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A Response about the Implementation of Phonics

April 7, 2013

I showed the email which featured in my last blogpost to another experienced primary teacher, one who I knew to be a vocal supporter of phonics. This is the response. Again, although the author has agreed to let me use it, it was not written as a blogpost or necessarily for publication, and any mistakes should be blamed on me, not the author.


Oh God, where to begin!

Letters and Sounds is just “guidance”. Where the flipping heck is the common sense of some headteachers?

I do have some sympathy with the writer if they were implementing Jolly Phonics well and then the school panicked and went OTT when Letters and Sounds came out. But come on, most schools said they did phonics but were mixing it with guessing and learning loads of sight words.

My school follows Ruth Miskin’s programme. The kids get 60 minutes every morning doing it and they are setted, but moved frequently if they put on a spurt of progress. Reception children start off with 30 minutes and build up as they can cope with more. We implemented this programme years ago before the government made it mandatory. We get 98% level 4 for reading, and tons at level 5, in KS2 SATs.

I agree that the phonics check is to force schools to teach phonics. It’s sad that they have to but they’ve had bloody long enough to get their fingers out voluntarily. Telling a child’s parents whether they passed or failed is not an issue; certainly 6 year olds can be labelled failures but only if all the adults involved are totally inept. It wasn’t an issue in my school. Any child that missed the pass mark is not SEN, they just hadn’t covered all the programme yet and will pass the resit in Y2.

There is a discussion to be had about setting. Jolly Phonics is a very good programme and doesn’t set, Ruth Miskin’s is equally good and does. A good focus for some research.

Letters and Sounds was designed to give schools that had no clue about phonics a free guide, an order to do things in. It’s not perfect. With the matched funding of up to £6,000 to buy in materials including complete schemes with detailed guidance, no school can have the excuse that they don’t know what to do. Some headteachers panicked; some delegated to staff who panicked. I guess the only thing you can’t legislate for is common sense.

And you do need to teach children more than one way to spell a sound ee y ea  and ay ai a-e. How else do you make sense of our spelling system?

Again there’s a debate about how many of these different ways need to be taught. Some programmes might go further than the Letters and Sounds higher phases. It is not an issue for the children if introduced logically as part of a systematic programme.

Ruth Miskin is the only literacy teaching we do in KS1 but we do do 30 minutes of guided reading every day too. Personally, I’d rather do whole class reading “for pleasure” (sorry) and practise letter formation with all students together, rather than a carousel of ” independent activities.”

But then I’m an unreconstructed sage on the stage.

I hope this helps.

At this point I’m just going to leave everything open for comments. I’d particularly like to hear from primary school teachers whose experiences match one of the two contributions or are entirely different. I might come back to this if anything interesting comes up in the comments. Thanks to both of the two contributors.

 

44 comments

  1. Teaching phonics is important but it is only one part of teaching reading and on its own cannot teach children to read. There are may ways of teaching phonics and ways other than the schemes cited all of which have been commercially produced and marketed and none of which are backed by any particular evidence or research to show their supremacy as a method. The problem with all commercial schemes is that they tend to be taken up somewhat evangelically as if they are the only approach (that’s what sells them) and at the expense of allowing teachers to use a much more sophisticated tool kit. There are generations of literate adults who learned to read before any of these schemes were promoted and who learned with pedagogies that were not scheme based. My primary teaching experience includes teaching phonics in a range of ways including my own planning and development in the context of wider reading, dialogue and vocabulary development. I also taught through the period of ‘real books’ where phonics wasn’t taught at all and children still learned to read.

    Leaning to read involves semantics, phonetics, conceptual development and metacognitive strategies. It is important to understand the relation between them and to understand the place of phonics in the overall teaching and learning of reading. It makes no sense to talk about phonics in isolation. Most boys progress better with phonics than most girls (generally – this is a bit simplification). Some children learn to read without phonics some need more than others etc etc. This isn’t a case of doing any old thing with any old child – it is a case of developing the knowledge and expertise needed to teach reading in order that expert professional judgments can be made and a wide range of and knowledge of strategies be drawn upon. This requires engaging with theories of learning to read a well as research and requires more than learning through doing (also very important) or singularly employment based apprenticeship models of learning to teach.

    There is much work, building on the pioneering work of Norman Geschwind to show that myelination of the angular gyrus region of the brain (essential for the capacity to read) is not sufficiently developed until between 5 and 7 years. It tends to be later for boys than girls, which is why boys tend to learn to read later than girls. It is also why girls are faster at developing reading skills than boys until around the age of 8 when it starts to level out. Usha Goswami, in a cross language study, found that across three European languages children who were asked to begin to read at the age of five did less well than those who were asked to read at the age of seven. Britain is the only country in Europe (and beyond) that does not take notice of this and we ask children to learn to read and to engage in formal education much earlier than anywhere else. Efforts to teach children to read before five, and before myelination is sufficiently developed is potentially counterproductive.

    There is a huge amount of very robust research about learning to read, teaching reading and the reading brain. I would be happy to put together a reading list if you genuinely want to know and understand how to teach reading. This includes strategies and approaches that have been developed with young people in prison and the remand service and ways of developing literacy with older disenfranchised and excluded groups. There is a very high rate of illiteracy in prisons and that is a whole other issue.

    I thoroughly recommend you start with Maryanne Wolf ‘s book ‘Proust and the Squid.’ It is a very entertaining and engaging read, begins with the history of language and reading, refers to research into the brain and reading and then addresses issues around dyslexia and reading dysfunctions. You might also want to read a blog post I did which is related – although not directly to these issues http://eduthink.org/2012/11/16/closing-the-poverty-gap/


    • Okay, this appears to be fairly standard phonics denialist stuff, but I’ll go through it and point out what’s wrong.

      Teaching phonics is important but it is only one part of teaching reading and on its own cannot teach children to read.

