Children would find it much easier to learn to read and write if they were first taught how the English language works and what words mean, rather than trying to sound out words.
According to new research, English is so complex that relying on phonics – the common practice of teaching children to read by sounding out words – makes learning English much more difficult than it needs to be.
Dr Victoria Devonshire, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, trialled a new method of teaching reading and writing with 120 children aged five-seven years old and found the average reading age leapt by 14 months after just six months.
She said: “We were surprised at how compelling the results were. When children were taught to understand why English works the way it does we saw a leap in their ability to learn to read and write.
“The written word is about conveying meaning, not the sound of speech. Expecting children to just figure out the rules of our language is worryingly common and it isn’t helping them become as proficient and confident as young children in many other languages.”
Phonics focuses on the pronunciation of words and there is an exception to every rule. In contrast, morphology focuses on the meaning of words and has strong, consistent rules. For example, in the words ‘saying’, ‘said’ and ‘says’ the root word is ‘say’. And in ‘science’, ‘conscience’ and ‘conscious’ the root word is ‘sci’, which comes from the Latin, to know.
Dr Devonshire said teaching how the language is structured helps with children’s understanding and gives them a huge boost in terms of their reading, writing and spelling abilities. By knowing why words are spelled a certain way in many of our more complex or confusing spellings they learn much more quickly than if you expect children to just work that out for themselves.
She said: “Phonics is important and can be used to spell base or root words but you need to know about morphology to identify that part of the word.
“I’m not saying abandon phonics, I’m saying give the other elements the attention they need from the beginning of their formal literacy education, at the age of ﬁve years, to make sense of how our language works.”
Phonics is the most common method of teaching children to read and write. It is used in many countries and in many languages. It works well for children whose languages have a very close relationship between letters and sounds, including Finnish, Italian, Greek and Spanish but, according to the study, it is not helping children learn English.
Finnish children learn to read with 90 per cent accuracy after just ten weeks of formal teaching, whereas English children take four to five years to reach the same standard in their own language.
Dr Devonshire argues that the problem for those learning English is it is ‘opaque’, with lots of different rules and exceptions and where many letters are not always pronounced the same way in every word, whereas most other European languages are ‘transparent’ and the rules or sounds of each letter are reliable and fixed.
She said: “About half of all the words in English are exceptions to the rules of phonics. English spelling has consistent rules but the way we pronounce words is inconsistent.
“That makes it hard for children taught using phonics – of course they will take longer to catch up with their European peers whose languages have consistent rules.”
The research is published in the journal Learning and Instruction.