Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 2

July 3, 2014

In this post from yesterday I went over the problems with Andrew Davis’ pamphlet on phonics. It had media publicity at the time of its publication for a reference to phonics teaching being “almost a form of abuse” and argued that we should ignore the research on systematic synthetic phonics because we could not identify whether those methods have actually been used.

An obviously incoherent argument mixed with a lack of any evidence, and a tasteless comparison with child abuse, would, of course, be an embarrassment to anyone engaging in a serious debate. But denialists do need to be able to refer to texts by educationalists in order to give the impression of intellectual legitimacy to their position. While I don’t want to go over Twitter discussions about the pamphlet (suffice to say many of its most ardent admirers seem unfamiliar with its content) it’s worth commenting on a couple of blogposts which attempted to defend it. The first is here. In it, the obvious criticisms that its claims are unsupported with evidence, and in defiance of the evidence, are defended by an appeal to the nature of philosophy:

However, empirical and philosophical questions have important differences between them which are the subject of this essay. Andrew Davis is a philosopher. The type and scope of his research is defined by the limits of his discipline. This is also my response to the third objection [the claim the pamphlet was mere speculation]: he is a philosopher, this work is theory. Therefore, it is not “speculative” to write what one thinks because in this field what one thinks is precisely the research itself. When Davis says what he has written is the result of three years’ work we have no reason to doubt him unless we believe that mental work is not meaningful or real, and if we believe that then quite frankly we should never be anywhere near a classroom.

The idea that the abstract nature of philosophy means that any claim, no matter how at odds with evidence, can be seriously entertained is one I would associate more with critics than supporters of philosophy. For instance, Lawrence Krauss’s claim that “philosophy used to have content” which science has gradually taken away paints philosophy as some kind of abstract nonsense of no consequence to those who study the real world. While I am quite happy with the idea of philosophy consisting of thought and reasoning rather than empirical evidence, philosophy is still meant to be thought about something. A philosopher of science will need to study some science and they would not claim, that whatever experiments have been conducted they cannot provide evidence of gravity. A philosopher of history will need to study some history and they would not claim that whatever books historians have written, none of them could provide grounds for saying the battle of Waterloo happened. A philosopher of law will need to study some law and would not claim that, whatever laws have been passed, none of them could prohibit burglary. The correct way to philosophise about the teaching of reading involves first studying how we teach children to read, not claiming that it has never actually been studied. An argument that it cannot be studied does not create a gap for philosophy to fill, it makes philosophical consideration as impossible as any other type. Davis’ argument that we can never isolate a specific way of teaching reading does not simply prevent the possibility of empirically measuring the effectiveness of the method, it also prevents us identifying any features of a reading method that a philosopher could reasonably consider. A teaching method that is so lacking in distinct features or consequences that we cannot identify it when we use it or observe it, is also a teaching method that we cannot imagine using and whose consequences no philosopher can deduce. If the ample evidence that synthetic phonics is the most effective method of teaching children to read is “a fantasy”, then how much more fantastic is the evidence-free claim that it is almost a form of abuse?

Another blogger, Dave Aldridge, tries a different defence. Instead of defending the actual pamphlet he defends an imagined, less extreme version of the pamphlet. The actual pamphlet contains a number of  claims about it being impossible to observe or identify the teaching of synthetic phonics, some of which I quoted last time, but just to be thorough I will list examples here.

In the editors’ introduction, the argument is summarised with phrases such as:

Whatever it is that empirical researchers take themselves to be doing when they investigate synthetic phonics, he maintains, they are not investigating a specifiable method of teaching reading… there are no such things as specifiable methods of teaching.

In the author’s overview he writes:

 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.

In the outline of the argument he writes that one of the contributions of the book “is to show that much of the research purporting to support any one ‘method’ of teaching reading is flawed in principle” and that in sketching out the various ways to teach reading:

My point… is not to offer a definitive account or typology, but rather to question the very possibility of classifying reading strategies in any meaningful way. I am not assuming that the approaches described are necessarily independent of each other. Indeed, I contend that when examined in any kind of depth, none of them can, or should have, any clear and coherent identity

In the chapter giving the fullest justification of this argument Davis claims to argue “that certain types of empirical research into strategies for teaching reading are … based on fantasies of specifiable teaching interventions…”.

