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Phonics is choice for NZ primary schools

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What is old has become new again as New Zealand primary schools pivot towards phonics and away from the whole language approach.

New Zealand primary schools have neglected phonics over the past decades, says Prof James Chapman of Massey University who conducted research into English teaching in the country, but now most school were using phonics to some degree.

Many are using a hybrid approach, employing phonics alongside other strategies which will. hopefully improve the literacy levels of New Zealand children, which lag those of Australia and other countries in international tests.

For a real impact to be made teachers needed to be trained in the use of phonics.

“Before teachers are able to teach children to read or to develop the foundation skills for learning to read, it is important they be not only knowledgeable about the code of written and spoken English, but also have knowledge of research-based instructional procedures.

“Teachers deserve significantly more support to upskill their knowledge and skills of literacy instruction, based on contemporary research.”

Chapman says the country’s education system has favoured a 'whole language' approach, which teaches children to learn new words based on context: for example, by encouraging them to guess a word in the book they’re reading based on the story, pictures, or words around it.

Prof Chapman and his co-authors found that 90% of the 666 junior school teachers they surveyed from across New Zealand said their schools now use phonics when teaching children to read. A large portion of the teachers (68%) reported that phonics was used daily as part of every literacy lesson.

Most teachers contacted were high on phonics; “I just feel that children that know the sounds are better readers with more confidence than the children that don't,” said one teacher. When asked about disadvantages, many said that “phonics in isolation was a problem and that phonics needed to be fully integrated with a range of reading strategies.”

Chapman says that phonics and related methods are essential for early readers, as they help kids make the basic links between sounds and letters.

Fifty-five teachers were surveyed twice, to test their knowledge in four areas important to teaching phonics and to assess their beliefs about their literacy teaching skills; and to see what verbal responses they would use to help children overcome common reading errors.

Most of the teachers felt they had “moderate to very good levels of literacy teaching skills”. In the test of their knowledge, their average score was good in two areas. But they struggled in the two more difficult areas. (Collectively, they scored 89% and 70% for phonological and phonemic knowledge; for phonic and morphological knowledge, 54% and 53%).

In the survey on responses to student errors, 40% of teachers’ first responses focused on helping kids decipher individual words; for example, “Let’s see if looking at the chunks in the word can help.” 45% focused on using context for clues (“Does the word you read match the picture?”). 15% gave no useful information (“Try that again.”)

Chapman says the approach most suited to beginning readers and to phonics instruction is a focus on individual words.

Curriculums in New Zealand still favour the whole language approach, he says. The book series usually used to teach reading, for instance, is still based on this model. He says this makes the books unsuited to teaching phonics, and suggests replacing them with “more appropriate texts.”


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