Podcast: How not to Teach Phonics (With Debbie Hepplewhite)

I speak with phonics guru, Debbie Hepplewhite, about common mistakes teachers make in teaching phonics. Not sure if you’ve been teaching reading right? Listen to find out what you might have been doing wrong…

Debbie currently gives phonics consultancy services internationally, including training in schools and universities and an online self-study course, Phonics Training Online. Debbie has written many articles for educational magazines and parents’ magazines, and for many years she has provided advice for parents, teachers, teacher-trainers, politicians, publishers, manufacturers and television program producers

How Not To Teach Phonics (With Debbie Hepplewhite) - Transcript


Ross Thorburn: Hi, and welcome back to the TEFL Training Institute Podcast. This week, our topic is how not to teach phonics. We have a real expert on that. That's Debbie Hepplewhite. She'll be telling us about some of the common mistakes that teachers make in teaching phonics.


Debbie's worked as a phonics consultant for Oxford University Press developing their "Oxford Reading Tree Floppy's Phonics Sounds and Letters" programme.


She's also the author of the online "Phonics International Programme" for all ages, and the author of the "No Nonsense Phonics Skills" programme published by Raintree, and the "Phonics and Talk Time" series. She's a wonderful speaker. She's a real authority on phonics.


I really hope you enjoy the interview as much as I enjoyed speaking to Debbie.



Ross: Debbie, I wanted to start off by asking you about one of the first big don'ts in teaching phonics which is the whole word approach. I think it's something that generally frowned upon.


Are there any times when you think it is useful for teachers to teach using a whole word approach? That's like helping students to recognize words as whole blocks rather than using the phonics approach to decode the sounds.


Are there any context, maybe, where you think that might work? For example, in Japan or China where students maybe are used to using that approach of memorization to learn to read in their first language.


Debbie Hepplewhite: Fantastic question, and I can't give you all the answers, because what's really clear to me from the Chinese people I've met and from learning about teaching English in China is that there is a capacity for Chinese children to try to memorize whole printed words as if it's a global shape.


In a way, they may be able to do in a more superior way than children who aren't taught at all they have an alphabetic system.


Think about it. You've already said languages got thousands of words. It has. The English spoken language has got thousands and thousands of words. You imagine the diet of introducing a large number of printed English words and trying to teach the children to recognize the word shape day in and day out.


It's a horrendous logistical exercise. Also, so many of the printed words looks similar to other printed words. Even if you've got, more or less, a certain word, but then you brought in a similar shape, similar size word, how is that learner to discern? The sheer feat of trying to learn hundreds to thousands of words as whole words is mind-boggling.


What I'm suggesting is that even in this Chinese situation, bringing a good content-rich phonics program, and also at the same time you're teaching the spoken language, because they've got to take on the spoken language, and you can teach the spoken language with no print.


We know the method. The children come into school in the morning. You use a common greeting. You might say, "How are you today?" You might talk about what the weather is like. You might talk about family members. You might talk about items around the room.


All of those things can be done without print, because you're teaching the spoken language. Then when you're teaching the print side of it, I highly recommend that you try a content-rich phonics program to do that, to run parallel with the spoken language.


Ross: You can see in China, for example. It takes students so long to learn to read here in the first language. If there's any shortcuts, I guess why don't use them. Anyway, mini whiteboards, I wanted to ask you about these.


Mini whiteboards seem to be quite common in phonics teaching. I've seen teachers use them in second language learning programs as well. Can you tell us a bit about some typical activities that teachers do with mini whiteboards? How useful are those?


Debbie: I'm actually against mini whiteboards in that they are overused or not used in a fit for purpose way. There is a role for mini whiteboards for some of the phonics activities and the main activities. There's two main activities.


Sometimes, early phonics work or early phonics program uses magnetic letters or little piece of magnetic tiles with the letter printed on. They can be useful for changing the patterns of the letters to do some early manipulation work.


You give children sounds and they can point to the letter, or you give them a simple word and get them to identify the sounds and select the letters for spelling.


It's quite a good thing for early spelling. It's also good for whole group and whole class work for quick fire, show me activities. The teacher can say a sound. The child writes down the letter or a letter group and holds up the mini whiteboard. At a glance, the teacher can see the whole class.


The teacher might give a spoken word and the children have to identify the sounds, write down the word and then show the teacher. In that respect, it can be fit for purpose.


However, a lot of phonics work is just only mini whiteboard work, so children aren't each getting a bank of printed words for each child to practice his or her own sounding out and blending, and engaging with their own work and ticking what they know and circling what they don't know or they're not sure of.


One of the things I heavily promote is that your phonic program, your provision needs to include banks of printed words for children to practice with that they can interact with. They can draw the cat on there, the dog, the ship, the jet.


Teachers can have something tangible to see what the child can do, and that can be shared with parents at home or other teachers in the setting. If a child needs intervention which can be more little and often, you've got a printed work there.