Yet, despite this ample evidence that Davis is indeed claiming that specific teaching methods, and synthetic phonics teaching in particular, cannot be identified, Aldridge instead claims that:

Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers.

Aldridge then attempts to argue for the much weaker claim that the evidence for phonics cannot be of the standard of these other types of research. While Davis did briefly assert that his arguments for ignoring the research evidence showed that evaluating teaching methods was different to testing drugs or fertilisers, his argument at no point hinged on the reverse implication, i.e. that if teaching methods are different to drugs then they cannot be evaluated. If this argument has not been made then no amount of differences between types of research can be used to support Davis’s claims. While this new argument may be of interest, and I hope to deal with it later, it does not actually match the argument of the pamphlet which remains as far-fetched and incoherent as ever.

Much of what remains in Aldridge’s post (and a subsequent post) is directed at me, rather than the discussion of Davis’ pamphlet in general, so I will hope to deal with it in a separate post.


  1. I hope you don’t mind – but just in case people do not visit Dave Aldridge’s blog where he is enjoying his argy-bargy with you re the Davis pamphlet, I’ve copied and pasted my response to Dave below. I’m hoping my comments serve as a bit of a reality check to academics such as Andrew Davis and Dave Aldridge reminding them that they are discussing the fate of real children here. They seem to relish debating a subject that is not truly their domain in that they aren’t doing the teaching, or the programme providing or the teacher-training – and as they are past childhood, this issue does not really affect them! Of course they are at liberty to discuss this issue as is anyone – but it’s a bit like parents talking over their children about their children and not paying regard to their children overhearing, or their children’s feelings on the topic of conversation – so I’m pulling on their sleeves, representing the child, wherever I can!
    I wrote on Dave’s blog:
    Whilst the philosophers are philosophising about this issue, and the bloggers are blogging and debating about this issue, there are many very hard-working teachers getting on with teaching real children how to really read – the mechanics and the underpinning language comprehension – both enhanced by lots of language around a range of literature.
    Whether people are in agreement with the Year One phonics screening check or not, nevertheless it has sharpened teachers’ minds about the effectiveness of their teaching in terms of teaching the most complex alphabetic code in the world – and the phonics skills not only for lifting the words off the page – but also for putting the words on the page (that is, spelling and handwriting).
    I read as widely as I can regarding reading instruction – including the blogs and the various discussions around the subject of reading instruction – and what strikes me is a total disconnect between those discussing the subject and those getting on with the teaching.
    No-one has ever, ever said that teaching the alphabetic code and phonics skills is ‘reading’ in its entirety, but philosophers and others are deluding themselves if they cannot appreciate, or refuse to appreciate, that the more easily and efficiently children can decode words – within their oral vocabulary and new to them – then the more likely they will be able to become ‘readers’ in the full sense – that is, understanding the literature they can read by decoding more readily.
    It is a tragedy that for many years the teaching methods – or lack thereof – sent little children home with their ‘reading books’ in their ‘bookbags’ with their ‘reading record books’ to attempt to read those books for which they had not been taught the alphabetic code and blending skill. This is largely what happened – and may still be happening in some cases.
    How many stressed scenarios at home with tired children, tired parents, feeling obliged to ‘hear’ the child read his or her reading book – which could only be ‘read’ through guessing the words. If you cannot decode the words, all that is left is guessing.
    And as children get older and the pictures and obvious storylines are not so obvious, then all there is is phonics to lift the words off the page if they are not known already.
    Philosophise and argue all you like – but there are many of us, programme authors, teacher-trainers, teachers – who are working extraordinarily hard day in and day out to enable ALL the children to lift the words off the page so that they can read independently – and write independently – which is truly empowering and opens up the world contained within the literature.
    The Year One phonics screening check has made a major contribution leading to far more of the children being taught the mechanics of reading more effectively by more teachers. If philosophising academics really cannot appreciate that, what a sorry state of affairs this is. If philosophers get some kind of satisfaction from undermining the Year One phonics screening check which, in effect, also undermines phonics teaching, then the state of affairs is beyond mere words.
    Kind regards,

    • Much of your post seems to be an attempt to discredit Davis and Aldridge. You want us to think that they do not care about children and are just indulging in a bit of clever word play for their own amusement.

