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Phonics Denialism and Rational Debate

January 3, 2014

Every so often somebody challenges me for using the term “phonics denialist” to describe people who deny the evidence on phonics. The objection is normally one of the following:

  1. It’s an insult.
  2. It’s an ad hominem argument.
  3. It’s unfair to use it to describe people who claim to accept some use of phonics (but ignore the evidence).

Part of the reason I use the term is that it would be unwieldy, particularly on twitter, to write out “people who deny the evidence on phonics” every single time I refer to people who deny the evidence on phonics. This would be worse, if one was to take the last point seriously and write out “people who deny the evidence on phonics but accept some use of phonics” every time. I have a similar dilemma on Twitter (or when writing the title for a blogpost) if I find that “advocates of progressive education methods” won’t really fit but “trendies” will.

Now, as I say, I don’t really think that the third point is a serious one. Anyone can pay lip service to some use of phonics while at the same time arguing against what the evidence shows to be the most effective methods or pushing for a lot of time to be spent on ineffective methods. The anti-phonics position has become so discredited that even those with the most extreme anti-phonics views will usually (when challenged) make some comment about “I’m not against phonics per se” when asked to explain why they are arguing again phonics. I see no point reserving the term “phonics denialist” for those (probably now mythical) people who deny everything about phonics even when pushed, rather than using it for all of those who deny the evidence on phonics.

As for the second point, I think it shows some confusion about what an ad hominem argument is. An ad hominem argument is one which suggests we reject an argument on the basis of who makes it. I have never suggested we reject phonics denialism because it is believed by phonics denialists, only because it is wrong. This contrasts with those who suggest that anything I say about phonics be ignored because I am not a teacher of early reading, merely somebody who read up on the evidence.

So that just leaves the point about whether it is insulting. The usual argument is that because “denialist” is used to describe those with extreme anti-evidence views, like climate-change denial or holocaust denial, then this is an attempt to smear those who deny the evidence on phonics by association. I have never accepted this argument because I think that the negative connotations of  being a denialist depend on what you are denying. I have no problem with being labelled a “phrenology denialist”, or a “homeopathy denialist”. Saying that you deny something only seems insulting when the beliefs you are denying are actually reputable and evidence-based. For that matter, I don’t need to go into the extremes of pseudo-science to find beliefs for which I don’t mind being considered a “denialist”. You can also count me as a “monetarism denialist” and a “Buddhism denialist” if you like. I don’t mind being credited with denying stuff, I do it a lot. I don’t think that “denialist” is a synonym for “crank” and I don’t use it that way.

That said, I do think the arguments used by phonics denialists are simply terrible, so terrible, that I do wonder how comparison with, say, climate change denialism could be considered unfair. Two recent examples stick in my mind. The first was actually in a pamphlet published by The Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. Here’s the key argument:

In this short book I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation. I show that if any schools were actually implementing such strategies, the adults responsible would have abdicated their role as teachers. In reality, implementations of SP in any one school will not and should not precisely resemble those in other schools and in any case, current research into SP ‘effectiveness’ is not informed by a detailed blow by blow description of what actually happens in the classrooms concerned. Hence, it is never really made clear what the research is actually investigating. If teachers are actually teaching, there will be and should be nothing common to all SP programmes. The effects of drugs or fertilisilisers can, of course, be investigated using orthodox scientific methodologies, but we lack the equivalent here in terms of teaching approaches.

Now, the limits of scientific methods to isolate and evaluate what happens in the classroom is a real issue. I’m certainly sceptical about a lot of education research for that reason. However, the claim that we could never, even in theory, objectively evaluate a teaching method is as extreme a denial of science as anything you will hear from homeopaths or creationists (who are also often prone to claim that science cannot hope judge their claims). The claim that all the research in an entire field (not just the hundreds of studies on phonics, because this argument applies equally to all teaching methods) is a particularly extreme one. It entails that all those who have conducted empirical research in teaching methods were mistaken, and all those who found statistically significant results were deluded. Not only that, but if they were to test more extreme cases, say the efficacy of teaching by telepathy, their results would still be invalid and teachers would be fully entitled to teach telepathically. To dismiss empirical research on this scale is as extreme as dismissing all the evidence of climate change, in fact it is pretty much the same argument, that we cannot aggregate data, that climate change denialists use.

As a note, I should probably add that the defence could be made that the author, despite using an argument that could be applied to all research into teaching methods, actually meant to treat phonics as a special case; that it is only in the case of phonics or perhaps synthetic phonics specifically that researchers would have no idea what method was being used. But if it is inherently impossible to identify the teaching methods used as phonics, or synthetic phonics, why write a pamphlet condemning a policy encouraging synthetic phonics? If the teaching method is indistinguishable from other methods, it cannot possibly be enforced. The policy would be meaningless, and can safely be ignored. The argument assumes the very thing that would make the argument irrelevant. You cannot oppose the imposition of a teaching method by arguing that there is no method being imposed.

The second argument, was in a recent blogpost. It is, as follows:

The combination of letters in a word makes a shape on a page. A totally unique shape. Indeed, more than that, the words in a sentence make a shape on a page as well. I did a lot of dance and art as a child: these disciplines taught me to make patterns and to move around a space. I can spell because I can see if a word looks wrong on a page. I can speed read because I know words by their shape. I don’t need to sound words out to understand them. The sense is there, even without the sound. When I write, my aim is to weave shape, as well as sound.

Yes, this is the argument that, if it seems like we read using the shape of the letters, not their corresponding sounds, then that must be the case. Now, as extremely bad arguments goes, “what seems to be the case must be the case” is a particularly bad one. The earth does appear to be flat. The sun does appear to go round the earth. It is not that we are always mistaken in our perceptions, but that sometimes an objective examination shows them to be incorrect. This is such a case, and studies that show a strong correlation between our awareness of phonemes and our ability to read (and even comprehend) have been abundant since at least the 60s. (Actually, even just a bit more thought might identify the problems with the claim, after all it is pretty easy to think of examples of words people struggle to spell because of the way letters correspond to phonemes rather than the shape of the words.) In this case we have an argument that is, literally, the same one flat-earthers would use. Yet I’m sure any comparison between phonics denialism and the belief the earth is flat would be seen as an insult, yet the argument is the same.

Again, as a note, I’d better anticipate the obvious wriggle over this. It might be claimed that the above claim about reading from the shape of words wasn’t meant to be used as an argument against phonics. Fortunately, the intentions of the author are stated even more clearly on her Twitter feed (SSP is the usual abbreviation for Systematic Synthetic Phonics, i.e. the method of teaching reading best supported by the evidence).

Screenshot 2014-01-03 at 10.50.21

Now I do not mean to be insulting. I really don’t. But just as the arguments of phonics denialists are so poor that we do not have to be teachers of reading ourselves to see how poor they are, they are also so poor that it is hard not to describe what is wrong with them without the risk of causing offence and being accused of insults. I will try not to offend, but if people don’t want to be labelled with words like “denialist” then it really would be a good idea to avoid using arguments so flawed that the choice of “denialist” (over, say, “crank”) actually seems like a compliment. It would also help, if instead of getting angry at me when they read this, those in the phonics denialist camp at least admitted that the two arguments identified here are really weak arguments that should not be used to make their case without opening them up to comparisons they may find unflattering and distanced themselves from those arguments.

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125 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Primary Blogging.


  2. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  3. Seeing as you mention me in your blog post I felt it would only be polite to respond. I tweeted about the SPP thing because those people always descend on me when I write about this subject, and I’d like them to understand that just because one method is efficient for the majority, that doesn’t mean it works well for every single person. Also that there are always the dangers of ‘unintended consequences’ when you select a single method that ‘will work’.

