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The Latest Iteration of the Phonics Debate

August 19, 2013

My last couple of blogposts (this one and this one) which discussed where I thought a couple of politicians had got it wrong relied on the reader being either familiar with, or sympathetic to, the opinions I’d expressed elsewhere on a number of issues. In particular, the references to phonics assumed a familiarity with the phonics debate which I have previously described here. It assumed that the reader would know that, nowadays, phonics denialists (even ones who have in the past condemned phonics teaching in the strongest terms) would claim not to be against phonics per se but to be opposed to the idea that phonics is the only method. The Americans have an expression to describe this sort of argument: “everything before the ‘but’ is bullshit”. This same type of argument can be used to justify other forms of pseudo-science too, so for instance homeopaths who treat illnesses with magic water can claim to be “supporting diversity in medical approaches”. Many readers did seem unaware that this is now what the phonics debate looks like and the discussion that followed, and particularly this blogpost, has made me reflect on this type of argument in the phonics debate. In particular it has made me realise how unhelpful it is to view the entire debate through attitudes to phonics.

When the teaching of phonics has been at its lowest ebb – when it was something primary teachers did privately behind a closed classroom door and kept that to themselves for fear of being identified as a heretic – the phonics denialists were pretty explicit about the methods they endorsed. There was real books in which children were shown books they could not actually read and encourage to be enthusiastic about them. There was whole word teaching in which children were encouraged to remember thousands of words by sight instead of dozens of letter combinations. Finally, there were methods based on using context in which children were encouraged to guess what words were from other words or – God help us all – from pictures. While phonics denialists might recommend a mix of these methods and might even throw in some basic phonics tuition as well to appease parents and politicians, these were the basic mix.

Now, you may notice that these methods, on the face of it, seem absurd. Why learn words by sight when you could pick that up after you have learnt to decode them? Why become enthusiastic about books before you can read them? Why guess instead of reading? As ever with progressive education, the methods are only plausible if you have already accepted a whole lot of ridiculous doctrines about what teaching looks like. With conventional definitions of “reading” and “teaching” and a belief that all children should learn to read fluently, the methods had little plausibility. Because these were methods that disregarded common sense a whole body of constantly changing jargon and pseudo-science were used to justify them. Every so often, when the teaching of reading and the overwhelming evidence for phonics became a big issue, the phonics denialists would seek to hide behind the excuse that they use a variety of methods. Jargon for this included phrases such as “mixed methods”, “multi-cueing” and “balanced literacy”. They would simply claim that while, of course, they accepted the evidence for phonics they would also be using other techniques. . Sometimes phonics denialists even described what they were doing as a form of phonics. This is why a lot of the phonics debate has apparently relied on distinctions between different types of phonics, although most of the “phonics” techniques which aren’t Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) are not really worthy of the name. That was how the debate worked, and while it forced phonics advocates to labour what type of phonics they supported and gave the denialists an excuse to ignore the research comparing phonics with other methods, I don’t think anybody really doubted what the other methods in “mixed methods” were or that this position was in opposition to SSP.

What I have noticed in my discussions over the last few days is that the denialists now seem to have gone one step further. They no longer seem to mention the other methods among the “mixed methods”. In a couple of days of argument I cannot recall anyone actually saying “we should do X” where X is a well-defined method of teaching reading. The debate has been framed as “Systematic Synthetic Phonics versus any other method including purely hypothetical methods”. The argument seems to be that in order to reject the usual mixed methods of the denialists, one must prove that there could never, even in theory, be a method that works better than SSP for any child. The debate has become entirely about SSP and not about the alternatives. There are a few ways this is used to obscure debate.

Firstly, the argument is put forward that, if phonics doesn’t seem to be working for a child, then it would only be fair to use “other methods” for that child. Now this argument’s plausibility is entirely dependent on the effectiveness of the other methods. This becomes obvious when we consider the analogy to medicine. If a doctor found their treatment (which we presume is based on the best medical evidence) wasn’t working, they might try a bigger dose or more intensive course of the same treatment. They might recommend a different type of treatment, perhaps one particularly tailored to patients for whom the first treatment didn’t work, but it would still be one that was evidence-based. They wouldn’t (one hopes) switch to homeopathy or voodoo. It all hinges on the evidence for the alternative treatment and the likelihood of a larger dose of the existing treatment being effective. Now it should be the same with SSP. Without trying to reference decades of research here, there is good reason to assume that where SSP doesn’t work first time a larger dose will, nevertheless, be effective. There is no good reason to assume children have different learning styles which require different methods. There is every reason to doubt the effectiveness of the alternative methods. Now this all seems fairly straightforward, as long as those arguing for different methods identify those methods explicitly and consider the evidence for them. What has been happening, however, is that there is no clear description of the alternative methods and it is simply assumed that there are alternative methods which work. Sometimes it is simply claimed that if you won’t support alternatives to SSP you must be claiming that SSP works 100% effectively with every child first time. To return to the medical analogy, it is simply assumed that there is an alternative medical treatment available and we are not giving up on medicine to use magic. Of course, the denialists will argue that the alternative methods of teaching children to read must be more credible than homeopathy but this is not a case that can easily be made if you won’t identify your preferred methods and you are aware that, thanks to the placebo effect, homeopathy and other forms of pseudo-scientific medical treatments do work to some extent. Instead they demand a reversal of the burden of proof, that it be demonstrated that all methods other than SSP, including purely theoretical ones that haven’t been invented yet, be proved to be less effective than SSP in all cases and claim that, unless that proof is forthcoming, there is something wrong with the case for SSP.

The second way that refusing to identify the alternative methods works is to create a straw man by confusing those methods which denialists use instead of phonics with all methods that any teacher might use, even those used after children have mastered phonics. To my knowledge no phonics advocate has ever demanded that even after children have mastered phonics they should do nothing but more phonics. The need for reading practice and for developing vocabulary, after phonics has been mastered, has never been denied. Some practices that come after phonics are more contentious than others – the teaching of strategies for comprehension can often be dubious even when it doesn’t get in the way of phonics – but nobody thinks mastering phonics is the end. There are also plenty of practices which are not directly related to phonics, like practising handwriting or reading stories to children, that a teacher might be happy with doing alongside phonics without becoming a supporter of “mixed methods”. By refusing to identify what techniques are being promoted, a straw man is created of phonics fanatics who believe that nothing but phonics can ever be acceptable. It is claimed that those who argue against the ineffective methods of teaching reading, who emphasise that mastering phonics is the first priority, are actually claiming that nothing but phonetic decoding should ever be seen in a classroom and that anybody who disagrees with such a position can join the phonics denialists in the “mixed methods” camp.

