the school’s duty to provide all the support necessary for that child to learn, i.e., daily extra phonics lessons in a small group or one-to-one with a well trained adult and an effective programme in a quiet place.

    I hope that helps.

  2. What needs to be asked, as I see it, and with apologies for not answering your questions, is a more fundamental question about the role of teachers in making classroom decisions.

    Prescriptive programmes and government policy exert top-down pressure on teachers to conform to someone else’s view of how reading works for their pupils (which may or may not accord with their own experiences/beliefs). While taking account of someone else’s view is important where the view is backed up by research and expertise, even the best scientific research will not tell teachers what is the optimum approach for their pupils, because pupils and teachers operate in a different relationship from that of researcher and subject. Teachers make moment by moment decisions in classrooms while researchers are constrained by the paradigms of research. To an extent this may also give a researcher freedom to pursue their particular path without distractions.

    In the piece of research Par4Ed refers to the researcher is at pains to show that SSP instruction results in better outcomes for the children concerned. Yet it is clear that it is a highly questionable piece of research for some of the reasons Par4Ed identifies, and for others which have been explored in other places. It doesn’t meet the standards by which a teacher would be compelled to immediately adopt an SSP programme. Yet SSP is being adopted in England, sometimes justified by the results of The Clackmannanshire study, where there were also problems about lack of control groups, and sometimes justified by less (classroom observations – The Rose Review). This has led to government manipulation of teachers and classrooms consisting of supplying funding for the purchase of specific commercial programmes and training and implementing a ‘phonics check’ as a high-stakes check for schools.

    So perhaps your questions are asked too late. SSP is the method of teaching expected and legislated for in English schools, despite the fact that many of the teachers consulted on the issue tend to prefer a more flexible model of reading instruction. While generally in favour of synthetic phonics, they express the view that children learn to read through a variety of strategies/approaches. This is seen by some as showing that teachers are not quite getting synthetic phonics, and how it must be taught specifically without reference to other strategies.

    I can understand why you have posed your questions in terms of SSP advocates and mixed method advocates, but this is actually a bit of a false dichotomy. Teachers do not have to be ‘pro’ one method or another, and it appears that generally they are not. Teachers’ work is practical and flexible, informed by their evaluations and by underpinning research within their own individual contexts. However, whatever teachers might prefer, under current government policy you should expect your child to be taught through SSP (although there is a programme called Sounds-Write, which I believe also met the core criteria, and is described as ‘linguistic phonics’).

    I hope someone else will be along to fill you in on a ‘mixed-method’ response to your questions.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful response; I did apologize for the binary nature of the questions, because I’m aware that it sets up a dichotomy which does not necessarily exist in practice. But in a way that’s part of what I’m trying to uncover. How many people, in practice, use purely SSP? How many SSP ‘fans’ as I’ve called them (in preference to ‘advocates’) find themselves using other strategies sometimes?

    I tried to couch the questions in terms of how people self-identify: I understand that many, possibly most teachers would fall into the mixed methods category, even if they have their own preferred way of doing this.

    So maybe I should clarify my binary distinction: I was asking for people to think about whether and how they identify as (a) purely SSP or as (b) mixing strategies (which could possibly but not necessarily include SSP strategies).

    It seems rather fatalistic to suggest that the questions have come ‘too late’ 🙂 Given the apparent continuing prevalence of a variety of strategies across English schools, and the pressure to conform to SSP, I feel it’s more important that ever to articulate the differences in practice which these different options entail.

    Even if everyone were to be made to use pure SSP, it must at least be useful to have answers to question 14, so that those embarking on the change can see what this may entail for them and their school.

    It would be very helpful to have at least one mixed-methods practitioner answer these questions: if I can get my head around where the real differences lie *in practice*, I’d like to be able to write a second set of questions addressing those specifically, and help to move the discussion forwards.

  4. Not fatalistic, realistic.
    SSP is the standard by which reading instruction in schools is judged by OFSTED: see the recent report on Stoke-on-Trent schools.
    Described teaching practices in the Stoke report are praised or condemned according to whether they conform to SSP practices or not, and teachers judged by whether they use SSP or not: in other words, for OFSTED, SSP= teaching reading.

  5. But the thing is, apparently it isn’t happening in practice – or, it’s claimed, schemes are applied in unhelpfully inflexible ways (according to some anecdotal evidence). There are all sorts of reasons people seem to love and hate SSP, and I’d really like to get at *exactly* what’s going on, to find out whether, for instance, SSP is actually the problem or whether it’s actually its implementation (or lack thereof).