    The ‘sounding out words’ thing is I believe a valid issue about the longer term impact of learning to read through solely phonic approaches. Will it impact on speed reading and other aspects later on? Perhaps the science has proved that it will not, and yet some people tell me they are slow readers – to become a fast reader you need to unlearn the strategy of sounding words out.

    It is to be honest a bit freaky to me (that’s a lovely looking word) that you reply by blog, selecting specific tweets to make your point rather than quoting the longer in depth discussions I have with people such as Peter Blenkinsop. You seem to want to ‘close off’ any possibility that there are people who read in different ways. I cannot deny how my brain works, I suspect perhaps I have a touch of synaesthesia.

    p.s. I find your blog posts very very hard to read because of the size and font you use, they hurt my eyes/brain so I tend to skim/speed read rather than savouring every word.


    • I picked the tweets in case anyone denied that you were making any claim about teaching methods. Which you promptly did anyway.


    • ‘I find your blog posts very very hard to read because of the size and font you use, they hurt my eyes/brain so I tend to skim/speed read rather than savouring every word.’

      Poor lambkin. Your eyesight is clearly as feeble as it was when fooling you into thinking that you could see whole words without needing to know how to sound them out.


      • Just a reminder, I don’t tend to publish comments that are insulting. That one’s as far as I’m prepared to go.


      • Actually, the point Sue is making is that more proficient learners use a range of techniques beyond phonic decoding.

        Also, reading from the shape of words is useful method for some dysexlics. I think the latest research using near infrared spectroscopy shows various neural networks in play in different brains in early reading.

        Also, the tone of the above post is condescending and offensive. Is there any need?


        • “Actually, the point Sue is making is that more proficient learners use a range of techniques beyond phonic decoding.”

          No, I don’t think that’s true.

          “Also, reading from the shape of words is useful method for some dysexlics.”

          I don’t think that’s true either.

          “I think the latest research using near infrared spectroscopy shows various neural networks in play in different brains in early reading.”

          So?

          “Also, the tone of the above post is condescending and offensive. Is there any need?”

          I suppose the objection to tone was inevitable. I don’t really know a polite way to point out that people are using really bad argument to argue for something which is already firmly established to be wrong.


          • The world record for speed reading is 7500 wpm with 67% comprehension. Persistence of vision means we have about 1/25th of a second between “frames”. In that time, 5 words are processed so we are then breaking those words down into their phonemes and saying them in our head faster than anyone could intelligibly hear anything. Try saying 5 words to yourself in a second never mind 1/25th of a second. Now take a language like Chinese. There are no phonemes so presumably the Chinese link the pattern to a remembered sound – or perhaps an image or both. Could someone say in simple terms why the research is consistent with these apparent anomalies? I’m not disputing that phonics could well be the most effective method for new readers to get started so let’s put that to bed before we go further. I am questioning the evidence that no matter how quickly we read we are always decoding each word phonically. Another situation that brings this into question is a piece of software called Rapid Reader which plays words one at a time like a film. The claim is that speeds of 1600 wpm can be achieved very quickly ie without much practise. That fits well with the persistence of vision calculation because it is about the limit of the time it take for our eye to refresh the image on the retina. That would be a phonic decoding of a word every 1/25th of a second – better than 5 words in 1/25th of a second but still doesn’t seem that phonic decoding could work because we have never had any experience of audio decoding that quickly. The sound wave modulation for the word would not work because compressing saying a word into 1/25th of a second would make it unintelligible. Now you might say we can see in the brain, the same bits being stimulated as when saying the word phonically but even so it wouldn’t explain how people read Chinese. So if the same things happen when reading Chinese its something other than phonic decoding of the letters in the word. It might for example be the mind pronouncing the word from its shape and image. Has anyone actually done that experiment?


          • Response to Ian Lynch: if you don’t know much about Chinese, please don’t drag it in as a prop for your argument.


          • Ok, ignore the Chinese and explain to me how speed reading works? I thought the idea was that teachers try and help people understand stuff when they ask questions. Seems people here are more interested in putting people down and then wonder why there is resistance to change. As I have said I’m quite open to accepting stuff if it makes sense and that is the reason to ask questions. To learn more. Seems you don’t want anyone to learn anything just accept everything on face value as received wisdom. To me that’s bad science and even worse science education.


          • btw, I found this

            https://usat.ms/media/cms_page_media/10/ENG064-Phonics_for_EFL_Chinese_Learners.pdf

            Good explanation of why EFL teachers should use phonics for teaching native Chinese people to read English. Seems to suggest that Chinese readers don’t learn to read in the same way as English readers which is interesting. Also makes the distinction between those learning to read initially and those that are fluent.


          • Surely a speed reader is not reading anything like every word so the stat doesn’t seem very relevant and I’m not sure why you presume decoding (rather than reading word shape) requires subvocalisation.


          • Problem is as much one of communication as anything else. There is an assumption that others perceive the proposition in the same easy as the proposer. It’s obvious they don’t. So an increasingly vindictive argument ensues. Each sside becomes more entrenched in its position. Doesn’t seem a good scenario to achieve progress.


          • It’s all true, cuz. I’m just a teacher, what would I know, you get me.

            Read “Reading Comprehension Requres Knowledge – of Words and the World” (Hirsch, 2003). It explores skills above and beyond phonic decoding that are essential for advanced reading.

            A child may be the bee’s knees at phonic decoding, but if they do not know what a word means, what good will it do them, you get me.

            “Poor lambkin. Your eyesight is clearly as feeble as it was when …” This is offensive because it pokes fun at apparent disability.

            This is not on, you get me.


  4. Well done. You construct two straw men to represent the anti-phonics debate and proceed to beat then down.


    • Nice of Andrew Davis and Sue Cowley to assist in promoting those straw men for me.


      • You create the straw men by editing Sue’s original comment and by equating the alternative to your own opinion with a “denial of science”.

        While your blog is unteresting and well written in parts, this post ignores how different people learn to read. I’m surprised that a one size fits all approach can be seriously considered today. The phonics approach may be useless for dyslexic learners who number as many as one in ten, according to some sources.


        • Some irony there, in the accusation of editing, in that Sue Cowley actually complained on Twitter that I might have violated her copyright by quoting as much of her argument as I did. Anyway, the link is there so we can follow it and see I have not edited out anything important. I’m not sure why you’d claim that I did.


  5. I wonder how Sue Cowley works out how to pronounce a new word? Or, if she knows any foreign language with different phoneme values, knows how to pronounce those words correctly?

    Just sayin’


  6. There are two points here which I find distasteful – firstly to attack a person is wrong – your reaction to personal attacks, such as you level at Sue, is always extreme – why do the same? I sense the photo “revealing” identity may be something to do with it. There are now a few trolls attacking her – this should be withdrawn.

    You attack Budhism – what does that achieve?

    This doesn’t address the main point you make as initial reading should be taught through phonics.


    • I have not attacked Buddhism. I only said I didn’t believe in it. I have also been very careful not to attack people. I certainly haven’t attacked Sue Cowley, just her argument. It’s never a good sign when people try to interpret all disagreement as a personal attack.


  7. You create the straw men by editing Sue’s original comment and by equating the alternative to your own opinion with a “denial of science”.

    While your blog is interesting and well written in parts, this post ignores how different people learn to read. I’m surprised that a one size fits all approach can be seriously considered today.

    The phonics approach may be useless for dyslexic learners who number as many as one in ten, according to some sources.


    • “The phonics approach may be useless for dyslexic learners who number as many as one in ten, according to some sources.”

      It had to happen, I suppose.

      Until ‘phonics’ became the official guidelines for teaching children to read it was the province of a few stalwart ‘mixed-methods’ denialists and the ‘Specialist dyslexia teaching’ contingent. PHONICs; as recommended by the father of dyslexia research, Samuel Orton and promulgated by the Orton-Gillingham teaching programme since, I beleive, the 1930s(not the best phonics programme in the world but better than Look & Say).

