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Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 3

July 8, 2014

In this final post on the debate over Andrew Davis’ phonics pamphlet I respond to the arguments addressed to me in this post by David Aldridge. There are quite a few arguments (and points) in that post (one might even suggest more than in the original pamphlet) and I will attempt to answer them in turn.

1) There is a “false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers”.

I pointed out last time that this is not Davis’s argument. It is also lacking as a response to me given that I have more than once disagreed with simply trying to ape medical research too closely (for instance here and here). Regardless, the reason we should listen to the empirical evidence on phonics is not because it is exactly the same as other forms of research, but because it consistently gets the same result. The evidence tells us that whenever we look into the matter, we find (with a good degree of reliability) that the more children are taught with phonics, and the less they are encouraged to guess words from other information, the better they end up being able to read. This is all we really need it to tell us. As with Davis’s actual argument, Aldridge’s is an argument that empirical research could not ever tell us what it has already told us. Engaging too directly with the argument for why phonics research wouldn’t work would be like going back to look for flaws in the arguments of those who said flying machines could never be built. We know the argument is wrong. The only thing that makes Aldridge’s argument seem vaguely more plausible is that Davis’s argument implied that the evidence couldn’t exist, whereas Aldridge implied that it cannot be of the right type. However, neither’s descriptions of the inevitable flaws in the evidence can account for the evidence that has been found. Davis’s argument would lead us to believe no evidence exists. Aldridge’s argument would lead us to believe that the evidence could not reliably tell us anything one way or the other. Both are evidently wrong.

2) Systematic Synthetic Phonics is “exclusivist” and my position on this “is not abundantly clear” as I have both “strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches” and suggested that SSP does not prevent use of certain other techniques in the teaching of reading.

The confusion here probably comes from being unfamiliar with Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is about learning to decode written words using the phonetic information in them. This is incompatible with methods of identifying words that ignore some or all of the phonetic information. So this rules out trying to recall the whole word (or a large chunk of a word) as if it was a hieroglyph. It prevents guessing what a word says from the context rather than decoding it. It doesn’t allow for partially decoding a word and guessing the remaining parts. It would discourage the teaching of vague “meaning-getting” skills that are meant to compensate for those whose decoding is so lacking in fluency that they cannot decode and pay attention to meaning at the same time. (If I have opposed “comprehension strategies” before, it is this I was objecting to). It does not, however, rule out any part of learning to read that doesn’t discourage paying attention to phonics. So there is no prohibition on improving vocabulary (including finding out about the meaning of words). It doesn’t rule out telling stories. It doesn’t ban books with pictures in, as long as they are not used to guess what words in the text say.  It positively encourages (and includes) working to be able to distinguish phonemes in spoken language. Now the principle here is not difficult and I’m able to grasp it as a layman. If a “method” involves either learning or guessing words using something other than the phonetic information in the word (thereby discouraging use of SSP) then it has no place in SSP, but that is all that is “exclusivist” about SSP. The confusion comes from the habit denialists have of rebranding guessing and whole word learning as things like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy”. If denialists hadn’t suggesting that encouraging readers to guess more, and decode less, was merely adding extra tools to be used to decode then I don’t think phonics would ever have been seen as “exclusivist”. This is not some deep ideological objection to spending time in the primary classroom on anything but phonics, it’s just the same sort of practical objection that would stop a teacher handing out calculators in the middle of a mental arithmetic test. If you genuinely favour the teaching of phonics, why would you suddenly say “stop decoding and guess”?

3) I defend “a one size fits all approach to teaching”as if I see “so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative”.

This is one of those contentious issues in all types of discussion in teaching. In so many debates any suggestion that there is a wrong way to teach something is immediately faced with the suggestion that it is the right way for some particular child or group of children. On the face of it, the flaw with making this suggestion indiscriminately is obvious. Some methods are just not going to work, or just not work particularly well, for anyone. Beyond that there is the disturbing possibility that false assumptions about how certain types of child will require something different can lower expectations in line with existing prejudices. It is also an easy way to blame a teacher when a child doesn’t learn something if it can be claimed that every child can learn everything easily providing the correct method is used. It is also highly lucrative to sell silly gimmicks that will enable teachers to reach those students who are hardest to teach and differences in “learning styles” are one explanation used to justify those gimmicks.

Now, these considerations (which do include the nonsense of “learning styles”) indicate reasons why I think the burden of proof over suggestions that certain students need different teaching methods should be with those making the suggestions. There are, however, some undeniable differences between children. Some children have learning difficulties. Capacity of working memory and other cognitive abilities will differ between children. Children also vary in their prior knowledge. I have no problem in taking account of any of these. The contention appears to be over how much variation in teaching should be allowed in light of these differences. Nobody can deny that SSP will differ in effectiveness between children. Some children seem to learn to read with little support; others really struggle. Different methods of teaching might be used to address some of these differences. However, if one wishes to use this as an argument against SSP working best for all, the claim would have to be that some children benefit from methods, like learning whole words or guessing from context, which ignore phonetic information and discourage decoding. It is this that there seems to be a remarkable lack of evidence for.

There is not even consistency in the claims about which children the alleged exceptions to the effectiveness of SSP apply to. When the denialists were at the height of their power SSP was relegated to being a method for those with dyslexia. Now, I more often hear it claimed that it is those with dyslexia who most require the denialist methods instead of phonics. Admittedly, I also hear it claimed that phonics is unnecessary for the most able readers (here, at least, there is a plausible chance that they might have absorbed a large amount of phonic knowledge before anyone taught it to them explicitly making some phonics instruction redundant). Given the confusion, it seems better to assume that children learning the same system of writing will require the same knowledge of phonics, unless there is good evidence to the contrary, and being either faster or slower to learn than other children should not be considered evidence of needing the denialist methods, only more or less time spent on phonics instruction.

 4) The phonics check will force teachers to concentrate “on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check”.

This one is simply begging the question. The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively. This may well deter methods that are alleged to be a form of phonics teaching but which don’t actually result in good phonics knowledge. It will also deter methods of teaching reading that ignore the evidence on phonics. Neither of these is a bad thing, unless you have already made the decision to ignore the evidence or to teach phonics ineffectively.

5) The argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students.

This strikes me as missing the point of “evidence-based” teaching. The reason that many teachers are interested in research is not to create a monolithic list of activities that must be carried out in order to teach. We’ve seen that doesn’t work. It is to protect us from such demands. To read the debate on phonics you’d think there was never an era when phonics teaching was marginalised or pushed out. You’d think that no phonics denialist ever had power or influence and no teacher was ever forced to use denialist methods. In reality, there’s no shortage of stories from the 80s and 90s of teachers using SSP having to hide what they are doing from their managers. There are plenty of people who became marginalised because they spoke out against the phonics denialist orthodoxy. There was no freedom to skip the “Searchlights” model of the NLS. We are still suffering from their apparently exclusive domination of primary teacher training in our universities and many sensible people leave teacher training wedded to bizarre notions like the belief that “reading” is a synonym for “comprehension” or the idea that an enthusiasm for books must always precede the ability to read them.

