Here we go again…

I started this blog with a list of questions; I have some answers, but mostly I’ve ended up with…more questions…..

The latest question is about handling more able readers.

Having browsed around John Walker (Sounds Write)’s blog, I asked him via Twitter if there were any posts about phonics and more able readers, because I couldn’t find anything specifically on that. His answer was that

‘More able’ isn’t an unproblematical term as far as phonics is concerned.

Twitter, as he acknowledges, is not the place to try and get into why that might be, so here I am again, asking questions.

So, for John and anyone else who has the time and inclination to reply,

What is it that makes the term ‘more able reader’ a problematical term in relation to phonics?

In order to clarify, I’d make a distinction between various possible definitions of ‘able reader’:

  • Those who start school having started learning to read;
  • Those who start school as non-readers but pick it up much more quickly than their peers.

Is that a useful distinction? The first, presumably, would divide in terms of practice between children who have started to read in a SSP context and those who have not: I’m interested, in principle, in approaches to supporting all three situations, but from a personal perspective I’m most interested in those who start as non-readers, since this has been our experience with the boys.

So my questions this time are partly a continuation of my desire in this blog to understand SSP practice in general, but they are also partly just me, as a parent, hoping to find guidance in navigating the particular situation in which we as a family find ourselves.

Debbie Hepplewhite’s ‘incidental’ approach goes a long way to create flexibility, of course, but I don’t imagine she’s the only SSP practitioner to have thought about this issue.

(NB I’m interested in how different SSP programmes accommodate prior reading skill or a steeper learning trajectory or both. I’m also aware that ability and attainment are not the same thing, and that all sorts of factors can lead to one child seeming more ‘able’ than another.)

Thank you!





2 thoughts on “Here we go again…

  1. I am aware you are looking for answers from an SSP programme author, but no one seems to be answering.

    When Andrew Davis suggested that some children, on starting school being able to read, were being put through an SP programme inappropriately and therefore getting frustrated and unhappy, the main response from SSP fans was to say that such children needed to learn the phonic correspondences because they would reach a point when their memory for words would reach capacity and they would need to be able to decode using phonics in order to progress further. It seemed to be felt that these children didn’t know phonics but had a sight vocabulary in memory, and the capacity of memory would reach a limit. At that point they would plateau and be a bit lost. So the purpose of the phonics lessons would be to teach them the concept of letter/sound correspondences and the alphabetic principle, and to make sure that they had explicit code knowledge for decoding.

    I wonder about this theory:

    I’m not sure where the idea that memory has this limit comes from. When you consider how much a child has to commit to and store in memory from babyhood through infancy and childhood to adulthood it seems unlikely that remembering correspondences between letter strings and words would be overwhelming, particularly as there are patterns of letters, including rhymes, syllables, chunks and phoneme and morpheme patterns which a child can isolate from words already known to apply to new words. Where these correspondences have not been explicitly taught there is no reason to believe that they are not nevertheless recognised and used by children who read. And the group we are talking about here are a group of children who read. The self-teaching hypothesis, which proposes that children use information from words already known to read unfamiliar words (David Share) recognises this phenomenon.

    The theory also raises the question of how many words skilled readers do, in fact, automatically recognise, however they were originally committed to memory – whether through repeated phonic decoding or through whole word recognition. It is certainly enough to enable them to read through the average newspaper article without finding a word they do not recognise (because they have forgotten it). Besides, efficient spellers also remember what a vast number of whole words look like, however eccentric in their spellings.

    In addition there doesn’t seem to be any justification for believing that children who are already started with reading do not know phonics. It is perfectly possible that the adults who have supported them have pointed out both the alphabetic principle and the code to the children, thus, at the very least, kick-starting the self-teaching. These children may well know some of the ‘code’ already. It sometimes seems as if the SP enthusiasts think they have discovered something new when identifying the phonic correspondences and that they believe that it is not common knowledge that letters represent sounds, albeit sometimes in a perverse way. They imply this when they claim that special training, given by experts, is needed in order to understand phonics for teaching and yet, inconsistently, also claim that every reader, however skilled and fluent, still uses phonics when reading text. It may well be that trainee teachers need some input to know the technicalities of an SP teaching system, (and, these days, that they will be expected to teach reading through SSP and keep away from any other strategies), but surely not in order to recognise that the English written language is phonetic.

    I have also read, as a sort of corollary to the memory capacity theory, the idea that these children who can ‘read’ are using the wrong strategies – they are guessing from context and using picture cues. Once pictures and predictable text are no longer available the child reaches a plateau in reading skill and gets a bit lost.

    It seems interesting that this suggests a belief that correct reading can arise from these strategies. After all, to use either you probably have to be able to independently read large chunks of text, to provide a context. Pictures might help you get a handle on the story but will not help much in reading unless the text is extremely simple. So the ‘able’ readers may be using these strategies, but are unlikely to be using them for the majority of their reading. If they were they would not come across as being able readers. And this observation brings up the point that it is probably quite simple to find out what these already-reading children need, be it phonics lessons from lesson one onwards, phonics lessons at a later stage or incidental phonics as necessary – by sitting down with them and seeing how they get on with a previously unseen text.

  2. Thanks Nemocracy; the reading I’ve done with children has been entirely in a SSP context, so it’s useful to get some perspective on what might be possible in terms of the ways in which children might arrive at school already reading. The nurseries round here do the early stages of SSP so my experience of other methods is pretty much nil.

    It may be that this Sept we get some littlies who have started reading without coming through those nurseries, but it won’t be up to me how they are assessed and supported – I’m just the volunteer 🙂

    I’m interested in that scenario in principle anyway, of course, because I think it’s an important part of understanding how SSP is meant to work in practice – and given SSP’s ubiquity for the time being, I feel it’s really worth trying to get inside its logic and priorities.

    I do hope I’ll get some SSP replies – John Walker’s statement has so many potential ramifications and I’d really like to be clear about what was meant. For a start, if they’re not to be classified as ‘more able readers’, how *are* they to be classified in a SSP context……?

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