Phonemic capital

[NB One person’s usefully naive question is another person’s irritatingly ignorant one, so apologies if this post falls into the latter category for you. I do just find all this really fascinating, hence the banging on about it….]

I’ve read the responses to my previous post, and some of the other related blog posts as well, and seen some of the discussion on Twitter. I’m still as confused as ever as to where one might draw a distinction between what SSP advocates would consider good practice, and what would be considered good practice by those who dislike the current SSP approach. (NB Near the end of this mammoth post one particular confusion gets partly sorted out by serendipity, but just produces further questions…).

So I’ve put together some more points and questions, some of which may have no simple answer, in the hope that articulating them might clarify what it is that’s confusing and worrying me.

So, firstly, to me it all boils down to the moment a child is ‘decoding’ a word, and the extent to which context and latent vocabulary assists in their recognition of the set of ordered phonemes as having potential to become a ‘word’. So this is what I’m going to focus on here, and then try and articulate how I think that relates to the screening check.


The decoding process

When I’m reading with my children, I’ve observed a process with the following steps:

1. Recognize phonemes (s, oa, ph, etc).

2. Remember sound of phonemes.

3. Sound out phonemes in the order they appear.

4. Listen to the sounds.

5. Chunk the phonemes together.

6. Listen to the sounds.

7. Blend the phonemes closely together.

8. Listen to the sounds.

9. Draw on vocabulary to match blended sounds with potential words.

10. Decide on likely word.

11. Sound the likely word.

12. Use context to make final choice (esp in cases of eg read/read).


Some of these steps may be looped; some of them become a flow and then are almost elided as the children get more fluent with their reading; but the process, in essence, remains the same. When one of the boys has a problem working out a word, they will loop on a particular set of stages once or twice before they ‘get’ it. (I always help them as soon as they want me to, of course.)

There seem to me to be some essential elements to this, the most basic ones being:

Focussed listening;

Phonetic awareness;

Syntactic awareness;

Latent vocabulary;

Learning/understanding/hearing relationship between sounds of chunked phonemes and sounds of blended word.


I’ve made a distinction between ‘sounded phonemes’, ‘chunked phonemes’, the ‘potential word’ and the ‘actual word’ because I think that progression through these stages of blending can stall between any one, or more, of these stages of the blend. Why and how a child moves from one to another is what interests me, especially how it’s possible for a child to go from chunked to potential, or potential to actual, without ever using context or vocab or syntactic memory to help them. (Is this what’s claimed? I’m still not clear…)


Is this all that’s going on?

As experienced readers, our view of the relationship between the chunked phonemes and the blended word is pretty teleological: we know where it’s headed; the chunks stand in easily for us as the conceptual parts of the word. But for a child this is not so clear. The flow of sounds in a word is qualitatively different from those in a set of phonemes chunked together.

I have observed in both of my children a process whereby they learn to ‘tune in’ to the relationships between the chunked phonemes, the blended proto-word, and the actual word itself. They have developed a memory for a conceptual relationship that they did not have before.

The most obvious problems are with extra sounds (eg yod) not represented by the separate phonemes, and with stressing of the wrong part of the word.


1. The word ‘tube’. There’s a great phonics reader called ‘Sue Kangaroo’, much loved, which is all about different ways of representing ‘oo’: ‘ou’ in you, ‘ew’ in Mrs. Drew, ‘ue’ in Sue and glue. But there’s a problem, which the book recognizes tacitly: in many accents, some of these ‘oo’ words are not so simple.

Some accents, especially in the US, would find ‘tube’ simple: it’s ‘t’ + ‘oo’ + ‘b’. But not for me, since my accent adds a ‘y’ sound before ‘ube’: ‘t’ + ‘y’ + ‘oo’ + ‘b’. Where, for the child, does that ‘y’ come from? How do they know ‘tube’ next time around? Similarly with ‘Tuesday’. The learner reader is being asked to do more than recognize, chunk, and blend here. Latent vocabulary, and a more nuanced (is that nooanced or nyooanced?) phonetic awareness, is being brought into play.

Some accents, therefore, will possibly be slightly more advantaged by a phoneme-focussed approach than will others.


2. The word ‘began’. I remember both of my children having trouble with this one. They could sound out the parts of the word – on the surface, it appears phonetically simple – but they simply could not hear the word itself in the chunked phonemes, because in ‘began’, the stress is crucially important to the sound (and in fact to the deep etymological history) of the word itself. ‘BE GAN’ is not the same as ‘beGAN’.


Relevance to the screening check

All this has made me think a lot about the screening check and especially its nonsense words.

If I’ve understood correctly, the idea of the check is to ensure that children have acquired a specific set of technical skills (phoneme recognition, sounding, and blending). It is not about reading for sense.