      The first claim is just the usual tactic of trying to create a “middle position” in which phonics teaching is sidelined but without actually admitting that this is what’s happening. Imagine a homeopath saying “comventional medicine is important, but it is only one part of getting better”. The claim is true, however, it provides no justification for homeopathy. There is what works well and what doesn’t and if you mix the two it isn’t compromise, pragmatism or moderation, it’s just replacing some of what works well with what doesn’t.

      The second claim is a classic straw man. Nobody who advocates phonics thinks that it is the end point of reading instruction. Vocabulary, punctuation, words with highly irregular spellings will all have to be taught. This is why phonics advocates often talk about phonics being *first*. Once you’ve mastered phonics there’s still plenty more to do, the argument is over whether mastering phonics is the priority.

      There are may ways of teaching phonics and ways other than the schemes cited all of which have been commercially produced and marketed and none of which are backed by any particular evidence or research to show their supremacy as a method. The problem with all commercial schemes is that they tend to be taken up somewhat evangelically as if they are the only approach (that’s what sells them) and at the expense of allowing teachers to use a much more sophisticated tool kit.

      It is unfortunate that attempts to drive phonics out of education left so many educators doing their own thing as private interests rather than working within the system. And it does mean that we end up with private companies competing where cooperation would have been better. But the answer to this is to train teachers in phonics teaching well enough that they are neither reliant on any particular scheme and are able to make informed judgements between schemes. It doesn’t seem to create a problem for teachers who know their stuff.

      There are generations of literate adults who learned to read before any of these schemes were promoted and who learned with pedagogies that were not scheme based.

      Again this seems to be a straw man. Schemes are used to promote phonics and provide resources but nobody claims that schemes are essential.

      My primary teaching experience includes teaching phonics in a range of ways including my own planning and development in the context of wider reading, dialogue and vocabulary development.

      Which sounds a lot like that middle position fallacy again. Nobody is against “reading, dialogue and vocabulary development” but these are easier if phonics has been mastered as soon as possible. They are not reasons to dilute phonics instruction.

      I also taught through the period of ‘real books’ where phonics wasn’t taught at all and children still learned to read.

      I learned to read during that period. But like a lot of people who successfully mastered reading at that time, I had just enough phonics tuition given to me to cope. It tended to be only those in challenging schools, with innate weaknesses affecting literacy or without educated parents who are left illiterate by phonics denialists. The able, the middle class or those in good schools where there were some “old school” teachers around, tended to cope.

      Leaning to read involves semantics, phonetics, conceptual development and metacognitive strategies. It is important to understand the relation between them and to understand the place of phonics in the overall teaching and learning of reading. It makes no sense to talk about phonics in isolation.

      But it makes perfect sense to talk about it being “first and fast” and to avoid anything with the word “strategy” in.

      Most boys progress better with phonics than most girls (generally – this is a bit simplification). Some children learn to read without phonics some need more than others etc etc. This isn’t a case of doing any old thing with any old child – it is a case of developing the knowledge and expertise needed to teach reading in order that expert professional judgments can be made and a wide range of and knowledge of strategies be drawn upon.

      This line sounds convincing until you apply it to medicine. Should doctors be using their “expert professional judgement” to bring in some voodoo as well as medicine? We know lots of teachers have been, and still are, taught phonics denialism while they are training. What effect does that have on their professional judgement? It’s not “expertise” to mix magic with medicine; it is not expertise to dilute the early acquisition phonics with strategies or skills or dispositions.

      This requires engaging with theories of learning to read a well as research and requires more than learning through doing (also very important) or singularly employment based apprenticeship models of learning to teach.

      I like the way you have separated “theories” from “research”. If the theories don’t hold up when researched then there is something wrong with the theory.

      There is much work, building on the pioneering work of Norman Geschwind to show that myelination of the angular gyrus region of the brain (essential for the capacity to read) is not sufficiently developed until between 5 and 7 years.

      Sorry, neurobabble is not an argument. Naming parts of the brain will not make voodoo work, it’s just a trick people use to sound like experts.

      It tends to be later for boys than girls, which is why boys tend to learn to read later than girls. It is also why girls are faster at developing reading skills than boys until around the age of 8 when it starts to level out. Usha Goswami, in a cross language study, found that across three European languages children who were asked to begin to read at the age of five did less well than those who were asked to read at the age of seven. Britain is the only country in Europe (and beyond) that does not take notice of this and we ask children to learn to read and to engage in formal education much earlier than anywhere else. Efforts to teach children to read before five, and before myelination is sufficiently developed is potentially counterproductive.

      There are interesting explanations out there as to why children start school at different ages in different countries without any detriment. Yours is not one of the more convincing.

      There is a huge amount of very robust research about learning to read, teaching reading and the reading brain. I would be happy to put together a reading list if you genuinely want to know and understand how to teach reading. This includes strategies and approaches that have been developed with young people in prison and the remand service and ways of developing literacy with older disenfranchised and excluded groups. There is a very high rate of illiteracy in prisons and that is a whole other issue.

      I have a reading list already I am working through. But I’d sooner stick with empirical research first. It will save me from wasting time on theories that we already know to have poor predictive power.

      I thoroughly recommend you start with Maryanne Wolf ‘s book ‘Proust and the Squid.’ It is a very entertaining and engaging read, begins with the history of language and reading, refers to research into the brain and reading and then addresses issues around dyslexia and reading dysfunctions. You might also want to read a blog post I did which is related – although not directly to these issues http://eduthink.org/2012/11/16/closing-the-poverty-gap/

      I am always going to be sceptical of anyone who tries to sell their reading theory with direct reference to the brain. It is one thing to use neuroscience to explain how the mind does what we can observe it do; it is quite another to use neuroscience to claim the mind does something other than what we observe.