      What is your basis for this? Both have experience of working with children directly and in both cases their discipline is within the field of education. Besides, arguments don’t stand on the credentials of the arguer, but on their own merits.

      You want us to believe you have better credentials, and argue that because you and others are committed to SP and work hard it must be the right way. Well, again, arguments don’t stand on the credentials of the arguer, but on their own merits.

      You refer to ‘underpinning comprehension’ and ‘enhanced by lots of language around a range of literature’ as though these are part and parcel of SP. They are not. SP stands for ‘synthetic phonics’, the check is a ‘decoding’ check. Neither embraces comprehension or lots of language and literature; the skills they teach or test are discrete. So, although SP teachers may, in addition, teach and support wider literacy activities, there is no guarantee, within SP, that this follows automatically. And no indication that with teachers who are less enthusiastic about SP it does not.

  2. Philosophy is an ‘Ahhh but…’ discipline. It examines other disciplines with a forensic instinct for underlying assumptions and flaws in thinking. This is not based on evidence but on logic. The evidence, if you insist, for a philosophical conclusion about an argument, is found somewhere in the premises of the argument.

    The theory and premises underlying educational research into phonics tend to depend on an assumption that the circumstances of the research can be replicated. In taking on the method thus arrived at practitioners are also tacitly agreeing with this assumption, although, not being philosophers (either trained or by inclination) they may have thought about it. Government is certainly guilty of this in believing that the method found to be useful in the Clack study would be replicable in any and every school, and more – then further elaborating on and formalising that method – moving it further away from the original circumstances. It is no accident that government interference includes efforts to reduce choice and individuality in teacher practice.

    In my view Davis is only guilty of pointing out the assumption and the flawed results of that assumption. He doesn’t need evidence to do that, unless you really need evidence that each person and each interaction between persons and each circumstance of interaction between persons, in a classroom, is different from others. As I understand it, for Davis, the definition of ‘teacher’ includes the idea that this is an individual who engages in interaction with pupils and bases responses on those interactions. Do you disagree?

    • may *not* have thought about it

    • There are two obvious contexts in which we might examine “assumptions”. Sometimes we use it to indicate unexamined prior beliefs that then affect thinking. However, we also use the same word to describe plausible ideas that we accept provisionally and explicitly.

      In this first sense, it is indeed the job of philosophers to identify and criticise assumptions. They should be made explicit and their implications explored. In particular, the questions should be asked as to whether arguments presented would still have plausibility if the assumptions involved are expressed more explicitly, or whether more work needs to be done to justify the assumptions.

      In the second sense, however, the assumptions are already explicit. I would suggest that the assumption, in a study of systematic synthetic phonics, that the method of systematic synthetic phonics exists as an identifiable method, is pretty damn explicit. It’s not unexamined, it just didn’t take much examining. Pointing out that people testing phonics believe phonics exist is not really philosophical analysis; it is just the observation that people assume the obvious to be true. It is hard to see this as an error given the bizarre implications of assuming otherwise.

      Denying the obvious is not, in itself, philosophy just because people *assume* that things which are obviously true are true. And, as argued above, Davis’s inability to explain why his speculations appear obviously untrue and his unfortunate habit of making arguments that implicitly assume his speculations are untrue, suggests that he hasn’t come close to putting together a plausible case for denying the obvious, only a demonstration of how wildly one can speculate while ignoring it.

