In conversation with Anne Castles - Systematic and explicit instruction of phonics

A conversation with Professor Anne Castles about the systematic and explicit instruction of phonics. Anne explains how phonics can support early reading acquisition, as a foundation skill that helps  students learn to read [Duration: 28:54].

Transcript

Shannan Salvestro

Hi, I'm Shannan Salvestro, Literacy Coordinator K to 12 for the NSW Department of Education.

I'm here today with Professor Anne Castles from Macquarie University. Anne I'd like to ask you a few questions about learning to read.

Anne Castles

Sure.

Shannan Salvestro

So first of all, I think we should start with what is your definition of reading or what do you see the goal of reading as?

Anne Castles

Well, ultimately of course the goal of reading is to go from that printed text on the page to meaning. That's what we all want. That's what we are skilled readers do. We want all children to be able to pick up a book and be able to understand what it is that the person writing that book wanted them to know.

Shannan Salvestro

The ultimate goal of reading is to make meaning should we start reading instruction by using meaning?

Anne Castles

I think this has been one of the big sources of misunderstanding and confusion in reading instruction and in the way that we teach reading in that just because the ultimate goal is to make meaning and to, to extract meaning from text that doesn't, it doesn't automatically follow from that, that that's the best way to teach reading. And I often give the analogy of you know, a child learning to play the piano. Now you might look at somebody, you know, a skilled pianist playing a Tchaikovsky score and you might think, well, look at them. They're absolutely amazing. Look how fluid they are. We want our child learning to play the piano to be like that. So let's put them in front of the Tchaikovsky score and get them to copy. Whereas we know it doesn't work like that. What children learning to play the piano need to do is get those very basic skills and learn their scales and practice and learn about finger position and over time they build up that expertise that, that we see. But you can't start at the end point. You have to go through a learning process.

Shannan Salvestro

That learning process. We, we talk about teaching phonics systematically and explicitly, does that mean we're talking about teaching phonics in isolation?

Anne Castles

What we mean by teaching systematically and explicitly is we want to make sure that this is not something that's just happening as the children are going along while they're reading. Because children may then miss things and you don't get to make sure that all of the required knowledge is there and you don't get to step through it in a logical sequence. Obviously, what we want to do is teach children the more simple mappings first, so they would learn individual letters and sounds. And if we teach the right ones, the very frequent single letters, children can be starting to read simple words very, very quickly. After a couple of weeks of instruction, they can already read many, many words. And if you think about it, if you teach the children the sounds for w, e, n and, t for example, they can read went, but they can also read 'net' and they can read 'ten' and various other words as well. So what we do when we have a sequence and structured phonics program is we have that order set up so that children are reading independently as quickly as possible. And so we're going from the simple mappings to the more complicated ones like double 'o' is /oo/ or double 'e' is /ee/, for example. So certainly we want to have that structured. That doesn't mean that all you're doing is drilling a child in phonics the entire time that they're at school. Of course there's lots more to reading than just phonics. And at the same time children would be being read to by the teacher. They would be doing vocabulary, building exercises and many, many other literacy activities. But the important thing is that the phonics teaching is explicit and systematic.

A lot of teachers ask me about the, the sequence. Is the sequence that you teach in important, like I know going from those simple single letter sounds, but is there a particular sequence that is more effective than others that, you know of?

Anne Castles

Look, I think there needs to be more research on that. I don't think there's an absolute set sequence that is cast in stone. And so as long as you have one that's right and there is some variability in different phonics programs in the sequence, but very broadly speaking, they go from those one on one mappings to the sort of many letters to one mapping. And so the ones that followed that kind of broad structure are getting the kind of thing that you're looking for and I don't think you need to be too obsessed about the precise order.

Shannan Salvestro

Great. I have had people say that teaching phonics is going back to basics or dumbing things down. What is your response to those sorts of statements?

