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Sold a Story Podcast – the Case for Phonics

Written By Geoff Nixon . January 24, 2023

Phonics Is Always The First Choice

The six-episode podcast “Sold a Story” (on Apple podcast here and Spotify here – publisher details here) has caused ripples in educational circles, challenging the process by which new methodologies are introduced and kept in schools.  It’s an interesting podcast that delves into teaching methods not generally discussed by parents.  It covers a lot of territory, but our interest in Sold a Story is its focus on phonics.

Sold a Story relies on a scientific truth, that good readers read the same way they listen, from left to right, sound by sound.  This is efficient because it accesses meaning (called semantics) using their existing oral word memory, as opposed to creating an entirely separate text vocabulary for reading. It’s the most reliable way for reading to be automatic, which makes reading comprehension so much easier.

And so naturally, reading instruction that focuses on phonics and phonemes, sounds inside words, if successful is the most likely to launch a child as a lifetime reader.  However, phonics does not always work, because not all children process efficiently enough to hear the differences in those tiny sound snippets.  And that has lead to alternatives that the Sold a Story podcast investigates.

Host Emily Hanford reveals a chapter in American education where phonics was de-emphasized in many schools even for students who were struggling with reading.  She highlights that reading stakes early on are high, as we all know.  Many struggling second graders won’t catch up.

The Pandemic Revealed Issues

The podcast starts with a realization among parents precipitated by the Pandemic and the ensuing switch to virtual classrooms. Parents witnessed firsthand the struggles many children had with reading. They also observed a teaching method that undoubtedly differed from what they were taught as kids.

Instead of relying completely on phonics to learn new words, children were encouraged to seek meaning first by the so-called cueing method. Teachers taught kids to look for pictures, context on the page and prior knowledge as well as sounding out to figure out what an unfamiliar word might be.

This is part of the Reading Recovery system developed by the late New Zealand researcher Dame Marie Clay.

Why Alternatives to Phonics Emerged

The podcast discusses what it calls “THE science of reading” that debunks Reading Recovery. It started with empirical evidence from brain scans and eye-tracking technology that showed how children were learning to read. They weren’t relying on whole words as depicted in the pictures or elicited from cueing. Instead, the findings showed that proficient readers go letter-by-letter to comprehend the subject matter.

This supports the idea that reading is very close to listening.  It happens left to right, in order. This is why brain scans while reading and listening have significant overlap. This is the case for phonics training. If a child can read the way she listens, she will be an efficient, automatic reader – which makes reading comprehension easier, and makes reading more enjoyable.

If a child can process language well enough to have good phonemic awareness, it is well worth taking the time to use phonics training to map the language you hear to the language you see.  Reading can then be automatic and on a brain scan, the activity is all in one place – efficient and effortless.  If you are not decoding, but rather using a variety of strategies, there is activity all over the brain – it’s inefficient and exhausting.

And so, no doubt, reading text mapped to oral word memory through phonics is ideal.

What the Sold a Story podcast doesn’t mention …

… is that many 1st graders don’t get phonics. it is not always a viable pathway to reading.  For them, phonics may as well be Russian. No matter how often they hear |bad| and |dad|, they can sound the same.  They can’t pick out the start |b| and |d| as different.  And so if they sound the same, you will not be able to learn |da| and |ba|, no matter how much you want to.

They cannot hear those minute differences in sounds because natural language is lightning fast, and more than likely, their language processing is not good enough.  Part of this is can be age – many children cannot process at natural language speed until they are seven years of age, which is why some countries do not start reading instruction until that age.  Phonics at an earlier age for these late developers is torture.

Another issue is a lack of stimulation at home. That includes not being read to regularly,  growing without much adult language around them or being growing up hearing a different language, e.g., an adopted baby or new immigrants where English is not spoken at home.

Uneven development of processing skills child to child and the subsequent difficulty with phonics is part of what prompted educators to look for alternative entries to reading.  This includes Reading Recovery, a different way to access the reading brain – a work around for undeveloped language processing skills. it was designed as an alternative to phonics for when phonics was not working.

Reading is Not Natural

It’s essential to understand how the human brain develops, a point the podcast handles well. Humans are hard-wired to speak and communicate. Children have several words in their vocabulary by 1 year old. Reading is different. Kids must be taught how to read, which, in turn, creates vital neural pathways.

Everything a child learns builds upon itself, a process called scaffolding.  

Flaws With the Reading Recovery Program

Teaching children this skill through Reading Recovery and cueing forges different pathways because it bypasses building a complete overlap between word memory (heard) and text.  The challenge for Reading Recovery is that it helps get around the language processing delays of young readers who struggle with phonemic awareness, but cueing can lead to an inefficient reading style.

Australia’s NSW Department of Education’s Centre for Education Statistics and Evaluation concluded in a 2015 report that Reading Recovery was efficacious for short-term teaching and not a solution for effective learning. It also suggested that the program could adversely affect struggling students.

Australian, New Zealand, and United States school districts soon started dropping their support for it.

Takeaways for Parents

The “Sold a Story” podcast is resonating because many parents have been a lot closer to their child’s learning progress and to their school’s teaching approach since the Pandemic, and have been surprised. And it’s true.  Fully 40% of children do not come to reading easily, and time away from school and a reading routine during the Pandemic did not help.

But phonics is a not a silver bullet.

Yes, sounding out words is far and away the most efficient foundation to becoming a lifetime reader.  But if your child hears |ba| and |da| as the same, phonics training is torture.

Help for Your Child

If your child is under 7 and has shown no signs of language delays – not speech delayed at 2, could rhyme at 3, has a vocabulary similar to his peers, it is probably wise to give your child time for his language processing skills to mature.  

If you are not sure, here are a few things to clues to look for at an early age. And here are some surprising clues of dyslexia.

If your child is 7 or older, struggled or is struggling with phonics and does not like to read, chances are there is a language processing delay.  This is where Gemm Learning can help. We use Fast ForWord to build the processing and related skills – to help phonics, then decoding, then reading with comprehension.

It’s an at home program managed remotely by Gemm Learning professionals.

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