  3. I have never understood the hostility to synthetic phonics that seems to exist in certain sectors of the educational establishment. I have studied several languages, a couple of which use different alphabets to ours. Naturally, I have several textbooks for these languages. What’s the first thing you see in the first chapter of such books? The alphabet of the language in question, and its relationship to the sounds of the language. I’ve never seen a textbook for teaching Russian, for instance, that doesn’t start off with an account of the Cyrillic alphabet. Assuredly, English spelling is not as ‘one-to-one’ as it is in some languages, but it is also not as unpredictable as many people think it is, and there are rules to help learners. Again, there are assuredly more aspects to reading than understanding a sound -symbol relationship, but these are built up on the basis of that understanding. You can’t read Dostoevsky in the original unless you’ve grasped the Cyrillic alphabet first. Indeed I wonder how many people who are against phonics would want to learn Russian without learning Cyrillic first?

  4. Nemocracy said:

    “Much of your post seems to be an attempt to discredit Davis and Aldridge. You want us to think that they do not care about children and are just indulging in a bit of clever word play for their own amusement.”

    People are clearly going to make their own minds up about who is attempting to discredit whom or what.

  5. Scenes from the Battleground
    “In the second sense, however, the assumptions are already explicit. I would suggest that the assumption, in a study of systematic synthetic phonics, that the method of systematic synthetic phonics exists as an identifiable method, is pretty damn explicit”
    Your blog shows that you do not understand the implications for teachers and children of the teaching principles of the method of systematic synthetic phonics.
    Neither do you understand the implications for teachers and children of the core criteria as defined by the government.
    Neither you do not understand the specific details of the Clackmannanshire study.
    Specifically, being told a complete word by a teacher, parent or friend, or making an informed guess at a word from a picture in a book, or guessing a word from the context of the text, are methods of reading instruction not allowed in the (defined) systematic synthetic phonic teaching method. When any of these three instances occur during the teaching of children to read, then the ‘analytic phonic’ method is coming into play. The proponents of the synthetic phonic teaching method will then tell you that ‘mixed methods’ are being used. The teaching is regarded as non-synthetic phonic.
    All children have parents, friends and carers who help them to read their first books. Only if these people and their ‘help’ are removed from the social experience of ‘learning to read in the real world’ can it be said that SSP is being used, and that there are no traces of AP and/or “mixed methods”.
    The government is trying to impose a teaching method in the National Curriculum that they have defined. Because they have defined it, it does “exist”, but, in reality, it is impossible to adhere to it, and so it does not “exist”.

  6. I hope I am not a “phonics denialist” – certainly I am not a “phonics fundamentalist” – but as a vicar I am disturbed at the polarisation here which echoes unhealthy polarisation in religion. So far as I am aware, we have no children who have grown up in a “phonics only” environment – the linguistic context for all but a handful of children is richer than “phonics only”. And as an anecdote, hearing children read (as a visitor to a school) I encountered one Year 4 child on Harry Potter 3 who could pronounce all the words, but couldn’t tell me which characters she thought were good and which were not. I think that is disturbing, and I hope it is rare (she’d also seen the films). Anecdote is not evidence of course. Personally I learned to read from my parents before I was introduced to ITA, which I was expected to learn and then unlearn, and I have a daughter whose most significant intervention so far as reading was concerned was a visit to the optician.

    I would like to see research on how phonics teaching relates to the environment of meaningful spoken language that children inhabit, and also some caution about children who have a need for undiagnosed medical intervention. I wouldn’t want ideological fundamentalism to blind us to the real needs of real children. There are barriers to language acquisition which I am sure are not related to phonics (my daughter), and there are children who do not need to be put through a phonics programme to learn language (I was one).