Oxford Owls says ‘These are words that are phonically decodable but are not actual words with an associated meaning e.g. brip, snorb. Pseudo words are included in the check specifically to assess whether your child can decode a word using phonics skills and not their memory.’

To me this also implies that the use of nonsense words is intended to ensure that the test is not biased in favour of children whose background is rich in English vocabulary – I have seen it discussed in this way, and the use of nonsense words does imply that otherwise some children may get ‘help’ from their vocabulary which others will not, thus skewing the test.

My own experience of observing the recognition-sound-blend process is such that I wonder whether a level playing field can ever be achieved in this way, for a number of reasons to do with cultural capital and what ‘memory’ really means in the context of language.


Cultural capital giving advantage:

1. A child from an English-vocab-rich background will also be from an English-phoneme-rich background. They will have what you might call high ‘phonemic capital’. Therefore, they will know, tacitly, that ‘qu’ is more likely to be followed by ‘-ee’ or ‘- i(e)’ than by ‘uh’, and that ‘quee’ is more likely to be followed by a consonant than another vowel. A child with a poorer or different ‘phonemic capital’ is less likely to have this ‘feel’ for the potential sound of unfamiliar English words.

So the screening check will advantage the already linguistically advantaged children with phonemic capital.

Or it may disadvantage them, if the nonsense words fail to be as sensitive as is the child itself to the language’s more subtle phonetic characteristics (not ‘rules’).


2. There is also the issue of what part the teacher’s accent plays in the process. I have observed that often child needs to hear and know the phonemes in their own accent in order to hear the word that these sounds are meant to be blended into.

Are children whose teacher’s accent matches their own advantaged by this? How sensitive does the test manager have to be to a child’s accent in order to be sure that the child has sounded something ‘correctly’?


[Edited: section on syllable stress removed because not currently relevant in relation to the screening check – with thanks to Elizabeth Nonweiler for her comments: I’m not a teacher but a parent with a background in English literature/language research, and I’m trying to get my head around how reading is taught, so I’m always very grateful for people pointing out where I’ve got something wrong.]

[Edited again, 20/7/2014: Although EN says that the check does not contain two-syllable words, the government Framework document does in fact allow for this possibility:

…in the phonics screening check, a child working at the minimum expected standard should be able to decode..some items containing 2 syllables.

The two-syllable words assessed will be real words because of the difficulty of inventing

polysyllabic pseudo-words with limited alternative pronunciations that can be scored

reliably. This is an issue for two-syllable words because of the effects of stress placement on

vowel pronunciation.

 This suggests that even if the check has not so far included such words, it might do in the future, so we should be aware of the pitfalls of syllable stress.]

3. In one list of nonsense words I’ve seen, one of the words (scry) was in fact a real word. Oddly enough, I’ve used the word with my two, because there are scrying spoons in the Ashmolean Museum, which we visit a lot. So the geographical and cultural advantages of being near Oxford and being able to afford the time and travel to get to the Ashmolean, and the fact that I myself know the word ‘scry’ and used it with them, would potentially advantage my children further in a test of ‘nonsense’ words. This is particular to us, but presumably there are other circumstances where this could occur with other words, for instance:

A list of ‘nonsense’ words on flashcards in TES Resources suggests ‘geck’. This is in OED as a real word for a fool. I’ve heard it elsewhere as a variant of ‘gack’, meaning muck. Also suggested are ‘ulf’ (a real Scandi personal name), tox, sug, tren, hain, fress (all also real, if obscure, words). Some potential nonsense words in standard English might have meaning for children with one dialect and not another, eg ‘daps’ would be nonsense to many children but in Somerset is a common word for plimsolls; ‘girt’ in Somerset means big. Suffolk dialect, I learned recently, preserves ‘snew’ as a past tense of ‘to snow’. Other words might exist in a child’s home language, so there is potential for confusion there (and for both advantage or disadvantage).

A child with greater or variant ‘cultural capital’ could be advantaged/disadvantaged in the so-called nonsense words part of the test because credible fully nonsense words are hard to find.


How can a child be tested without it using its memory?

Of course, taking the Owls explanation at face value, the idea presumably is that a child is not ‘remembering’ whole words, but is showing that they have the specific transferable technical skill of sounding and blending. I understand the logic of this, know the benefits of these skills, and very much like the way that the sounding/blending-focussed approach helps a child be relatively self-sufficient in working out unfamiliar words. It’s a way that a child can feel ‘ownership’ of their reading at the earliest possible stage. I like that: it seems hugely valuable in encouraging a child’s enthusiasm for reading.