The final way that a refusal to identify methods is used by phonics denialists is to attack phonics for being demotivating or boring. There are plenty of expert practioners of SSP who have found many exciting ways to teach it and would argue that phonics is fun, but I do tend towards the view that I don’t care if kids are bored as long as they learn to read as quickly as possible. I am quite happy to see phonics denialists exposed as those who put the aim of entertaining children above the aim of educating them. However, even if they argue from that position then the failure to specify methods is a problem. When we look at the actual alternatives to phonics then even the dullest, drill based caricature of phonics looks appealing and motivating by comparison. Real books involves the torture of having interesting books which you can’t actually read, whereas phonics enables you to read whatever you like at the first opportunity. Whole word involves endless repetition of the same few words, resulting in some of the most tedious textbooks ever written and a massive, yet unproductive, strain on the memory. As for the guessing games that are involved in the use of context, I can think of no more tedious and slow way to engage with a text. Even if you accept the premise that learning should be fun more than it should be effective, I’d still back phonics particularly with some of the quite inventive, painless, schemes that have appeared in the last few years.

I feel that this distortion of the debate by the phonics denialists has become possible because we are, perhaps, too keen to discuss everything in terms of the historical argument of being for and against phonics. The case for phonics has been made convincingly; the case against crank methods hasn’t. So perhaps next time the issue comes up, the next time somebody objects to SSP being the only method, the question should be asked immediately if they can identify any evidence-based methods other than SSP and if they can’t, could they explain why they wouldn’t stick with evidence-based methods.

60 comments

  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  2. A genuinely interesting blog post – would be interested in the reaction. That said, other than you believe it is ok for learning to be dull, little to disagree with here.


    • Why shouldn’t learning be dull? Many of the things that are required for effective learning are dull – practice, iteration, correction of one’s errors, memorisation.

      If you deny these to people, you not only make it much harder for them to learn things, you also do not allow them to learn how to be professional, or, in other words, to be productive and diligent when they don’t feel like it or are unsympathetic to what they are doing.

      It’s no wonder that employers constantly say that many school-leavers are unsuited to work – they’ve been brought up by their schools to believe that life is one long joyride or whizzbang excitement, and they are unable to put in the hard, dull yards required actually to achieve something. (And before you attack me for seeing education solely as preparation for work, the same ability to use dullness productively are required by actors learning lines, athletes in training and musicians practising. It is, in fact, at the heart of genuine creativity.)

      (Apologies, AO, if this is slightly off-topic, but this is, in my view, one of the most profound problems of modern education and of the modern educator’s mindset, and has innumerable damaging knock-on effects in both the knowledge-transfer and character-building aspects of education.)


      • Why shouldn’t learning be dull? Wow – what a question. When your children come home from school the fact that they have been bored beyond all measure must be a bonus to you.
        For me, I would be horrified and want to know why a well paid professional couldn’t make their lesson engaging.
        You needn’t respond though – I sense that if you did – it would only be to make the point listed above all over again.
        My only hope – that you are not a teacher.


        • I will respond. Perhaps the “well paid professional” wanted to teach rather than entertain.


          • Should be capable of both – see Sir Ken Robinson. The two are compatible are they not?


          • Not always, no. We learn by hard work which, be definition, cannot always be fun.


          • Yes – true. But the well paid professional should seek to ensure that high quality learning takes place through engaging and knowledgable teaching. Anyone who believes that fun is the same as froth – needs to work harder at their teaching.


          • Now you are just resorting to weasel words: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/weasel-words-1-engage/


          • Your definition is skewed and effectively claims that the balance of responsibility for learning rests with the student. A child should take responsibility for their learning but also a teacher should take responsibility for their teaching.

            If children are disengaged from learning – why?

            Is the content appropriate to the needs of the learner? Has the teacher thought about the child’s emotional state for learning and ensured that chn are ready to learn?

            A teacher is not a distance learning course recording – I.e I have this content and I am delivering it and if you don’t engage with it- the you are clearly in the wrong.

            Your definition of weasel words is an excuse – we are professionals and we should not resort to debates about semantics to skirt the issue that we are responsible for ensuring that children are able to learn.


      • I really would like to see how a teacher with dull practice manages with 30 early years children to be “effective” in my experience but that’s really beside the point. As usual, a binary debate devoid of reality. Dull teaching isn’t necessarily effective just as engaging teaching isn’t either – effective teaching is effective teaching. Tut tut ;)


  3. I have the temerity to think that this post might have been, in part at least, inspired by a post I made on the Web of Substance blog about phonics. If not, then great minds think alike!

    Thanks for enlarging on and thoroughly making the point about ‘What other methods are there which are more successful than SSP and please describe them?’

    If a strategy for the initial teaching of reading were to emerge which was demonstrably (rigorous research evidence) better than SSP I would willingly use it. My objective is to ensure that children learn to read (or are remediated) in the fastest, most effective way known, not to stick rigidly to an idealogical stance.


    • Just read it. That’s very similar, however, I don’t think I had read it before I wrote this.


      • Uncanny unanimity of ideas then. But you express them better.


  4. Thank you for devoting time to this contentious subject and for suggesting that those who deny the effectiveness of SSP ‘should be asked immediately if they can identify any evidence-based methods other than SSP and if they can’t, could they explain why they wouldn’t stick with evidence-based methods’.

    We spend far too much time trying to make the historical case, demonstrating the particular SP skills required, trying to explain why foundational skills are essential while trying to address concerns of the phonics deniers and their countless straw men arguments.
    I hope that your blog is reprinted in one of the broadsheets.


  5. I find the whole debate shockingly irrelevant, because I suspect the curriculum people are closest to right–that is, our kids are basically being taught to decode properly, but a good number are limited because they aren’t able to use reading to acquire knowledge, and aren’t being taught the content knowledge directly.