  7. Hi Mark,
    I note your measured response and genuine enquiry. Phonics proponents such as myself work hard to promote the Simple View of Reading which clarifies that phonics is only fulfilling one of two main processes for being a reader in the full sense – those two processes being: 1) word decoding (being able to lift the words off the page) and 2) language comprehension.
    A good phonics programme of course includes vocabulary enrichment and language comprehension as you would expect but this is not suggested as the ‘main’ language comprehension diet of children. This is provided through all manner of opportunities – both planned and general and in school and at home -and through speaking and literature.
    Whilst you may not have been ‘put through a phonics programme to learn language’, you will probably find that you have deduced phonics (the alphabetic code or a version of it) without really appreciating it. Very few literate people have not deduced the alphabetic code in one form or another – but capacity to lift the words off the page with little effort or accurately may be diminished in many cases where children are not taught phonics explicitly.
    There is no reason not to teach the alphabetic code – and it serves both in the short term and for lifelong reading and spelling. The English language has the most complex alphabetic code in the world and it is arguably failing to discharge our duty as teachers not to teach it and to teach it well. Deducing the code child by child is not necessary nor should it be left to chance. The issue then remains as to how well teachers can teach the code across 30 different children in the class which is why phonics programmes and guidance need to be well-designed and teachers well-trained. In other words, one person’s vision and version of ‘phonics’ may not be the same as another’s. So, when you speak of ‘phonics’, it may not be exactly what I’m referring to. You can see this with so many of the phonics detractors – they argue points which would not need to be worried about if they knew more about modern systematic synthetic phonics, and linguistic phonics, programmes.
    You will find plenty of references to research at http://www.dyslexics.org.uk or via my Phonics International message forum or via the UK Reading Reform Foundation site at http://www.rrf.org.uk .

  8. The Simple View of Reading diagram (and the equivalent for writing – The Simple View of Writing):

  9. When Gough and Hoover first described the simple view of reading they were quite clear that the decoding element was not phonic decoding alone.

    Click to access simple_view.pdf

    They refer to the cipher of the English language which skilled readers apply automatically when reading and which they learn through experience. Phonics contributes to this learning but cannot solve all decoding problems.

    Additionally in reaching the stage of automaticity (effortless decoding in which phonics is no longer applied) pupils have to achieve fluency, an important part of which is the understanding, not only of each word in the text, but of whole phrases and sentences. Skilled word reading involves automatic recognition of words, not decoding each left to right: http://www.microsoft.com/typography/ctfonts/WordRecognition. Experience of written text is the key to this.

    It is pupils who do not achieve this fluency and understanding, for whatever reason, including difficulty with phonics, who struggle. It is pupils who read with enthusiasm and get lots of practice who achieve it. An analysis of reading research by David Share highlights the Anglocentricity of research which has concentrated on phonic decoding at the expense of other necessary skills, because English is so difficult to decode:

    Click to access Share_Anglocentricities_2008.pdf


    The government is forcing a regime of synthetic phonics which ignores these research findings (the nature of the cipher and skilled decoding and the skewed nature of reading research) and others. And teachers have made clear that they believe that children apply more than phonic strategies in learning to read, as reported by the NFER in their research into the phonics check.

    Click to access Evaluation_of_the_phonics_screening_check_second_interim_report_FINAL.pdf

    It is not synthetic phonics as a strategy which is at fault, it is synthetic phonics as an imposed method. The principles of systematic synthetic phonics as a method are highly prescriptive and exclusive, in a similar way to many ‘methods’ which have failed before.

    Click to access Final_03__The_Synthetic_Phonics_Teaching_Principles%2011-2-10.pdf

    Luckily most teachers have the skill to take on the imposed method with circumspection and adapt it according to what they know and find out about their pupils. However it is important that the phonic check goes. It represents muddled thinking about the nature even of phonic decoding and the rationale behind it had led to an over-emphasis on synthetic phonics in the overall picture of reading.

    • I don’t think anyone would claim that phonics can solve all decoding problems, but it certainly seems to provide a good basis for it. The problem is, I think, that people have taken things that are the end result of a process – e.g fluency in reading – and imagined that they can be used to kick start the process. Fast readers ‘chunk’ the material they read – good spellers have a kind of mental ‘photograph’ of the word they need to spell – but they didn’t start out with those abilities, they came about as the end result of a process. It seems to be folly to begin the process of reading by trying to get children to learn to ‘take a photograph’ of a word, as it were, when that is an ability that develops after you’ve learnt to decode. When I learnt Russian, for instance, I started out learning the form-sound correspondences of Cyrillic, and spent a lot of time decoding words letter by letter, until eventually the ‘mental picture’ formed, and fluency in reading followed. But the ‘decoding’ process had to precede it. I can’t imagine having learnt it the way some children are taught to read in school. But perhaps there is some research on that. Thinking of it from the opposite direction, in a script with a near one-to-one form-sound correspondence, such as Indian devanagari script, the process seems to be the same- you start off decoding words letter by letter, and eventually stop doing this (or it becomes unconscious). The claim made in the first article, about Anglocentricity, seems not to be true. It’s not the case that decoding is the way people read in languages with ‘shallow’ orthographies, but it’s not appropriate for English. The psychological processes appear to be the same, with an initial stage of ‘decoding’, followed by fluency, the ability to guess from context. etc. I realise this is all impressionistic, and based on personal experience. But I would be interested to know of some research on languages that don’t use our script