Anne Castles

Well, it's funny, isn't it? Because you know, I've been studying, learning to read for your longer than I care to admit probably more than 25 years now and I still don't understand how it works. Reading is incredibly complicated and learning to read is incredibly complicated. Louisa Moats, who's a famous, reading researcher talks about learning to read as being rocket science, you know it really is rocket science. And so I think the idea that the science that we have of learning to read and of teaching reading is going back to basics is kind of, I think exactly the opposite is true. That said, I certainly wouldn't step away from the fact that as we said, in order to teach a complex skill, what you've got to do, and this is very well established in the science of learning across the board, not just in reading, is you have to break things down into their component parts. You have to understand how the learning process works and then you have to very explicitly teach children in a sequence that, that maps onto that learning process. So in that sense it's certainly is going back to basics in that your, you're going to the basic components of reading and then building up.

Shannan Salvestro

Great. So systematic and explicit phonics instruction has been described as a good equaliser or that it levels the playing field for all students when they come to school and, and begin that formal reading instruction. Can you speak to that?

Anne Castles

Yes. You know, I've often talked about the fact that it's, it's very unfortunate that in some ways phonics instruction has been associated with perhaps a kind of right wing and conservative political agenda. Because I think in many ways, phonics is one of the things that we can teach that can really help to overcome disadvantage. And the reason for that is as we know, many, many children come to school with disadvantaged experiences compared to others. And that very much that's reflected in often their vocabulary, the number of words they know, both the breadth and the depth of their vocabulary. So they simply haven't heard as many words as children from very privileged literate backgrounds. So those children come to school with a large vocabulary deficit, often with weaker language skills. And it's very, very hard to equalise those kinds of things as a teacher because, you know, this is something that's been the child's experience over five years.

So they've got to school. It's not something that we can fix overnight, but teaching something like phonics is a relatively constrained set of, body of knowledge that you can teach a child quite quickly, which then gives them the tools to read for themselves. And if they can read for themselves, they can start to access that rich language and that meaning and that knowledge that perhaps they haven't been able to access you know, prior to coming to school. And so in a way it gives them the opportunity to make up that gap in a way that's going to be much more effective than something that a teacher can do. Which is not to say that schools don't also play a very important part in building children's knowledge and their language and their vocabulary. But if you've got a child who's in a position to be able to do that for themselves, you open up the world to them. And you know, I think it's terribly sad if children who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds aren't given the opportunity to get reading independently as quickly as possible.

Shannan Salvestro

So it's interesting talking about... we've mentioned vocabulary and comprehension. So I guess that leads me to, and we've touched on this, but is phonics all we need - of course it really isn't is it?

Anne Castles

No, and we should never equate phonics with reading. Phonics is a skill that's important - a teaching method that's important for teaching reading but it's not reading in itself. And this is where a very basic distinction that has a huge amount of empirical evidence behind it is the simple view of reading. So the simple view of reading makes the basic distinction between decoding or word reading and then language comprehension. And numerous studies have shown that in order to comprehend text reading comprehension, what you need is both of those things. So you need to be able to crack the code and go from the print on the page to a word. But you also need to understand what it is that you're reading. So if you measure children's language comprehension and you measure their decoding ability, with something like a non word reading task, put those two things together and you can virtually with a 100% accuracy predict their reading comprehension skill. So we know those two things, very broad skills that they are, are absolutely essential for reading and phonics is just one part of the decoding process. So that's where we've got a place.

Shannan Salvestro

It's something that we like to say is that it's necessary but not sufficient.

Anne Castles

Exactly. And some of your listeners might also be familiar with 'The Big 5' or sometimes it's 'The Big 6' depending on how people break these things up.

But emphasising that there, there are probably five very key bodies of knowledge that children need to be good readers. There's the reading comprehension, there's the phonics and the phonemic awareness that we've talked about. But there's also fluency in word reading and just being able to sound the word out c/a/t as little five year olds do. Of course, that's not reading fluency. And so children also need to build up to where they're recognising words very rapidly. And getting straight to their meaning. And we know that's what skilled readers do. Children aren't doing that when they first start reading, but with enough practice and if we get them reading independently as quickly as possible, they build up that fluency as well. Which is another really key part.

Shannan Salvestro

As we've been talking to teachers, a comment I've heard is that 'oh, but teaching phonics in that systematic explicit way that's, that's boring and it's rote learning, it's very repetitive for the students'. What do you think about that?

