Teaching Children to Read: More than a half-cooked Jolly Phonics program. Reflections on Speech to Print by Louisa Moats

The debate over how to teach children how to read is ongoing. Whole Language advocates, who have found new life through Balanced Literacy, advocate learning to read through a largely implicit, incidental approach – a love of literature and learning; a language rich environment; and some multi-cueing is all that is required to help students learn to read. Phonics advocates, on the other hand, reject this approach in favour of explicitly teaching every student the particulars of English’s deep orthography systematically.

The debate should be over. There is evidence stretching back some 40 years which confirms students do not process language at the whole-word level but at the level of the phoneme. This was confirmed by Charles Perfetti who built on research done on the Van Orden Effect in response to Goodman’s claim that students read through a series of guesses he coined as the Psycholinguistic Guessing Game. Good readers pay attention to language structure; poor readers guess at words. Further evidence beyond the Reading Wars also calls Whole Language into question. An implicit approach like Whole Language is not suited to the transmission of biologically secondary knowledge. Biologically secondary knowledge is the information we receive from the environment which we have not evolved to process implicitly but must pay careful attention to acquiring. Reading must be explicitly taught as, contrasted with speech perception, it is biologically secondary. The debate should be over, yet it rages on.

Louisa Moats is one of the leading experts on the teaching of reading. Needless to say, she does not take too kindly to Whole Language (See here, here and here) and believes English’s language systems must be explicitly taught. The balanced approach promoted in most Education schools has suppressed access to learning of language structure:

“Textbooks on reading and literacy methods or typical reading instruction courses often exclude the particulars of language structure.” (page 2)

Her book, Speech to Print, seeks to be the missing foundation in teacher education by providing a thorough overview of English’s language systems and how these can be taught to primary aged children.

This is an outstanding textbook which should be required reading for all primary teachers. I am a passionate advocate for teacher knowledge and this book reaffirms my belief that all primary teachers require specialist – not generalist – knowledge to teach children how to read. Language is complex. Teaching children how to read is more than just a half-cooked Jolly Phonics program as part of a wider balanced-literacy approach. English has a deep orthography classified as morphophonemic – there are many nuances and tricky concepts related to its morphology and phonology which need to be learned in order to read effectively. This book will give teachers the knowledge needed to teach those tricky concepts in a systematic way. In her words:

“The teacher who understands language and how children are using it is more likely than others to impart clear, accurate and organised information about sounds, words, sentences, and discourse. He or she should be able to respond to student errors with helpful corrections and feedback and aim instructional activities to a purpose. Expert teaching of reading and writing is only possible when the teacher knows not just the meanings conveyed by language, but how language itself works.” (Page 2)

In my experience, this is especially true for those who struggle the most. Any teacher of early reading can relate to this: in a class for 20 children, there are perhaps 2-4 who really struggle. They find learning to read much more difficult than the others. This is where specialist knowledge comes into play. The students who struggle the most need teachers who know our language at specialist level otherwise they, like so many, are doomed to reading failure because they simply will not receive the support they need. So please; humble yourself; put the debate aside; buy a copy of this book; and begin your journey towards expertise.


This is the first in a series of post I plan to write on Louisa Moats’s book Speech to Print. 


Titles used to write this post:

Moats, L. (2010) Speech to Print.

Seidenberg (2017) Language at the Speed of Sight.




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