    What Hirsch et. al. refuse to acknowledge, I think, and what progressives don’t like to talk about is *why* we thought teaching kids to read was the important part for so long. We thoght so because all of our experience ( before, say, 1980) was that kids then picked up content knowledge through the act of reading–or, we didn’t care, because those kids just went through school, dropped out or graduated and got a manufacturing job.

    So progressives still push whole reading, or whatever it’s called, not really because they are against phonics but because they don’t like to (or simply can’t) acknowledge that whole reading does not lead to the same outcomes it led to with the other half. Hirsch et. al insist on content and curriculum, even in cases, when it’s manifestly inappropriate, because they can’t say what seems pretty obvious: low cognitive people can’t infer content knowledge from reading.

    And of course, the big problem with content knowledge is what content? Cultural hegemony, blah blah blah.

    On acquiring content knowledge, this is what I mean: http://educationrealist.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/acquiring-content-knowledge-without-hirschs-help/ Most of the people who talk about education policy have similar (if not quite as early) experiences.

    At least this is the case in the US, not sure about UK.

    As for learning being boring: it’s okay for it to be occasionally boring, but usually kids are bored because they feel hopeless. Hopeless is a huge problem.


    • You may have seen this article on the Common Core Curricum in the NY Times:
      bit.ly/151cv1g


  6. “Your definition is skewed and effectively claims that the balance of responsibility for learning rests with the student. A child should take responsibility for their learning but also a teacher should take responsibility for their teaching.”

    Yes, but if a child refuses to learn unless they are entertained, is it the teachers’ responsibility to entertain? I tend to think a lack of cooperation, particularly for such selfish reasons, is a disciplinary matter.

    “If children are disengaged from learning – why?”

    I’m a little puzzled as to why you are continuing with the weasel words. The answer to the question depends on what “disengaged means which depends on what engaged means. Please just say what you mean.

    “Is the content appropriate to the needs of the learner? Has the teacher thought about the child’s emotional state for learning and ensured that chn are ready to learn?”

    I am a bit of a sceptic about the whole idea of emotional states for learning, mainly because I’ve looked into the research and the sorts of emotional states that most help learning are often not ones that we should be inflicting. Depression can be very conducive to learning. Should we make our students depressed?

    “A teacher is not a distance learning course recording – I.e I have this content and I am delivering it and if you don’t engage with it- the you are clearly in the wrong.”

    The same weasel word, yet again. Are you worried that if you express yourself unambiguously then it would be too obvious that you are wrong?

    “Your definition of weasel words is an excuse”

    Hardly. I am just not prepared to debate deliberately ambiguous positions. Either you are saying something I consider wrong or something I consider vacuous, but unless you are clear about which you mean I cannot really respond.

    ” – we are professionals and we should not resort to debates about semantics to skirt the issue that we are responsible for ensuring that children are able to learn.”

    It’s hardly skirting the issue to ask you to express your position unambiguously. If you can make your argument without weasel words, please do so. If you can’t, then we can safely ignore it.


    • Stop being deliberately obtuse!

      This is a circular argument with all attempts to engage with it resulting in your trying to define it in your own terms. In effect you might as well debate with your bathroom mirror! You seem to request those debating to find countless synonyms – pointless.

      Let’s assume that the dictionary definition of engagement is the one we are working with.

      Behaviour – a clear behaviour policy understood by all – those who seek to disrupt should be removed from the learning environment until they are ready to engage. This does not absent the teacher from the responsibility to ensure their lessons meet the needs of their class.

      Variable quality of teaching – this is the role of your SMT and performance management inline with your policy on teaching and learning to ensure high consistent expectations. So chn are not simply engaged in activity but learning.

      But, the teacher is still a well paid professional charged with ensuring their lessons are engaging (which is not the same as inspiring).

      Also, stop referring to studies all of the time – studies tell you more about those conducting them and are rarely carried out using school children. Over reliance on what others have written in reports (unless we also examine the methodology) is skirting the issue. For example depression is a conducive emotional state for learning – which study, on what age group, with what methodology over what period by whom and who did they work for?

      A teacher should ensure that they are deploying strategies appropriate to the needs of their class to ensure that good progress is made.


  7. “Stop being deliberately obtuse!”

    This is not helpful.

    “This is a circular argument”

    No, it isn’t.

    ” with all attempts to engage with it resulting in your trying to define it in your own terms. In effect you might as well debate with your bathroom mirror! You seem to request those debating to find countless synonyms – pointless.

    Let’s assume that the dictionary definition of engagement is the one we are working with.”

    What the dictionary says is not the issue. The ambiguity is over what *you* mean. Originally it seemed obvious you were arguing that we should entertain rather than simply teach. Then you switched to the weasel word “engage” making the position far more ambiguous. If you are refusing to state your position clearly then there seems little point continuing.

    Do not expect any more comments in which you just repeat the same ambiguous claims to be cleared. If you don’t want to argue your case, then that’s up to you. But endless attempts to obscure in the same unimaginative way have no place here.


    • I am genuinely struggling to understand what you don’t.

      You have misunderstood my point about learning being fun – as this is not the same as a class teacher being an entertainer. They are not. Which is why I used engage to clear this point.

      So, in order to move on – here are some questions so we are working from a shared baseline:

      In detail – or by yes and no please respond to the following:

      Should a teacher ensure that their teaching is appropriate to the pupils in their charge? (Via reference to IEP and IBP etc)

      Should a teacher ensure that their teaching builds on prior learning?

      Should a teacher employ a range of strategies to ensure that chn have the opportunity to participate in learning?

      Should learning be the main outcome of teaching?

      These may seem obvious – maybe even patronising. If they do, I apologise. But they define “engagement” and the components that ensure it.

      Incidentally you cited research regarding emotional state – I asked questions regarding this – you don’t appear to have responded to these?


      • Right, this seems to have clarified that you are now using a definition of “engaged” which has nothing to do with the original point, which was about whether learning should be dull or not.

        With regard to your final point, I didn’t respond to your questions about the research I cited because I didn’t cite any research.