      Now that ‘phonics’ is manistream we suddenly have people claiming that dyslexics can’t learn to read with phonics.

      Do you actually know what you are talking about, deserter?


      • Do I know what I’m talking about?

        Not at all.

        But then I thought speaking without academic authority was in tune with the ethos of this blog.


        • It’s not your lack of academic authority that’s the problem, the problem is that you are completely wrong and don’t seem to care.


  8. Many children do learn to read well using synthetic phonics, there is no denying this fact.

    However, the same children are also terrible spellers because they rely on phonics for writing too. Here are just a few of the Year 5 phonics based spelling mistakes that I regularly correct: tern, furst, heer, thay, verry, glars, offis, frend, infomashun, pichur, liberry, senter, rounderbout, circal, squair, triangel, coudent. It is almost impossible to teach children to correct their own work without teaching whole word recognition (the ability to look at a word and know that it is incorrect) – no doubt a skill you used when you read those incorrect spellings.

    What do you suggest KS2 teachers do to remedy poor spelling because of an over-reliance on phonics: which I am sure you would wish us to do so that children are ‘secondary school ready’?


    • Learning to read with phonics does not mean children should guess how to spell. The problems you describe stem from kids simply not being taught how to spell. If a child has not had much teaching in spelling they have no choice but to guess the spelling of words.
      If you don’t take time to focus on spelling kids will spell badly. If they have some phonological awareness then ‘tight’ may be guessed to be spelt ‘tite’. If they have poor phonics it may be guessed as ‘tihgt’ Either way they simply can’t spell and need to be taught.


      • The problem is that the teaching of phonics for reading is given more prominence in KS1 than the teaching of spelling – spelling is seen as something that KS2 teachers will sort out.

        I assume you are a primary school teacher, hence your knowledge of phonics and spelling and how it should be taught. I wonder if you might like to share with us the spelling strategies that you use in your classroom.


        • I thought from your first comment that you were arguing that there was something innate within phonics that means it can be a hindrance to kid’s spelling but in your second comment you seem to be saying it is just a time issue – but then I’m not sure why you pick on teaching reading through phonics as the reason that spelling has been sidelined especially because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.
          I am a parent (and secondary teacher) whose eldest daughter was taught at a school where the new head decided that reading with phonics was not ‘real reading’. The school also believed that a strong focus on spelling hindered kids creative writing. This attitude seems incredibly widespread and I am sure it does make life very difficult for KS2 teachers who have to deal with kids who can’t spell. When my daughter moved school in yr3 her spelling was atrocious and we had to pick up the pieces. Her new school gave her an excellent phonics based spelling course (Apples and Pears, published by the Promethean Trust). It did the trick as she had no actual learning difficulties but you can imagine that I did not appreciate having to do remedial after school work to make up for previous neglect.


          • “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.” Sweeping statement – evidence please.


          • Is not the experience of one child in one primary school evidence enough?


          • In reply to the two comments below… I don’t understand. Papaalpha says he is really concerned about the spelling of his KS2 kids and says not enough time is spent on spelling at KS1. However, when I relate my own experience (because it was requested) that suggests agreement – that there is a problem with time devoted to spelling – I am suddenly unrepresentative. Were you just making it up when you said not enough time was spent on spelling (as I also found) or do you agree?
            Just to clarify, no, I wouldn’t choose to make sweeping statements based purely on my own experience with one child. My experience does extend well beyond the schooling of my own children and suggests there is a problem with the priority given to spelling. Chris, if you don’t agree with my impression, fine, but do ask Papaalpha for his evidence. He also claimed there was a big problem with spelling at KS2 caused by lack of focus on spelling at KS1.


          • Your statement “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.” Implied that you had evidence – can we assume that your evidence for this statement is based on your teaching experience and the schooling of your own children?


    • Again, the evidence that phonics knowledge is positively correlated with spelling goes back more than 5 decades. Phonics allows a child to make an informed guess at a spelling they don’t know. I really don’t understand why anyone would think an uninformed guess would be better.


  9. I’m confused. I learned to read in the late 1970s with a look and say approach (largely with Peter and Jane). I was not exposed to any phonics methods at all and yet I read fluently. How is this possible?


    • It is quite possible to learn something using a less effective method, even a method based on assumptions which have been disproven. What is clear is that if we use a method that is based on correct assumptions about how children read then more children will become fluent readers.


      • I’d be interested to know more about these correct and disproven assumptions. Can you point me in the direction of any independent research findings? Thanks.


        • Blimey – where do you start? Maybe a bit of Stanovich…

          http://www.keithstanovich.com/Site/Research_on_Reading.html

          He set out to find evidence for the whole word assumptions about reading prevalent in the 1970s but his research turned out to be central to disproving these theories.


  10. It is unclear to me exactly what the term “phonics denialist” means.

    Is it correct that “the research shows” that systematic synthetic phonics should be used on it’ own as a first approach to learning to read for non readers and once phonics is mastered other methods should be used.

    Is it correct that a “phonics demialist” is one that denies that the research proves the above.

    I see some argue that phonics should be used along with other methods simultaneously, i believe to develop decoding and understanding (attributing meaning). Is this phonics denialism?

    This one seems to run and run. Can anyone point me in the direction of a short summary of the arguments for an against and a recommendation for the use of SSP that will enable me to understand the different views and the term “phoncs denialist”.


    • Once phonics is mastered you really don’t need any other strategies for reading. If you’re going to talk about things like ski,mming and scanning that’s fine, but ‘other strategies’ in the phonics debate *always* refers to guessing words from pictures and context. Why anyone should want to cling to these is a mystery to me.


      • > Once phonics is mastered you really don’t need any other strategies for reading.

        That’s not even true while children are being taught phonics – they start off by learning the common tricky words that don’t fit phonic patterns. Moreover, without interpreting the whole meaning of the text, you can’t read heteronyms such as lead, minute, bass, bow, tear and wind from phonics alone. Did you close the door? Or are you close to the door? Phonics will not answer that for you.


        • There is no such thing as words that ‘don’t fit phonic patterns’ because our writing system is sound to symbol. The nature of our writing system means you can decode all words, as all words represent groups of sounds. including those you suggest. However, comprehension of decoded words can require context. You might choose to provide reading practice that mainly has simpler words which are easy to decode but it is standard practice to gradually increase the difficulty of reading books.


          • Of course there’s no such thing as words that ‘don’t fit phonic patterns’ if you have a sufficiently large set of rules – Godfrey Dewey in 1970 listed 561 ways that 41 English sounds could be spelled!

            Don’t get me wrong, I value phonics, but they are not the only tool used when learning to read.


        • 1) Children may well be taught ‘tricky words’ (they are taught them as decodable but with a ‘tricky bit’) BUT it isn’t actually necessary to teach those words at an early stage. They have become a ‘normal’ part of phonics programmes because they are useful words for writing more naturalistic early text, but I have seen programmes which don’t use them which are perfectly effective.

          2) In the matter of teaching heteronyms; firstly you would not deliberately introduce text containing heteronyms until children had learned the principle that one spelling can spell more than one sound (a principle which is introduced once they have learned one spelling for each sound). Of course, they may come across a heteronym in home reading but you wouldn’t deliberately introduce them until the children are ready for them. Once they encounter heteronyms it is a matter of using their knowledge of alternative ‘sound’ choices for the spelling and the context of the word to work out which is correct.

          I imagine that you are now crowing with delight that I used the term ‘context’ in connection with working out what a word ‘says’ but a) this is the only circumstance in which it is necessary to use context and b) the *first* action the child takes is to try the alternative sounds.