Anne Castles

I think anyone that's seen a good phonics program running in a classroom with an engaged and engaging teacher and students would never say that they have a great time. Some of these phonics programs these days are so much fun. They have the little actions that go with the sounds. they're incredibly interactive. They come often with lots of visual cues as well as little movies and all sorts of things. So there's absolutely no reason why teaching phonics needs to be boring. And I, you know, I'd be interested in whether it's the teacher that finds it boring or the children. And maybe in some cases it can get a bit boring for the teacher, but that's where some of these really new engaging programs can be helpful. But I think the other thing to bear in mind here is that children really enjoy something that they succeed at and so with phonics, if they see themselves being able to read even these simple little words very quickly, they have a huge sense of achievement. And that achievement itself is extremely motivating and enjoyable for children. And as we know, I mean, it's a bit funny, isn't it? Because certainly know from my own children, they love repetition. Again, we parents and teachers might, 'Please don't ask me to read that book again!', but they might be our perspective, not the kids. And I think the kids really, yeah. Enjoy something that they can understand what they're learning, what's coming out the other end and can apply it really quickly. That's hugely enjoyable for children. And when they're, you know, they're seeing and they're feeling that success. That's very empowering. That's right. And that's not to say that maybe back in the 60's and 70's that there were some boring, repetitive worksheets that were perhaps not the best form of instruction. But as with anything else we can make there are ways of making these lessons very engaging.

Shannan Salvestro

What about non-words?

Anne Castles

Yes again, it's, it's so unfortunate that there appears to have been so much misunderstanding around this cause this, there's two key things to say about non-words and maybe we should stop calling them non-words. Maybe we should call them novel words, you know words that could be words but you just haven't, seen them yet, because the first time thing about non-words is in the context of a phonics program, they're designed entirely for assessment. You don't teach the children to read non-words when you were doing phonics instruction, the children are learning letters and sounds and they're implying them in real words and they're learning to read those words in real books and they're putting the sounds together to make real words. The reason we need non-words for assessment is because we want to make sure that the children have actually learned the skill we're trying to teach them. And so we're trying to find out whether they've learned the relationships between letters and sounds. If we give them words, they might already know how to read that word. They might already be familiar with it. And so they can just guess it and they don't have to apply the skill that we want to test. Now that's great if they know that word, but it doesn't allow us to test what we want to test. So that's why we use nonsense words. It's an index of a child's ability to apply a grapheme phoneme letter, sound correspondences, and you know, of course this happens all the time.

If you think of a doctor's office, they might, you know, measure heart rate to assess someone's fitness. That's not to suggest that we go around training our heart rate. It's an index. It's an index of something that we believe is important in part of the body. And so we have the most targeted index that we can of that particular process. The other thing about non-words is it's really important to remember that especially for a child starting to learn to read nearly all the words, they see are non-words to them. They don't recognise these things. They are new. So what you're doing when you ask a child to read a non word is not very different from what they're doing in their own reading experience. And of course even you and I, as skilled readers, we're constantly coming across new printed words that we don't know in, in its written form and often don't know the meaning of either.

So you know, 10 years ago Google would have been a new word, so we're learning those all the time. We were reading people's names that are unfamiliar and we very adeptly apply that basic knowledge of letter, sound correspondences when required to most of the time as skilled readers. We don't need to, but we know that skills there because when we come across something unfamiliar, we immediately can apply those skills.

Shannan Salvestro

I just come to mind, lots of texts that with authors that you know, have all that lovely made up language like Harry Potter or Roald Dahl books where you need to draw on those skills because there's all those, you know, lovely new, exciting words.

Anne Castles

Absolutely. And Harry Potter is a perfect example. I mean it's filled with new vocabulary and the only way you can read those words is the same way as you would a non-word.

Shannan Salvestro

Yes. So I guess it's really good to remember that those non-words are made up words are really just there to inform teachers.

Anne Castles

That's right.

Shannan Salvestro

What is it that the student can actually do that? Do they know those letter sound correspondences? Do they know how too blend the through the word?

Anne Castles

Exactly.

Shannan Salvestro

It's just a tool.

Anne Castles

It's just a tool. It's just a tool to pick up on one specific skill in reading. We also want to know what kind of word readers the kids are and we want to know how well they're comprehending what they're reading. So we use different tests for that.

Shannan Salvestro

...have to have multiple sources of information...

Anne Castles

...and this is just one part...