    This is why answers from different practitioners are so important for comparison – and why I’ve asked about the experience of changing from one method to another. I’d imagined that, given SSP’s efficiency at getting children reading in many (even most) cases, there might, for instance, need to be an adjustment in the way reading comprehension is supported, since the rate at which comprehension develops compared with decoding skill could be expected to be different with SSP in comparison to mixed methods.

    I’m also concerned about stories of children being forced to remain at a certain level when they can read at a more advanced level. I’ve heard of this being blamed on SSP, but my instinct is that it’s likely to be more to do with the implementation of the scheme than with the technique itself. But I could be wrong, and either way I’d like to hear from the people who have suffered from this situation, to try and unpick the underlying reasons for its occurrence.

    The issue of ‘good’ readers ‘failing’ the screening check seems to me to be another area where the underlying reasons may be quite varied, so again, I think that clarifying actual classroom practice might help me get somewhere in unpicking the real issues.

  6. This is a brief paper to describe how ‘reading’ is about technical knowledge and skills and language comprehension – and that ‘chatter’ and ‘books’ are hugely important:

    This is a paper which is a response to a huge critic of the Year 1 phonics screening check – so much so that Reedy has just headed up an ‘open letter’ to Gove calling for the abolition of the Y1 phonics screening check – although this response to Reedy is from over a year ago whilst the open letter has just been published in the TES:

    This is a paper which describes an approach to phonics teaching which goes beyond introducing just a ‘simple code’ followed by extending to the ‘complex code’. My two-pronged approach addresses the needs of precocious children so that they are not bored or underachieving. It’s the underpinning guidance of the two programmes that I am associated with – and very realistic in that anyone can teach any code at any time when supported by the very important visual aid of an Alphabetic Code Chart:

    This is an Alphabetic Code Chart designed to be ‘generic’ and used for adult teacher-training purposes – or ‘information’ purposes. My ‘two-pronged’ approach is not the standard SSP approach – but I have so much in common with the leading SSP and linguistic phonics folk because none of us promote multi-cueing reading strategies which amount to guessing and which can be damaging to at least some children – including the precocious ones sometimes:

    This is a thread on my PI message forum ‘Will the multi-cueing reading strategies ever go away’ which attempts to link to research and not just state that they are damaging:

    The key with SSP for beginners is not asking them to read INDEPENDENTLY reading books which they cannot read without lots of ‘guessing’ from various cues. The children are not deprived of any kind of books but not pressurised to read them under their own auspices.

    I also believe in informing parents fully about the Simple View of Reading and about the SSP teaching principles. We need to encourage parents not to race through reading schemes but to appreciate it is nigh on impossible to make up for homes where chatter isn’t constant.

    What bugs me is that schools are advantaged by children coming from homes where parents actively talk and teach their children all the time – and then they come into an ‘observation’ culture in the early years where observations and record-keeping is the preoccupation. People on high for many years have not distinguished well enough between high-quality training and minutiae record-keeping.

    Re results for SSP practice. I visit schools and could often weep. The need for training and continuing professional development is huge in my opinion. It is very hard to provide people with the practice, the resources, the guidance, the need to do SSP well across the whole school – the need to break away from the mindset of ‘developmental readiness’ whereby early years teachers worsen the divide in the first place because they’re waiting for the magic moment of the child being ‘ready’. The teachers are often unaware of what children can do when shown/taught and yet they acknowledge how ‘advanced’ many children are coming from certain types of homes.

    I hope this helps.

    Warm regards,


  7. PS: Have flagged up your posting on the relevant forum below as your apparent wish for information is laudable:

    By the way – recently ‘Trutex’ approached me to write something about phonics for a ‘Back to School’ parents’ guide.

    Apparently Trutex conducted a survey and parents asked for information on phonics – so you can see what I supplied:

    My point being that parents do want information and I have always been passionate about supplying them with information. You might be shocked, however, to learn of the number of people who think that parents en masse cannot cope with the information. Well – then we provide the information and make a start as phonics is the domain of all of us in teaching and parenting – it’s the code of our language and ‘understanding’ this is public domain stuff!


    • Thank you for all that – it should keep me busy!

      And yes, sorry, I am asking for a lot of information, aren’t I? This is partly because before babies I worked in academic research, so there’s no such thing as information overload, as far as I’m concerned 🙂 and partly because I’m currently volunteering as a reader at my children’s school. My phonics odyssey originated in my attempts to make sure that I was doing the most helpful thing with each of the children as well as my own. I didn’t expect quite a minefield, but I’m also seeing first hand how important it is to get it right in the earliest stages – including making sure parents know what the process is, and that they understand the stuff that comes home in the book bags….

  8. The open letter that Debbie Hepplewhite mentioned is here:
    And a TES story on this gives the department of education response:

    It demonstrates just how much the government is willing to listen to educationalists and teachers that, in the spokeman’s response, there is no answer to the points made in the open letter, even though these points challenge the government belief that their SP policy will eradicate illiteracy.