          This may not appear to be very different from just telling the child what the word is, but, if you ‘just tell’, the child most likely goes away confused about the nature of English orthography and without much confidence about approaching other ambiguous words. It may just confirm their perception that reading is difficult. On the other hand, the child who understands the principles behind English orthography is likely to be more confident about trying alternatives and less confused about how words ‘work’.

          I happen to think that small differences like this can be very significant; probably because I am used to working with struggling readers and have had to clear up many misconceptions.


          • > I imagine that you are now crowing with delight that I used the term ‘context’…

            Sorry to disappoint you. I’m on the side of phonics but it isn’t the only tool readers use which you’d probably admit if you weren’t so aggressively defending your corner. The way you state it, it’s a wonder anybody who was never taught phonetically can read at all.

            > the *first* action the child takes is to try the alternative sounds.

            Ha! No they don’t – they simply use the first sound that comes to mind. If they’re lucky they hit the right one.


  11. Just to be clear:
    1. You’ve made up a term of insult
    2. Invented the criteria for using it
    3. Used the term to insult others with a different opinion
    4. People have felt insulted and upset
    5. They have complained
    6. You have declined to apologise
    7. You have continued to use the term as abuse

    Despite your best efforts it is difficult to find a justification for this kind of behaviour.


    • “1. You’ve made up a term of insult”

      Which part of “I have never accepted this argument” don’t you understand?

      In fact is there any point you have written here that hasn’t been directly addressed in the blogpost you are commenting on?


  12. When a proficient reader genuinely thinks they read words as wholes or assumes that ‘sounding out’ may affect later reading, they simply haven’t read the research. Those comments took my breath away. It is irresponsible to be so influential but allow yourself to remain so ignorant. Trials of specific teaching methods can be criticised but the (voluminous) research on how people read is not subject to the same problems and simply does not support those assumptions – at all.


  13. It appears to me that the majority of people who get upset with people who argue against a ‘wholly SPP’ approach are often not teachers of reading – in particularly not teachers who have to ‘pick up the pieces’ of those children who this system has not worked for. These children can laboriously sound out (for ever) letter sound by letter sound. They cannot however chunk or blend these sounds together. Some of these children can learn words very quickly ‘by sight’. The research (which is so often cited as the Oracle) does not say it suits each and every child. What is interesting is the accusers of ‘phonics denialists’ are ‘eyes wide shut’ (e.g. putting their hands up to their ears shouting I can’t hear you) to those teachers of reading (especially specialist SEN teachers) who have years of experience and much evidence (circumstantial evidence by the way is not such a bad thing and before RCTs became trendy is how teachers shared good practice) showing that this approach may work for 80% of learners but is an absolute disaster for some others – it is these students the so called phonics denialists are defending. Surely there is room in education for a mixed approach to the teaching of reading – encouraging guessing a word by context, learning words by sight, enjoying a culturally rich reading environment and being taught to read for the sheer joy of reading is not ‘progressive’,’trendy’ or the anti-Christ: it is how we’ve learned to read for centuries.

    And Jesus, if I read straw man or ad hominen one more time………………….


    • Replace straw man with “scarecrow” and ad hominen with “vaguely pretentious” and it all gets a lot more fun ;-)


    • When you say RCT, do you mean randomised controlled trial?


    • “It appears to me that the majority of people who get upset with people who argue against a ‘wholly SPP’ approach are often not teachers of reading”

      I think this may well be true. Also, the majority of people who think the earth isn’t the centre of the universe are not astrophysicists. I suspect the majority of people who deny that 1+1 =4 are not mathematicians.

      In fact, I would suspect that the more obviously wrong one is, the more likely it is that people will be able to tell that one is wrong without needing much in the way of specialist knowledge.

      ” – in particularly not teachers who have to ‘pick up the pieces’ of those children who this system has not worked for. These children can laboriously sound out (for ever) letter sound by letter sound. They cannot however chunk or blend these sounds together. Some of these children can learn words very quickly ‘by sight’. The research (which is so often cited as the Oracle) does not say it suits each and every child.”

      “This system”? What system? We have very little reason to think that even now, most children are getting high quality phonics teaching. Or that phonics denialists are any good at “picking up the pieces” of what we do have.

      “What is interesting is the accusers of ‘phonics denialists’ are ‘eyes wide shut’ (e.g. putting their hands up to their ears shouting I can’t hear you) to those teachers of reading (especially specialist SEN teachers) who have years of experience and much evidence (circumstantial evidence by the way is not such a bad thing and before RCTs became trendy is how teachers shared good practice) showing that this approach may work for 80% of learners but is an absolute disaster for some others – it is these students the so called phonics denialists are defending.”

      I’m not hostile to all forms of anecdotal evidence. Far from it. However, if you are going to throw around percentages you need more than anecdotes.

      Beyond that, the anecdotes have to actually *disprove* what is being claimed. A child who fails to learn to read using phonics does not disprove the idea that phonics is the most effective way to learn to read for every child. For that, you would actually have to specify the alternatives to phonics, and show they work in cases where further phonics wouldn’t. And this is pretty hard to prove on anecdote alone, particularly as those who seem most convinced that such children exist, rarely seem to have the strongest grasp of the principles of phonics teaching. Hence the need for some proper evidence.

      “Surely there is room in education for a mixed approach to the teaching of reading – encouraging guessing a word by context,”

      Guessing is an alternative to learning. So no.

      “learning words by sight”

      The whole point is that this is not as effective as learning to decode. That’s precisely what the evidence shows.

      “enjoying a culturally rich reading environment and being taught to read for the sheer joy of reading”

      Is anybody against that? There’s just a lot more joy in reading fluently than in struggling to read.

      “And Jesus, if I read straw man or ad hominen one more time………………….”

      You object to bad arguments being identified? Why?


      • Oooo how do you do that black line thing?

        The earth isn’t at the centre of the universe? Eek….

        I am a little overwhelmed by your responses – I think I may use your technique to show my students how to unpick an argument.

        You question system? I therefore now understand why you group this phonics denialist thing with climate deniers and homeopathy – you forget creationists….

        Reading fluency can be improved – one way may be to learn the first 200 high frequency words – many of these really have to be learned by sight or if you prefer whole word recognition and then to improve automaticity it needs to be taught with precision teaching methods. I know (sorry anecdotal again) lots of learners who can read but not fluently – you could argue phonics has played a dominant part in this but they now need to get passed decoding…..or use a screen reader so they can access the curriculum.

        Guessing a word – yesterday a student could not read encyclopedia – when she got to the word library she immediately went back and realised what the word was – she’d guessed it by using the context – people do this all the time….(sorry I think this may be a sweeping statement but I don’t care) Also I know you will tell me encyclopedia is decodable – she attempts this with en- sic- Lop – ped – ear. Not bad but with context, nothing.

        Percentages – point taken – I will rephrase to ‘most’.

        I do have a good grasp of phonics but how long do you continue with this approach? Are you still to teach ‘Big fat rat, rat licks it, rat bobs up’ etc when they are 10?

        And yes I do object to bad arguments being identified when they become cliched?

        Ps. As a peace offering – there is a great app for phonics diagnostic work designed by Cambridge University called Cambugs – it comes highly recommended by you new blog pal – me ( I’m off to disprove the theory that the earth is not the centre of the universe)


      • We are all looking forward to the next couple of years then when all reading problems have disappeared for 95% of the population. The difference between learning to read and doing astrophysics is that learning to read requires motivating teachers to do stuff and motivating pupils to do stuff. Astrophysics just works in mathematical rules. I’m not disputing the evidence that phonic methods work best, I’m disputing the whole approach of trying to get people to use it based on confrontation, compulsion and put downs of any dissent even to extent of reasonable questions, lack of willingness to explain, lack of patience with other people. Seems to me these are all the traits that lead to ineffective teaching because implementing the system is only part of the story. Human relationships are important. Education change is unlikely to be achieved by “brute common sense”. Read some Michael Fullan on education change and why it is difficult to achieve.


