Phonetic reading method not sound, study shows

KERRY MCBRIDE
Last updated 05:00 05/07/2011
BY THE BOOK: For five-year-old Caitlin Mills and other Holy Cross School pupils taught by Susie Sumner, phonics is just one part of the learning process.
ANDREW GORRIE/ The Dominion Post
BY THE BOOK: For five-year-old Caitlin Mills and other Holy Cross School pupils taught by Susie Sumner, phonics is just one part of the learning process.

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Having children "sound out" words is not the best way to teach them to read, a new study says.

A joint project by Victoria and Otago universities has found that learning through phonics, or "sounding out" words, does not help children to develop their reading after the first few weeks of school.

Currently phonics is a core part of early education, with schoolchildren often learning to recognise letters by how they sound.

But the study claimed that if children were taught through phonics up to age six they could be left with a "cognitive footprint" of how to read certain sounds, leading to difficulties with new words later in life.

Associate Professor Claire Fletcher-Flinn, of Otago University's College of Education, said those findings show that educators should look beyond short-term advantages in teaching methods to consider the long-term effects.

"We have research evidence to show that explicit phonics – the sounding out of each letter – is not useful past the very early period of learning," Ms Fletcher-Flinn said.

"Explicit phonics may be useful because children need to learn ... that letters in words have connections to sounds in words – but beyond that they don't even have to learn all the letter sounds."

The comparative study between phonics-taught Scottish children and New Zealand children of the same age found that the book-centred New Zealand approach led to faster reading times, stronger word recognition and quicker learning of new words.

The researchers recommended teachers develop childrens' word banks through reading instead.

For Susie Sumner's class at Holy Cross School in Wellington's Miramar suburb, phonics is only a small part of the bigger picture.

The children learn through contextual teaching, using phonics as an integrated component of that process.

"Kids come in to this class at different times of the year and at different levels," Mrs Sumner said. "It would be impossible to use a blanket approach and teach them all the same thing at the same time."

With teaching experience in Britain, Malaysia and Turkey, she knows what works best here.

"It's quite different in the UK as they specifically teach letters and sounds for 20 minutes a day.

"Here, in New Zealand, it's much more contextual. It's about letting lessons evolve from the kids' interests and building in teaching through the books they're reading and the experiences they have."

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- The Dominion Post

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