Teachers will always be under pressure to teach a particular way, even if it is from fashion, training and school level pressure rather than national policy. When I argue for an evidence-based profession, I am arguing that teachers should know the evidence and that the trump card when resisting pressure to teach in a particular way is being able to say “but the evidence shows this is not a good idea” without it getting you singled out as a troublemaker. I believe our professional judgement will hold more sway if it is professional judgement backed up by evidence and rational argument. If anything has brought about the statutory phonics check it is teachers ignoring the evidence on phonics or, worse, pretending to teach “phonics” while actually teaching children to guess rather than decode. I don’t want evidence-based practice to create a new orthodoxy, I want it to establish the rules by which orthodoxies can be resisted and overthrown. Evidence will never tell us exactly how to teach, but it will expose when we are mistaken or, worse, when we are dishonest. While we should have plenty of freedom to make our own decisions, we should not be arguing for the principle of making decisions based on ignorance or irrationality. I don’t want the freedom to teach by telepathy or to encourage children to rub their brain buttons. I want the freedom to make informed and reasonable judgements and that requires an informed and reasonable profession.

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46 comments

  1. Heartfelt thanks for all the effort and time you have taken for your various postings – culminating in this magnificent one. X


    • Thanks Andrew. If you would kindly print these comments in your thread, I’m happy that this debate has probably run its course. I take each point in turn.
      1. If you could claim with reference to evidence that there is some distinct method – you call it ‘SSP’ – that ‘consistently gets the same result’, then you would indeed trump the argument. But the point is that you are not warranted in claiming that it is SSP that ‘consistently gets the same result’, at least not if the intended result is the ability to read. The evidence could not possibly support such a claim given the complexity of the classroom contexts you are prescribing for.
      You also waver between implying that SSP has bounded, distinct and exclusive properties (exactly along the analogy of the chemical composition of a drug) and that it is a blurrier group of mixed practices (as you claim in response 2). Your own position is inconsistent here. The more you interweave your insistence on phonics teaching with all sorts of other undeniably valuable teaching activities, the less likely it becomes that any of the ‘evidence’ you point to will support this nuanced collection of activities as a distinctive ‘method’. But that’s a good way to go: actually, it brings our two stances on what teachers should actually be doing in the classroom much closer. They should be making situated judgements, using what they know from research and other sources, about the best way to go forward with particular children in a particular context. But this problematises the phonics check, of course (see my original argument and my response to 2).
      2. I restricted my comments largely to the phonics check, which by design (as the open letter originally argued) tests the method of synthetic phonics exclusively. The check is also methodologically broken, but I think the letter makes that argument just fine.
      3. Here I think quoting out of context puts you in danger of misrepresenting my case. The point is that ‘learning styles’ is an easy target: no-one I know will seriously defend that fad. My case for the complex situated judgement of teachers rests rather on the infinite contingency of the classroom situation, taking in all sorts of factors and including the complex prior experience and awareness of each individual student. You don’t knock that down by knocking down learning styles. I believe you are aware of the nature of a ‘straw man’ argument.
      4. We are, at least, agreed on this point. “The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively”. This will indeed deter teachers from acting in ways that do not promote (systematic synthetic) phonics knowledge. I think it is important to add: even if those ways of acting might themselves promote literacy.
      5. I have argued that teachers engage with educational research; they can and should also conduct their own. I have also argued that they should do so with a sensitivity to the way that academic researchers normally communicate their findings: as a piece of a much bigger and varied endeavour that might shed some light on a particular issue of classroom practice, rather than as warrant for the wholesale imposition of some particular technique.


      • 1. If you could claim with reference to evidence that there is some distinct method – you call it ‘SSP’ – that ‘consistently gets the same result’, then you would indeed trump the argument. But the point is that you are not warranted in claiming that it is SSP that ‘consistently gets the same result’, at least not if the intended result is the ability to read. The evidence could not possibly support such a claim given the complexity of the classroom contexts you are prescribing for.

        Isn’t that my point? That given that what you say “couldn’t possibly” have happened has actually happened then your argument can be disregarded?

        You do seem to be arguing that we should ignore what actually happens in practice, if it contradicts what we think would happen in theory.

        You also waver between implying that SSP has bounded, distinct and exclusive properties (exactly along the analogy of the chemical composition of a drug) and that it is a blurrier group of mixed practices (as you claim in response 2). Your own position is inconsistent here.

        I believe this is exactly the point I addressed.

        2. I restricted my comments largely to the phonics check, which by design (as the open letter originally argued) tests the method of synthetic phonics exclusively. The check is also methodologically broken, but I think the letter makes that argument just fine.

        Do you believe that for any particular reason?

        3. Here I think quoting out of context puts you in danger of misrepresenting my case. The point is that ‘learning styles’ is an easy target: no-one I know will seriously defend that fad. My case for the complex situated judgement of teachers rests rather on the infinite contingency of the classroom situation, taking in all sorts of factors and including the complex prior experience and awareness of each individual student. You don’t knock that down by knocking down learning styles. I believe you are aware of the nature of a ‘straw man’ argument.

        Again, I think this is a point I addressed fairly directly. The nonsense of learning styles is not, in itself, reason to reject your argument. It is, however, ample illustration of why evidence should be required in such cases.

        4. We are, at least, agreed on this point. “The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively”. This will indeed deter teachers from acting in ways that do not promote (systematic synthetic) phonics knowledge. I think it is important to add: even if those ways of acting might themselves promote literacy.

        Feel free to assert whatever you like, as long as you don’t expect others to agree.

        5. I have argued that teachers engage with educational research; they can and should also conduct their own. I have also argued that they should do so with a sensitivity to the way that academic researchers normally communicate their findings: as a piece of a much bigger and varied endeavour that might shed some light on a particular issue of classroom practice, rather than as warrant for the wholesale imposition of some particular technique.

        That doesn’t really explain why they should ignore good evidence.


  2. Good argument. Seems perfectly reasonable to use phonics as the baseline given clear research evidence of its benefit in increasing the numbers learning to read. The practical challenge is how to get people to accept this and how to make sure that some flexibility is maintained for individual circumstances. I’m not saying individual circumstances means requires different teaching methods. It’s more that if phonics becomes an absolute panacea anyone who still has difficulty in reading will be labelled stupid and that is not at all necessarily the case. It can ruin their life even more than the reading issue itself. My view is that the evidence will speak loudest if presented entirely objectively and without either getting drawn into emotional rhetoric or vilifying people that are religiously opposed. It’s difficult to do but confrontation is more likely to further entrench opposition than win people over.