When a child is sounding out phonemes, they are using their memory. When they blend those phonemes into a word, real or not, they are also using their memory. Not just their memory of things learned in phonics lessons, but the kind of deep linguistic memory that comes from their life before and outside school.

All of the points relating to advantage as a result of phonemic and other linguistic ‘capital’ relate to the child’s memory too, since that is where the advantage is stored.

In addition, the child is being asked to use its memory to learn all the separate phonemes, all the ways in which phonemes can shift slightly in sound as they blend into a word, and all the degrees of difference between chunked/blended phonemes and the actual vocabulary word. As their vocabulary increases, they are also increasing their ‘phonemic capital’, that is, their feel for what might come next, also stored in the memory.

So my concerns with the screening check are:

The kind of ‘blind test’ that the check seems to aim for is probably impossible.

The test, and it seems pure SSP, both draw a line between the functions of memory which are acceptable during reading (remembering phonemes, possibly also blend-relationships), and those which are not (syntactic context, sense, whole word recognition); but neither, as has been claimed, excludes the use of recall from memory during reading.


I’m not sure what the full implications are for the validity of the test, or of the purest SSP method, but I do think it’s worth questioning whether the distinctions being made are actually real ones, and if so, whether the lines are being drawn in the most useful place.


And finally…

While I was writing this, a comment popped up on the previous post in which ‘nemocracy‘ talks about:

…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 like the ‘mind bounces between’ description of what is going on: I’ve answered by describing it as an ‘iterative’ process. Memory and reading are not linear things, and although I tried above to break my children’s activity down into a numbered sequence, I found immediately that there were repeated actions, and also that some of the sub-sequences work on a loop as well. I also found that for words that are not completely simple to sound and blend, the loop includes context.

So I have a question for SSP fans:

Is nemocracy’s characterization of your distinction between ‘using context to decode and using context to understand’ an accurate one as far as you are concerned?

If so:

What do you consider to be problematic about a child using context as a prompt to help move from chunked phonemes or potential word to actual word?





24 thoughts on “Phonemic capital

  1. I was listening to a child in a Year One class decoding a list of words with ‘ear’ as code for the /eer/ sound.

    She romped through words like ‘ear’ and ‘hears’ and ‘fear’ – and then she came to ‘gears’ and clearly did not already know this word in her spoken vocabulary.

    No matter how much she sounded out the g, the ‘ear’ and the ‘s’, she could not discern the word ‘gears’.

    Now, any person hearing her sound out and blend the first words would have considered she was very good at phonics decoding.

    But, her complete inability to sound out and blend ‘gears’ which is no more complex a word than ‘hears’ or ‘tears’, for example, demonstrated that she really was not that competent at phonics decoding.

    In this girl’s case, the word ‘gears’ was the equivalent of a pseudo-word simply because she did not know it already – she had no advantage from her prior knowledge.

    This same girl could ‘read’ her reading books very nicely thank you very much – and she would no doubt fall into the category of a ‘better reader’ who was ‘trying to make sense’ of the word and had ‘grown beyond phonics decoding’ as many teachers have suggested to explain why some of their ‘better readers’ did not do so well on the Year One phonics screening check – particularly the ‘nonsense words’.

    You, as a parent, can make your own mind up what you think of this.

    I, as a parent and teacher, would want my children, and pupils, to be a whizz at sounding out and blending ‘gears’ and any other word – be it real, nonsense, or simply not-yet-known.

    Regarding ‘ue’ and ‘ew’ – they are code for /yoo/ and long /oo/ dependent on the words themselves (and accent as you rightly pointed out for some words). This scenario may well need an supporting adult to tell the learner whether ‘for this word’ you pronounce it with /yoo/ or long /oo/.

    Regarding the dance between context helping with both meaning and support for getting any particular word, there may well be a dance in real terms – but the essential difference is whether we are specifically ‘teaching’ the child to guess from multi-cueing in which case time, effort and importance is taken away from the teaching and practising of phonics knowledge and skills.

    This is researched, however, and I cannot remember whether I provided you with a link to a page about multi-cueing or not, but here it is anyway:

    In fact, there are many references on this forum some of which might be of interest to you:

    Finally, re the fairness of otherwise of the Year One phonics screening check:

    The bottom line is that it is a snapshot of one moment of time across many schools in England. It may well be less fair for some children compared to others, but my view is that good teachers of code knowledge and the blending skill – perhaps supported with good SSP programmes and resources – will be reflected in the results.

    A very articulate child in English who has not been taught code knowledge and blending well enough will not have advantages in the pseudo word section compared to any other who has had the same amount of time with the teaching in general terms. This is sort of evidenced by the number of teachers who complained about their ‘better readers’ (who probably are articulate) not reaching a pronunciation well enough for the pseudo words. Effective teachers are getting 90+% in different settings using different programmes.