    Some of the points in the letter may answer your questions – not so much about a mixed method approach as about the consequences of conforming to government policy: for instance, the main change made in practice in response to the phonics check, as reported by teachers, is that children are introduced to decoding pseudowords in preparation. Now, some would argue that this is a problem of implementation of SSP, not a problem of SSP. However, if that is so it is a problem with the government’s implementation of SSP, not with the teachers’, as it is the government that has introduced the check and given it its inflated importance.

    I doubt that any of the signatories of the open letter would say that synthetic phonics is not a good tool in the teaching repertoire, and this is common among those who are not enthusiastic about the way SP is being implemented. However, they would argue with the wisdom of an exclusive use of SP in all situations and for all decoding problems, and regret that decoding has become such a dominant focus in the teaching of reading. Unfortunately SP fans insist that SSP is compromised if it is regarded as a tool, and insist it be regarded as a programme (you could bear this distinction this in mind when considering a definition of terms).

    • [I was going to say the government seems to have cloth ears about lots of things – then I looked ‘cloth ears’ up and discovered that it does not, as I have imagined since I was a child, mean ‘ears made of cloth’ but deafness from cotton mill machine noise. Anyway…]

      There seem to be various only partially separable issues:

      1. The existence of two main practitioner viewpoints, broadly defined as those who think SSP can only work properly if it’s an exclusive method, and those who think it can be a great tool but is best used alongside other tools (or whatever) as well.

      2. Pressure from the DfE/Ofsted to use SSP, plus the screening test, which therefore skews practice in schools and also skews the availability of resources (what publisher is going to invest in producing material for schemes that the govt is completely against?)

      3. Commercial pressures through salespeople wishing to sell their brand of govt-approved scheme.

      So one further question to ask should be how much (3) has affected (2).

      Another would be to separate objections to the screening check from objections to exclusive SSP. Presumably there are people who use just SSP but dislike the test? (If not, then it would be interesting to know about why that might be.)

      So the open letter doesn’t really answer my questions, because my questions were about specific day-to-day practices of teaching reading [edited to add: in relation to individuals’ experiences of different approaches and the pressures being brought to bear], and did not (although probably they should) mention the screening issue.

      I put the questions together as a result of seeing objections to SSP which centred around comprehension issues (the stated problem of children ‘barking at print’, especially). I was keen to try and find out why this might be a problem specific to SSP, and what is/can be done to avoid it. The phonics advocates place great emphasis on the need to support comprehension and that it should be developed alongside technical decoding skills – so given this, I wondered how it is that there seem to be comprehension problems arising.

      (This is actually the aspect I’m most interested in from a personal point of view, because it comes back to the fact that I want to do the best I can when reading with the children. I want to support what’s going on in class in the most effective way I can. Of course this involves talking to the school staff, but I’ve felt the need to understand in my own way, too.)

      This is why I have asked about how SSPs and others support comprehension, and also why I asked about whether people have needed to change other aspects of their practice (eg to support comprehension differently) in order to accommodate SSP.

  9. The reference in the open letter to the increase in the teaching of pseudowords is taken from the NFER research report into the phonics check. The NFER surveyed teachers and schools regarding their attitudes to the check and to SP and any changes that had been made to practice or training undertaken. Reading the report will give you a general idea of the breadth of opinion among teachers, and the way SP is practised, or not practised, as well as findings regarding the check. It is here:

    • The bit in the report pp 23-4 about contradictory statements re phonics teaching seems worth thinking about. Maybe the ‘other cues’ are used in the sort of 1-2-1 reading that I do as a volunteer, and/or in small group-reading sessions? If phonics is taught as a thing, but reading specific books is done as a separate thing during which phonics plus other strategies are used, there would potentially be no perceived contradiction in terms of practice from the teachers concerned. Do you think that’s likely? It’s this sort of stuff that I’m trying to get at with this blog – apparent contradictions like this are why I think I’ve felt people are using the same words to mean different things.

      • The contradiction would exist where teachers suggest strategies such as deduction from context to support phonic decoding. This is explicitly ‘outlawed’ in SP. In practical terms there is a thin line between using context to decode and using context to understand. I think quite often the mind bounces between the two (using context and using phonics to decode and arrive at understanding-it’s all in the same parcel). SP fans would not argue with the second use but denigrate the first by calling it ‘guessing’.

      • I agree – it’s an iterative not a linear process – and so much comes down to that very issue. I’m writing a mammoth post about that and related things at the moment… Not sure yet if I’ll have the courage to publish it!

  10. Pingback: On reading and understanding, again. | Miscellaneous Witterings

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