Shannan Salvestro

Yeah. Great. So let's move onto decodable readers, which I see as, as just one resource that we can have in our classrooms so that students can practice those skills that they're learning. What's your view on decodable readers?

Anne Castles

That would be the way I would see it as well. No one's suggesting that decodable readers are great literature or that you know, they should replace the kind of literature that children will be exposed to by being read to by their parents and by teachers and that hopefully as soon as possible they will be reading for themselves. But what they are exactly as you say, are a tool to allow children to practice what they've learned. And again, the science of learning tells us beyond just reading, but in relation to learning a whole lot of skills that the best way to learn something after you've been taught it is to practice it and practice it as soon as possible after that learning is taking place, so you can consolidate that learning. Now if you teach, you know, you've talked three or four key grapheme, phoneme correspondences to a child, then it makes a lot of sense to then give them a little book where they get to practice those particular letters and sounds. Now if you'd just give them any old book or one of the levelled readers that children are often given, you have no control over what the letters and sounds are.

Shannan Salvestro

They may not be in there or if they are in there, they might only appear once. Whereas decodables are designed to...

Anne Castles

Exactly, they're designed to be made up of the letters and sounds that the children have learned to give them an opportunity to practice and once again to give them that opportunity to experience success. So these children, again, even from just a couple of weeks of reading instruction, will be able to read a whole book and feel that success really exciting for a child. Now look, I would be the first to say that I don't think we want to be using decodable readers over any kind of extended period. Of course it's all about getting to the, the good literature and, but what we want to do is we want to get children's skills learnt and consolidated absolutely as quickly as we can so we can get them moving on those, those, the real books. So we want them in the real books. This would be something that you would just be doing the very, very initial stages of instruction.

Shannan Salvestro

So while they are using those decodable readers in that initial stage, do you think it is limiting their, their exposure to good language and vocab?

Anne Castles

Oh, of course not. It's just something that they're doing in addition is...

Shannan Salvestro

...because they're getting it elsewhere...

Anne Castles

..the teacher will still be reading the class a book that would still be having all sorts of language activities. They'll still, most of the time be having their parents read them a story or seven before they go to bed.

Shannan Salvestro

Just one small component.

Anne Castles

It's just one small component to practice a particular skill. So it's a little bit like thinking of if you think about maths that the child's doing a worksheet to practice the numbers that they've just learned. Now that's not to suggest that that's all what they should be doing, you know, in understanding the world of number of mathematics. But it's something that's important to practice. And I don't think anybody would question that. So it's just a tool to assist teachers to give children the practice that they need. And again, I think it's one of these things where let's ask the children what they think of the decodable readers a lot of....

Shannan Salvestro

....and they've come a long way. Have a look at some of the readers you can, you can get now those decodable readers and you know, the colourful pictures and they're lovely.

Anne Castles

Absolutely, and we need to be bearing in mind too that the relevant comparison here, if you're not giving children decodable readers, the usual way that children are given an opportunity to practice is with these levelled readers. They can be pretty boring as well. I don't have a huge amount of vocabulary or meaning in them either, especially at the very early ones, it's very much kind of, 'I see a dog', 'I see a cat'. So if you were to make a comparison between those, they're very similar in terms of the vocabulary in terms of this, you know, the richness of the narrative and the storyline. But one is allowing the child to practice a learned skill and the other one is kind of a bit hit and miss.

Shannan Salvestro

Have they got a place, the levelled readers, like who would you be using them in conjunction? Do they have a place or do you just think it's better just to really hone in on those decodables?

Anne Castles

I'm probably not the expert to answer that and I don't know if there's been any direct research. I would feel that based on what I know that using the decodable readers, certainly in the very early stages and then trying to get children on to real simple books as quickly as possible, is probably a good way to go.

Shannan Salvestro

Well, thank you, it's been a lovely chat to just clarify some of those really key messages about some early reading instruction and the role that phonics plays as one component, out of five or six. Six The Big 6.

Anne Castles

Absolutely it's been a pleasure to talk to you.

Shannan Salvestro

If you would like to learn more about this topic, we've got some links to some further reading and suggested resources in the notes and on our webpage. If you'd like to suggest an idea for a podcast, just email literacy.numeracy@det.nsw.edu.au, and just put 'podcasts' in subject line.

Return to top of page