    • You’re right, I don’t want my children to struggle when faced with unfamiliar words in print, and I absolutely see the value of starting with sounding out, and keeping that as the focus. What I’m interested in, I suppose, is the flip side of the sort of instance you’ve given. I can see how building words from phonemes would create much greater self-sufficiency much more quickly than learning whole words; and I can see that if this is a core skill, teachers need to make sure that a child has it. I can also see that the only true way to test that skill is to try and isolate it. But the way it is treated as a pass/fail test sets it up, it seems to me, to be a potentially negative influence which teachers and parents need to work hard to counterbalance. Perhaps the government could consider setting it up in a way which does not play to people’s fears in this way.

      In terms of SSP and reading more generally, what you and others seem to be saying (and I may be inferring too much, so forgive me if I am) is that a child should be able to sound a word in a way that is credible to an adult, *as if* they recognize the word, when in fact they do not know it in vocabulary terms. I’ve interpreted the nonsense words as deriving from this view.

      Although I can see how this could happen in the case of a list of out-of-context short words, there are various things about this technique that I’m still trying to understand. Firstly, with,many words, even short ones such as ‘began’, there is the issue of syllable stress. It seems surprising to me that a child could, without knowing the patterns of stress in the words, pronounce all the words on a page in a way which sounds like the actual words themselves rather than an approximation – at least beyond the very earliest stages of reading.

      This is why I created my ‘proto-word’ label, to represent the idea that there is a stage at the end of the blend where the word sounds very nearly right, or even completely right phonetically, but is not yet, to the child, the word itself. This is most obviously the case with words like ‘tube’, where in order to be self-sufficient as a reader a child needs to use the context to help them know the word. In your description, the teacher is required to help in order for the child to read the word, so the child is not a self-sufficient reader. If, however, the child is allowed to consider that the previous word is, say, ‘toothpaste’, they may be able to make that leap themselves.
      In your example using ‘gears’, the girl might sound out ‘ears’ and ‘hears’, but she couldn’t sound out ‘tears’ without knowing whether it was tears of laughter or tears a strip off. ‘Gears’ itself could have either a hard or a soft g at the beginning, although it doesn’t sound as if that was the problem in this instance. Homographs like tears/tears, read/read could be considered to be a special case requiring further teacher support (and thus removing more self-sufficiency on the part of the learner reader), so the bigger issue is possibly the stress patterns of syllables in multi-syllable words.

      If the aim is to get children as self-sufficient in their reading skill as soon as possible, so that they can read interesting books that are emotionally engaging for their age group, and therefore continue to read later on, I do worry about excluding context as a way of working out a word. I would equally worry about using *only* context to work out what a word might be.

      My feelings on the relationship between sound and context derive from my professional experience in reading specific kinds of text over the past nearly 20 years. I have an odd job, in that it involves deciphering old and often damaged text printed in hard-to-read typefaces on deteriorating, discoloured and often marked paper (ink blots, candlewax, and other blotches which luckily remain unidentified). Often when a page is damaged a specific letter or group of letters will be, on their own, indecipherable: but in context, and looking at their outline or footprint on the page I can work it out, especially since, if the word is in my vocabulary, I know which phonemes are likely to follow the legible sections of a word. Since the period I work on did not have standardised spellings, it is the sound of a word which is often most important in working out what the letters might be: ‘through’ might be ‘threw’; true might well be ‘trewe’; ‘little’ is often ‘lyttel’ or ‘lytell’. I have enough ‘phonetic capital’ to give me a feel for what’s likely.

      Obviously mine is an unusual perspective, but since I’ve been reading with Foundation Stage children I’ve realized that there are some interesting parallels between what I do and what they need to do too. It’s not the *same*, obviously, but there are issues of orthography, sense, sound and context in both situations. It has made me increasingly sensitive to the role of sound, sense and context in reading generally (ghenerally? jenerally? genERally? generALLy?).

      On the way back from school this afternoon I decided to just *ask* the boys what they think they do if they’ve sounded a word but they don’t recognize it. They are only 5, so I had to ask the questions carefully, but they were pretty emphatic in their answers: they said that if they sound a word and don’t know what it is, they first go over the sounds and blend again, but then think about the words before the unknown one to help them know what it might be. In my experience with both children, it’s nowadays often in the stress patterns that the problems come, and I’ve seen them sound out phonemes accurately, blend into a proto-word with the wrong stresses, realize it’s not a recognizable word, then read back over the previous few words and get the stress right, because they then know from the context what the word might be. Words like ‘excited’, ‘adventure’, and ‘popular’ fall into this category (they have been huge fans of the Magic Key Adventures, and are now addicted to the Time Chronicles).