        • You mentioned looking into emotional states for learning and noted the following

          “I am a bit of a sceptic about the whole idea of emotional states for learning, mainly because I’ve looked into the research and the sorts of emotional states that most help learning are often not ones that we should be inflicting. Depression can be very conducive to learning. Should we make our students depressed?”

          I naively assumed you could back this up with details – you seem unable to.

          You have not answered any of the questions – if you want to argue a point fine, but currently you have not done anything more than pedantically pick at words.

          The outline of engagement I scaffolded through the questions leads to children not finding learning dull – I am assuming you struggle because it doesn’t meet your ideas of engagement – but that doesn’t make you correct.

          Weasel words and straw men – or maybe somebody unable to say what teaching is. You seem only able to say what teaching isn’t. Overall a disappointing response.


          • “I naively assumed you could back this up with details – you seem unable to.”

            I will blog on it at some point, but obviously I am not going to summarise multiple research articles here just because somebody (who presumably could look into it themselves) asks for it. If you are not familiar with the research on emotions and learning then perhaps you shouldn’t build arguments on claims about emotions and learning.

            “You have not answered any of the questions – if you want to argue a point fine, but currently you have not done anything more than pedantically pick at words.”

            If you are going to argue by equivocation then I suggest you learn to cope with having it pointed out without acting as if it’s some kind of tedious tactic.

            “The outline of engagement I scaffolded through the questions leads to children not finding learning dull”

            No, I don’t think it does.


          • “The outline of engagement I scaffolded through the questions leads to children not finding learning dull”

            No, I don’t think it does.

            Great – so now tell me what good teaching does look like!


          • I don’t actually do requests.


          • No, seemingly not.
            You talk about research – but can’t name any.
            You talk about “traditional teaching” – but struggle to say what it is.
            You are good at writing blogs and tweeting – which is nice.


  8. “No, seemingly not. You talk about research – but can’t name any.”

    What on earth are you talking about? Are you still imagining that my vague summary of a whole area of research was referring to one single study that I should have named and answered questions about?

    “You talk about “traditional teaching” – but struggle to say what it is”.

    Just getting silly now.


    • Hmmmmmm
      “What on earth are you talking about? Are you still imagining that my vague summary of a whole area of research was referring to one single study that I should have named and answered questions about?”

      Let’s have a look at your vague summary again shall we:

      “I am a bit of a sceptic about the whole idea of emotional states for learning mainly because I’ve looked into the research and the sorts of emotional states that most help learning are often not ones that we should be inflicting. Depression can be very conducive to learning. Should we make our students depressed?”

      Yup – it’s vague alright and it’s not really a summary is it? What it is, is an opinion which alludes to research.

      Research is both singular and plural and I was asking (though you don’t do requests) you to name some of the research you had read – the titles, authors etc so I could look at the methodology etc and respond. You still seem unable to do this.

      On to the next point:

      “You talk about “traditional teaching” – but struggle to say what it is.

      Just getting silly now.”

      I can’t actually you remember you saying what it is – I do remember you frequently describing what it is not. So please do expand – what is traditional teaching?

      It’s not group work.
      It’s not about engagement.
      It’s not trendy.

      What is it?

      (I await the one liner….)


      • Which part of “I don’t do requests” don’t you understand?

        Because people sound off about what mood kids should be in to learn without knowing anything about the research I will write about it at some point but I am not going to start in the comments here. If you can’t wait I suggest you go and research it yourself.

        With regard to traditional and progressive teaching I have written a lot about it and will no doubt write about it again in the future. This is looking like you want to tell me what to write just so that if I don’t you can declare me unable to answer a question.

        Regardless, this seems to have nothing to do with the subject of this post or even the point about whether teaching could be dull, so let’s leave it here. If you have any specific questions on the topics you’ve shoehorned in here (as opposed to requests to write essays) I suggest you find a blogpost where I’ve written about those topics and ask them there.


        • Now that is a fair point – maybe I have gone off the point – let’s remind ourselves shall we:

          My opening point:
          “Your definition is skewed and effectively claims that the balance of responsibility for learning rests with the student. A child should take responsibility for their learning but also a teacher should take responsibility for their teaching.”

          Your response:
          Yes, but if a child refuses to learn unless they are entertained, is it the teachers’ responsibility to entertain? I tend to think a lack of cooperation, particularly for such selfish reasons, is a disciplinary matter.

          Referred you to a consistent behaviour policy – you didn’t pick up on that.

          Then we have the “weasel words debate”
          “If children are disengaged from learning – why?”

          I’m a little puzzled as to why you are continuing with the weasel words. The answer to the question depends on what “disengaged means which depends on what engaged means. Please just say what you mean”

          So I did and you haven’t – and won’t – I am starting to wonder why?

          “Because people sound off about what mood kids should be in to learn without knowing anything about the research I will write about it at some point but I am not going to start in the comments here. If you can’t wait I suggest you go and research it yourself.”

          You forget – I didn’t mention research, you did – but seem unwilling or unable to signpost me to the research. Starting to think you hang the word “research” in your debates to sound authoritative – but when pressed you struggle – have you just read a book that cites other’s research?

          ” With regard to traditional and progressive teaching I have written a lot about it and will no doubt write about it again in the future. This is looking like you want to tell me what to write just so that if I don’t you can declare me unable to answer a question.”

          Nope, I ask you questions because I do want you to be able to answer. To be fair the questions aren’t hard – they are fundamental to your whole persona – what is traditional teaching? Your blog and tweets don’t say what you think it looks like – you simply point out what it isn’t. Not the same and disappointing.

          You asked me to define what I thought effective teaching looked like and how engagement is promoted through it. I asked you to do the same – but all I you seem capable of is “clever” one liners – if I wanted this I’d watch Have I got news for you or QI – but I thought I was debating with a teacher?

          Now can you argue your point – or should I wait for another imperious one liner such as:

          “Obviously not”

          Or

          “I have said I don’t do requests”


          • “Referred you to a consistent behaviour policy – you didn’t pick up on that.”

            Again, you still seem to think that I am here to do requests. That if you mention something, no matter how irrelevant, I will comment. If I have nothing to add, I won’t add anything.