  14. Ha, ok that is slightly more amusing – do you have one for ‘where’s the research’?


  15. I laughed at loud at the essay. OA at his abrasive, witty controversial best.

    The logic is impeccable and I loved the ‘homeopathy denialist’ thing. It’s a fair point isn’t it?

    I’m no expert in this field but given OA has relied on evidence I am swayed by his arguments. His detractors havent provided links to research and in contrast to Jules’s post, I have found most (but not all) infant and primary teachers I know support SSP.

    My most recent personal exposure to the issue would be my nephews who were struggling with reading so the family paid for weekend sessions with an SSP specialist and they have made dramatic improvements. But I accept my experience is anecdotal only.


    • I think that this anecdote and others like it are useful. There are no shortage of anecdotes about struggling readers making progress by intensifying their phonics tuition rather than discontinuing it. We have conflicting anecdotes on struggling readers, not anecdotes that prove the point either way. The research on the other hand…


  16. Anecdotal, to my mind, is just as valid as the ‘empirical research’ so dogmatically insisted upon by the ‘harbingers of a solely sterile phonic instruction’ – we must not pathologise education – including the homeopathy metaphor and (although I’m a huge fan of Bad Pharma) Goldacre’s zeal for randomised trials in education to be like those in the medical industry has, in my opinion created a monster. ‘Where’s the evidence? where’s the logic? where’s the right answers?’ Spock may have been logical but it was Captain Kirk’s instinctive reactions and human nature which usually saved the day – THERE’s my research and if anyone argues against Star Trek not being valid or reliable they are just pedants.

    Rob, I am delighted to hear your nephew’s decoding ability has improved with private coaching from an SSP specialist but I am pretty confident, he would have improved with any good teacher of reading giving him 1:1 attention. Now please make sure he reads for pleasure – he would love anything written by Michael Rosen……


    • I agree and I disagree – anecdotal the stuff of the class room teacher is equal to any “empirical” research which rarely is as strong as it appears. No one thing can be isolated and be said to be impact full anybody who claims this is talking none sense.

      That said, anecdotal evidence as used by Heather:
      “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.”

      Is of less value – one person’s experience of one child once is not an evidence base.


      • I was asked for my personal experience – so I gave it. At no point did I suggest that my views were based on that one experience and I would not dream of forming views in that way. I said that very few schools had the strong focus on phonics for spelling as advocated by SSP proponents. It is not really a very outlandish claim…


        • I do hate to draw you back to this but what you said was: “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.”
          Which is rather different from:
          ” I said that very few schools had the strong focus on phonics for spelling as advocated by SSP proponents. It is not really a very outlandish claim…”

          You still haven’t cited your evidence for either claim.


          • I really don’t see a meaningful difference between those two statements. I guess the meaning of the first statement could be a little ambiguous as it might not be clear whether the good teaching I refer to is of spelling in a general sense or good phonics teaching for spelling. I guess for me the two are the same but they might not be for you. Either way you seem to be picking holes and choosing not to address the central points I was making in the comment.
            How can I cite evidence for anecdote, based on narrow or wide experience? There is very good evidence that very many schools do not teach phonics well, as advocated by SSP proponents and that evidence comes from the technical report based on the survey of teachers doing the phonics screening check. The answers for the majority of schools made it clear that they were unaware that their methods did not follow SSP principles.


          • Right – is teaching the way SSP proponents advocate the same as teaching phonics “well”?
            Is a survey a tool to evaluate teaching and learning?
            Your statement: “. I said that very few schools had the strong focus on phonics for spelling as advocated by SSP proponents. It is not really a very outlandish claim…”
            Is not the same as claiming phonics isn’t taught well and a survey is not evidence of teaching being effective or otherwise – your central argument appears to rest heavily on your personal experience and backed up by reference to a survey.


  17. This is getting really tedious. It don’t see why it was not clear to you that as an advocate of SSP I will think ‘good phonics teaching’ involves SSP methods. If it was ever unclear I hope that misunderstanding is now sorted. I always appreciated that many teachers don’t think phonics needs to be taught as SSP supporters would advocate which is why I commented that many schools don’t use ‘good phonics teaching’.


    • I agree Heather, it is tedious – you make a sweeping statement and which you seek to back up with your experience as a parent and then with a survey. You asked me to address the main thrust of your argument but your argument is not routed in evidence.
      “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.”

      It is your opinion – which seems ill informed and you are unable to evidence to contrary. The “advocate” approach rather fits with AO’s herbalist approach – a herbalist is an advocate of the same – but that is not evidence.


      • My evidence (anecdotal, of course) is based on personal experience of teaching in eight different primary schools. All of the children I have taught in KS2 have been systematically taught to read via Letters and Sounds (a DCSF publication), Jolly Phonics or Read Write Inc (praised by Ofsted) during KS1. I have encountered very few children (ie those not on the SEN register) that when taught solely using SSP, that do not reach the floor standard of level 2B at the end of KS1. However, when I have tested level 2B readers using a published single word spelling test, in Year 3, the results are less favourable: the majority have a spelling age six months or more behind their reading age.

        I have no evidence, anecdotal or otherwise to prove or disprove that the teaching of phonics in those 8 schools is poor: indeed, I am not qualified to make such a judgement. In all likelihood if the published schemes I mentioned above were used as intended then spelling skills should have been embedded too. The fact remains, from my experience, that there is a gap between reading and spelling ability even when SSP is used to teach reading.


        • That all sounds very reasonable to me. The only thing I would say is that you are mistaken in assuming the majority of schools teach SSP. The report I have mentioned already is here: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/198994/DFE-RR286A.pdf (look at p23) and although I would not use the report to provide evidence of the efficacy of SSP teaching, it does quite clearly show that not that many schools actually follow SSP principles in their teaching and so it is not a safe assumption that most kids you meet in KS2 are the product of SSP teaching. It shows that most schools still used the mixed methods advocated by those OA describes as ‘phonics denialists.’


          • Heather, I haven’t assumed anything. I know for certain that the eight primary schools I have taught in have used SSP. I cannot say for sure whether SSP has been taught well in those schools (see my previous post), but one might conclude that the end of KS1 results we inherit here in KS2 suggest that it has been taught effectively.

            Let’s have a look at some figures for the most recent cohort of 120 Year 3 children in my current primary school: 90% achieved at least level 2 at the end of KS1, of those, 60% achieved level 2A or above. This would suggest that reading had been taught well in Reception, Year 1 and Year 2, I am sure you would agree. The fact is 107 children in Year 3 can read well, the 13 that did not reach level 2 are on the SEN register and will continue to receive daily tailored support to enable them to improve their reading skills. (Dare I say it – not necessarily purely SSP).

            The survey you have linked to would have much more valuable as a tool for determining if SSP is being taught badly in many primary schools if it had documented end of KS1 reading outcomes too.


      • If you want to debate the efficacy of SSP, fine, but I did not try to provide any evidence for the efficacy of SSP in my conversation with you. The survey mentioned would be inappropriate for that purpose. How much clearer can I be?
        Please either stop or clearly state what you do actually wish to argue and why.


        • My point is that your “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching” was baseless – my challenge to you was to substantiate it.

          Perhaps you will consider your sweeping statements in future regardless of your advocacy.


          • It was baseless to argue that very few primary schools use SSP spelling programmes?So you think most primary schools do use SSP spelling programmes? That is surprising.


          • That is what you are arguing now – as you have decided to argue about something else – I will leave you to it.

            For a final time here is what you wrote:

            “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.”