    • Surely, the whole point is that denialists ignore objective evidence? They will also ignore arguments however they are presented. The debate is not about persuading them; it’s about holding them to account and preventing them from doing any more harm.


      • The fundamental question is whether or not we want children to learn to read better or not. And more broadly have better lives. Who is beaten into submission proved right or wrong or ridiculed to the masses is a lot less important than achieving that objective.


        • Achieving that objective is the point. But that’s not going to be brought about by persuasion alone. The argument for phonics has been won before, only for the denialists to subvert the implementation. Obvious examples being the 1997 Labour manifesto saying “We will encourage the use of the most effective teaching methods, including phonics for reading and whole class interactive teaching for maths” or the decision reported here: http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2006/mar/21/politics.schools

          It is time for advocates of phonics to stop winning the argument but losing the match. It is time to confront the denialists every step of the way until they feel like their every lie, every distortion, every attempt to stop good practice, will be noticed and challenged. It is pointless to objectively give them the facts. They have had the facts since 1967. It is time to stand up to them properly and that means asking “why are you lying?” when they lie; asking “how does that make sense?” when they obfuscate, and “how does that argument add up?” when they engage in sophistry. Appeasement has failed and led to many more children being failed.


          • Your language is confrontational, your blog title is so I guess that is what you believe works. Good luck.


          • Perhaps one day you explain why you only make this sort of observation about traditionalists who show even the slightest hint of being combative, but praise progressives who are outright abusive.


        • I think you are underestimating the political/ideological basis of a lot of the most vocal phonics resistance. People like Andrew Davis are against phonics primarily because they have an ideological belief in Whole Language, which is strongly politically motivated. I have read many exchanges with this kind of politically-motivated Whole Language advocate over the years, and what I have seen is people who are completely resistant to evidence and reasoned argument. In addition, as OldAndrew says, they usually resort to distortion, half-truths, and fallacious rhetoric to defend their beliefs, along with often personal attacks. Prof. Kerry Hempenstall has written about this in his excellent article about Whole Language:
          “So, if one’s political belief about whole language is that it must be the truth, then those disagreeing with WL as effective must be wrong. Further, the WL critics are necessarily wrong, regardless of their arguments, so they must be opposed. In the absence of strong legitimate arguments against them, recourse to vitriol and accusation becomes necessary.” The article is a bit long, but it gives a good insight into the nature of this phenomenon. http://nifdi.org/news/hempenstall-blog/441-part-1-whole-language-what-was-that-all-about

          I think


  3. Sorry, that was intended to be addressed to IanLynch


  4. My meagre research shows that most practicing teachers are a lot more reasonable than the warring idealogues. Setting out a scene that looks like the Crusaders fighting Saladdin is going to make most people see it as a war not based on evidence but based on conviction. I agreed it is a good argument, it’s a shame if it is less than effective because of the way it is presented.


    • Most practising infant teachers already think phonics works. The ones who don’t seem unlikely to be persuaded by argument, however politely phrased. An excellent book by two psychologists focusses on the problem of defenses against cognitive dissonance:

      “Mindless self-justification, like quicksand, can draw us deeper into disaster. It blocks our ability to even see our errors, let alone correct them. It distorts reality, keeping us from getting all the information we need and assessing issues clearly. ….And it keeps many professionals from changing outdated attitudes and procedures that can be harmful to the public.”

      They focus on the “caring” professions in particular, and on how many practitioners seem unable to accept that methods they had used were wrong and harmful, because to do so would mean admitting they had damaged those in their care, no matter that it was unintentional. http://www.amazon.com/Mistakes-Were-Made-But-Not/dp/0156033909/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1404889300&sr=1-1&keywords=mistakes+were+made+but+not+by+me

      This is one reason why I think it is important that teachers should know that they have been lied to and misled about the evidence, for essentially political/ideological reasons. This can perhaps give them an out by allowing them to realise that they are not to blame for believing what they have been told by people with an agenda.


    • Then why have you praised abusive posts by those of a less evidence based persuasion? I’ve seen you respond to a blogger calling somebody a knob with:

      Some balanced sanity at last. Ok a bit emotionally charged but at least you are not trying to pretend you are describing pure science.

      Why such a blatant double-standard?


  5. I have long since realised the futility of trying to persuade ardent critics of phonics and/or the Year One phonics screening check that their views may not be justified or sufficiently informed.

    But I continue to chip in with one contribution or another because, in a sense, I am trying to advocate for teachers who are working really hard to become more effective teachers – and some of these at least are excited and motivated by some common measure of their effectiveness. They see the possibilities and value of year-on-year improvements being made tangible because of the use of a snapshot measure that is common to all.

    And I am advocating for the children themselves. Imagine the stark contrast between the reading empowerment of children who can ALL read virtually ALL the words in the Year One phonics screening check – compared to settings where barely a third of the children are adept at lifting the words off the page. This is no small thing.

    It is important, therefore, that others – not only the phonics detractors – have a presence in the media. It is not a case of wanting to appear comic-like to the outside world appearing as warring factions. Clearly this is an undesirable state of affairs.

    Sometimes there are simply some people that I will no longer converse with because of the impossibility of the situation – a stalemate as evidenced by the level of complaint – but neither do I wish to withdraw from promoting both an evidence-based view and one, as Andrew Old reasonably suggests, is also a common-sense position – and a position that can, despite the detractors’ criticisms, be objectively measured.


  6. “It does not, however, rule out any part of learning to read that doesn’t discourage paying attention to phonics.”

    Sorry, Andrew, you are wrong here. SSP rules out using the phonics of ‘onsets’ and ‘rimes’. It exclusively allows for the use of ‘phonemes’ only and not any other phonological parts of words.

    “If a “method” involves either learning or guessing words using something other than the phonetic information in the word (thereby discouraging use of SSP) then it has no place in SSP, but that is all that is “exclusivist” about SSP.”

    But SSP excludes other phonological segments, syllables, “body’ and ‘coda’ as well as ‘onsets’ and ‘rhymes’ and consonant clusters.

    Quote from the RRF website
    “Synthetic phonics teaching is generally at the level of the ‘phoneme’ (single sound) and not onset and rime (e.g. tr-ick, fl-ap) or consonant clusters (e.g. bl, sp, scr, -nd, – mp, -st) or word families (e.g. cake, make, take, flake).”

    http://www.rrf.org.uk/pdf/Final_03__The_Synthetic_Phonics_Teaching_Principles%2011-2-10.pdf

    “The confusion comes from the habit denialists have of rebranding guessing and whole word learning as things like “mixed methods”.

