Is reading like riding a bike?


Ride a bike

I’ve been following the ongoing phonics debate in Australia with interest. Many parents are calling for the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) and state Education Ministers are opposing it. Is phonics a panacea?

Introduced in 2012, can we categorically say the PSC has been a success?

Children are still failing to learn to read, even some who ‘pass’ the PSC. Part of the issue seems to me, that schools see the PSC as a hoop to be jumped through, rather than an opportunity to reflect on, and improve, phonics teaching for reading.

Non words are part of the PSC and these are intended to be used to assess decoding ability, using phonics knowledge alone (the look and meaning of the word cannot be used). Assessors for dyslexia use such measures to ascertain whether students have a ‘phonological deficit’. With the explicit teaching of these words in schools, these assessment batteries become less effective.

Many schools teach students to read non words, which is short-sighted as it masks those at risk. Studies also show that the first time a student sees a new word has the biggest impact – how confusing to be taught to read phonetically plausible pseudo-words!

Could the PSC be integrated as a useful screening check for those at risk of dyslexia and reading failure: yes.

Is it used for this purpose in the UK? I think not (too much effort is put into ‘passing’ it). This is about data and not nurturing a love of reading. What message does it give to children about reading?

Children might ‘pass’ the test but still not be ‘readers’. In addition, it is unclear what happens next for those who fail.

There have been numerous studies carried out into reading in the UK and worldwide. In analysing the minutiae of reading: the nuts and bolts, are we somehow missing the Big Picture?

One of the best known signs of dyslexia is reading failure. When analysing statistics, it is important to remember there are many variables: not just the method but the child and the environment; including home, school and importantly, the teacher.

In a large scale study of the effectiveness of intervention schemes, Greg Brooks found that no particular one stood out significantly in terms of impact. However, the teacher is key, see the report here: What works for literacy difficulties.

Teachers need to have an awareness of different strategies when teaching reading but also an understanding of the emotional consequences of reading ‘failure’.

  • Is reading a bit like swimming?

I stumbled across a powerful description of the reading process which likened it to swimming (read the blog here). This analogy stayed with me.

Reading is not just about phonics or whole word strategies, it is not just about practice or whether there is a culture of reading at home. All of these things are factors; however, it seems to me that reading is a lot like the other physical childhood accomplishments which require co-ordination: swimming and cycling; instruction is required, but these are also physical acts, ability to experience success can be affected by attitude, our emotional responses and physical readiness.

Before studying dyslexia, I taught reading to those children who had lost faith in their ability, some may have been dyslexic. One would feel physically sick when he tried to read, another could not sit still. Many had physical and emotional responses to reading, no doubt they had had negative experiences in the past. They had some phonics, they had some ‘whole word’ knowledge but trying to read made them highly anxious, confused, sometimes angry or just plain weary.

It made me think of how we taught our sons to cycle. We took the pedals off the bikes and found a hill; they got balance and a feel for the movement. When they had the balance, we put the pedals back on; they cycled independently – very wobbly at first!

Some children need a similar approach when learning to read; a helping hand and some encouragement, in order to provide a sense that it is all within their grasp. The support needs to be provided and withdrawn subtly, so that the child is barely aware of it and almost feels that they did it ‘on their own.’

The next minute, they’re off! The sheer joy of freedom and independence.

Many years on and, despite the Phonics Screening Check in the UK, some children are still not learning to read. I hope parents in Australia aren’t expecting too much from it. Used to screen for children ‘at risk’ of reading failure and to reflect on teaching practice, the PSC could be a powerful tool.


Is the book something they WANT to read, are they slavishly restricted to particular book bands?

Try using picture books, poems, magazines, signs, logos – any form of written word.

To help children on their way, they need to learn to ‘coast’ when reading, through paired and shared activities. Phonics needs to be taught along with enjoyment of reading and other skills, such as inference and prediction. Interventions such as Reading Recovery can feel highly pressured. In fact, any intervention can make the child feel they need ‘fixing’, are defective, make them feel scrutinised.

Remember, fiction is imagining, factual books are connecting ideas. Reading is not just words/data on a page, it changes and illuminates our brain and thinking.

It’s a complicated process but eventually readers take off and they don’t look back!

Phonics is a good start but perhaps not the panacea many would have us believe.


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