          • You must know perfectly well that in ‘that sentence’ I was trying to explain that very few schools approach spelling as SSP supporters would advocate. Way up thread I clarified with the sentence ‘ very few schools have a strong focus on spelling as advocated by SSP proponents, this is not a very outlandish claim.’ I directly told you that was what I had meant by my previous sentence you keep quoting. You then chose to pretend that when I gave evidence for this claim I was trying to prove the efficacy of SSP, when it must have been obvious I supporting my statement by demonstrating that few schools use good SSP teaching.
            I saw you actually wanted to focus on the fact I used the phrase ‘good phonics teaching’ to describe SSP methods as opposed to other methods and made a genuine effort to end this silly ‘but you said’ approach. I offered to debate the actual issue, the one the blog is about. That is whether the evidence shows SSP is better than other methods. If you are interested in actually putting forward your arguments in response to the blog a real debate would be possible.


      • Cannot resist the temptation to assume that ‘Chris’ wasn’t taught good phonics for spelling…or was it no grammar? Surely something is ‘rooted’ in evidence?

        Intrigued that a ‘survey’ is not allowed to be evidence of poor SSP teaching. I have only ever known anti-phonics ‘research’ to be qualitative (no numbers attached at all…) so the objection feels rather hypocritical. Perhaps you could detail what you would accept as ‘evidence’.


        • Thank you for pointing my typo Maggie – did you have a point per chance?
          A survey is not evidence of teaching – “anti phonics” – Heather’s point was that primary schools do not teach phonics well – how does pointing out that a survey does not evidence this point to “anti phonics”?


          • typo my ……

            The survey to which Heather referred was that carried out by the NFER as part of their evaluation of the 2013 Phonics check. Of the teachers surveyed about 53% agreed that SP was vital for the teaching of reading. Of that 53% the majority also believed that ‘other strategies’ were necessary. As ‘other strategies’ have no place in SP teaching this seems to indicate that, if the sample was large enough, a very small percentage of teachers actually teach SP as it should be taught. In which case Heather’s statement is valid.

            My question to you is, if you don’t accept the valididty of the NFER survey what would you accept as evidence that SP is not generally well taught in schools?

            And what bearing does this have on being ‘anti phonics’? I think that if you were pro-phonics you would know that the state of phonics teaching in primaries is generally poor and wouldn’t be denigrating the perectly valid evidence that is being offered.


          • If you are going to be unpleasant then please stop debating.

            A survey does not detail quality of teaching – to leap from the results of a survey and conclude that phonics is badly taught is naive.

            Pro phonics / anti phonics – oh dear.


          • Umm, I think extrapolating from a survey is perfectly reasonable.

            It may not be ‘perfect’ evidence but its evidence all the same.

            And it does justify Maggie & Heather’s comments I would have thought.

            Its certainly not ‘baseless’ surely?


          • Tell me – where in the survey is there evidence for this statement:
            “because good phonics teaching has a strong focus on spelling – but then very few primaries do that sort of teaching.”


          • I only glanced at the link and really cannot be arsed to trawl through it. I havent the stamina for academic research like some of you guys.

            But doesnt “Of the teachers surveyed about 53% agreed that SP was vital for the teaching of reading. Of that 53% the majority also believed that ‘other strategies’ were necessary” rather support Heathers statement?

            I mean how would you interpret that data reference?

            Im not expert on this at all, but as lay person ‘by stander’ this seems reasonable to me…


          • I for one have never said don’t do it. I am saying if you happen to be one of the 5% – in the cancer analogy someone who has a form the treatment does not “cure” – it doesn’t matter to you that it’s effective for those others. Let’s not forget the minority, no matter how small, that have reading difficulties no matter what system is used. There is a danger that we believe that with the magic potion, suddenly all learning difficulties will evaporate and anyone that still fails to read easily must be a cretin. I think some caution is needed on that. I know from direct experience that even with phonics some otherwise bright individuals have difficulty with reading and get labelled as stupid because of it. The previous comment about 5% not being able to learn anything is in that vein so I don’t think I’m being unreasonable here.

            On the subject of surveys, asking people is really just a measure of their belief systems. You could survey people and ask them if astrology works. Some would say it does. That does not make it true even if it was a majority. This is why people promoting SSP is no evidence of its effectiveness on its own. Evidence is required and I’m happy to believe that SSP does make a significant difference and so it is a good strategy. I also have evidence from my own family that phonics didn’t work well enough (I used it myself regularly with the subject and so did a special needs teacher at primary school) to prevent quite a lot of misery to a child with an IQ of over 120 and who now has a 2.1 in Computer Aided Design, runs a successful business but still has problems with spelling. So I’m not saying don’t use it, I’m saying be a bit cautious and a bit less evangelical.


          • Chris, Heather invited you to read page 23, which will provide an answer to your question. It’s highlighted in bold. I don’t think that you can dismiss a survey simply on the grounds that it’s a survey. If you want to attack it, you have to find grounds to do so in the methodology or the range of people asked.


          • Ian, notwithstanding the fact that this discussion is not about astrology, I think you have missed what the survey is trying to examine. If you click on Heather’s link and read it, especially the sentence in bold on page 23, you will see that none of the arguments you put forward in any way contradict anything the survey’s authors suggest.


          • Look at table 5. It says teacher views. That is opinion not empirical data. I’m not arguing to gain support for SSP or otherwise I’m simply asking people to be scientific and that includes being cautious about results and how they might end up getting used, as well as understanding the nature of evidence.


          • The views themselves are opinions but the evidence gathered about them is empirical. On the same page, the conclusion is very carefully drawn. The issue is that the teachers’ views display a logical inconsistency which would suggest that most teachers do not understand SSP (for if they did, they would not hold such contradictory views).


          • It also must be taken into account that people answering a survey often answer the way they believe the questioner desires.
            There were if I remember on only 14 case studies and the survey had 5% lower literacy lead and 1% lower year teachers than desired – given the number sent out a lower response than ideal.


          • Chris, your first point is a sound general one but you haven’t explained why it holds in this instance. Were the questions in the survey leading, or framed in such a way as to invite particular answers? Or did the authors fail to take measures against such biases?

            As for the response rate, we could argue all day about what an acceptably large sample size would be. I suspect we would never agree. My impression is that a survey of approx 1700 teachers and related staff is pretty substantial.

            Anyway as Heather has said this does distract from the main argument, about the effectiveness of phonics.


          • For a random sample 1700 from a population of 450000 teachers the confidence in the result would be better than 1%. However, its not possible to determine systematic errors such as self-selection by the group without doing other empirical data collection. The fundamental problem with a survey relying on people’s opinions, even informed opinions is that they are opinions, not empirical measurements. To be really sure of empirical data you need double blind sampling of a big enough sample of children. If your population is 2,000,000 and you want 99% confidence and 99% accuracy you’d need 16500 samples. That falls to under 400 samples for 5% error. I haven’t seen the experimental design for the SSP research so I can’t comment on it but if it is possible that 5% of a population have some specific issue like a learning difficulty it would need a pretty big sample to be sure of it because a 5% error could mask it. Absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence.


          • Thanks for the detailed response. The survey isn’t making the claims to the effectiveness of SSP which you have ascribed to it in this debate, as Heather pointed out much earlier.


          • Surveys can be used as indicators but we should be cautious as to what they actually tell us.

            This survey looked at attitudes towards the Phonics check and the level to which Synthetic Phonics had been adopted as laid out in guidance – the survey can not be used discuss teaching effectiveness or be used to indicate how primary schools teach phonics – it can only indicate how phonics is not being taught and even then this is interpreted though the conflicting responses given to the survey. ( No lesson observation data is cited – so the question however carefully framed is open to interpretation by the respondant)
            The target rate for both groups was 40% this survey failed to achieve that in both groups – NFER decided on 40%.
            My question of Heather was how she backed up her initial assertion that many primary schools do not teach in a certain way – this survey does not support her assertion as it initially it was not about SP though later came to be defined as such.
            If Maggie’s point is to be accepted at face value – that there are some children who can’t be taught even when they have been exposed to SP -it suggests that teacher skill and not a prescriptive approach is required as this view is troubling.


