A Very Short Summary of the Phonics DebateApril 7, 2013
I have a couple of contributions from primary school teachers about how phonics is being taught at the moment, which I will be sharing in two blogposts later today. However, it is probably worth giving a bit of background to phonics first. This is meant to be a quick summary, not a researched article, and I have neither tried to make it neutral, nor tried to include arguments for my opinions here. If this means the comments section turns into an argument about phonics, then so be it.
Although I think this is my first blogpost about phonics, I often end up sidetracked into discussions of phonics. This is not because of any direct professional involvement in early literacy but because of my interest in education research. In a discipline where there is hardly any good evidence of anything, this area stands out as having overwhelming evidence of a simple proposition: beginning readers learn best by learning phonics (i.e. through being taught the relationship between letter combinations and sounds). Additionally, the evidence that this should be taught systematically and deliberately is also overwhelming. The argument that the best way to do this is through what is known as “synthetic phonics” (a way of blending sounds together in order to form words) is also remarkably strong for education research (although it helps that once you have accepted that the systematic learning of phonics is the first priority there are not really any attractive alternatives).
Because the evidence in this area stands out in educational research (and, as far as I can tell, research in any area of social science) and yet phonics denialism is incredibly common among educationalists and teachers, it is hard to avoid discussing this area when discussing evidence-based practice. Anyone who opposes phonics will, if consistent, refuse to accept the validity of empirical education research in general. Anyone who claims to support evidence-based practice, but gives credence to phonics denialism, can be ignored as a charlatan. If you want to see how education as a field ignores inconvenient evidence, this is your best starting point.
If ignoring evidence wasn’t enough, this is also a field where you can study how pseudo-science works. Because the evidence is so clear the priority is always to muddy the water. Phonics denialists will argue over definitions (even words such as “reading”) . They will claim that they hold some middle position which accepts the research but looks to combine it with other positions (phrases like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy” are used). Methods that stand in contradiction to the evidence will be presented as a useful supplement to phonics (in much the same way as magical methods of healing were rebranded as “complementary medicine”). Conspiracy theories are presented as facts, the most common one at the moment is that companies that provide phonics resources are somehow behind the government’s support for phonics. Quotations are cherry-picked from research (and from sources that sound like research but aren’t) with even the slightest qualification being interpreted as grounds for rejecting the evidence. Even the theoretical possibility of phonics not working immediately with even one child will be given as a reason for using other methods. Denialists will always be bringing up their qualifications or their positions. Anyone who sticks with the evidence will be accused of being “ideological”. Anything that raises any doubt will be treated as firm evidence against the effectiveness of phonics. Really blatant lies are told, and they will even get printed in sympathetic academic journals. One day I will try to blog about this in detail but the sheer amount of research to be done to cover both the scale of the evidence for phonics and the extent and influence of denialism is astounding.
If you are interested in the battles over phonics, veterans of the battle, along with lots of good practice, can be found on the Reading Reform Foundation website. It is also worth looking at the information on http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/
These battles have raged on in the US since at least the 50s and here since at least the 80s. They can easily be found elsewhere in the English-speaking world. As far as I can tell the usual pattern is a strong, ideologically-driven attempt to eliminate phonics completely, followed by a backlash, followed by a government report endorsing phonics, followed by attempts to rehabilitate denialism by stealth or by pushing for “mixed methods”. In this country, the government discovered the evidence for phonics around 2006. There then followed attempts to sneak in non-phonic methods through schemes such as “Reading Recovery”. Since 2010 the government have been advocating phonics very explicitly and have funded phonics-based schemes and introduced the phonics-screening check, a pass/fail test of phonetic decoding ability.
I would hope that this is enough background information for understanding the next two blogposts which will be appearing shortly.