      The boys have no problems sounding out phonemes, or blending them into shorter words, but it seems to me that it’s natural that 3-syllable words especially introduce problems of stress which need reference to context and/or vocabulary in order to work them out, and that it might be good for children to be comfortable with using context before they get to that stage in their reading. That is, perhaps, sounding and blending should *always* be considered to come first, but maybe context should follow in an explicit and coherently supported way in order to help with homographs, dual-purpose phonemes like the oo/yoo sounds, and words which do not sound out naturally with the correct stresses.

      Since phonemes do not give any clue as to how a word should be stressed, and stressing is key to the recognition and therefore comprehension of a word, as a parent I want my children to sound out and blend well, yes, but I also want them to take the next step and learn to be self-sufficient in using the immediate context (syntax and content) to work out the more complex and unfamiliar words, since that’s a reading skill that they will use for the rest of their lives.

  2. One doesn’t have to interpret the scenario Debbie describes as a failure to apply phonics. Let’s be more positive about it. The child could sound out the graphemes in the word, so her phonics knowledge was good at that level. Unfortunately, however much she sounded out she could not ‘discern’ the word ‘gears’. However, maybe she was occupied with searching her mind for a word she already knew that would fit with the sounds she was making – so that she could not just decode the word, but read it! I would say this could be encouraging, and represent a step beyond simple mechanical decoding and blending. And teacher role in this situation would be two-fold -to redirect the child to her phonics knowledge, and then to explain what the word ‘gears’ meant if the child was still puzzled. This way the two elements of reading are addressed – decoding and comprehension.

    Yes, we might worry that the child is not such a ‘whizz’ at decoding as children who seem to be less able readers, but the ultimate aim is not for her to be a ‘whizz’ at decoding, but at reading. It might seem tempting to hold children back at the decoding level due to worry about the phonics check or about their phonics progress (and parents reading Debbie’s post might be thinking that at this moment), but even if it was possible it would not be right.

    That figure of 90% pass rate Debbie states stands like a threatening hurdle for any adults who fear the children in their care might not manage the jump, and there is no doubt that it reflects good teaching of decoding – it’s the result in a decoding test. However, NFER research has shown that children’s results in the SATs test of reading and writing at the end of KS1 do not necessarily reflect their school’s success in the phonics check, or its commitment to SP. So it isn’t necessary for a school to achieve such a high pass rate for decoding to be judged to be good at teaching reading.

  3. With regard to the u-e representing both /oo/ and /y oo/ I don’t see anyhting particularly ‘wrong’ with a child using the strategy you described your son using BUT, if the child is reading a book supplied by the school they should not have been given a book containing words which contain both versions of the ‘u-e’ correspondence *before* having been taught that ‘u-e’ represents two sounds. Books from school intended for reading practice should only contain correspondences that the child has already been taught. if he is needing to develop alternative strategies because he hasn’t been taught the correspondence one has to question the teaching he is receiving.

    Of course, if the child has encountered words which are beyond the limits of its current phonic knowledge in books not provided by the school he is likely to try other ways of working out what the word ‘says’ While I said that I didn’t think it ‘wrong’ I don’t think it is a good idea to let children read such books without the supervision of a knowledgeable person who can support as Debbie describes. There is a danger that self taught strategies could habitually supercede decoding and blending and ultimately fail the child when text becomes more complex and context less reliable.

    With regard to the UKLA article you should bear in mind that the organisation has consistently opposed the teaching of SSP in schools since the publication of the Rose Report in 2006. Ironic in view of the fact that one of its founders wrote an article called ‘Phonics Phobia’ for the Spelling Society (which, sadly, I am unable to link to as their server appears to be down)

    • I worry that a restrictive approach to school reading could be very problematic, in practical and psychological terms. Under this approach, a child would be restricted in their school-related reading according to the progress of the class as a whole, or of whatever grouping is being used. If a child is reading chapter books at home but is, for example, forced to read blue book bands in relation to school (in the book bag, or with staff), this has the potential to be psychologically damaging to the child. I’ve seen the effects of this approach first hand (a relative’s child), and the unhappiness and frustration it caused. The school refused to change the book bands more than once a term, and the child was completely bemused by why he was being made to read such easy, boring books. He started to say he hated reading. The parents moved the child to a different school which has no objection to him reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory aged 6, and he is blissfully happy.