          • You’ll notice that 1% below the target response rate of 40% yielded 940 respondents instead of ~949. You have decided to interpret the target as a minimum desideratum, instead of a ‘target’. I’m surprised you make that the cornerstone of your factual defence. I’m going to sign out of this debate now.


          • Defense?

            My point was that the survey did not support Heather’s initial generalisation – it is also as Ian notes is not particularly accurate.


          • I would say the extracts from the survey clearly support her assertion.

            Maybe we should do a survey about the survey? :)


          • Ha! Sounds like fun!;-)


  18. Seems this debate can be summarised as follows.

    Some people learn to read easily before they go to school and without any special techniques.

    Most people need specific techniques to help them to read and SSP specifically can help them learn to read efficiently as long as there are not other limiting factors.

    Some people have great difficulty learning to read no matter what techniques are employed.

    This latter group are at a significant disadvantage in the education system, especially if they are made to feel stupid when in fact many are bright enough to be very successful in later life.


    • Your three statements would apply to any method of teaching reading. The nub of the ‘debate can be found in your third statement which *should* read;

      Some people have great difficulty learning to read no matter what techniques are employed but there are fewer of these when SSP is used.

      No-one would claim that SSP teaches ALL children to read but it definitely teaches significantly MORE children to read. (about 95% as opposed to 80%)

      If SSP didn’t do any better than Look & Say and Mixed Methods no-one would be trying to promote it.


      • Thanks for the re-write but my point was simply that your 15% difference, while desirable is not a panacea for every individual and it is easy to get so carried away in your zeal that you forget the damage done to one set of people along the way in order to save another set even if the latter is larger.

        On your last sentence we could say on that basis that anything that gets promoted must be beneficial. I don’t think so. SSP might well be the thing to do, but that is not the reason.


        • “On your last sentence we could say on that basis that anything that gets promoted must be beneficial.”

          I don’t follow you here. You have turned the words around and completely altered the meaning. The meaning is that SSP is promoted because it is more effective, not that it is effective because it is promoted.

          I’m afraid that the 5% mostly comprises children who couldn’t be taught anything at all. If you wish to question the efficacy of SSP on the grounds that it cannot reach these children then you make yourself sound completely unreasonable.

          But, that fact that with SSP there are 15% fewer children strugging to read should mean that more resources can be focussed on that final 5%. At present the resources are spread over some 20% of children.


          • “I’m afraid that the 5% mostly comprises children who couldn’t be taught anything at all. ”

            What????!!!!!!!!!


          • Its simple logic. “If SSP didn’t do any better than… no-one would try and promote it.” People promote Homeopathy, Detoxing, Acupuncture etc and there is no evidence any of them “do any better than mainstream medicine. So it is simply not correct to say SSP must be better or it would not get promoted. It might well be but the reasoning is simply wrong.

            You seem to be so caught up in your crusade, you seem to have missed the fact that I’m not disputing whether or not SSP is effective. I’m saying your claim that it must be effective since otherwise it would not be being promoted is simply wrong. I’m also more interested in the individuals that find reading difficult compared to others even if both are doing the same scheme. Given the seeming belief that this is fool proof, it concerns me that if any individual still had problems reading they are likely to get written off as stupid, lazy or worse. I have seen it happen too many times. I’m more concerned about the zealous conviction than I am about the method itself. Your remark about the 5% makes me even more concerned. Are you saying these children are unteachable or simply away from school? What do you consider competence in reading? Ability to access all texts suitable for GCSE grade C? Reading Wikipedia with understanding or reading words like cat and dog. Your 95% claim depends on what you mean.


          • If I could cut cancer rates by 15% then sign me up!

            I could do with a Nobel Prize…


  19. I guess 1 in 20 leaving school without having been taught anything at all ain’t such a bad statistic ;)


    • Of course … Silly me…


    • Sounds pretty good really when you consider that currently 1 in 5 leaves school unable or barely able to read.

      And, from what I have seen of Y11s over a number of years ( at a ‘good’ comp) the figure of 1 in 20 leaving school having learnt nothing (rather than having been taught nothing) seems a pretty fair one..;-)

      But, the figure was a bit pulled out of the air, it is largely based on Dr Jonathon Solity’s statement that some 3 – 5% of children will find learning to read difficult even with SSP instruction. There IS a very small percentage of children with profound multiple difficulties who are highly unlikely to ever learn to read but that does leave a residue. My comment still stands that if we only had these to deal with instead of the current 20% we could focus far more resources on them and perhaps identify the help that they need.


      • Yes, Maggie the snag is that your 3 – 5% are real people. I have a son who is one and one thing he learnt from school is that insensitive teachers that do not treat children as individuals are very likely to do disproportionate damage. Your attitude does not lead me to be confident that any resources freed up would actually get spent in the way you claim. My son has not got multiple profound difficulties, he had a specific problem with reading. Perhaps he is the only child in the world like that but frankly as a parent he is the one that mattered to me at the time.


        • I agree that to state child was unable to learn anything is horrific and has the mark of a zealot (almost appearing to say if a child can’t learn using SSP what hope is there?) I am keen however for Maggie to unpick the five percent – I also refuse to believe any serving teacher really thinks like that, so I think it is fair Maggie clarifies.


        • And the 15 % that might be assisted are also real people.

          Teachers are altruists- if they think a technique can help 15 % of humans they will do so. Good on ‘em.

          As to the remaining 5% lets do our best for them too, and happily with more resources if the other 15% have been ‘cured’.

          Seems like a win-win.


      • So Maggie does that five percent, which I accept is pulled out of the air to some degree, refer to give percent of all children in main stream and special provision or five percent of children in special provision?


        • I think a lot of it depends on what you define as ‘special’. Looking at the figures for 2013 there are probably some 7,000 children per year group in ‘Special’ Schools, of which a very large number have (has?) PMLD (profound multiple learning difficulties) and are probably incapable of learning (though I say that with care, rememberingsome cases of very intelligent people ‘trapped’ by conditions such as cerebral palsy).

          Beyond that, we have the 3 – 5% that Solity speaks of. It is probably closer to 3% than to 5% but Solity is an academic who undertook a big longitudinal research project and I am not. In my limited experience (1 secondary school over 10 years) I would go for the 3%. That 3 – 5% will no doubt be part of the 19% of pupils who are classified as having SEN. An extraordinary number of children are classed as SEN on literacy difficulties alone.

          I cannot say it often enough it seems, because Ian appears not to have noted it, BUT, if we could eliminate the poorly taught children we would have a far better chance, both in time and resources, to really find out what is stopping the 3% learning and how we can best help them. As it is, children with really significant needs are losing out because there are just too many children needing help with literacy.

          I find the implication that I don’t care about individual children extremely upsettting seeing that I spent the last ten years working with children written off by their primary schools as never being able to learn to read properly. I was foolish enough to feel that caring very much about this and trying to find the very best way possible to help them was a worthwhile task.

          I knew absolutely nothing about the ‘Reading Wars’ when I found SP to be really effective with most of my pupils. I’ve certainly found out about them since and very unpleasant they are too.