      • In brief – as I am q busy –
        I am not denying the necessary and essential role of phonics teaching in learning to read. There are no grounds for labelling me a phonics denier and plonking me in one of two polarised camps. Even if you perceive the debate to be framed as some kind of parallax view (phonics promoters/phonics deniers) with no middle ground, then it would be helpful to acknowledge the movement between each side of this mobius strip (see Zizeck)

        You appear to be attacking what you perceive to be a straw man argument with another straw man. My point is that it makes no sense to talk about phonics in isolation from other aspects of learning to read. Whilst phonics advocates (and I am one) may not hold it is the end point of instruction – policy and testing do – the fact that this discussion is only about phonics is testament to that.

        There is no evidence at all that phonics has to come first and there is a great deal of evidence about the importance of talk. dialogue, speaking and listening as the necessary precursors to reading. Both the Cambridge Primary Review and the Rose review emphasise this. see for eg http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads_/news/2012/02/2012_02_20DfE_oracy_Alexander.pdf

        You may well dismiss the research evidence drawn together in this report (a review of evidence re teaching reading)(http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads/pdfs/UKLA_Teaching_Reading.pdf) on the grounds that Michael Rosen has written the introduction – but it is based on evidence (I assume that your desire to consider evidence includes all of it.) There is further evidence of these claims in Barking and Dagenham where David Reedy (chair of UKLA) has implemented strategies based on this evidence and significantly and consistently raised reading attainment and language attainment across the borough.

        If you are concerned with predictive evidence (whatever that means here) then it is interesting to note that literacy levels in the UK did not significantly change (a small blip here and there) between 1948 and 1996 over which period there have been all sorts of approaches to teaching reading and for which it is hard to correlate methods against results – either way the outcome has remained virtually the same. It will be interesting to see if a very specific type of systematic phonics (synthetic) changes this but we wont know that for some years to come. see the report here: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000650.htm

        A systematic review of the evidence on teaching reading carried out by the DfES shows that there is at the moment no evidence (and not enough evidence to form a view) to favour synthetic above analytic approaches to teaching phonics and no evidence to show that phonics comes first (I really do think you need a bit of experience in a primary classroom to get this point). see https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/RB711.pdf

        The evidence that you are probably alluding to re synthetic phonics (although I note that you do not substantiate many of your claims) such as the Clackmanshire study needs to be considered alongside other follow up research with that same group of children that showed that by age 11 they were two or more years behind their peers in reading comprehension (see Johnson and Watson; McGuiness).

        I agree that there is a lot of neurobollocks around. However, myelination and reading is evidence of a different nature and I do think you should read the research before dismissing it. It is also the case that in every european country apart from the UK children do not formally start to learn to read until around 7 years and there are very good reasons why this policy has been so widely adopted. Children are not physiologically ready for reading at the early ages we try to get them to and some develop much later than others. I did cite a study that illustrates this and furthremore a study with predictive functions.

        You are making a lot of unqualified assumptions about who did or did not benefit from the ‘real book’ era – although ‘common sense’ would suggest there may be a drift of truth in the claim it is exactly the same for phonics – those from disadvantaged starting points don’t do so well and data supports this (do read my blog post on this for a more illustrated case). I am not advocating the ‘real books’ era or holding it up as exemplary (it lacked phonetic input) but I taught in East London at the time (and always have) in some areas of high language deprivation (and I don’t mean EAL here – that is far more complex) and we did never the less get good results for reading. We also had some real high achievers in areas of creative writing, critical thinking and comprehension – they were more than coping from some of the lowest starting points in the country. Anecdotal and dismissive I know but important to me and those children some of whom now have some very high powered jobs.

        One more anecdote as it was quite funny – class of 7 yr olds – I had a new girl who only spoke french and so had on my desk some french reading books for her. A very enthusiastic and hyper active boy who was having extra phonics teaching input to address reading difficulties asked during a maths lesson if he could read to me and I said he could at playtime and to choose a book he wanted to read. Playtime came and he picked a french book up off my desk and proceeded to read it with great accuracy and gusto and no idea at all that he was reading french.


        • “You may well dismiss the research evidence drawn together in this report (a review of evidence re teaching reading)(http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads/pdfs/UKLA_Teaching_Reading.pdf) on the grounds that Michael Rosen has written the introduction – but it is based on evidence (I assume that your desire to consider evidence includes all of it.)”

          I recall analsying this document when it was first published and I cannot remember there being any reference to solid, quantitative evidence (i.e the evidence phonics denialists always call for when debating the topic) in it at all. It was mostly opinion or qualitative research. Which surprised me. It surprised me that anyone should be convinced by such an unevidenced paper and that Education academics can get away with such poor work. No wonder Ben Goldacre is calling for more rigorous evidence in education!


          • The quantitative results in Barking and Dagenham speak for themselves. If you follow the ref I gave to the RCTs and evidence relating to phonics you will note that it is inconclusive as to whether synthetic or analytic phonics is best. This is the kind of research BG is advocating so do have a look. Do also note the point about the quantitative evidence that literacy levels have not changed overall since 1944.

            I would be interested in your response to the quantitative evidence that the children in the Clanarkshire synthetic phonics trials were two years and more behind their peers on reading comprehension scores at the age of 11 and if you think this is relevant or important.

            I reiterate also that I am not a phonics denialist and note that your own sweeping claims about phonics denialists (verging on the ad hominem) is unsubstantiated. You can’t on the one hand say you will not take any notice of an argument unless it is backed by quantitative evidence and then use your own opinion and perception in response – can you?

            The real issue here concerns methodology. Part of the methodological issue is about the extent to which we take a deterministic view of the human condition (i.e. the extent to which we believe that knowledge of human beings, (including how they learn and demonstrate reading), can be quantitively generated) and the extent to which we hold that there is such a thing as free will (and knowledge about human beings concerns searching for meaning). This is a crude nod at a much more sophisticated but (in my view) very important debate.


        • In brief – as I am q busy –
          I am not denying the necessary and essential role of phonics teaching in learning to read. There are no grounds for labelling me a phonics denier and plonking me in one of two polarised camps.

          I am labelling you a phonics denialist because you are using the usual tactics of modern phonics denialists.