    It is the SSP proponents who rebrand SSP as ‘mixed methods’ when any of the above occur, not people you define as ‘denialists’.


    • Sorry, Andrew, you are wrong here. SSP rules out using the phonics of ‘onsets’ and ‘rimes’. It exclusively allows for the use of ‘phonemes’ only and not any other phonological parts of words.

      I think I referred directly to SSP ruling out “memorising a large chunk of a word”, for the obvious reason that if you are learning the chunk you aren’t learning the phonemes that make it up. Perhaps there are parts of what I wrote where I didn’t make that distinction clear enough, but it seems to be covered by the bit you quoted. Memorising larger chunks will discourage decoding, just as memorising whole words will.


      • “The confusion here probably comes from being unfamiliar with Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is about learning to decode written words using the phonetic information in them. This is incompatible with methods of identifying words that ignore some or all of the phonetic information. So this rules out trying to recall the whole word (or a large chunk of a word) as if it was a hieroglyph.”

        You use the the term ‘phonetic information’. Phonetics is the study of speech. The smallest units of speech are syllables. These are phonological units, (phonetic units …. sound units ) These units are not used as hieroglyphs. They are ‘sound’ units (classed as ‘a waste of time’ by Maggie D), but they are nevertheless useful ‘phonetic information’ within a word. In particular, children have to learn which blended consonant pairs are ‘legal’ in English. What is wrong with helping children to learn them? They are also the content of Phase 4 of Letters and Sounds, the government’s own programme. How do SSP advocates square this?


        • “The smallest units of speech are syllables. ”

          The smallest speech sounds are phonemes. I know that a distinguished linguist has queried the existence of phonemes from a linguistic point of view; Davis seized on this for his ridiculous ‘paper’ and the matter has been interminably argued about on 3 very long TES threads. So let’s not start again here.

          It is worth noting that many countries which have more transparent phoneme/grapheme correspondences teach reading in the SP manner; i.e by teaching the sound (phoneme) each symbol represents and how to blend the sounds to produce the spoken word. I doubt if they would take Davis’ message about the non-existance of phonemes particularly seriously, nor change their extremely effective method of teaching reading because of it. For the practical purpose of learning to read the phoneme does exist and forms the basis of instruction in countries far more sensible than many English speaking ones.

          I do really wonder if some of the people on the ‘other side’ of the phonics debate are ascribing the same meaning to words that I am. I tried to make it clear to you, karmala, in my last post, that it is UNNECESSARY to teach larger units of language because working from the phoneme level enables children to decode and blend any sequence of letters of any size. As this is so, they do not have to be specifically ‘taught’ larger units of language. Particulary when teaching larger units adds considerably to the cognitive load.
          Can you tell me which bit of that you didn’t understand? Can you explain what advantage there is to teaching ‘syllables’ if children are already able to ‘read’ them by decoding and blending? What exactly is the actual purpose of teaching larger units?


          • Although basic decoding skills are unquestionably best taught from the phonemic level, I’d qualify this with two observations. First, when teaching children to blend, we begin with oral exercises. This reduces the load on working memory. We have a page with pictures of a dog, a cat and a man. First we ask the child to point to the cat/dog/man. The we ask them to point to the d-og, the c-at or the m-an. Lastly, we ask them to point to the m-a-n, the c-a-t and the d-o-g. When our programme was being evaluated by the DfE, it was rejected for the pedantic point that the second step was ‘onset and rime’. We put it there simply because a few beginners will struggle if you start with the third step (or merely omit the second step). We’ve yet to find a child who was unable to grasp the concept of blending quickly and easily with this small deviation from the concept of ‘pure’ synthetic phonics.

            Secondly, once the pupil is fully able to decode single-syllable words, we use a morphemic strategy. This finesses the problem of unstressed syllables. First, we teach prefixes and suffixes, and later we teach a large range or morphemes. Our ‘Wordbuilders’ will start, for example, with a single morpheme which the pupil can generally decode–say the morpheme ‘cept’. Then we add morphemes: concept; conception, misconception. After four such examples, the pupil will read sentences with the target word,

            Feedback we have had from teachers has been unanimously enthusiastic. But it has to be said that we are using units larger than phonemes, albeit long after blending skills have been thoroughly mastered. But it never pays to be too pedantic on points of principle–there is nothing holy about synthetic phonics. If I ever found something that worked better, I’d be among the first to apostasise. This said, it’s pretty difficult to conceive what that might be.


          • “The smallest speech sounds are phonemes.” Phonemes are the smallest detectable units in speech that convey a difference in meaning. Doesn’t make any difference to what you’d teach, because smaller speech units wouldn’t be detectable or need to be known, but speech sounds can be broken down into smaller units than phonemes.


  7. “But SSP excludes other phonological segments, syllables, “body’ and ‘coda’ as well as ‘onsets’ and ‘rhymes’ and consonant clusters.”

    Well, of course it does, karmala, because it is a waste of time and effort to teach these ‘units’. If you are teaching at the phoneme level and how to decode and blend phonemes into words all the other ‘phonological segments’ you instance will be encompassesd in this decoding and blending. What a waste of time to teach that ‘b’ (letter) = /b/ (sound) and that ‘r'(letter) = /r/ (sound) and then that ‘br’ =/b/ +/r/ when with SP children would already know how to blend the two sounds.

    Teaching the 44 (ish) ‘sounds’ and the 160 – 180 common spellings of the ‘sounds’ puts the least load on memory. ‘Blends’ and the other units you favour put far more load on memory. I believe that there are over 300 onset/rimes alone in English, add the ‘blends’ to that, + even just the simple one to one correspondences and you have something in the region of 400 -500 items to teach. As opposed to SP’s 200 – 230.

    Can people not see that SP is the most efficient and economical way of teaching the phonic knowledge which children need to be effective readers?


  8. “People like Andrew Davis are against phonics primarily because they have an ideological belief in Whole Language, which is strongly politically motivated.”

    I can’t find any evidence whatever for this claim in any Davis publication I’ve come across. Nor can I discover any clues as to his political beliefs.

    “To Read or not to Read’ says that categorising teaching approaches as SP, Analytic Phonics and ‘whole language’ fail to identify anything with the precision required for research that could possibly justify limiting teacher judgement about how to teach reading. This, as I understand it, is not to be against evidence-based teaching – it’s rather to promote a sophisticated understanding of how practice should relate to evidence, and what can possibly count as evidence in the first place. There are some extremely naive ideas out there about this issue – Hepplewhite is one obvious example of this.

    “To Read or not to Read” repeatedly mentions its support for phonics. This support is dismissed by SP adherents who want their approach employed exclusively in intensive first and fast lessons – so they refuse to count Davis’s support as support! Whatever you think about that, repeatedly favouring phonics in a publication is hardly compatible with an ideological belief in Whole Language.