            “So I did and you haven’t – and won’t – I am starting to wonder why?”

            I gave you a link identifying the two usual definitions. I’m not sure what else you wanted.

            “You forget – I didn’t mention research, you did – but seem unwilling or unable to signpost me to the research. Starting to think you hang the word “research” in your debates to sound authoritative – but when pressed you struggle – have you just read a book that cites other’s research?”

            Again, you seem to be back to the assumption that I should be doing requests for you. Making out that, if I don’t write an essay on request, it is a cunning tactic to avoid debate will not change that.

            You have been given enough information to find out why you are wrong if you actually care about that. If you don’t care whether you are right or wrong then that’s not my responsibility.


          • Andrew,
            You are confused and selective:

            Confused:
            If you say you have looked at research it is reasonable to name the research you have looked at – not summarise it or explain it – just name it. It means that those debating with you can understand how you have reached the conclusions you have. This is not “doing requests” – as about virtually every aspect of life there is a plethora of research.
            So, very simply – the title of the research and the author you have studied which has led to your skepticism – nothing more, simply the title and the author.

            Selective:
            I referred you to a consistent behaviour policy because – though you don’t acknowledge the point you asked “what should happen if a child refuses to engage – should a teacher become an entertainer”
            You call this point irrelevant – which it is a curious statement.

            I also referred to performance management and lesson observations as one way of ensuring a consistent understanding of pupil engagement.

            Now, it seems ironic for me to call you selective when I have selected one thin strand from a post about phonics and on this we have debated. But debating we are.

            Finally, believing you are right does not make you so. Alluding to research to support your belief that you are right does not make you so. Being rude does not make you right or the research you allude to relevant.

            Are you deploying tactics? I don’t know – cant think why you would need to.


  9. Am I not right in thinking that even when using SSP as a specific method for decoding graphemes there are still words which cannot be adequately decoded without using comprehension skills (guess work), or memorising the differences (look and say). For example rough, tough and plough and Slough, or read (present tense) read (past tense) head and reap lead (for a dog) or lead ( the metal). Isn’t that what people mean when they talk about mixed methods?

    I must admit to being someone who mourns the passing of the magic ‘e’ – was it really so difficult to grasp?


  10. Mixed methods is not just about understanding homonyms etc although context is clearly necessary to do so. It means encouraging children to use a range of strategies to read all words. The problem is that you can’t encourage children to focus on the characters on the page, reading through all of them left to right (as in SSP), while simultaneously suggesting they scan around for picture cues and guess from context using first letters etc, as the primary approach.
    The first method encourages children to focus on the relationship between sounds and symbols, the grasp of which is central to fluent reading and the second distracts them from that. When children use reading books such as old style ORT which are designed to encourage guessing, they find it easier to guess but these mixed methods distract them from what should be their primary focus to become fluent.


    • Oh and yes I use ‘magic e’ with my own kids. I am well aware that I risk being cast into outer darkness by teachers for doing so. Actually I have read about the reasons why one shouldn’t and agree with them… I can’t justify my actions.


  11. “If you say you have looked at research it is reasonable to name the research you have looked at – not summarise it or explain it – just name it.”

    All of it? In a comment?

    This is getting silly now.

    “It means that those debating with you can understand how you have reached the conclusions you have. This is not “doing requests” – as about virtually every aspect of life there is a plethora of research.
    So, very simply – the title of the research and the author you have studied which has led to your skepticism – nothing more, simply the title and the author.”

    Either you have ignored me when I said this was about multiple studies and you still think that I am talking about one study or you have ignored me when I said I don’t do requests.

    So let’s see which it is.

    Do you understand that I am talking about several studies?

    Do you understand why I am not going to look them up again and list them in a comment box to somebody who apparently refuses to do their own research?

    “Selective:
    I referred you to a consistent behaviour policy because – though you don’t acknowledge the point you asked “what should happen if a child refuses to engage – should a teacher become an entertainer”
    You call this point irrelevant – which it is a curious statement.”

    Curious? You appeared to be arguing that a disciplinary issue should be dealt with outside of the disciplinary system by making lessons entertaining. If you don’t think that, then you have accepted my point and this part of the discussion is over. It is not “curious” I should ignore comments that do nothing to support your argument (and apparently abandon it). It is curious that you should expect a response to something which simply indicates you don’t have an argument.

    “I also referred to performance management and lesson observations as one way of ensuring a consistent understanding of pupil engagement.”

    Few arguments are weaker than “if you could see what I see then you would understand I am right”. The problem is that your argument was incoherent. No amount of experiences will make it coherent.

    “Finally, believing you are right does not make you so.”

    This sort of patronising statement does not help matters. If you have an argument present it. Otherwise, you really need to let it go. I’ve already had to block you on Twitter because when you run out of arguments you lapse into making it about personalities. You appear to be doing the same here. I don’t care what you think about what I believe or why I believe it. I don’t care what you think about my mental state. I only care if you have a plausible argument against what I am saying. If your next comment contains any more ad hominems (i.e. comments about me rather than my argument) then I won’t let it through. Understand?


    • Interesting response.

      First things first – I was referring to your style – not you as a person. This was prompted by the fact you ended a message with words to the effect that I was wrong and needed to recognise the fact.

      I will say here and in any other medium that if you feel that I tilted the argument away from the facts and instead onto you as a person than I apologise.

      If you feel that this debate has descended to a personal level than it should stop, regardless of views.


      • Whilst Googling is not the same as research the following begins to illustrate my point that emotional state is significant:

        What implications might research on arousal have for educators?
        E. Alpay

        The link can be found at
        http://www.imperial.ac.uk/chemicalengineering/common_room/files/PsychEd_8.pdf

        “In the context of education, the implications here are that whilst it may be possible to favourably arouse an individual towards a learning task, recognition is needed of, for example, the student motivation, self-esteem and the current emotional state. Thus, arousal in this context could in fact refer to a teacher-initiated activity or setting which starts the cycle of thought – physiological change – emotion, which if congruent with the individuals motivational drivers and competence, will promote a favourable attitude towards the learning task.”
        “When considering the influence of specific elements of arousal on performance, often an optimal level exists for maximum performance; re the Yerkes- Dodson law (1908). In particular there is research evidence which suggests that the ideal level of arousal will be task dependent, such that, for example, tasks requiring endurance and persistence, but are otherwise relatively simple in nature, are likely to benefit from high levels of arousal, whereas complex or intellectually challenging (cognitive) tasks are likely to benefit from low levels of arousal. Of course, the specific form of arousal needs to be compliant with the activity, although the actual association may not always be apparent”


        • Nobody has said it is not significant, just that if the psychologists are right it may not lead where people think it leads.