      • I’d be very careful about assuming too much about the fluent. Often it is simply a case that they are not consciously aware of what they are doing, rather than they are doing something different.

        • As regards fluency, Andrew, I’m not quite sure what you mean by readers ‘knowing what they are doing’? Do you mean understanding the text they are expertly decoding?
          There doesn’t seem to be a standard definition of fluency in reading, perhaps because of limited research into this aspect (see Share’s article for some of the definitions used). I was using a definition of fluency that included evidence of understanding.

          • I should have been careful to quote you correctly. Apologies:
            I’m not sure what you mean by readers being, ‘Consciously aware of what they are doing’.
            In addition I’m not sure what you mean by ‘doing something different’ in your post. But I hope my reply is relevant nevertheless!

      • Share’s thesis is that research into reading is Anglocentric. One can consider whether that is true by reviewing the research, and he does. There is more research into reading English than other languages, partly because it is widespread, partly because it is problematic.
        This research concentrates on the problems thrown up by English. The big problem is irregularity, which affects decoding, because, unlike most languages, English has an opaque orthography. This is agreed by researchers and I haven’t heard any phonics proponent say that it is untrue.
        You are correct that learners decode all languages in order to pronounce the words, but it is much easier in a shallow than an opaque orthography.
        Reading is more than decoding, but because of the Anglocentricity of the research decoding has been the research emphasis. If a shallow orthography had had the research emphasis of English (Share implies) decoding would not be the problem research grapples with (as it would not be problematic).
        There are other problems, which he identifies in the article, which are common to all languages, including English, and these problems have been neglected because the research has been dominated by the non-typical problems of English. English speakers and speakers of other languages alike need to overcome all the problems of reading, not just decoding. Therefore, research and teaching should tackle all the problems of reading, not just decoding.
        Share does not write that fluency (or any of the other aspects he identifies) ‘kick-starts’ the process of reading, he argues that these other aspects are important to reading alongside decoding (accurate decoding being a unique problem to English). Research into these aspects may well reveal their ability to kick-start reading in other ways not dealt with by accurate decoding, and Share does touch on some of these possibilities.
        I believe you are wrong if you believe, as I think you may, that decoding uniquely kick-starts reading. Milton’s daughters were whizzes at decoding Latin, but didn’t understand a word of what they were decoding. Their reading of Latin text was not kick-started.

        • The above was in reply to Persephone.

  10. Gough and Tunmer first proposed the Simple Model of Reading in 1986. In their paper, the authors wrote, ‘’To clarify the role of decoding in reading and reading disability, a simple model of reading is proposed, which holds that reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension…. we are reluctant to equate decoding with word recognition, for the term decoding surely connotes, if not denotes, the use of letter-sound correspondence rules’’ (italics added. 1986, Remedial & Special Education, Vol 7, No.1, 6-10).

  11. I don’t have access to that document. Both the papers I have read are clear that in the simple view the decoding element is not simply phonic decoding. These are Hoover and Gough ‘The Simple View of Reading’ 1990 and ‘How Children Learn to Read and Why They Fail’ Gough 1996. Both are available on the internet, so perhaps interested readers will judge for themselves.

