Raising Readers

Raising Readers; When Phonics Isn’t Working and the Case for Storytelling

I’m going to say this and duck…phonics doesn’t work for all readers.

Phonics is a wonderful resource and ideal for teaching initial sounds and basic decoding but many children struggle to convert and construct the complex system of phonemes, trigraphs and split digraphs into one fluid sound to produce a word. Even worse they are struggling to string the words they are decoding into meaningful stories. (Don’t just take my word for it though, more info here; The Limits of Phonics)

Moving on from Phonics

As a former children’s librarian and a teacher I’m familiar with the sight of worried parents wringing their hands when faced with their children’s homework, helpless in knowing how to help. I’m also heart breakingly familiar with the slumped shoulders, lowered gaze and quiet murmur of a child whose confidence has been destroyed by reading assessments and the acceptance that they are ‘the worst in the class’.

Many children do not have a diagnosed reading difficulty but still struggle tremendously with reading. For the most part English is not a phonetic language yet schools continue to pursue phonics as opposed to reading for purpose and reading for pleasure. In my experience it is time to move away from phonics when decoding becomes more prominent in the child’s reading habits than comprehension.

By continuing to force phonics on these children we are creating a generation of children who hate reading and giving them the evidence to prove they’re bad readers.

How can parents help?

  • For children who are visual and kinesthetic learners physically building words can be very helpful. Pick a root word or sound (I’ve given an example of a core word and a core sound below) and write that sound in one colour, then in another colour build up your word family by adding additional sounds. This allows children to read many words by learning just one element. If you’re doing this at home progress very slowly and observe where and when your child is struggling. As they build their confidence you can increase the challenge of the words.

Core word: Present, presented, presently, presenter, presenting, presentable.

Core sound: Hard, hardly, hardest, harden, hardened, lard, lardon, larder (from here children may eventually progress to constructing words like bollard, blizzard etc)

  • Using cursive writing has also been shown to improve children’s ability to blend words together as it integrates a lot of the process that phonics and printing isolate – hand-eye coordination, muscle memory, visual memory, fine motor skills. (More here).

Present the child with a word written in basic cursive, help them to read it, allow them to trace it with their finger, allow them to write over it with a pen, allow them to write while looking at the correct word and finally allow them to write it without looking. This can have major impacts on spelling and comprehension.

The case for storytelling

Humans are story tellers and artists first, we are readers second, (art and language predate writing by tens of thousands of years). It is programmed into our most ancient DNA to love creating and sharing stories, this innate desire has gotten lost somewhere in the modern school curriculum and it’s up to parents to bring it back.

Storytelling is a different skill to reading but the two are related, (more here)

“Knowing how to tell a clear and coherent story is an important skill for helping young children to develop strong reading skills, which, in turn, can help them to be successful across a number of different subjects in school” Nicola Gardener-Neblett.

Many children are not fluent speakers so it’s unsurprising that they are not fluent readers. Storytelling gives struggling speakers – who often go on to become ashamed struggling readers – the chance to experience a culturally and creatively rich linguistic landscape that in our modern school system may only be accessed through reading or writing.

When they tell a story children can practice using language creatively without the pressure of any possible failure being printed in black and white forever or echoing round a classroom to other children already in the know. When listening to others they are invited into a different world and enjoy a communal imaginative experience that will ignite their love of stories and alternative worlds and may even encourage them to explore literature

Many struggling readers spend so long  labouring over the process of reading that they have very little mental capacity left for comprehending or enjoying what they have read, this is where storytelling becomes crucial in our pursuit to raise readers because there is a difference between someone who has the ability to read and someone who is a reader.

Schools sadly do not have the resources or time to encourage storytelling which is why it is so important that parents make room for it and tell as many stories, with and without, books as they can.

The Rest of the Series

Look back at the two previous articles in this series;

Raising Readers; Why Won’t My Child Read

Raising Readers: 6 Things Parents Do That Make Children Hate Reading

You can also watch a video of this post together with my choice of book over on YouTube


    • Mrs Ted

      Understandable, I know lots who were held back by phonics! As long as you keep books fun at home as opposed to phonics obsessed sources of stress as they often are in school he will get there. Send me a wee PM on Facebook if you need a bit more specific advice x

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