          In particular, you appear to be claiming that there are two polarised camps, one which supports the exclusive use of phonics (even after phonics have been mastered) and one which explicitly rejects all phonics.

          Now, unless you can admit that the first of these camps doesn’t exist and has never existed, and then admit that the second camp, if they still exist, are likely to switch to a “middle position” when challenged (as Michael Rosen does) then I have no choice but to conclude you are deliberately framing the debate in such a way as to rehabilitate phonics denialism as some kind of middle position between two extremes.

          Even if you perceive the debate to be framed as some kind of parallax view (phonics promoters/phonics deniers) with no middle ground, then it would be helpful to acknowledge the movement between each side of this mobius strip (see Zizeck)

          You appear to be attacking what you perceive to be a straw man argument with another straw man. My point is that it makes no sense to talk about phonics in isolation from other aspects of learning to read.

          This is the same argument as homeopaths use. They claim that they are not rejecting conventional medicine they are just being “holistic” – looking at the whole person – and claim to have some insight from looking at a large picture which the medical research showing homeopathy doesn’t work has missed.

          But, of course, if we are looking at the effectiveness of phonics then we will have to look at phonics in isolation. If we refuse to do that then we effectively ignore all evidence about the effectiveness of phonics, which is, of course, the denialist position.

          Whilst phonics advocates (and I am one) may not hold it is the end point of instruction – policy and testing do

          No, they don’t.

          – the fact that this discussion is only about phonics is testament to that.

          Another common tactic of denialists of various stripes is to use the fact they are arguing for their position as evidence that there must be good arguments for their position. In effect “by arguing against me you prove that there is an argument to be had”.

          So let’s be clear, we are not having this discussion because your claims have merit and reasonable people disagree about this issue, but because your claims are here and I would feel responsible if somebody accepted them as reasonable.

          There is no evidence at all that phonics has to come first and there is a great deal of evidence about the importance of talk. dialogue, speaking and listening as the necessary precursors to reading. Both the Cambridge Primary Review and the Rose review emphasise this. see for eg http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads_/news/2012/02/2012_02_20DfE_oracy_Alexander.pdf

          You appear to be addressing a straw man again. Nobody claims that children should learn how to read before they learn how to talk. Therefore, there is unlikely to be anyone who has collected evidence to reject that position.

          However, this does not imply that children generally need to be trained in generic speaking skills before they master phonics.

          You may well dismiss the research evidence drawn together in this report (a review of evidence re teaching reading (http://www.primaryreview.org.uk/downloads/pdfs/UKLA_Teaching_Reading.pdf)

          I won’t dismiss it, but it would help if you pointed out what you thought was convincing about it. Let’s face it, phonics denialists (and I hope you would agree that the UKLA are very much in that camp) are always putting together lists of “evidence” that don’t stand up if you actually look through them because they know nobody has time to look through every list.

          on the grounds that Michael Rosen has written the introduction – but it is based on evidence (I assume that your desire to consider evidence includes all of it.) There is further evidence of these claims in Barking and Dagenham where David Reedy (chair of UKLA) has implemented strategies based on this evidence and significantly and consistently raised reading attainment and language attainment across the borough.

          Again we are in standard denialist territory here. Last time you were claiming we should look at theory not research, now you are cherrypicking research. Were you wrong then, or wrong now?

          I can check this stuff out if you like, but it would help if you gave me a reason to think you would reconsider your position if this evidence doesn’t hold up, otherwise all you are doing is wasting my time.

          I have read dozens of denialist tracts that misrepresent or distort evidence. Is there anything different here? Is there some empirical research I am not aware of or is it simply going to be yet another attempt to reinterpret the research? If I followed the link how long would it take me to find an example of opinion falsely represented as evidence?

          If you are concerned with predictive evidence (whatever that means here) then it is interesting to note that literacy levels in the UK did not significantly change (a small blip here and there) between 1948 and 1996 over which period there have been all sorts of approaches to teaching reading and for which it is hard to correlate methods against results – either way the outcome has remained virtually the same. It will be interesting to see if a very specific type of systematic phonics (synthetic) changes this but we wont know that for some years to come. see the report here: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/documents/000000650.htm

          What did happen was a massive blooming of diagnoses of dyslexia. That doesn’t prove anything in itself, but it certainly makes one reluctant to declare the look and say fad to be harmless.

          Moreover, even if literacy turns out to have been equally poor throughout the period in question (despite consistently increasing resources) that would still cast doubt on the changes in methods over that period.

          A systematic review of the evidence on teaching reading carried out by the DfES shows that there is at the moment no evidence (and not enough evidence to form a view) to favour synthetic above analytic approaches to teaching phonics and no evidence to show that phonics comes first (I really do think you need a bit of experience in a primary classroom to get this point). see https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/RB711.pdf

          I haven’t followed that link but I’m willing to bet it’s Torgerson.

          Fairly irrelevant anyway, even if the methodology was reliable (it wasn’t) the debate has not really been about analytic versus synthetic phonics. Phonics denialists raise this distinction only to confuse matters. I’ve never yet met one who actually backed systematic phonics but analytic over synthetic. If you want to accept that systematic phonics is absolutely proven beyond a doubt and completely reject mixed methods, then we can move on to discussing the type of systematic phonics. But if you haven’t, then bringing up analytic phonics is a bit of pointless misdirection.

          The evidence that you are probably alluding to re synthetic phonics (although I note that you do not substantiate many of your claims) such as the Clackmanshire study needs to be considered alongside other follow up research with that same group of children that showed that by age 11 they were two or more years behind their peers in reading comprehension (see Johnson and Watson; McGuiness).

          That is good evidence for synthetic over analytic. It’s exclusion from Torgerson’s meta-analysis is also good reason to ignore that research. But like I say, I’m not really sure what the point of looking at the evidence for analytic versus synthetic phonics is when analytic phonics aren’t even on the agenda.

          I agree that there is a lot of neurobollocks around. However, myelination and reading is evidence of a different nature and I do think you should read the research before dismissing it.