    • I’m fairly certain I covered why it was more than a little odd to label approaches that suggest ignoring some of the phonetic information in a word, as “phonics”.


    • Well said, Jackie. Your summary of Davis’s position is well expressed and accurate.


  9. Jacqueline Cryan – you keep referring to me as ‘Hepplewhite’ even when we are contributing directly to the same threads. That speaks volumes I suggest.


  10. No serious researcher disputes that good readers can decode print to sound effortlessly and automatically. If anyone actually believes that this skill is more effectively learnt when it is not explicitly taught, it is up to them to produce the evidence–and it cannot be done. Teaching reading is the most thoroughly researched topic in education, and meta-analyses have consistently demonstrated that explicit teaching of the spelling code produces the best results.
    However, the failure of SSP to have a greater impact is in part due to those who have presented it as some kind of a ‘magic bullet’. As Andrew has pointed out, children with poor working memory and other learning difficulties require a lot of over-learning; in some cases even the most skilled and persistent teaching takes months to produce measurable gains. Needless to say, this why we have a problem: because of their training, most infant teachers will give up far too soon. The belief that some children ‘can’t learn phonics’ is still widespread.
    Andrew Adonis didn’t help matters by commissioning Letters and Sounds and distributing it free of charge to all primary schools. This had the effect of freezing out existing phonics programmes with proven track records. Even worse, it was a one-speed programme which made no allowances for pupils with even the most mild learning difficulties. You can hardly blame teachers for concluding that SSP was vastly over-rated.
    I think the phonics check was a big mistake, and I did my best to convince Nick Gibb of this. I have long advocated the use of standardised tests at 6+, and I think this would have met far less resistance. This would have provided the kind of evidence we need; teachers would see the difference in results and they would make up their minds for themselves–far better than just telling them to ‘do this’ and ‘do that’. With modern Computer Adaptive Testing it is possible to design tests which can be used repeatedly with minimal practice effect–it would not be possible to ‘teach the test’ without teaching the skill. In a matter of a few years, the question would be settled. The phonics check merely prolongs the debate needlessly–it certainly does very little to convince sceptical teachers to use SSP, as the results clearly show.


  11. There’s a lot of good sense in your contribution.

    I would disagree with your implied association of explicit SP teaching with decoding print to sound effortlessly and automatically. The SP teaching enables pupils to associate each letters and/or letter group with either one sound or a range of possible sounds, and encompasses training and demonstration of blending, but it requires more than this to achieve the effortless and automatic decoding of print to sound – unless you are talking about nonwords alone.

    Teaching the ‘spelling code’ is part of the picture but not the whole story. That this is true is effectively demonstrated by the fact that English is an opaque orthography. Therefore graphemes and phonemes have ambiguity. Decoding them may not allow an arrival at the correct word, and at the very least will cause a delay at arriving at the correct word if, as we are led to believe, readers have to try out alternatives for ‘best fit’.

    This last point highlights the necessity, for effortless and automatic decoding, of an adequate vocabulary in conjunction with an SP technique. To find ‘best fit’ the reader needs to know the word in question and its meaning.

    In addition, reading practice is so important in achieving the automaticity you mention that it is unwise to ignore it as a factor. Reading practice is not a given result of explicit SP teaching; it requires all sorts of motivations, invitations and the investment of time. It requires, fundamentally, the opposite of nonwords – it requires that the reader is drawn in by the meaning of the text.

    I agree with you that the phonics check should be abandoned, not only because it is a shambles even as a check on phonics knowledge – its declared purpose – but because it has the capacity to steal the motivations, invitations and time of teachers and pupils.

    The usual response to this idea that children need to read in order to be able to read is that they don’t stand much chance if they can’t ‘lift the words off the page’ (I think that means work out the pronunciation – which incidentally is not just about phonics in English anyway). But I would agree – decoding is an essential part of reading – but it is not sufficient, and skill in decoding does not result in skill in reading. Besides ‘lifting the words off the page’ the reader needs to reflect on the text in their minds, make multiple connections with the world they know and other texts encountered and be interested enough to want to do so.

    The problem with SP is not a problem with it as a strategy, it is a problem with it as a method. Your post stops short of saying that SSP proponents are their own worst enemies, but I would suggest they are. Perhaps this is because they felt stuck out on a limb a decade or so ago and are still practising the consequent hard-chinned combativeness. The principles of SSP are reminiscent of regimental commands, and the attitude of the RRF to expressions of scepticism has been stony-faced intransigence. This alienates possible allies. After all, we all share a common purpose of wanting pupils to learn to read.


    • There’s a fundamental level of unreality in all of the posts which claim that there’s a lot more to reading than decoding skills. This is true if you consider ‘reading’ to be a holistic skill. It is not. Vocabulary and knowledge are essential to understanding oral language as well as written language. They can be taught orally–and in the case of infants, they almost have to be. Until decoding skills catch up with oral language skills, reading is a very inefficient way of teaching new words and concepts. Defining ‘reading’ as ‘understanding’ effectively means that everything children do in school is learning to read.

      Fluency is largely a function of how many times the pupil has encountered a spelling pattern or a word. At first, these have to be sounded out. Slow readers may need quite a few exposures to spelling patterns and individual words before they can be recognised effortlessly and automatically. It is also necessary to use phonetically-graded readers.

      Opponents of SSP seem to think that our pupils spend all day doing drills–with our Sound Foundations, even the hardest cases make good progress with 15 minutes of one-to-one instruction. This leaves well over 5 hours of the school day for the kind of education that really will expand children’s knowledge and understanding–to say nothing of time for unstructured activities and play. The problem with holistic practices is that they try to do everything at once. I’ve spent a goodly portion of my life rescuing children whose Reception teachers didn’t understand that teaching decoding skills is simple, and that once these are in place the child has the ability to read anything he can understand. As Keith Stanovich demonstrated in the 1980s, all academic progress tracks success in learning how to read.


  12. I agree that vocabulary and knowledge are essential to understanding oral language as well as written language. However there are significant differences between these two media.

    For most young children spoken language is about the ‘here and now’. It is accompanied by cues such as familiarity, relevant gesture, relevant surroundings and nearby objects, known routines. As shown by Robert Port pre-literate children do not distinguish individual ‘standard’ words from the flow of speech, they remember language as phrase with all the apparently redundant details of style of utterance (redundant to the idea of words held by the literate). The same words uttered with unfamiliar intonation are not as immediately known as with familiar intonation.

