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More time should be devoted to building vocabulary

26/09/2016 Joanna

Academics from University College London and the University of Birmingham are reporting that the government's phonics tests, taken by hundreds of thousands of primary pupils each year, don't measure the correct skills.

According to the TES, the academics found that the test does not assess the full range of phonics knowledge that the national curriculum calls on these pupils to have. As such, they suggest that instead of studying the more obscure sound combinations in the English language, children might see more benefit from additional time spent reading books and building vocabulary.

In addition, the research found that around 40 per cent of the words on the test required pupils to have vocabulary knowledge, meaning this skill was necessary as well as phonics.

Jonathan Solity, honorary research fellow at University College London, said: "This is not an anti-phonics argument. It is absolutely clear that children need to be taught phonics."

However, he suggested that more time spent on building vocabulary would be particularly beneficial to disadvantaged pupils, as they often hear a smaller variety of words at home than other children.

Speaking at the annual British Educational Research Association, the authors of the study has called for changes to be made to the curriculum to include just the common sound and letter combinations that occur in the English language, and move on earlier to reading and expanding vocabulary skills. 

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With all due respect, sir, there is a sequence that all student follow when they begin their formal schooling and learn to read their spoken vocabulary. Any sound synthetic phonics program includes vocabulary words, which at the beginning are familiar to the children. As they add more letter/sounds, and blends of those letter/sounds and are able to decode longer, and perhaps more unfamiliar words to those who come from homes where books, or vocabulary is more limited, they add the meaning of these new words as they use them in sentences. Any good, well trained teacher who understands the sequence of learning letter/sounds from the simple to the more complex, would do this automatically. Thus, all students, regardless of their socio/economic background learn together to decode, encode and master new vocabulary at the same time. It is the sequence that matters. Learning to master the sound/symbol alphabetic system of the English language needs to be done in a systematically, and directly. The approach to reading instruction in most schools in the United States require the memorization of long lists of the most commonly used words, such as the Dolche Word List, rather that teaching all beginning students the English spelling code to the point where it becomes automatic. Once that is completed, usually by the end of first grade. Once that is completed, then building vocabulary, becoming fluent and reading more challenging written material will lead to comprehending what they have already learned. It is only at the beginning of third grade where students are required to read more complex subject matter, science, literature, history and that is when teaching vocabulary related to the new subjects expands their knowledge of many more words. Whereas, those who are only provided a list of words they memorize, or guess at for meaning, are left behind and often never recover. The national phonics check that is given to students in England is an excellent tool to determine the level of decoding skills that students have when they enter school. It gives teachers a way to individualize instruction to students who need more help in mastering the entire decoding process. I wish the United States would have a similar "phonics check." Too often children are labeled as "dyslexic" or placed in "special education classes, only because they have not mastered the foundational principles of how to read fluently with comprehension, any book or text required in their schooling. First, they need to "learn to read" and then "read to learn." Perhaps we are both on the same page here, but I certainly hope that the "phonics check" will NOT be abandoned due to pressure from the whole language, three cueing system, look and guess advocates who dominate the field of reading education today in most ALL English speaking nations. Robert W. Sweet, Jr. President The National Right to Read Foundation P.O. Box 560 Strasburg, Virginia 22657
Robert W. Sweet, Jr., 27 September 2016
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