          • It staggers me to write this but … I agree. Said it!


    • Research:
      “Do you understand why I am not going to look them up again and list them in a comment box to somebody who apparently refuses to do their own research?”

      Don’t refer to research if you are unable to back it up – simple. We can park that element – I believe that a child’s emotional state is important in ensuring they are able to learn. I encounter that daily and every day reinforces its importance.

      “I referred you to a consistent behaviour policy because – though you don’t acknowledge the point you asked “what should happen if a child refuses to engage – should a teacher become an entertainer”
      You call this point irrelevant – which it is a curious statement.”

      Curious? You appeared to be arguing that a disciplinary issue should be dealt with outside of the disciplinary system by making lessons entertaining. If you don’t think that, then you have accepted my point and this part of the discussion is over.

      “I also referred to performance management and lesson observations as one way of ensuring a consistent understanding of pupil engagement.”

      Few arguments are weaker than “if you could see what I see then you would understand I am right”. The problem is that your argument was incoherent. No amount of experiences will make it coherent.”

      No – this is not the point I am making.

      Lessons should be fun – this refers to learning being enjoyable – teaching styles differ – that should not be prescribed – but learning should be enjoyable.

      Teachers should not endeavour to become all the things you have listed – clowns, motivational speakers etc. but should plan to ensure learning is enjoyable and therefore chn are engaged. Engagement is more than listening.

      To stigmatise the words fun or engaging is not helpful.

      Enjoyable learning therefore learning being fun is not an alternative to behaviour management which is what you claim I assert. Behaviour management is to ensure that other’s learning experiences are not disrupted by those who, for whatever reason, are not engaging with learning.

      More over, a school is responsible for ensuring that all chn receive a consistently good standard of learning – that is why lesson observations and performance management are key to ensuring that teachers and teaching assistants are planning to ensure learning is enjoyable. It is our job at the end of the day.

      Personal attacks – I have addressed that in an earlier response.


      • I would like to add a small comment of my own as the discipline vs fun thing is a personal bugbear of mine.

        I, in my career, have seen great teachers have their fantastic lessons ruined, because a small minority of kids were ‘determined’ to disrupt.

        They did not wish to engage. They had no self esteem issues, some were bright, some less so. But on the whole quite comfortable with their place in the world and their own world view.

        They took great pleasure in annoying the teacher and many of their peers.

        Fun was not the antidote. Good discipline was, up to and including permanent removal for consistent low level disruption.

        Furthermore I would utterly reject the notion that all lessons MUST be fun (if thats what Chris was suggesting).

        I would agree that SOME lessons can be fun. But an end of unit test, or going through a test, or consolidation of key skills, or hammering out a perceived weakness within the class?

        Sometimes these things are a bit laborious and less fun than others. Sometimes time allows a fun approach sometimes time constraints demand efficiency and less ‘fun’.

        Either way the students have a responsibility for their own application and own motivation. It’s not just the teacher.

        These are not babies, these are young humans who wipe their own bottoms, feed themselves, dress themselves and are capable of sophisticated human interaction and deliberate good deed as well as significant misdeed.

        They can jolly well sit for 10 minutes and listen to their teacher now and again.


        • I think the original debate was whether should be dull or not – it has been going for a while so I forget.

          In the same sense of haze I can’t remember if it was I who introduced the term “fun” to the debate or not – if it was then I sought to clarify it by talking about learning being enjoyable or engaging. Andrew takes issue with the term engaging and references a blog post of his somewhere early on in the debate.

          I made this point because I believe children should be engaged in their learning and that a teacher has a responsibility to ensure that lessons are engaging.

          I don’t believe that learning being enjoyable is instead of behaviour management or that children do not have a responsibility to follow behaviour codes and engage in their learning.

          I do not see fun -a term I would use in the context of enjoyable learning and not videos, word searches and other such time fillers – I think, but could be wrong, that Harry Web makes this point in his blog – which Andrew may have rebooted in the education echo chamber and that agree that children don’t know what they are going to find fun to learn until they are engaged in it. A twitter user makes this point with reference to learning grammar.

          I also accept that there are some activities, as you suggest tests, which might not be perceived as engaging as others, though my experience is that chn actually do enjoy doing these and find them engaging. But then it is down to the teacher to make a judgement call about balance within a lesson.

          I mentioned emotional state for learning – the ensuing debate ref this is above – the paper I link to makes the point that emotional state is a sig factor to learning – but that teachers can only influence it to a point. So, to some degree, I accept Andrew’s skeptism if one takes a point and tries to amplify its influence to the – take Brain Gym as a prime example.

          I do passionately believe learning should be engaging and have attempted define above what that means – fun is a short hand chn use for this.


      • Don’t refer to research if you are unable to back it up – simple.

        Can you please refrain from telling me what to do on my own blog? Am I meant to ignore the research if I don’t have time to list it all immediately? If you think I misrepresented the research in this area, look at the research in this area and tell us what you found, don’t demand I write an essay in the comments.

        We can park that element – I believe that a child’s emotional state is important in ensuring they are able to learn. I encounter that daily and every day reinforces its importance.

        The argument isn’t about its importance, it’s about the ethics of manipulating emotions.

        Lessons should be fun – this refers to learning being enjoyable – teaching styles differ – that should not be prescribed – but learning should be enjoyable.

        We get that this is your opinion. I just want to see an argument that doesn’t rely on use of the weasel word “engagement” or an ignorance of the nature of the link between emotional states and learning.

        Do you have such an argument, or simply a stream of complaints that it is unfair that you should be expected to make your argument unambiguous and avoid flying in the face of psychology?

        So far it seems not.