    Click to access simple_view.pdf

    Click to access how_children_learn_to_read_and_why_they_fail.pdf

    • Your point shows a lack of understanding of how science works. When a model is proposed, it will be subjected to testing, extension, and changes by other researchers in the field. What is relevant in 2014 is not “the simple view of reading” as originally proposed by Gough et al, but the up-to-date model as currently accepted by the majority of reading researchers.

      This is, of course, quite different to the “guru”-based approach that produced the “multi-cueing” word recognition strategies, which are still being used by many teachers. There is no proper evidence base for these strategies; thus, their advocates tend to think in terms of quoting the words of the original “guru” to support their claims.

      • Chris, I’m not sure if the current definition of the simple view of reading is accepted by researchers. The current definition, as described by phonics proponents, assumes that the decoding in the model is phonic decoding (usually SP). But phonics proponents are not researchers. Do you have evidence that researchers are using this definition? When the simple view comes up it is usually referenced to Gough I think, and the papers that have been mentioned. Can you flag up any further definition used by researchers. That would be very interesting.
        Besides all that, Gough’s definition, and his explanations, are still relevant. The English language has not changed. It is still essential that the cipher (not the alphabetic code alone) is embedded before pupils can read and spell English with effortless accuracy.

    • Gough: 1997. In his own words; transcript of a lecture.
      “All right. What does this suggest? It suggests to me that a very essential part of reading is knowing what I call the cipher. I use that term because I much prefer it to what I think is a hideous term, the grapho-phonics system. I would maintain that what a child needs to know in order to read a language like English is the system of letter/ phoneme correspondences that the language contains.”

      • Yes, Maggie, look at the papers. I mentioned to find out what he thought the cipher was. Certainly it is about the ‘graphology-phonic system’ but that system is more complex than the alphabet code.

        • Well, thumbie, you, of course know far better than Gough what he meant by ‘the system of letter/phoneme correspondences’. but I’m afraid I prefer his own words to your interpretation of his writings.

          • Maggie: you need to look at the passages in which he says phonics is not sufficient for accurate decoding, and examples, such as the ‘th’ grapheme example, which he gives. To be honest, he doesn’t leave much room for interpretation, being very clear in his exposition.

  12. […] Teaching in British schools « Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 2 […]

  13. Chris N said: “Your point shows a lack of understanding of how science works. When a model is proposed, it will be subjected to testing, extension, and changes by other researchers in the field.”

    My response to this:

    YOUR point shows a lack of understanding of the difference between a natural science such as physics (I’m a physicist) and social sciences in their various forms. Your lack of understanding is quite widespread among those who espouse what some call ‘scientism’..according to which nothing of any import can be discovered except by using science (construed as natural science conceived of in a very particular fashion).

    Science is wonderful, but it can’t tell us what, for instance, the purposes of education should be, whether there should be faith schools, whether children who can read on arrival at school should follow intensive phonics lessons or the extent to which teachers’ professional autonomy could legitimately be constrained by the results of any kind of educational research.

    There isn’t a ‘model’ of phonics teaching that does or could possibly resemble, say, the objectively definable models of physics or chemistry.That doesn’t mean we can’t explore and research the teaching of reading or the use of phonics. We just need to give up pretending that the categories of teaching approaches are just objectively ‘there’ in the way that e.g. the different elements ..gold, silver, etc. are ‘there’ in reality.

    So you can’t get a result from research into the teaching of reading that is robust and generalisable in the way that natural science results sometimes are. You, and people like you need to stop pretending that you can.

    Read Nancy Cartwright’s ‘Evidence Based Policy: A Practical Guide to Doing it Better’. I’m largely following Davis apart from that ..OK, it’s my version of it.


    • Science is wonderful, but it can’t tell us … whether children who can read on arrival at school should follow intensive phonics lessons

      Well no, but common sense can. If they already have enough phonics knowledge to decode unfamiliar words fluently then they probably shouldn’t; if they can’t decode unfamiliar words they probably should. And nothing in such a common sense judgement defies science or evidence.

      Anyway, the rest of what you say seems to simply follow the very argument that I have replied to in my post (i.e. that if research doesn’t match up to some other discipline then we can ignore it). We’re still no clearer to an explanation of why reliable information should be ignored just because it wasn’t arrived at by a particular method.