          Do you understand how using brain scans to reject empirical evidence of learning does not work?

          It is also the case that in every european country…

          I’ll cut this bit as you just appear to be repeating yourself.

          You are making a lot of unqualified assumptions about who did or did not benefit from the ‘real book’ era – although ‘common sense’ would suggest there may be a drift of truth in the claim it is exactly the same for phonics – those from disadvantaged starting points don’t do so well and data supports this (do read my blog post on this for a more illustrated case). I am not advocating the ‘real books’ era or holding it up as exemplary (it lacked phonetic input) but I taught in East London at the time (and always have) in some areas of high language deprivation (and I don’t mean EAL here – that is far more complex) and we did never the less get good results for reading. We also had some real high achievers in areas of creative writing, critical thinking and comprehension – they were more than coping from some of the lowest starting points in the country. Anecdotal and dismissive I know but important to me and those children some of whom now have some very high powered jobs.

          It’s hard to avoid being dismissive when there is so much anecdotal evidence the other way, and the empirical evidence is so unequivocal.

          One more anecdote as it was quite funny – class of 7 yr olds – I had a new girl who only spoke french and so had on my desk some french reading books for her. A very enthusiastic and hyper active boy who was having extra phonics teaching input to address reading difficulties asked during a maths lesson if he could read to me and I said he could at playtime and to choose a book he wanted to read. Playtime came and he picked a french book up off my desk and proceeded to read it with great accuracy and gusto and no idea at all that he was reading french.

          How was he not aware? Are you going to claim that when children read something out they cannot tell if it is English words or not?


          • I can’t decide if this is more like windmills of the mind or Laing’s knots! By way of another small diversion from more significant tasks here we go for round three…

            You called me (or rather felt like accused me) of being a phonics denialist – your term. You further accused me of taking some middle ground and then you argued that it did not exist – so I could only conclude from this that you perceive there to be two camps. I do not think in such a polarised way and clearly have misunderstood if you don’t either. I don’t think polarisation is helpful other than as a learning tool. Zizeck offers one solution through his discussion of issues around determinism – free will by talking about their interdependence as akin to the interdependence of each side of a mobius strip, and describing reality as the movement between the two. I thought that might be helpful as an alternative way of looking at the positions people might take in the phonics debate. On the other hand, silly me, he is a Marxist and so likely to be of no consequence here. Maybe we could try Fukuyama for a different way of framing a range of perspectives, whatever.

            The medicine/homeopathy analogy doesn’t work (arguments by analogy rarely do and are always weak). Homeopathy and medicine are both aimed at getting people better and present a particular view of health, but they are premised on different belief systems and the knowledge of each has a different epistemological basis. Phonics and semantics are both about learning to read (one teaches decoding and one teaches meaning). They are not premised on different belief systems or different epistemologies. Phonics and semantics are about the same view of reading. Medicine and homeopathy are not about the same view of health. Medicine and homeopathy may compliment each other (or not) or they can work in parallel and be mutually exclusive. Phonics and semantics are more than complimentary – they are essential to each other and cannot be mutually exclusive to the act of reading.

            We agree that phonics is necessary to learning to read and that it is not the end point of reading instruction, so what, exactly, is your beef about?

            The French book anecdote – all that can be said is that in this case the child concerned could not distinguish between reading out loud in English and reading out loud in French for six sentences of text at which point he paused and asked me what a particular word meant. When I asked him what any of it meant he told me a story based on what the sounds he had made suggested to him was going on in the text. (creative and imaginative at least and shows an understating of linking sounds to meaning). The reading difficulties that this child had, coupled with other behavioural and learning difficulties would make this a rare case. No generalizations can be made and no policy written on the basis of this story but it did happen and so cannot be dismissed as impossible – and actually, I think it is of great interest to note rather than ignore it – it is the exceptions that have led to the science in more empirical paradigms than education research. What’s more, whatever you may think of it all, it was very funny and it amused both the child, his friends and family for some time and gave the child a certain feeling of pride in the fact that he had been able to read a French book out loud to me. What’s wrong with a child who struggles so much having some fun and feeling good and getting a bit of positive attention from his peers for a change?


  2. see also Michael Rosen blogs – particularly
    this one re teaching reading http://michaelrosenblog.blogspot.co.uk/2013/01/phonics-summary-of-my-views.html


    • If you want to convince people that you hold some middle position, and are not actually rejecting the evidence on phonics, you probably want to avoid linking to a man from the Socialist Workers Party who is repeatedly on record for having denounced phonics as “barking at print”. Michael Rosen may resort to the “middle position” fallacy when put under pressure, but he has a long record of making unequivocal statements of support for explicit phonics denialism. Like many others I have challenged him about this on Twitter and been blocked.


    • Actually, now I’ve read that blogpost properly, after the first couple of paragraphs he seems to give up on the “middle position” fallacy and lapse into outright phonics denialism anyway. He even quotes a prominent phonics denialist professor’s lies about the what the research shows.


      • Dearie me – you are a bear with a sore head!


  3. I can’t decide if this is more like windmills of the mind or Laing’s knots! By way of another small diversion from more significant tasks here we go for round three…

    You called me (or rather felt like accused me) of being a phonics denialist – your term.

    I believe that I characterised your arguments as being the usual ones of phonics denialists.

    It was in the hope that you wouldn’t waste my time with non-arguments.

    You further accused me of taking some middle ground and then you argued that it did not exist – so I could only conclude from this that you perceive there to be two camps. I do not think in such a polarised way and clearly have misunderstood if you don’t either.

    It’s a bad sign if this early on in the discussion you are trying to distort what I have already said.

    I do believe that there are people who follow the evidence and there are people who ignore it or even misrepresent it. Call that “two camps” if you like, however, it is not the same two camps of your imagination that you were trying to position your own rejection of the evidence between. After all, there is not a middle position between the truth and indifference to the truth.

