Phonics Denialism and Rational DebateJanuary 3, 2014
Every so often somebody challenges me for using the term “phonics denialist” to describe people who deny the evidence on phonics. The objection is normally one of the following:
- It’s an insult.
- It’s an ad hominem argument.
- It’s unfair to use it to describe people who claim to accept some use of phonics (but ignore the evidence).
Part of the reason I use the term is that it would be unwieldy, particularly on twitter, to write out “people who deny the evidence on phonics” every single time I refer to people who deny the evidence on phonics. This would be worse, if one was to take the last point seriously and write out “people who deny the evidence on phonics but accept some use of phonics” every time. I have a similar dilemma on Twitter (or when writing the title for a blogpost) if I find that “advocates of progressive education methods” won’t really fit but “trendies” will.
Now, as I say, I don’t really think that the third point is a serious one. Anyone can pay lip service to some use of phonics while at the same time arguing against what the evidence shows to be the most effective methods or pushing for a lot of time to be spent on ineffective methods. The anti-phonics position has become so discredited that even those with the most extreme anti-phonics views will usually (when challenged) make some comment about “I’m not against phonics per se” when asked to explain why they are arguing again phonics. I see no point reserving the term “phonics denialist” for those (probably now mythical) people who deny everything about phonics even when pushed, rather than using it for all of those who deny the evidence on phonics.
As for the second point, I think it shows some confusion about what an ad hominem argument is. An ad hominem argument is one which suggests we reject an argument on the basis of who makes it. I have never suggested we reject phonics denialism because it is believed by phonics denialists, only because it is wrong. This contrasts with those who suggest that anything I say about phonics be ignored because I am not a teacher of early reading, merely somebody who read up on the evidence.
So that just leaves the point about whether it is insulting. The usual argument is that because “denialist” is used to describe those with extreme anti-evidence views, like climate-change denial or holocaust denial, then this is an attempt to smear those who deny the evidence on phonics by association. I have never accepted this argument because I think that the negative connotations of being a denialist depend on what you are denying. I have no problem with being labelled a “phrenology denialist”, or a “homeopathy denialist”. Saying that you deny something only seems insulting when the beliefs you are denying are actually reputable and evidence-based. For that matter, I don’t need to go into the extremes of pseudo-science to find beliefs for which I don’t mind being considered a “denialist”. You can also count me as a “monetarism denialist” and a “Buddhism denialist” if you like. I don’t mind being credited with denying stuff, I do it a lot. I don’t think that “denialist” is a synonym for “crank” and I don’t use it that way.
That said, I do think the arguments used by phonics denialists are simply terrible, so terrible, that I do wonder how comparison with, say, climate change denialism could be considered unfair. Two recent examples stick in my mind. The first was actually in a pamphlet published by The Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain. Here’s the key argument:
In this short book I am going to argue that research into the teaching of reading involves some fantasies. These take the form of imagining that specific teaching methods could be identified, and that their efficacy would be open to empirical investigation. I show that if any schools were actually implementing such strategies, the adults responsible would have abdicated their role as teachers. In reality, implementations of SP in any one school will not and should not precisely resemble those in other schools and in any case, current research into SP ‘effectiveness’ is not informed by a detailed blow by blow description of what actually happens in the classrooms concerned. Hence, it is never really made clear what the research is actually investigating. If teachers are actually teaching, there will be and should be nothing common to all SP programmes. The effects of drugs or fertilisilisers can, of course, be investigated using orthodox scientific methodologies, but we lack the equivalent here in terms of teaching approaches.
Now, the limits of scientific methods to isolate and evaluate what happens in the classroom is a real issue. I’m certainly sceptical about a lot of education research for that reason. However, the claim that we could never, even in theory, objectively evaluate a teaching method is as extreme a denial of science as anything you will hear from homeopaths or creationists (who are also often prone to claim that science cannot hope judge their claims). The claim that all the research in an entire field (not just the hundreds of studies on phonics, because this argument applies equally to all teaching methods) is a particularly extreme one. It entails that all those who have conducted empirical research in teaching methods were mistaken, and all those who found statistically significant results were deluded. Not only that, but if they were to test more extreme cases, say the efficacy of teaching by telepathy, their results would still be invalid and teachers would be fully entitled to teach telepathically. To dismiss empirical research on this scale is as extreme as dismissing all the evidence of climate change, in fact it is pretty much the same argument, that we cannot aggregate data, that climate change denialists use.
As a note, I should probably add that the defence could be made that the author, despite using an argument that could be applied to all research into teaching methods, actually meant to treat phonics as a special case; that it is only in the case of phonics or perhaps synthetic phonics specifically that researchers would have no idea what method was being used. But if it is inherently impossible to identify the teaching methods used as phonics, or synthetic phonics, why write a pamphlet condemning a policy encouraging synthetic phonics? If the teaching method is indistinguishable from other methods, it cannot possibly be enforced. The policy would be meaningless, and can safely be ignored. The argument assumes the very thing that would make the argument irrelevant. You cannot oppose the imposition of a teaching method by arguing that there is no method being imposed.
The second argument, was in a recent blogpost. It is, as follows:
The combination of letters in a word makes a shape on a page. A totally unique shape. Indeed, more than that, the words in a sentence make a shape on a page as well. I did a lot of dance and art as a child: these disciplines taught me to make patterns and to move around a space. I can spell because I can see if a word looks wrong on a page. I can speed read because I know words by their shape. I don’t need to sound words out to understand them. The sense is there, even without the sound. When I write, my aim is to weave shape, as well as sound.
Yes, this is the argument that, if it seems like we read using the shape of the letters, not their corresponding sounds, then that must be the case. Now, as extremely bad arguments goes, “what seems to be the case must be the case” is a particularly bad one. The earth does appear to be flat. The sun does appear to go round the earth. It is not that we are always mistaken in our perceptions, but that sometimes an objective examination shows them to be incorrect. This is such a case, and studies that show a strong correlation between our awareness of phonemes and our ability to read (and even comprehend) have been abundant since at least the 60s. (Actually, even just a bit more thought might identify the problems with the claim, after all it is pretty easy to think of examples of words people struggle to spell because of the way letters correspond to phonemes rather than the shape of the words.) In this case we have an argument that is, literally, the same one flat-earthers would use. Yet I’m sure any comparison between phonics denialism and the belief the earth is flat would be seen as an insult, yet the argument is the same.
Again, as a note, I’d better anticipate the obvious wriggle over this. It might be claimed that the above claim about reading from the shape of words wasn’t meant to be used as an argument against phonics. Fortunately, the intentions of the author are stated even more clearly on her Twitter feed (SSP is the usual abbreviation for Systematic Synthetic Phonics, i.e. the method of teaching reading best supported by the evidence).
Now I do not mean to be insulting. I really don’t. But just as the arguments of phonics denialists are so poor that we do not have to be teachers of reading ourselves to see how poor they are, they are also so poor that it is hard not to describe what is wrong with them without the risk of causing offence and being accused of insults. I will try not to offend, but if people don’t want to be labelled with words like “denialist” then it really would be a good idea to avoid using arguments so flawed that the choice of “denialist” (over, say, “crank”) actually seems like a compliment. It would also help, if instead of getting angry at me when they read this, those in the phonics denialist camp at least admitted that the two arguments identified here are really weak arguments that should not be used to make their case without opening them up to comparisons they may find unflattering and distanced themselves from those arguments.