        • Ha! I will try to refrain from telling you what to write – that has made me chuckle.
          With emotional state and research I have provided some of the research in other posts. I would agree and I think have that there are limits to this though – ensuring chn are calm and ready to learn is one thing – beyond that ….
          Not entirely sure what you mean ref ethics of emotional state though?


        • I suppose the problem around the engagement debate is that which ever word you choose – it is still open to interpretation.

          If we say listening and I agree that listening and engaged aren’t so very different – there is still listening and listening.

          I can listen to the radio and other than it being a background noise have not really taken on board a word.

          Now there is a problem if sorts – it could be said well that is your responsibility to listen to what you are listening to (which is fair – it is) but equally is it not the responsibility of the speaker to ensure what is being said is worth the effort?

          Not sure there is a way out of this one.


    • I think, though perhaps more as an aside – you suggested that depression was an emotional state for learning.

      This finding is so – but is also explored more here
      http://www.chinamusictherapy.org/file/doc/The%20Effect%20of%20a%20Musical%20Mood%20Induction%20Procedure%20on%20Mood%20State-Dependent%20Word%20Retrieval.pdf

      In a paper called The effect of musical mood induction procedure on mood and state dependent word retrieval.

      By Shannon K. De l Etoile

      Effectively research suggests that depression aids the retention of negative experiences and interfere with the learning process.


  12. Engagement is the key to learning – anyone who doubts that should not be teaching anyone anything. If a teacher is ‘teaching pythagoras’ and the child’s mind is elsewhere engaged – learning is not happening for that child.
    In any alphabet-based orthography, it is self-evident that phonics should be taught – that is so obvious that only fools would ‘debate’ the contrary. The fact that a child is a competent reader is proof positive that the letter-sound correspondences have been ‘learned’; the inability to read confidently is proof positive that they have not.
    Over the past seven decades at least, a variety of teaching strategies have been tried. All have failed to secure better than 81.5% literacy. In 1939, it was discovered that one in five conscripts could not read. Throughout the Peter and Jane, ‘whole word’ sixties and seventies’ this statistic did not change significantly and now in the SSP enlightened 21st century, one child in five still leaves school unable to read and write confidently and PISA places the UK (one of the most expensive education systems in the word) about 25th as far as literacy is concerned. Plus ca change!
    In Clackmannanshire, the spiritual home of synthetic phonics, they do not agree with the idea that SP should be the only strategy used to teach reading and in Strathclyde University which monitors the use of SP in their region, they have reached a similar conclusion and distance themselves entirely from quasi-religious status awarded to SP by some.
    Personally, if I were still a head teacher, I would insist on the use of SP to teach letter sound correspondences. Since about 100,000 children still leave school unable to read and write confidently every year, I would have a policy of intervening with an additional strategy for any child is not responding positively to the conventional SP strategy.
    A recent US study postulated that about 4% of ‘dropouts’ were actually gifted children. Applied to the UK, this would mean 4000 illiterate, gifted children placed on the scrapheap every year – surely proof of the use of inappropriate teaching strategies. Certainly, about 90% of those who leave school illiterate, do so unnecessarily.


    • “Engagement is the key to learning – anyone who doubts that should not be teaching anyone anything. If a teacher is ‘teaching pythagoras’ and the child’s mind is elsewhere engaged – learning is not happening for that child.”

      This is why I hate talk of engagement. If “engaged” means “listening” then fair enough. But the word can also mean “entertained”. Having two meanings with such distinct implications makes it very unhelpful to talk about engagement.

      https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2012/02/08/weasel-words-1-engage/

      “In any alphabet-based orthography, it is self-evident that phonics should be taught – that is so obvious that only fools would ‘debate’ the contrary. The fact that a child is a competent reader is proof positive that the letter-sound correspondences have been ‘learned’; the inability to read confidently is proof positive that they have not.
      Over the past seven decades at least, a variety of teaching strategies have been tried. All have failed to secure better than 81.5% literacy. In 1939, it was discovered that one in five conscripts could not read. Throughout the Peter and Jane, ‘whole word’ sixties and seventies’ this statistic did not change significantly and now in the SSP enlightened 21st century, one child in five still leaves school unable to read and write confidently and PISA places the UK (one of the most expensive education systems in the word) about 25th as far as literacy is concerned. Plus ca change!”

      All the research suggests schools in the UK are still not currently teaching SSP across the board.

      “In Clackmannanshire, the spiritual home of synthetic phonics, they do not agree with the idea that SP should be the only strategy used to teach reading and in Strathclyde University which monitors the use of SP in their region, they have reached a similar conclusion and distance themselves entirely from quasi-religious status awarded to SP by some.”

      That phonics denialists are dominant in university education departments is hardly news.

      “Personally, if I were still a head teacher, I would insist on the use of SP to teach letter sound correspondences. Since about 100,000 children still leave school unable to read and write confidently every year, I would have a policy of intervening with an additional strategy for any child is not responding positively to the conventional SP strategy.”

      This is the very point I’ve argued against above. It’s like saying “medicine didn’t cure this illness immediately, so we should try treating it with homeopathy”. The failure of evidence-based methods in some cases does not justify giving up on them completely and trying magic.


      • You write: If “engaged” means “listening” then fair enough.

        Engagement surely means a lot more than ‘listening’ – it means mentally processing and being ‘engaged intellectually with’ what is being ‘taught.’ I certainly regard ‘engagement’ as the principal key to learning. One of the problems of teaching is the difficulty of providing a single strategy that will ‘engage’ thirty very different children.

        You write: All the research suggests schools in the UK are still not currently teaching SSP across the board.

        I agree but even if we were to introduce the death penalty for failing to teach SSP properly, teachers would still be human beings and we would be hanging hundreds teachers every year – AND continuing to contribute tens of thousands to our already substantial population of illiterate adults.

        You write: That phonics denialists are dominant in university education departments is hardly news.

        Clackmannanshire and Dumbartonshire where SP is compulsory and diligently pursued by specially trained advisory staff – but not exclusively used – are not university depts. ‘phonics denialists’ don’t exist in any real sense of the term – certainly not in any significant number.

        You write: “It’s like saying “medicine didn’t cure this illness immediately, so we should try treating it with homeopathy”.