    We expect these children to understand familiar vocabulary when it is presented in books, and yet there are several reasons why they might not:

    The individual words may be in the child’s experience but the style of presentation may be extremely different from what they are used to, as text is presented in discrete units of letters and words. The work of Marilyn Vihman has shown that children do not ‘tune into’ discrete sounds or phonemes when they are learning language, so the idea of these discrete units has to be learnt. Of course SP does teach this, but proponents of SP are not perhaps sufficiently mindful and knowledgable of the habits of mind that children bring to text, and expect an automatic understanding of text from children just because the printed words represent spoken words used or heard by children, and the printed letters represent the sounds they (the literate teachers) happen to know are in those words.

    The text will not be supported by the cues used in conversation that I mentioned above. And yet children are expected to get by without any cues other than the grapho-phonic when reading – and that’s fine for sounding out plausibly, but not for sounding out accurately and with understanding of the text.

    The text is likely to be written in a different mode from the everyday conversations and interactions that children are used to, and use different conventions, grammar and tense. And yet children are expected to follow a story and make sense of it on the simple grounds that they can pronounce the words correctly.

    We all know that children from middle-class homes tend to be exposed to much more oral language than children from less privileged backgrounds. It is also worth considering the modes of this extra language. It is likely to contain more ‘text-type’ speech as parents explain, review and describe. There is also likely to be more exposure to books and story with the accompanied grammar and conventions and cues from pictures and sense. So these children are more prepared for understanding book-language. And yes, they tend to do better with comprehension than their less privileged classmates.

    Yes, SP gives children the decoding skills to err… decode …. text they come across, but not the skills of understanding text they come across. You are right, they have to have the right level of listening comprehension in order to read and understand text, but this listening comprehension has to be of a specialised sort which is learnt by exposure and discussion of text itself. Your splitting of reading into decoding and comprehension, with the idea, it seems, that children don’t have to understand what they decode in the early stages does not allow that children need to build up the knowledge and expectation of text which will enable them to link it to oral language of any sort, and therefore to understand it. Of course this idea is the rationale of the decoding check – children do not need to understand in order to decode text. That’s true but it does not reflect the reality of reading. In this respect, it is your conception of reading that is fundamentally unreal.

    I don’t know where you get the reference to Stanovich from, but I’m pretty sure he would want any ‘reading’ he mentions to include the idea of understanding. Learning how to read includes learning how to understand the specialised language which is found in books.

    The concept of ‘fluency’ suffers from a lack of clear definition as I think I have mentioned elsewhere in my comments on this series of blog posts (Share notes it in his paper on Anglocentricity). Don’t we want real fluency to be defined as more than automatic response to each word (“lifting the words off the page”)? Don’t we want it to mean reading (not necessarily aloud) in a style which conveys meaning and syntax? It’s not of much use otherwise. And meaning in texts is not purely a function of each word but of groups of words – phrases, sentences, paragraphs, whole texts. This fluency requires an understanding of what is being read.

    So I don’t apologise for adopting a holistic view of reading, in which all the aspects necessary to understanding are taught. But I agree that phonics is only one of those elements, and that it can be taught discretely. But only as long as the other elements are given due regard. Is this government and the prevalent pro-phonics climate giving all the aspects of reading due regard? Not while children presented with words and texts are only required to decode them.

    Decodable books are all very well and have their place but their purpose is not the teaching of children to read, is it?


    • It would not appear that Robert Port has a lot of experience with young children learning to talk, or indeed with linguistics. Mothers normally emphasis single words when teaching children to speak, and children’s first utterances are single words. They progress noun-verb combinations like “mummy go”. Children understand grammatical structures from an early age; witness the common overgeneralisation of rules, such as “she hitted me”. I think Port must have decided on a conclusion and designed his study to produce the desired results (not at all uncommon in educational research).

      The belief that children must have speaking and listening skills before learning to read is one of the most pernicious myths in education. When Southampton SEN advisers were trialing our Bear Necessities as a Wave 3 intervention, they noted that schools were reluctant to include pupils in the pilot unless their communication skills were at a level they considered adequate.

      The report stated that

      “Preliminary conversations with teachers had identified poor language acquisition as a potential barrier to progress in reading. … below average pupils made at least average progress in reading after 6 months. This data also raises concerns about professional confidence in identifying barriers to learning and whether such an approach can lead to low expectations for pupils.”

      Direct instruction is a highly-interactive process which is at the heart of SSP, and it builds oral language skills rapidly. This enables children to read text far sooner than they do when holistic approaches are used. The mystery here is that you and your ilk seem to think that we are just mechanical robots who are indifferent to the educational outcomes you cherish. Nothing could be further from the truth.

      It really is all down to a very simple question: do children learn to read text more quickly with SSP? The very first paper I wrote in 1996 looked at the results of Woods Loke Primary School in Lowestoft, an ordinary working-class school with average social indicators and an intake virtually devoid of pre-reading skills (11 out of 25 pupils in the 1995 intake were unable to identify a single letter). Yet on the Suffolk Reading Test–which is a test of reading comprehension–Woods Loke was among the highest-scoring schools in Suffolk. Looking at their 8+ results from 1991 to 1995, only 1.8% of their pupils had a standard score below 80, and all of these had transferred in after Reception. In Suffolk as a whole 14.3% scored below 80. To argue against SSP in the face of results like that is sheer perversity. Indeed, Suffolk advisers have reversed their original reluctance to embrace SSP, and are now among the keenest supporters of our materials.


  13. Would you point out the faults in Robert Port’s research methodology, please. I think that is essential if you are going to reject his findings. As I understand it Port’s work shows that pre-literate individuals hear and copy all sorts of utterances: single words; phrases; sentences. But they don’t have a concept of a word, and certainly not of an individual sound, as this is a function of literacy.

    Certainly poor language skills have no effect on decoding phonically as I mentioned above, but they do have an effect on reading acquisition if the understanding of language is at a level which is not matched to the reading material: that is self-evident. I have never suggested that decoding should not be taught because children do not have adequate language skills, and as far as I know neither has anyone ‘of my ilk’, but would argue that an over-emphasis on phonics, as encouraged by the present government through various measures, can take much needed attention away from the other elements of reading in favour of a narrow,well actually inaccurate, view of what reading is.

    I am not perverse in my scepticism about results from classroom research. I haven’t looked at your paper but have looked at the classroom research promoted as firm evidence in favour of SSP from the RRF and the Rose review, and have found that it is not secure.

    It is unfortunate that your initially very reasonable posts have reached a stage when you have to reject research without stating an objective reason, use language such as ‘perverse’ and imply that I am promoting a ‘pernicious myth’ which I haven’t promoted. I understand your frustration arises from your enthusiasm and belief when it comes to SP. However, I also see the benefits of SP as a strategy, as I have stated several times. I am simply not prepared to ignore the obvious cracks in the SP method which is invading English schools at present. It’s important that there is debate. It would be good if it could be expressed respectfully all round.