      I’m completely certain that if my own children had been subjected to such a regime they would be refusing to read as well, and we might be considering moving them, too – such an approach would suggest that there might also be an inflexible mismatch with their learning in other areas. As it is, they can’t wait to get onto the next book, they read their books to each other, and they take them off into corners to read on their own. I want them to maintain their love of school and their respect for their teachers, which would be swiftly lost if they were to be asked to do things so out of kilter with their actual needs as reading only in standard Foundation Stage book bands.

      I can see that if a child’s individual reading progress matches reasonably closely the scheme of learning for the class, they would be quite happy with such an arrangement. If a teacher were able to provide the extension activity of advanced phonics work for children who are learning more quickly than the class/groups, then this would work, too. But in a class of 30 with two or three 5-yr-olds reading at band 12 or 13 at home, some non-readers, and all the gradations in between that, I’m not sure that a cost/benefit analysis would suggest such a method would be worthwhile for those children who are reading at such a level, especially if they are successfully sounding out unfamiliar words.

      I may have given the wrong impression about oo/yoo; the boys had no problem understanding that there was a difference, just as there are three oo sounds for book, door, and zoom (in our accent, at least). I explained, they took it in, we moved on. I used it just as an example of inconsistencies in our alphabetic code. The children I’ve seen learn to read unusually quickly do so in part because they are very attuned to the language, they have a big latent vocabulary to support their reading, and they ‘get’ the inconsistencies as long as they are pointed out and explained briefly when they arise. In addition, when reading as adults they will use context to work out words, as we all do.

      When I say ‘context’ I don’t mean simply contextual *content*. As in music, where it’s necessary to get the notes right but the phrasing only works in wider context (so the *quality* of the note can only be determined in combination with its companion notes), so with language the phonemes can only take a reader so far: sometimes, for instance, the rhythm of a phrase can help to clarify how the phonemes should be tweaked into a word.

      I’ve read ‘Phonics Phobia’, and it’s a very worthwhile article. But I don’t see phonics/not phonics as a binary choice. To be *for* using context as a second step is not to be *anti* using phonics as a first step – and always the first step. Context (in terms of syntax, prosody and content) works well as a prompt *after* sounding and blending – I see it as a wider, deeper linguistic awareness which helps with the necessary tweaking of pronunciation that Debbie Hepplewhite notes is often necessary to get from blended phonemes to the actual word.

    • And also, just to clarify re the teaching of phonics at the boys’ school, which you imply you are worried about: although I read with all of the class (and take a phonics approach to any support I give when they are reading), and therefore see a lot of what goes on, I don’t feel it’s appropriate to discuss that in a public forum. What I would say, though, is that if the teaching of phonics is good, presumably the children will understand *what* the phonemes are, and what they are for, and so when coming across an unfamiliar one during reading they will not be thrown by that into suddenly using just picture cues or trying to read the whole word at once, but rather recognize that it is just a sound they don’t know yet and learn from it.

      This, without going into too much detail, is what I have observed happening: the children seem to have internalized the fundamentals of a phonic approach, and so proceed sensibly in the same way when faced with a phoneme they have not seen before. That is, they seem to perceive the phoneme as a unit of knowledge, which can be asked about and talked about in terms of how it works and where it might be found. This is the case with all the children, at all levels of current reading skill, and that strikes me as a very good sign.

  4. Sorry, meant to address the ‘test’ issue, too.
    i can see no reason why children should be affected in any way by the phonics check. For them it should be 10 mins of precious one to one attention from their teacher in which they are asked to show off their word reading skills. and are praised for their effort, however well or ‘badly’ they have done.

    When I tested children at Secondary school if they appeared at all worried I told them that it was testing *my* skills as a teacher, which clearly tests do, because if you haven’t taught them well it is a failure in you, not them. I think it is irresponsible for a teacher (or, sadly, a parent) to make a child in any way feel that they are a ‘failure’.

    The PSC is is primarily designed to ascertain at an early stage in their learning whether children need more support with learning decoding and blending skills. I fail to see why this should be regarded as a Bad Thing when we know that the further behind a child falls the more difficult it is for them to narrow the gap with their peers.

  5. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you say that for adults, “the relationships between chunked phonemes and blended word is clear”. This is because we are literate adults and know many, many words. We can analyse the phonic structure of words with ease because we know the words; we do it after the fact. Even when we don’t know the word we know so many other words that we have a rich supply of templates to apply to the unknown word. Early readers do not have these templates. They will build them up through self-teaching as they get to know words through teaching and reading (see David Share). So, for children these relationships are less clear and need to become established. Whether the best way to do this is through SP “first, fast and only” is open to debate. In the English language, where graphemes can represent a range of phonemes, the reader has to learn which representation applies in which word. As Debbie Hepplewhite says, “regarding ue and ew – they are code for /yoo/ and long /oo/ dependent ON THE WORDS THEMSELVES” (my emphasis). Phonics cannot differentiate the exact pronunciation of certain words, which is when having the word in the reader’s vocabulary, and knowing that the choice of word fits the context becomes essential to decoding.