          • I have consistently said here that implementing SP is a good idea if it helps 15% that would otherwise not have been helped. Please stop implying I’m anti-SP. However, I am concerned about the religious fervour that is being applied to the argument with unnecessarily emotive language that is actually counter-productive. I am also sceptical of giving the impression that no bright child ever had a specific problem with reading – I know from personal experience that is not true and for children that would never be on a SEN register. It might well be very rare but I have taught enough children in a wide enough range of schools to know it is not non-existent. Maybe too small a number to show up in the research stats and it will also depend on the experimental design. SP might well help better than anything else but that still leaves plenty of scope to assume that the child is stupid/lazy because they are slow even with the help of SP. In fact on the evidence of some of the arguments here I’d say the danger is that such a judgement becomes more likely. That does not mean I’m a SP denier (emotive labels do not help in these things they simply polarise people into a position where they are never going to accept your evidence) if anything I’m a denier of religious fervour being used to sell scientific rationality. It doesn’t need it, the results will speak for themselves. Just do it. I’m in favour of systematically using what has good empirical data behind it but I like to know the error in the measurement and how that might affect small minorities because if you are in that minority it matters to you. I’d also like people to exercise the same scientific caution in these things that is generally accepted good scientific practice. The really interesting results are the ones that are not consistent with the theory and why.

            I apologise to Maggie if she thinks I’m saying she is uncaring. That isn’t the issue, it’s if believe systems such as “the only children with reading issues are the ones with profound learning problems” leads to bad treatment of otherwise mainstream students that have such issues. ie bright enough and not disruptive enough to get an SEN label in secondary school but with sufficient difficulties to cause them real problems with their teachers. I know of two such cases I can recall immediately. One went on to study Natural Science at Cambridge, the other is my own child who we tried everything with including what we now call SP. Both had a lot of support from home, others might not be so lucky. Perhaps I’m over sensitive but when your child gets referred to as cloth-eared, lazy and stupid by teachers you tend to have a different perspective. He’s 35 now with a 2.1 degree and a very successful business so we’ll never know if the new SP would have been his “saviour” but it’s not just about methods, its about attitudes too when implementing those methods.


  20. It’s been fun watching the comments develop on this one. I’m a little disappointed that Sue Cowley does actually defend the views that OA ascribed to her. I think her ideas about how reading works, and thus how it should be taught are significantly removed from established theory and effective practice. This is worrying because she has published a lot of books (one of which I owned once) and, presumably, a lot of teachers are following her advice.

    Much of this has to do with the fact that everyone is under-informed. And this is actually the core of the problem. How can there be a meaningful debate when someone (speaking as an authority) takes the stance of “I read whole words, SSP precludes whole-word reading. SSP is wrong”? To spend time going back over this stops the more useful debates occurring.

    All in all, I think the argument for the term ‘Phonics denialist’ has been strengthened by the responses. Those advocating ‘mixed’ approaches generally misrepresent SSP (as being some sort of one-size-that-won’t-fit-all strategy) much more than the other way around.


  21. Ha and there speaks the words of ironic authority….. SSP (synthetic is such an appropriate term) has a clever stance here don’t they? Agree with us or you are a phonic denialist – disagree with us then you can’t possibly use any type of phonics alongside other techniques otherwise (we won’t make so much money) you are not true advocates of ssp – to join our club you have to ONLY teach phonics – it’s our way or the highway – we are completely ignoring any infected children who may, god forbid, be taught to read in other ways at home. You phonic deniers are heretics and should be burned at the stake – I feel a Life of Brian moment coming…….

    Yours sincerely,

    ssp denialist (not a phonic denialist)


    • The original meaning of synthesise was to build from constituent parts. That was the way it was used in the 19th century to describe the method of teaching children to convert the written into the spoken word by identifying its constituent parts, phonemes, and blend them (synthesise) to the word. Its popular meaning of ‘artificial’, now with derogatory connotations and undoubtedly what you have in mind, is a 20th century development. You could, of course, argue that written words are themselves an artificial construct but then there would be nothing odd about using an ‘artificial’ method of reading them.


      • I was just being facetious – point being that it is the ‘artificial’ meaning which has become appropriate. I am a teacher of phonics just not a ‘synthetic’ one (there I go again – sorry…can’t help myself) ..I must stop this blogging business it’s not good for me – i am furiously tapping away at my iPad while cooking meatballs for the kids (smiley face if I knew how to do them)


        • The ‘synthetic’ in ssp is basically redundant marketing/political semantics. I used ssp because it’s shorter than writing ‘systematic phonics’ (the systematic bit is much more important to emphasise). It’s a problem that ssp is marketed as something beyond good phonics teaching.

          A big misconception seems to be the notion that ssp stops kids using other methods such as whole-word reading. This would clearly be nonsense as people who read mainly do so through whole-word recognition. What it does do, is discourage this as the primary method to teach reading.


          • This is the most sensible response (and explanation) I’ve heard – the trouble is when the child is still not reading in this way after recepeption – most sensible schools will then continue with a phonic intervention programme including other options such as precision teaching methods for high frequency words etc – but alongside this will acknowledge that children still need to access the curriculum including some lovely non-phonic stories to enjoy.

            Moving to the other end of schooling – students can now use screen readers in the reading section of the English GCSE paper – this acknowledges that reading can be done without decoding – spectacle for the print disabled if you like.


    • :-)


    • Isn’t this the same argument that climate change denialists use? That it is unfair of climate scientists to expect people who disagree with them to know what they are talking about?


  22. Ian said:
    “That isn’t the issue, it’s if believe systems such as “the only children with reading issues are the ones with profound learning problems” leads to bad treatment of otherwise mainstream students that have such issues. ie bright enough and not disruptive enough to get an SEN label in secondary school but with sufficient difficulties to cause them real problems with their teachers. ”

    I think I understand exactly what you mean, Ian. The thing that infuriates me most is when children who have failed to learn to read competently get labelled as ‘low ability’. And the catalogue of name calling, thick, stupid etc. is absolutely horrific. No teacher should ever say things like that to a child.
    Fortunately, at the school I worked in (I have just retired) we didn’t look at labels when selecting for extra help with reading, we looked at reading competence. I have worked with children of all abilities.

    The other thing that upsets me is that ‘intelligence’ is, in some measure, a cultural construct and one which can be ‘improved’ by reading (Stanovich deals with this with his famous Matthew Effect). So children who don’t learn to read well are in a real Catch 22 situation; can’t read, can’t improve knowledge through reading, stay stuck as ‘low ability. And because they can’t read everything is dumbed down for them. (I’ve worked with Y7 kids who’ve never been expected to read more than a couple of sentences at a time.) So they have no opportunity to improve.

    Then you wonder why I get passionate & evangelical?

    I found a teaching method which really helped these children…


  23. Maggie, I really hope you didn’t actually witness a teacher telling a child that they were ‘thick, stupid’. If you did, I am sure you reported the incidents to your SENCo or suggested to your head teacher that some members of staff undertook equal ops training.


    • No, I certainly haven’t. Fortunately the school I worked at had far more respect for its pupils. I’m going on countless mentions of this happening to children in posts on various internet fora. Including this comment from Ian Lynch earlier when talking about his son’s experience:

      “Perhaps I’m over sensitive but when your child gets referred to as cloth-eared, lazy and stupid by teachers you tend to have a different perspective.”


  24. […] Friday’s TES published a letter from a group of educationalists to Michael Gove calling for the abolishment of the Year 1 ‘phonics check’. Signatories included the general secretary of the UK Literacy Association, the chairman of the National Association for Primary Education, the general secretary of NASUWT, and the chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English. In response to the letter, one well-known educational commentator (@oldandrewuk) tweeted “See some phonics denialists got a letter in the TES”. I’m not going to spend any time questioning the use of the markedly pejorative term ‘denialists’, and the attribution of a questionable ethical agenda that is usually implied by it. I’ve done my homework here and see that Andrew Old has used this term in relation to phonics for some time, been called out for it, and made his responses. […]


  25. […] I thought I’d take the time to look at it. However, it turned out I had already discussed it here. In that post I noted Davis’s main […]



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