    • I have never looked at Robert Port’s research methodology–I have better things to do with my life than criticise studies which are so obviously at odds with not only my extensive experience as a parent, but also with the basic findings of linguistics.

      When I first became interested in reading pedagogy–as a result of my son’s disastrous failure in school and his remarkable recovery once taught with SSP–I was an undergraduate at the UEA studying English History. I ended up spending as much time in the education stacks as in my own subject. Vast numbers of books supported the concept of ‘reading readiness’, which was then the standard excuse for reading failure. One of the studies which was used to support this Piagetan nonsense was one which found that children failed the ‘phoneme deletion’ test until the age of 7 if not later. It later transpired that a lot of skilled adult readers also failed the phoneme deletion test.

      In any case, I have spent a fair amount of time in Ruth Miskin’s classrooms at Kobi Nazrul, and have seen with my own eyes the falsity of claims that Reception pupils are too young to learn phonics. Her school was one of the happiest I’ve ever visited, and believe me I have visited a lot of very good schools. In 1999 I tested her 9-year-olds to counter the common belief that SSP produced early gains, but they faded later. On average her pupils were 22 months ahead of norms on Young’s Parallel Spelling Test. I’m sorry, but I just prefer to trust the evidence of my own eyes and ears rather than rely upon research produced by educators with an agenda.


  14. You’ve got the wrong end of the stick re Robert Port. Maybe that’s my fault for the way I have presented his ideas. His studies are about the way language is held in memory. And he is far removed from any educational agenda. I very much doubt if he has a view on methods of teaching reading, except to say that it is an impressive formal skill about understanding symbol and convention. Like myself, he would probably be in favour of methods that enable children to “lift words off the page” and understand them. Who wouldn’t be? But his studies advance the task of finding what reading truly consists of as a skill.

    I have found that many pro-SSP individuals frame the argument as an argument between whole language methods and SSP, and use discredited ideas from the whole language stable as sticks to attack anyone who is sceptical about the SSP agenda being followed in this country at the moment. It would be more helpful if they would take on board what many sceptics are saying, which is not a championing of whole language methods. Davis has written that he would be equally as critical of a whole language method imposed by the government on teachers as he is of SSP. Pro-SSP parties have largely fails to pick up on that point.

    I haven’t read any point of view that dictates that reception class is too young to learn phonics. You are attacking something which has not been said. One would almost think, from the above post, that you were framing the argument to serve your own conclusions instead of engaging with the arguments stated by those who oppose what you support, which appears to be the government imposition of SSP in English schools. I believe that is to the detriment of children’s reading education.

    The NFER review of the phonics check (2014) suggests that it is not significant to SATs results whether or not the school is enthusiastic about synthetic phonics. Pehaps the overall quality of a school (including Kobi Nazrul) has more impact on pupil results than the way they teach early reading, but as far as I know this has not been the subject of research in the same way as the SSP method has been. So my conclusion there is as anecdotal as your reliance in the evidence of your own eyes.

    http://www.cs.indiana.edu/~port/teach/641/Port.words.stord.mem.NIP.2007.pdf


    • The NFER review of the correlation between results on the phonics check and SATs results is hardly surprising. The 2009 KS2 Reading Test awards 23 out of a possible 50 points for items which test ‘emotional intelligence’ – or predicting how fictional characters might have felt or acted. The passages pupils read involve an eco-home and a child’s tree house: they need not know anything that could not be learnt from watching television. In other words, our exam boards seem quite happy to reduce education to the level of a soap opera. The tests are biased in favour of children from middle-class homes. They are strongly biased against boys and children with autistic-spectrum disorders. They have been
      stripped of almost all traditional academic content – they could more aptly be considered psychometric tests.


  15. They were referring to the KS1 results. The tests aren’t perfect but they are designed to test reading skill, whereas the phonics check is designed to test decoding only.


  16. “I have never looked at Robert Port’s research methodology–I have better things to do with my life than criticise studies which are so obviously at odds with not only my extensive experience as a parent, but also with the basic findings of linguistics.”

    Hmm! Port.. an American linguistics researcher of longstanding international repute, as far as I can tell – with no connections to any ‘side’ in the reading wars. Burkard’s own grasp of contemporary linguistics begins to look a little shaky.

    It’s also interesting that he mentions his extensive experience as a parent as significant in the debate.

    Yet when teachers say from their extensive experience as teachers that they don’t want to be denied the professional freedom to make decisions about how, when and whether to employ synthetic phonics, their concerns are dismissed. While parental experience is important, it might be thought that professional teaching experience should carry at least as much weight when reaching verdicts about what should happen in early reading lessons.

    Incidentally, many of us have direct and indirect experience as parents of children subjected to systematic phonics teaching, experience that differs from Burkard’s. Some of our experiences are very unhappy, to say the least. If the check were abolished, and the National Curriculum programmes of study included delicate insertions of ‘normally’ together with comments such as ‘Such and such phonics approaches are important, but the teacher retains the freedom to make flexible pedagogical and curriculum decisions as appropriate’ then at least one stimulus for the reading wars would be extinguished.


    • Jacqueline–I agree that the phonics check was ill-judged, and I tried my best to convince Nick Gibb to introduce cloze tests similar to the London Reading Test or the Suffolk Reading Scale, but enough parallel forms to make it impossible to teach the test without teaching the skill. So long as results for individual schools were published and parents were given norm-reference scores for their own child, I would agree that teachers should be perfectly free to teach however they wished. I do not have the slightest doubt but that in a very short period of time it would become crystal clear that synthetic phonics is by far the best means of teaching children with learning difficulties, and that all children become proficient readers much sooner when phonological skills are explicitly and thoroughly taught.
      I have spent the last quarter century rescuing children whose teachers believed that some pupils ‘can’t learn phonics’. Alas, the research is crystal clear: skilled readers can decode letters to sound effortlessly and automatically, and these skills are most efficiently learnt when they are explicitly taught. As to the red herring about ‘comprehension’, I have nothing to add to what Debbie has posted.


  17. I find it extraordinary that some of the arguments against SSP are based on the notion that SSP provision is devoid of an emphasis on meaning, or that government’s promotion of SSP is all that the government promotes for reading instruction.

    Over and over and over again in these various conversations on various internet forums, I bring up the Simple View of Reading – and agree that of course SSP is focused on the teaching of the alphabetic code and the technical skills of blending for reading and oral segmenting for spelling (etc) – but of course this is not devoid of meaning from word level to text level and, of course, it is only part of a teacher’s provision as can be illustrated very clearly by the Simple View of Reading model and government’s full guidance.

    You can read any guidance from government and it makes it very clear that phonics for word-decoding is only one aspect of teaching reading – and that ‘language comprehension’ is fundamentally important – including language development and the need for a literature-rich experience.