    I don’t think polarisation is helpful other than as a learning tool. Zizeck offers one solution through his discussion of issues around determinism – free will by talking about their interdependence as akin to the interdependence of each side of a mobius strip, and describing reality as the movement between the two. I thought that might be helpful as an alternative way of looking at the positions people might take in the phonics debate. On the other hand, silly me, he is a Marxist and so likely to be of no consequence here. Maybe we could try Fukuyama for a different way of framing a range of perspectives, whatever.

    Or you could stop trying to reframe the discussion and simply enter the debate as you find it? After all the only argument you seemed to have for reframing the debate was based on misrepresenting the debate as it is.

    The medicine/homeopathy analogy doesn’t work (arguments by analogy rarely do and are always weak). Homeopathy and medicine are both aimed at getting people better and present a particular view of health, but they are premised on different belief systems and the knowledge of each has a different epistemological basis. Phonics and semantics are both about learning to read (one teaches decoding and one teaches meaning). They are not premised on different belief systems or different epistemologies. Phonics and semantics are about the same view of reading. Medicine and homeopathy are not about the same view of health. Medicine and homeopathy may compliment each other (or not) or they can work in parallel and be mutually exclusive. Phonics and semantics are more than complimentary – they are essential to each other and cannot be mutually exclusive to the act of reading.

    The trouble is that we obviously do have different epistemologies. For instance, I consider there to be a distinction between evidence and opinion. I believe that one’s own arguments have to be consistent in order to be believed.

    We agree that phonics is necessary to learning to read and that it is not the end point of reading instruction, so what, exactly, is your beef about?

    I believe that the evidence shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective route to learning to read. You have attempted to distort that.


  4. I thought that the Torgerson et al document would be flagged up eventually.

    ”A systematic review of the evidence on teaching reading carried out by the DfES shows that there is at the moment no evidence (and not enough evidence to form a view) to favour synthetic above analytic approaches to teaching phonics and no evidence to show that phonics comes first (I really do think you need a bit of experience in a primary classroom to get this point). see https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/eOrderingDownload/RB711.pdf

    Read these comments by Prof. Diane McGuinness:
    http://www.syntheticphonics.com/articles/Torgerson%20article.pdf

    I could have predicted that the Clackmannshire research would be flagged up too.

    ”The evidence that you are probably alluding to re synthetic phonics (although I note that you do not substantiate many of your claims) such as the Clackmanshire study needs to be considered alongside other follow up research with that same group of children that showed that by age 11 they were two or more years behind their peers in reading comprehension”

    Read this:

    The Clackmannanshire researchers Johnston and Watson say, ‘Much is made of the fact that the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire led to much greater increases in word reading and spelling skill than in reading comprehension, implying that reading comprehension did not benefit from the intervention. However, it should be noted that at the end of the seventh year at school, reading comprehension in the study was significantly above age level, in a sample that had a below average SES (socio-economic status) profile’ (RRF newsletter 59. p3)
    A follow up study by Johnston and Watson found that, ‘The children in the Clackmannanshire study (taught by the synthetic phonics method) were reading words about two years ahead of what would be expected for their age. Their spelling was six months ahead of what you would expect for their age, and their reading comprehension was about right for their age. However, although the pupils in England (taught by the NLS analytic method) from similar backgrounds were reading words about right for their age, their spelling was 4.5 months below what is expected for age, and reading comprehension was about seven months behind’ (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7147813.stm)

    And read this:

    Fact and Fiction about the Synthetic Phonics Study in Clackmannanshire
    http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=170&n_issueNumber=59


  5. Could we have a link to the ‘follow up’ research which apparently shows the Clack children 2 years behind in comprehension at age 11. It is odd as Johson and Watson found them to be 3 months ahead at the same age (P7).

    Have just dug out and reread my copy of the UKLA publication ‘Teaching Reading: What the evidence says. I stand by my previous comments.


    • I actually misread that claim. I assumed that auntiecod meant the kids doing analytic phonics were that far behind on comprehension. It didn’t occur to me for a second that someone would be trying to interpret those studies as evidence against synthetic phonics..


      • I was not trying to interpret the claim as evidence against synthetic phonics. Open you ears man – or do I need to sound it out! I do think phonics, including synthetic phonics, is important and has a place. I am not trying to argue against it. I am not denying it. There is evidence that the degree of focus on synthetic phonics has been to the detriment of comprehension development (and I will check the source and get back to you). That doesn’t mean the thing itself is bad but that the balance of things isn’t right and that we need a mixed economy. See my response to Maggie D below.


        • This is just getting silly now. You claimed (apparently incorrectly) that the research showed synthetic phonics had a negative effect on comprehension. This would appear to be a claim made against the effectiveness of synthetic phonics.

          And do I really need to explain yet again why the middle position, or as you call it here “a mixed economy”, is a rhetorical ploy that cannot actually be justified?


    • will do asap – am recovering from an op at the moment so can only access whatever is freely available online. It may not have been Johnson and Watson study if you have checked this – will follow up.

      In the meantime:
      Usha Goswami ‘Synthetic phonics and learning to read: a cross-langage perspective’ Ed psychology in practice, vol 21, no4 2005, 273-282 concludes that for relatively inconsistent orthographies such as English a combination of three approaches are needed (and this is where I am coming from) – letter sounds and phonemes (small grain) , rime-based/ syllable tuition (large grain), and whole word teaching. You need to read the article in order to judge if the data cited and the methodology warrants the conclusion but in my view it does and my teaching experience of using a mixed approach also concurs with the findings. (And i did get good results)

      You are right to point out through inclusion of one of your references that the operational definition of synthetic phonics is problematic. It would have been more helpful if I had been clear how I was operationally defining both synthetic an analytic phonics – and, for that matter, included a clear reference to analogy phonics (which it would appear has now been subsumed into synthetic phonics in the Ruth Miskin scheme) and embedded phonics (just to be clear to the blogger that I was not simply doing my own thing and pursuing interests when using this approach as part of the overall phonics bag of tricks – it is an established methodology). Vis-a-vis the above, depending on the words, each of these have a use. There are some words that just cannot be synthesised for example.

      re rest of Europe starting to teaching reading at @age 7 see Alexander, R. (2009). The Cambridge Primary Review. Retrieved from http://www.
      primaryreview.org.uk/ and Bertram, T., & Pascal, C. (2002). Early years education: An international perspective. London:NFER. There is no empirical evidence but interesting that national policy in other countries is informed by quantitative and case study as well as positivist empirical evidence. You might have a view on that.


