It is true that the majority of children will learn to read whatever method of teaching is used. The question of whether or not to use a range of strategies is one that causes the most disagreement when the subject of teaching early reading is discussed. Many teachers teach phonics as a main early reading skill, but also encourage children to develop a range of other skills.
The first argument for using a range of strategies can be summed up by the phrase often heard to describe children using phonics alone – that they are ‘barking at print’ (i.e. correctly sounding out words, but deriving no meaning from them). As the point of reading is to understand what has been written, why reduce reading to a technical exercise and impose one strategy to the exclusion of others?
Secondly, there is no ‘one size fits all’. if children are all different, why not just offer them all the methods of teaching reading from the outset, so that if they are one of the very small minority who find learning to read with phonics difficult, then they will pick up words by sight memory and will be able to work out the rest by looking at the pictures and making a good stab at the meaning of them.
On the face of it, these arguments both seem to be based on rational and sensible points of view.
There is a flaw in these arguments however, and that is the problems that can emerge further down the line in a significant minority of children. In the early stages of learning to read, remembering words by sight and guessing from pictures, initial letters and context are all easier and quicker than sounding out and blending the sounds to read the words. These therefore become the default methods and children can go on quite quickly to be independent readers.
It is, however, very sad to come across so many children – often around the age of about seven – who are otherwise very bright and able, but who have literacy problems. This is often because they have become reliant on the other methods and have not developed a strong phonic knowledge to enable them to work out new words. Even if reading is not perceived to be a problem (by this stage children are usually reading silently and the fact that they be reading many words incorrectly can go unnoticed), poor spelling may be causing concern.
This is therefore the reason that phonics advocates believe strongly that phonics should be used ‘first and fast’ – so that children develop good decoding strategies from the very beginning of learning to read. Once a firm foundation is laid, they can go on to develop higher order skills – comprehension, reading for meaning, and using context to help decide on which spelling alternatives to use.
There are very strong beliefs held by people both for and against using a mix of methods, and the debates are often very heated. This is just one of those arguments that will run and run……