    I get tired of the cleverly-worded arguments against SSP which brings up various suggestions to decry both the approach and the government’s promotion of the approach – but always with what does look like a wilful, deliberate failure to acknowledge the reality of the full picture of what government promotes and the full picture of what is also, of course, included within SSP teaching.

    Regarding the Year One phonics screening check, once again, there is full acknowledgement/guidance from the government that if course this is not an assessment of reading comprehension – it was never designed to be that – reading comprehension is focused upon the following year – summarised by the end of Year Two in national teachers’ assessments.


  18. If it’s not an assessment of reading comprehension then there shouldn’t be any ‘real words’, should there. Oh – wait! They aren’t real words, are they. Because real words have contexts.
    Incidentally, in conversation with some primary teachers recently I began to wonder what happens in SP Year 1 classrooms for most of the day. Because SP stuff is only 20 mins -half an hour per day, isn’t it.
    Maths and science? Use words in connection with these subjects? Even write them down, or display them on classroom walls? But the words in question might not be ‘decodable’. Oh dear! What on earth should we do? Do we let the pupils see, and possibly ‘read’ the word ‘one’, ‘two’, and even ‘eight’? Naughty, naughty..
    There might be books in the classroom that contain words that aren’t decodable. Hide them quickly!
    “Of course not!” I hear an SP adherent cry enthusiastically. “The usual straw men from our opponents. Of course teachers can be sensible, as they usually are!”
    In which case, would you kindly allow flexibility to teachers even within that sacred SP intensive 20 minutes or whatever it is.
    We know that some schools are not being flexible -despite the claims of SP that the guidelines permit them to be. Of course, it depends on your SP person – because, get them in a different mood and the request for ‘flexibility’ counts as favouring phonics denialism..


    • Interestingly enough, a recent study found that the most successful schools DON’T have much plastered on their walls. Rather than creating a ‘rich learning environment’ so beloved of woolly-minded educators, all it does is distract kids from what they are doing or what the teacher is saying.

      It has long been established that infants are capable of understanding a lot of words they can’t decode. But to mimic your coy wording, “Oh dear–teachers talking! whatever next?!!”

      What stands out a mile here is an ‘expert’ who can’t accept that her pet ideas are slowly being recognised for the nonsense that they are–ideas that have left millions of children in Britain functionally illiterate. Schools using synthetic phonics have a well-documented track record in teaching virtually all children to read. That’s pretty much all that needs to be understood, and to your eternal sorrow, even the BBC seems to have taken this message on board.


      • First, two extracts from the Statutory Year 1 Programmes of Study
        Maths: read and write numbers from 1 to 20 in numerals and words.
        Science Identify, name, draw and label the basic parts of the human body and say which part of the body is associated with each sense.
        Not all of this vocabulary is decodable in any straightforward fashion:
        e.g. ‘two’, ‘one’, ‘eight’, ‘eye’, ‘touch’, ‘tongue’, ‘knee’, ‘wrist’, ‘thumb’, ‘palm’, ‘thigh’
        (Some of the irregularly spelled words are listed explicitly in the non-statutory guidance.)

        One teacher told me that a task she often gave her Year 1 pupils consisted of sheets or cards with tasks such as: ‘Draw two boats’ or ‘Draw a picture made from three squares, four triangles and eight circles.’ The objective was to support learning of the number words (and possibly other vocabulary too), in a context of reading for meaning. She put charts on the classroom wall to support this task. The charts illustrated correspondences between numerals, number words, and pictures showing that number of dots, or whatever. She would go through the charts with her pupils in direct teaching sessions. Selected pupils would carry out the tasks on cards after that. The children who couldn’t yet read some of the number words were supposed to match the words on their cards to those on the displays and hence identify the relevant number word independently of the teacher.

        I have no idea whether that chart remained on the wall all the time. I doubt it, since lots of other tasks would come up, requiring different displays to feature –and there’s finite display space.

        The Year 1 Programmes of Study don’t always speak of reading and spelling the relevant vocab. I don’t doubt that lots of good oral work is possible in connection with these. But teachers tell me that it would be difficult to exclude written work from these themes, and why would you try to exclude written work in any case? But of course, the latter might involve recognising and spelling vocabulary (possibly with the aid of charts!) that isn’t straightforwardly decodable.

        Either SP adherents concede that this is all perfectly acceptable, or they don’t. If the latter, there’s something very odd going on. It means that the National Curriculum requirements are, in effect internally inconsistent, and it also defies common sense. If, on the other hand, the kind of work in maths illustrated above is considered to be educationally acceptable by SP people then I ask you yet again: WHY the apparently rigid requirements about what is to happen in the intensive phonics sessions? Let’s have it made absolutely explicit that what happens there is a matter for properly informed professional decision making on the teacher’s part.

        I don’t understand the reference to plastering the walls with displays. What’s that got to do with what I said? Nor do I understand your reference to my ‘expertise’. I am always open about the fact that I am a professional scientist. I am not an early years teacher. My parents and some of my children were and are teachers. So I don’t claim to draw on expertise of the kind that a practising teacher would have, but to be able to think clearly and logically about current policy, and to draw on conversations with practising teacher over many years.


  19. Yes, having lots of stuff on the walls was the orthodoxy for a long time, as usual dictated from above. I remember being told I should have questions written up for nursery children by one OFSTED chap. He just shrugged when I mentioned that they were unable to read. Clearly it was just something for which he had a box to tick. Sadly, SSP is being adopted in just such a way. Instead of being a useful tool used rationally and appropriately it’s become a stick to beat teachers with.

    Children are able to understand a lot of speech, but this is different from knowing a lot of words they can’t decode, or indeed that they can decode. They understand words in the rich context of speech and conversation; it really is too simplistic to assert this means they understand words written on cards devoid of context, or words in texts they have laboriously decoded to an approximation. Instead of being rude to Jackie Cryan about the state of her expertise perhaps you should review your own.


    • Andrew has already commented that rudeness by one’s own side is never perceived as such. Go back and read Jackie’s post again. Indeed, look at the last line of your own.
      I have already stated repeatedly that I believe that the phonics check is ill-judged and that teachers should be free to teach however they want-so long as their results are monitored with reliable standardised tests of reading comprehension. I’ve seen what good synthetic phonics teachers do, and it’s nothing like the caricatures that are being bandied about here. If that isn’t good enough for you, there is no point in continuing this exchange.


  20. I can assure you the rudeness at the end of my post was completely deliberate. It was in response to yours, which I identified for you. If you like I could identify the rudeness starting up several posts ago on your part – if you have difficulty finding it yourself. This particular individual can fully recognise rudeness – in my own side and in ‘the other side’. ;-)


  21. […] @oldandrew replied to my earlier blogs on phonics here: http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/revisiting-the-debate-over-the-davis-phonics-pa… […]



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