      • I hope you recover soon.

        Before I start searching through articles is there anything in any of this that is actually based on empirical research?


        • What, exactly, do you mean by empirical? I would say that Goswami’s research is.
          Why are you only interested in whatever you mean by empirical research?


          • I meant based on objective evidence not opinion, theory or interpretation.


          • In what ways can you be fully objective about measuring reading?Reading age, for example is an interpretive construction as is reading level. They are not constant or objective truths about the world. Reading is more than a technical activity. If you are saying that we are biologically determined and that we can in fact measure and predict (at least in theory even if we dont yet know how to) everything about human cognition, communication, relationships and all other aspects of learning, and that these are indisputable and objective truths about human beings, then this will be a very long conversation!
            I assume you mean anything that has a positivist methodology – but even that is difficult. Take reading age. Someone or group has to decide which words or which sentences and which order and used in which way will provide a good measure of reading age. On what objective basis are these decisions made? How do they accommodate for cultural and linguistic differences between children and groups? The old Salford reading test required you to listen to a child read words randomly listed on a chart and when they made their fourth mistake you stopped and added up a reading age score based on the word they stopped at. Wherever children stopped, they could all read aeroplane which was generally anything from one to four charts away from their reading age. There are other examples. The test was ok and served a useful function but you couldn’t really call it objective as it was constructed from interpretations. The way that reading age and level and etc are measured is also constantly changing and so longitudinal studies and comparisons over time can be difficult unless they are set up as such with their own instruments. Such studies are essential for policy in a market economy which needs generalisations and predictability. They cam be useful for informing pedagogy too but on their own they are limited as the only approach to education research. We also need to be able to understand, deconstruct, diagnose, and, I would also add, emancipate.

            I wonder in what way you consider the Johnson and Watson follow up comprehension study to be empirical? Would you say that they managed to measure comprehension without interpretation? If so, what was comprehending about it?

            The Goswami study uses statistics,numbers and data generated from the use of reading test instruments – as empirical as you can get.


          • It is possible to measure how well people read with standardised instruments (and even to split this into several aspects like speed, comprehension etc.) It is possible to use this to measure the effectiveness of a method of teaching reading.

            Obviously you could ignore how good people actually are at reading and instead use personal opinion, theoretical neatness or brain scans as ways of assessing methods of teaching reading, but these methods are not reliable.

            One could even dismiss accurate all objective measurement as “positivist” or cite irrelevant data as evidence of conclusions.

            One can even just invent research results that don’t exist.

            But this sort of behaviour would put one firmly in the “denialist” or “crank” category as these are not methods used for seeking the truth, they are methods for hiding it. They are the methods used by homeopaths and climate change deniers. These are not arguments that could persuade a rational person, the most they could do is confuse or mislead an ignorant person.


          • The degree of interpretation – and misinterpretation of what I am saying and your capacity to so aggressively and emotively twist my words and meaning are astounding. As I said, let us agree to differ.


          • and I meant to add, roll over Newton and Einstein…. and what did Paulo Friere ever do for anyone?


          • Looked it up. Once more you appear to have provided misleading information. That is not an empirical study at all and it’s conclusion is just a restatement of the “middle position” fallacy.


        • Response to an earlier post about school-starting age and its relationship to reading:

          As evidence of the benefits of waiting until children are aged seven to start direct and systematic teaching of reading, the anti-phonics lobbyists can be relied on to flag up Finland, where all children achieve literacy within weeks of starting formal school – aged seven. What they don’t say is that Finland has a completely transparent alphabet code, and most parents teach their children to read pre-school as it’s so easy to do. They also omit to mention Denmark where, as in Finland, the school starting age is seven, but it has an opaque alphabet code. Danish children ”experience difficulties in acquiring the logographic and alphabetic foundation processes which are comparable to those observed in English, although less extreme” (Seymour/Aro/Erskine) ”Foundation literacy acquisition by non-English European groups is not affected by gender and is largely independent of variations in the ages at which children start formal schooling” (Seymour/Aro/Erskine p150)

          http://www.danielwillingham.com/1/post/2012/05/reading-instruction-across-countries.html
          Map of Europe showing % of errors in word reading at the end of first year of formal school, by country. 2003.


          • Maybe you haven’t read all my other posts in these discussions but I am not anti phonics, I am not a phonics denialist or an anti phonics lobbyists. I have never, at any point, said that I do not think that phonics is an important part of learning to read.

            It is true that children learn to read more quickly in languages that have regular orthographies. English and Danish are similarly complex and can be compared. English, French and Hebrew can be compared to the extent that phonemes have multiple speech sounds. In continental Europe children learn English as well as their mother tongue, and often from an early age, which is another useful thing to look at. The point here is that it is exactly because of the irregular orthography of English that no one phonics system will enable children to learn to read. My view, and my experience is, that because we have such an irregular orthography (not all words can be synthesised for example) we need to use a range of methods for teaching phonics: synthetic, analytic, analogous and embedded. My view is also that we need to teach semantics (meaning and comprehension) at the same time and with as much emphasis and importance as phonics.

            With regard to the stage at which formal education starts – the arguments are more to do with the view that oral language and play are important precursors to learning generally as well as to reading and language development specifically (in any orthography). There is extensive research in early years education (internationally) around this topic.


      • For Goswami and onset-rime theories

        http://www.rrf.org.uk/messageforum/viewtopic.php?t=1836


  6. and, for that matter, included a clear reference to analogy phonics (which it would appear has now been subsumed into synthetic phonics in the Ruth Miskin scheme) (does html formatting work in these blogs?)