In that phonics teaching and learning cycle, when you go on to sentence level or text level work, each child needs that in a printed format to be able to look through to technically try and say the sounds and say what the sentence is. You know, what the sentences are.


Then you can work with that print, so now let's do the meaning making. When you understand what the meaning is, you can draw a picture.


I don't understand how you can give high quality phonics provision without print and for the core resources to be for each child making the print tangible and the sense of their own learning tangible. If phonics is all mini whiteboard work, it all gets wiped off. There's nothing to show. There's nothing to repeat.


You can't repeat it at home. You can't show off at home with it. You're right. I spent a lot of time talking about mini whiteboards to say to teachers identify when it's fit for purpose to use them, and when it's not fit for purpose. Good phonics provision needs, at least, some core resources ready printed.




Ross: I also heard, Debbie, you talk about the parachute game. It's another infinite game for teaching phonics, isn't it? What are some of the issues with that game in particular? In general, how can teachers decide when they're teaching phonics what activities are useful and which ones are less useful?


Debbie: There's several issues with this, because we're very mindful that often phonics provision starts with very young children, and people identify young children with needing games and activities to engage them that are age appropriate.


One thing that's concerning about that is the idea that children won't enjoy working on paper, with paper, with print, and doing their own work. That's associated in many people's minds with formal teaching learning, or Draconian, or Victorian, or old fashioned, or for older children.


I'd like to disavow people of that understanding because I have found and other people have found that when you give children their own work and their own phonics book or phonics folder, they absolutely thrive on it. That's one thing.


The other thing is when Sir Jim Rose did a review of phonics provision back in 2006 in the UK context. What he said when he wrote about it was we can do real great multisensory things with these young beginners, but be careful that the activities aren't, what he called, extraneous.


In other words, they are so convoluted or so time-consuming that the core learning is lost because the activity becomes bigger than the phonics learning.


With that parachute, that was me doing a very challenging speech at a Reading Reform Foundation Conference. What we were pointing out was one that the commentator of the video that that was taken from was saying that children are not turned off by that kind of activity.


That's the first thing we need to challenge, because I have just explained that they're neither turned off by sitting down with paper doing their own activities. That was really a bad steer for teachers.


When you actually examined what we call the phonics parachute game, where the children are sitting round the circle of the big parachute, and they have to flip it up to get to some toys, to get to a spoken word, to be able to spell it on their mini whiteboards.


In reality, it was neither a good active team work parachute game nor was it a good content-rich, fit for purpose, phonics activity. It didn't touch either spot.


In reality, the children were sitting on the playground a lot waiting to take a turn and may never got round to having their own turn to get a toy, because there were so many children to get round.


What we needed to challenge was the idea that you need to dress phonics up with a fluffy activity, and two, teachers need to be able to evaluate what it's covered in the lesson, because when I go into schools I observe a lot of very shallow lessons.


It's not that children aren't learning, because they definitely are, but they're not learning nearly as much as they could. There is a lot to learn when we do literacy, foundational literacy.


Teachers need to examine their own mindset about any prejudices or preconceived ideas they might have about what little children will enjoy, their capacity for learning. Then we need to evaluate our practices.


By now, so many people have invested a lot of money in phonics games and activities, maybe card games, maybe an interactive whiteboard game. What I try to say to people is view those as enrichment outside of the main phonics lesson.


As long as you are doing a very rich phonics lesson as your discrete phonics lesson, of course you can supplement that or complement that with any amount of phonics games and activities, but be aware of what is core and what is additional.


Ross: You've done teacher training for phonics all over the world. What do you find that maybe are some of the challenges in training teachers to teach phonics and maybe some mindsets that teachers have that maybe prevent them from teaching phonics in a more effective way?


Debbie: When I've done teacher training in other countries, I find great differences in whether the teacher passionately believes that in English lessons you should only ever speak English. You should never resort in mother tongue.


I know that works well in scenarios when you get the children very young, so it's not as stressful perhaps to start to introduce the small bits of speech in the English language.


I would suggest that the older children get it and just have been speaking in their mother tongue that is actually more stressful to go into a scenario where the teacher is suddenly only speaking in that new language with no explanations in mother tongue.


I personally think that when you get older children, teachers should feel comfortable to depend to mother tongue for explanations and almost why wouldn't you to make things clear. [laughs]


Always we have to look at the context of the country, the language, the age of the children, but we should never ever get away from the fact that the more knowledgeable the teacher is the better supported the teacher is with supportive materials for teaching and for learning.


The more you're working from the language itself, the complexities, but also the understanding that we need to drip feed information. We need to repeat information and not presume too much, the better job we'll do of teaching English as a second language.


Ross: One more time, everyone that was Debbie Hepplewhite. Debbie, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us. If you're interested in finding out more about Debbie, checking out lots of great free resources that she has, please go onto her website. It's www.syntheticphonics.com. I hope you've enjoyed the interview, and see you again next time.