        That of course is complete pseudo-intellectual nonsense of the kind which gives SP a bad name. Perceptual Learning has a very respectable and widely published basis in research. It is entirely logical and common sense. It is the exclusive means by which all learned behaviour is acquired by higher primates; the strategy used by all successful commercial language teaching organisations and the mechanism which is responsible for the rapid development of the human brain. Personally, I base my work on practical research in schools the outcomes of which I happily provide for others to challenge.

        I have conducted many literacy project is single schools and in school groups. I have two currently ongoing projects – one is a group of ten primary schools which will report at Xmas on video so that anyone can take a peek into their operation. I have of course no influence over the content of their video. I have five other schools producing videos of their work which will appear on my site by Xmas. PL has a very credible and widely published research basis as well has having a sound basis in common sense. How else would you explain the 20,000 or so children who arrive in schools already able to read confidently, having learned perceptually.

        Since January, I have been developing an iPad perceptual learning suite with a group of 32 parents – schools are not involved at all. Each parent reports/comments weekly by email. Seven of the parents are in fact teachers but do not teach literacy skills. What appears to concern many of the parents is the fact that their children who had failed to learn to read and write at school, were learning these skills without difficulty at home using their iPads! I have also collected information on which programmes the children had completed in school (JP, .PAT, Letter & Sounds etc) although I am not suggesting that the numbers involved represent credible data.


        • “You write: If “engaged” means “listening” then fair enough. Engagement surely means a lot more than ‘listening’ – it means mentally processing…”

          That sounds a lot like listening to me.

          “…and being ‘engaged intellectually with’ what is being ‘taught.’”

          Which is completely circular.

          “I certainly regard ‘engagement’ as the principal key to learning. One of the problems of teaching is the difficulty of providing a single strategy that will ‘engage’ thirty very different children.”

          And immediately it sounds more like entertaining.

          “You write: That phonics denialists are dominant in university education departments is hardly news.Clackmannanshire and Dumbartonshire where SP is compulsory and diligently pursued by specially trained advisory staff – but not exclusively used – are not university depts. ‘phonics denialists’ don’t exist in any real sense of the term – certainly not in any significant number.”

          I’m only judging by what you wrote.

          “You write: “It’s like saying “medicine didn’t cure this illness immediately, so we should try treating it with homeopathy”. That of course is complete pseudo-intellectual nonsense of the kind which gives SP a bad name.”

          It really isn’t.

          “Perceptual Learning has a very respectable…”

          This is not the place for an advert. My experience is that this is something that I only hear when people want to sell it and in such vague and unhelpful terms that I can’t judge how good it is or not. Perhaps Perceptual Learning has somewhere been defined clearly so that people who are not advocates have been able to test but until I see that evidence I’ll assume it’s snake oil.


          • Have a look at @manyanaed ‘s blog post on engagement – I don’t agree with all of it – but it makes one think.


          • I have read it, but thanks for reminding me about it as I hadn’t had a chance to reblog it on the Echo Chamber.


          • You write “Perhaps Perceptual Learning has somewhere been defined clearly so that people who are not advocates have been able to test but until I see that evidence I’ll assume it’s snake oil.”

            Perceptual Learning is the only teaching strategy which has a prestigious university department which exclusively researches its effectiveness. I refer of course to Phil Kellman’s Human Perception Laboratory at UCLA which develops PL modules with students in Los Angeles schools. His work was the feature of an article in the New Scientist in January 2012.

            An Amazon search produces in excess of 4000 titles for Perceptual Learning and I have several thick files of academic papers on the subject and well as decades of personal experience researching its effectiveness. Naturally, I would not expect this to impress an intellect such as yours.

            Further than this, following on the success being achieved by PL in the school in the video on my site, without exception, every other secondary school has now adopted the PL strategy and many of their primary schools are following suit. There will be six more school videos on my site by Christmas!

            PL is a teaching strategy. It has no copyright and cannot therefore be ‘sold’ as snake oil or any other material. It is way of viewing the teaching of reading to the vast number of children who unnecessarily leave school illiterate every year, largely because of the kind of pseudo-intellectual claptrap which you are so fond of spouting.


  13. I’m not sure the comparison to placebo drugs works. Placebos are interventions which the patient cannot distinguish from a genuine intervention, but which have no plausible pharmaceutical effect whatsoever. Is your argument therefore that non-SSP methods have no effect whatsoever on the child’s ability to read?


  14. By far the best blog post I have read, and I do love your writing style. Only point I do totally disagree with is DULL, learning is a mind set, If you have intelligence AND have been given the basics early enough! It is not only an ego blast to master something, its also the greatest form of escapism ever invented. I’m a Great Grandfather, who happens to be a knowledge seeker, I hold a few degrees and lol a million silly pieces of paper. One thing my life has taught me is knowledge starts on the mothers breast, IF a parent/caregiver teaches their child to LOVE learning, then the rest is irrelevant. If not the child will spend their life struggling to learn anything. I have taught my grandchildren to read with a Phonics program and I am using the updated version to teach my new daughter. I have truly been blessed with the opportunity to revisit parenthood, and WOW it so much better in my Autumn years as the saying goes.:D All the results of this program have impressed me greatly, I purchased it from http://educationalfun.info. I have heard a lot of negativity about most early eduction programs, but a lot worse about the education system in general. The common factor I have picked up over the years is that too many parents use these program’s and teachers as a baby sitter, and blame everyone else for their child failing. Bit of a Great Grandfathers advice ok, if your not prepared to put the effort into teaching your child, “Meaning interactive enjoyable TIME” save your money and stop pretending, because no matter what you do, its a hard and rocky road ahead you both will have. The first 4 to 5 years of their lives are yours to mold, after that its in the hands of society. It can be the BEST times of both your lives, and creates the future for your child, so make it memorable for both of you.

    Regards
    Daniel Warren


  15. Wow you are an idiot aren’t you…comparing non-phonics to homeopathy. Guess my reading isn’t really reading just a placebo…


  16. […] Old has strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches to teaching reading. His standpoint here is not abundantly […]


  17. […] Old has strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches to teaching reading. His standpoint here is not abundantly clear. On the one hand, he has […]



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