    Sorry, I don’t quite follow this. What is ‘analogy phonics’ (it is a new one on me) and where has it been subsumed into Ruth Miskin’s programme? I use her Freshstart at KS3 and as far as I am concerned it is just SP.

    I think you have to be careful with Goswami. She has made onset & rime her ‘speciality’ for a considerable number of years now and it seems to be connected to the ‘stage theory’ of reading development. I believe that she postulates that children naturally work in larger units of sound than the phoneme and that reading instruction should follow what comes ‘naturally’ to children. This is, for me, difficult to reconcile with the fact that reading is a completely unnatural skill and that it has been constantly demonstrated that children *can* start with phonemes.


    • If you haven’t got the paper in question (i.e. the Goswami one), I can email it to you. It’s not very good.


    • analogy phonics is where you look at groups of words that have similar sounds etc. can also be used for similar phonemes.

      I think we will have to agree to differ on all this – or rather leave it that you all disagree with me. I am weary of this black and white world and a bit saddened by such scornful dismissal of individuals and their ideas as rubbish (and in the case of the blogger calling people liars) when it would be so much richer to be able to disagree with their perspective or world view but respect their efforts and intentions, which are, to all intents and purposes, the same as yours.


  7. The degree of interpretation – and misinterpretation of what I am saying

    If I have misinterpreted you then feel free to clarify matters, but I’m pretty certain I haven’t.

    The evidence is clear on phonics and so, inevitably, you started by being misleading about the evidence, moved quickly to presenting new evidence which was actually just opinion and finally ended up, in true post-modern fashion, condemning the objective use of evidence to explore matters of fact as “positivist” and appealing to the idea that all interpretations are somehow valid.

    and your capacity to so aggressively and emotively twist my words and meaning are astounding.

    It’s hard to avoid sounding aggressive when you think somebody is being deliberately misleading and is utterly indifferent to the truth. If there was just some part of your comments that made me think you had some respect for the truth then maybe I could have been more patient and tried politely to urge you to a more reasoned position. However, almost every time I explained why your argument was wrong you just switched to another wrong argument even if it completely contradicted the previous one. You never showed any interest in whether your arguments were coherent, only in trying to trick people into thinking that there was some kind of evidence for your position.

    As I said, let us agree to differ

    Well you can agree to be wrong and I’ll agree to be right.


    • well arguing only for synthetic truth is at least consistent with your view of phonics! We hold different ontological beliefs, and ascribe to different theories of truth (although you seem to see truth as unproblematic). If you want to frame this as being right or wrong (are you God?) then I agree that from your worldview, you are right and I am wrong.


      • It would be interesting, philosophically, to know of any coherent, rational or logical worldview from which you could be right. I’m guessing, from your talk of “different theories of truth” that there isn’t one.


        • I don’t have time for a debate here, nor do i feel able to understand how to engage in one with you that is not a circular battle. Michael Dummet’s, ‘Truth and other enigmas’ and the classic ‘two dogmas of empiricism’ by Quine (Word and object also) would represent my perspective on truth to a great extent.


  8. TES: The language barrier. Goswami on ‘dyslexia’ and D.McGuinness’ critique
    http://www.rrf.org.uk/messageforum/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=2995&start=0


    • dyslexia has been variously framed around visual deficit (1970s), phonological deficit (up until 1990s) and cerebellar deficit (current). For a more scientific approach and a more positive understanding – see Marianne Wolf ‘Proust and the Squid.’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maryanne_Wolf


  9. ”more positive understanding”. You mean more positive for your point of view! I have read Wolf’s book. Amongst other things, she believes that ‘dyslexics’ have special abilities – absolutely no evidence for that.
    You can ‘frame’ dyslexia any way you like but there is no way of diagnosising it as a discrete condition or doing scientific research on it as it has no operational definition.
    See (scroll down) http://www.rrf.org.uk/docs/SEN49_Dyslexia_myths.pdf


    • It is indeed very difficult to have any operational definitions of the human condition. I wonder why that is.

      You seem to be saying that no knowledge is worth anything unless it is ‘scientifically’ proven, dyslexia can’t be scientifically proven so therefore there is no valid knowledge about it. The same could be said for Autism, but where does your point of view take us or leave us?

      Are Uta Frith and colleagues also to be burnt on your bonfire of fools? (you could start the flames with all their rubbish research).

      I wonder what you would make of Habermas’s ideas of the ideal speech situation, or what you think the role of dialogue (and what you think that means) and talk is in learning….


  10. I have never left a comment on a blog before. I came across this as I was interested in the evidence for phonics teaching as I have a child in reception. I feel obliged to comment, although this is now long past, as I am struck and somewhat saddened by teachingbattleground’s rude and dismissive comments to anyone who offers a different point of view. You may not realise how your comments read to someone unfamiliar with you or your subject, but from a position of ignorance of and distance from the topic I find it extraordinary how rude you are to anyone who disagrees with you, and wonder if you would be interested to know that to me it significantly weakens your own arguments. Which seem to be limited to two: first that anyone who questions you is a “phonics denialist” and second that most of their arguments ‘are the same as claims for homeopathic medicine’. It doesn’t leave me feeling you have read, considered and reflected on any of the arguments against your position, which would seem to me to show a lack of critical thinking (especially as you frequently dismiss their evidence while freely admitting you haven’t bothered to read any of it.) I don’t suppose I will look at this again, so will probably miss a catty response and some slurs on my intelligence, grammar or argument. Just think it seems a shame that you seem to be aiming to close down rather than open up debate……


    • I’m sorry to hear you are offended by criticism, or for that matter identification, of the phonics denialist position. I am also sorry to hear that you cannot imagine that my low opinion of the phonics denialist position stems from studying it in some detail. I hope that one day you will be able to overcome these sensitivities and be able to engage in rational debate.


    • I would have though OA has done more to open up the debate more than most- and beyond the 40+ comments on here too…



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