    As regards memory in the context of language, Robert Port has looked into the way language is represented in memory and found that it is remembered as a flow of sound with rich detail about how it is uttered. The remembered information is based on redundant detail that is not about the structure of discrete phonemes spoken in sequence. Port shows that it is because we are literate that we perceive language as a sequence of words made up of phonemes. This is useful for cultural and social reasons, but pre-literate children and illiterate adults do not perceive language in this way. So children may well find it difficult to associate a sequence of sounds with a word, or to segment a word into its constituent phonemes.

    Your description of cultural capital is interesting. You are right that some children, exposed to language to a much greater extent than others, will have not only a richer vocabulary but also a greater knowledge of the conventional patterns of English. Their expectations of what language should sound like will be more secure. I think a deficit here may particularly affect children with EAL, as their first language may have different patterns and conventions. So, it is important, even to phonic decoding skill, that we give children a base of speaking, listening, story and rhyme. We should not let the push for SP dominate and distort the literacy curriculum.

    David Share: Phonological recoding and self-teaching: sine qua non of reading acquisition

    Robert Port: How is language stored in memory? Beyond phones and phonemes

    • The Port article looks interesting – thanks. I did quite a bit of reading about oral v. literate cultures a looong time ago, and aspects of that are always in the back of my mind when I’m thinking about learning to read. I remember some lovely discussions about that and language acquisition with Jean Aitchison when I was a grad student, the details of which are lost to posterity 😉

      In a way, learning to read is a process of calibration, of creating divisions and distinctions which are in some sense arbitrary. Print culture restricted much of our orthography to a few very wide streams of development; it’s interesting to see how much digital culture will return us to a more varied landscape – perhaps more like the time of manuscripts than a purely oral world, but probably not as standardized as print….

      Our children, and children’s children (climate apocalypse permitting…) are going to have to navigate all these possibilities, and to me phonics has the potential to give them a very flexible understanding of the bones of the words, as it were; but to restrict them to nothing but the phonemes until a very late stage in their linguistic development seems to me to be counterproductive.

    • Hi. Is there a problem with my most recent comment which has been awaiting publication for several days? Please let me know and I will publish elsewhere if necessary. It took me a while to put together and don’t want it wasted. 🙂

  6. Hi Meraudfh

    I’ve only just now read this string of messages. I have a couple of points I would like to make:

    The first is simple. There is no problem with which syllable to stress in nonsense words in the phonics check, as all the nonsense words have only one syllable.

    The next needs more explanation. I understand a lot of the points you are making; they are interesting and some of them I fully agree with and some less so. However, as far as the phonics check goes, I think most of them are not very important. Here is why:

    The phonics check is doing a lot of good for the following reasons:
    1) It is giving teachers specific and useful information, e.g., I have heard teachers say things like this: “I found the children I have been teaching are not secure reading words with split digraphs, like ‘hope’, ‘kite’, etc.”
    2) It is encouraging many teachers to teach the alphabetic code and the skill of blending more systematically, more thoroughly and earlier than they had been doing. In many cases, this is improving practice.
    3) Above all, it is helping to ensure that children who cannot decode to the expected standard are given the extra teaching and practice they need the following year, because their teachers know they will be checked again then. When I was a classroom teacher, I grouped children according to ability for reading and, looking back now, I do not think I did enough for the children in lower ability groups. I meet teachers now who are anxious about the phonics check, because they have children in lower ability groups who are getting further and further behind their peers and have not been taught the letter-sound correspondences in the phonics check. They tell me they thought they were doing the right thing, simply by grouping according to ability, without putting in extra teaching for those children. The phonics check creates a sense of urgency for those children and I think that is right. The problems for children, who cannot read when they are seven years old, increase rapidly as they get older.

    So, the point I am trying to make is that the finer details of exactly how fair or accurate the phonics check is are less important than the benefits of the check. Yes, it is good to debate the finer points and it would be good if the phonics check were improved as a result, but the benefits of the phonics check as it is far outweigh any imperfections.

    • Thank you – I don’t see any of the questions I raised as evidence against the need for some kind of check, and I do completely understand its potential value.

      My worries about the current check as it stands are mainly to do with the implementation and its unintended effects: the pass/fail mentality seems to cause great distress all round, and although I can see that there are ways of mitigating this, clearly some schools need more support in doing so, and on the DfE’s part an approach which required *less* mitigation would seem beneficial.

