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Tom Nicholson: Phonics helps kids to crack code

Professor Tom Nicholson is a specialist in children's literacy at Massey University's Institute of Education, Auckland campus.

Rules around spelling in English are not always easy to learn. 

Recently I gave a talk to parents about phonics. It was called “Zero to Hero”, and I explained that phonics could help children who struggle with reading and writing by showing them how to crack the code.

Modern phonics is about explaining the history of English and how our spelling became the way it is, that there is a system – even though sometimes it seems like madness. We can read and write more successfully if we understand how the spelling system works and that it is based on phonics.

Many parents I spoke to were worried.When I asked why they showed me examples of their children’s writing.

While the children’s spelling was definitely logical and sounded out quite similar to the real word, there were many errors, even for quite simple words to spell, that would be easy to correct if they knew more about phonics.

For example, one 10-year-old wrote: “We went to Echuca with my famly. We mist a week of school, yay! We do my favret sport warter sking. It is nice to be with famly. It is fun!”

This example is very familiar to researchers in this area. More than a third of our children are below national standards in writing and some of this is because of spelling.

Why is this happening? One complication is that spelling is low-status as a subject to teach. It is called a “surface” feature, which suggests it is mechanical, a skill, not important compared with “deep” features such as content and ideas.

Of course, you will never be a good writer if you do not have good ideas but if you can’t spell it is awfully hard to express those ideas in print.

A second complication is that many teachers are concerned about spelling but are not sure how best to teach it – phonics was not part of their training and they desperately would like to teach spelling better.

A third complication is the digital age, our students are growing up in a world of instant messaging using different platforms in which invented spelling hz bcum gr8.

Students are receiving contradictory messages: at school, correct spelling is normal; outside of school, texting, Snapchat, tweets are in abbreviated textspeak, and as long as it sounds right then this is also normal. The irony is that good spellers are also good at textspeak – they can move between the two.

Research shows that if they find even a few spelling errors in an essay a teacher’s rating of the work will drop substantially. A single spelling mistake can ruin the chance of a job when you send in an application.

In the workplace, a text message or email sent with a spelling mistake puts the sender and the company in a bad light.

Spelling is more important than ever. Yes, there are predictive spell-checkers, and this technology helps, but a lot of spelling mistakes slip through. Students who struggle with spelling are particularly on the back foot because the spell-check software is often not sure what they have written and can give a word they did not mean to say.

Phonics teaching does help tremendously with spelling because it teaches students rules. Phonics may not give complete accuracy but it usually puts you 90 per cent there in terms of accuracy; the last 10 per cent will come with lots of reading and writing practice.

And yet we do not capitalise on phonics as a teaching strategy. In most classrooms, students are given a list of words to learn on Monday and tested on Friday. Yes, many students will learn how to spell by this rote method but many will not.

I’m not saying that phonics is the whole answer but it is a fantastic foundation that children can build on to become great readers and spellers. A study in Scotland found that children taught intensive phonics in their first year of school were years ahead of a control group who had not received such intensive instruction when tested for reading and spelling in Year 7.

These results convinced the English government to change their teaching to intensive phonics. Each year, schools in England now have children sit a compulsory national phonics check and children’s skills are rapidly improving.

Australia is also looking at introducing a phonics check.

Do we really want Australia to beat us at spelling? This is not a pleasant prospect.

Phonics is a pathway to better spelling and writing and we are letting many of our little heroes become zeros by not teaching them this.

Source: NZ Herald


  1. I found your article backed up what we already know in ECE, however it would be great if you could use references in your articles or links so we can see the research and use this to justify our teaching practices. Kind regards Provisional teacher ECE

    • Thanks Josie. We have requested references from Dr Nicholson – will hopefully be able to post these soon.

  2. Here are references to the above article:

    1 Thomas, G., & Ward, J. (2010). National standards: School sample reporting and evaluation project, 2010. Wellington: Ministry of Education. http://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/publications

    2 Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Hebert, M. (2011). Is it more than just the message? Analysis of presentation effects in scoring writing. Focus on Exceptional Children, 44(4), 1-12.

    3 Wright, K. (2011, February 16). One spelling mistake and dreams of a nursing career may be shattered. Nursing Standard, 25(4), 32.

    4 Graham, S., Harris, K. R., & Fink-Chorzempa, B. F. (2002). Contribution of spelling instruction to the spelling, writing, and reading of poor spellers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 94, 669-686.

    5 Johnston, R. S., & Watson, J. E. (2005). The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling: A seven-year longitudinal study. Edinburgh: Scottish Education Department.


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