The Latest Iteration of the Phonics DebateAugust 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.