      I hope, though, that it’s worth keeping the debate open about the implications of decisions regarding the form such a check should take. We all know how in big institutions assessment criteria can end up dictating practice in negative ways – tail wagging the dog – unless people stay engaged with what the assessment is really for, and what its limits are in terms of sensitivity. So I was partly turning over my various thoughts about it in order to make it less of a monolith – and as a reminder that it’s not a perfect test but a pragmatic one, whose parameters may well affect the outcome.

      And thanks for the note about the content of the check – my two are still just about in Foundation (until Friday!) so we haven’t reached that stage yet….

    • Having thought about it overnight, I’ve decided to take that section out completely – I don’t want to set any false hares running (I know people skim blogs so there’s a danger of that), when there’s so much to be thinking about already!

      Thanks again for your comments, both here and on my other post: Coming from someone in your position they’re really very valuable for me, and I’m sure many others too.

  7. The contents of the phonics check: the children are tested using both pseudowords and real words. In the case of the pseudowords children get a mark for any pronunciation that is plausible. For instance if the pseudoword was ‘dow’ it would be acceptable if pronounced to rhyme with ‘cow’ or ‘slow’. However, for the real words, teachers have been instructed to only give a mark where the word is pronounced correctly. The example given in guidance is ‘blow’. This will only be accepted as correct if pronounced to rhyme with ‘slow’, not with ‘cow’. This is one of the reasons that the check is viewed by some as not fit for its purpose – to check decoding ability. I believe the results sent to the DfE and given to parents are a pass/fail, so in effect the data given does not differentiate between the child’s knowledge of the real words and their ability to decode the nonwords.

    The NFER report makes interesting reading because it gives teachers’ own views:

     Literacy coordinators’ views on the extent to which the check provided valuable information for teachers appeared to be unchanged from last year, with about three in ten ‘agreeing’ or ‘agreeing somewhat’ that it was useful for teachers.
     Teachers interviewed as part of the case studies were generally more positive about the usefulness of the findings from the check than they were last year, with most reporting that the outcomes helped inform decisions about the support provided to children. However, teacher assessment was still viewed as the most useful source of information in informing such decisions.

    The report also notes that the main change in teaching attributed by teachers to the check is the teaching of nonwords sometimes from reception class onwards. So your worry about tail wagging dogs may be justified. The check is a high-stakes test, with results reported and taken account of by Ofsted, so it is understandable that teachers will want to give their classes the very best chances of doing well. Presumably nonword activities are hoped to encourage children to use decoding as their only strategy, understand what is needed in the check, and therefore pass. Incidentally, as far as I know, the DfE have not produced any advice regarding follow up teaching for pupils who failed the check, whether it was because of misreading the real words or the pseudowords or for some other reason.

    The NFER report also shows that as far as reading at age 7 is concerned (as tested by KS1 SATs) the attitude of the school to the teaching of phonics and the check does not seem to be of significance. This does not support the idea that early and intense SP teaching makes better readers. Decoding is not reading, after all.

    As she is a phonics trainer I would expect Elizabeth Nonweiler to support the phonics check, and no doubt she is correct in thinking that it makes teachers concentrate more on their phonics teaching. However, it is important that readers of your blog also get an idea of the shortcomings in the design of the check, and of teachers’ views regarding its impact.

    • Thank you; the aim of the blog is to get as many perspectives as possible, and to find out what varieties of experience there are. I’m interested in hearing from people who love SSP, people who hate SSP, and people who are basically agnostic about it. I’m trying to understand the drivers which lie behind this check – would you agree that the effect on the rest of the curriculum is one of them?

      Presumably there are immediate benefits to a child reading by 6 in our education system (I know things are different elsewhere). There must be knock-on effects in other areas of learning, feeding into a more formal rather than play-based curriculum in Y1 &Y2?

      It’s so often the case that the appearance of success or failure depends on where the point of assessment has been placed. Do you think that it would be better not to assess until 7, but place greater emphasis on ways of supporting those who don’t take to reading easily?

      Whether a generally formal approach is a good thing or not for all children (or even any) is a matter for debate, I know. Looking at my sons’ class, about to go into Y1, I feel that they’d benefit from a more gradual transition than test pressure seems to allow.

    • Another thought: if the text results don’t differentiate between a child’s success with the non-words and with the real words, that seem to be to be quite worrying. It makes assumptions about what’s going on when a child is decoding that seem to me to be potentially incorrect. Was there any trial of the test before it was run on a national basis? I wonder if it’s possible to get results sifted by real & non-words? (Hmmm – good luck with that I suppose, given Laura McInerney’s recent experiences.)

    • I’m not sure how this relates to the post – but I think we need to get back to the original meaning of an action, or piece of writing, intended to test/trial/prove/disprove an idea.

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