      • “If they already have enough phonics knowledge to decode unfamiliar words fluently then they probably shouldn’t …” (From what I can gather, Reception children follow a SSP programme regardless of their starting point).

        • Not sure where you get this from. Apart from the way common practice, even now. seems to differ frequently from SSP, I’m also aware that SSP programmes differ over the use of setting which would be odd if all programmes went from the same starting point.

          • Just from what I’ve seen going on in classrooms, that’s all. What kind of ‘setting’ have you seen in a Reception class?

  14. “We just need to give up pretending that the categories of teaching approaches are just objectively ‘there’ in the way that e.g. the different elements ..gold, silver, etc. are ‘there’ in reality.”

    No one is pretending that. You appear to be unaware of the foundations of the evidence to support the teaching of phonics, which comes not just from classroom studies but from many, many evaluations over many years of how the mechanics of reading “works”. Have a look at this paper, which should give you an idea of what the science actually consists of. It is from 2001, but the evidence has only grown stronger since then. http://www.pitt.edu/~perfetti/PDF/How%20psych%20sci%20informs%20teaching%20of%20reading-%20Rayner%20et%20al..pdf

  15. A further point: you question “the extent to which teachers’ professional autonomy could legitimately be constrained by the results of any kind of educational research.”
    There has been considerable research into the reliability or otherwise of professional judgment that is not informed by research-based evidence. A number of problems have been found:
    1. Confirmation bias and availability bias often distort professional’s judgements of what works
    2. Studies consistently show that professionals in many different fields substantially over-estimate the accuracy of their professional judgements, when compared to more objective measures.
    3. Accurate judgements depend heavily on whether immediate feed back is available or not. So teachers will reliably know a great deal about what works to keep a class focussed and on task, or example. But feedback on whether a particular method of teaching reading works LONG-TERM does not appear for years, and since teachers change classes every year, may never be received at all.

    • ” whether a particular method of teaching reading works LONG-TERM”

      ..unsurprisingly, this just begs one of the major questions here. As so often recently, I again find myself expounding Davis, as Aldridge has been doing, but I accept responsibility for any limitations in how I do this. ( I’m a scientist with a lot of teacher relatives. I’m not a teacher myself. I’m interested in ‘bad science’…)

      The argument is that you cannot in principle pin down a ‘method’ with the precision required to test whether it ‘works’, and certainly not with the precision required to justify imposing it on teachers.
      You can examine what happens in classrooms following what we call synthetic phonics, and see what happens. All sorts of different things may happen, as I understand it. That’s fine.

      Such research may well be illuminating, but doesn’t and shouldn’t issue in a detailed prescription for teachers.

      And, as you know perfectly well, no one is arguing that professional judgement shouldn’t be ‘informed’ by research-based evidence, whatever the inherent limitations of the latter might be. However, one of the key points of dispute is what ‘informed’ should mean in terms of just how research results should relate to practice.

      You, like many others, employ the loaded term ‘what works’..This will often be contested, and legitimately so. Learning as ‘measured’ by certain kinds of tests will be what one party counts as ‘working’. Yet there are other defensible accounts of learning..

      As a physicist, I appreciate that an engineer dealing with a bridge must be ‘informed’ about the physics of forces and the relevant materials in a pretty tight and prescriptive fashion. In certain respects, physics affords no space for engineer professional autonomy. Because if it did, the bridge might collapse.

      However, Davis and others argue that ‘informed’ should take a different form when we think of the relationship between any social science research, however splendid, and what teachers do in the classroom.

      You seem to be pursuing this idea of a technology of ‘teacher-proof’ and even ‘pupil proof’ methods, that Davis and others have so effectively critiqued in the last few years.

      • “The argument is that you cannot in principle pin down a ‘method’ with the precision required to test whether it ‘works’, and certainly not with the precision required to justify imposing it on teachers.”

        I am aware of what the argument is. I simply haven’t seen any evidence to show that it is accurate when applied to teaching the aspect of reading that involves word recognition. Bare assertion is not enough.

        “And, as you know perfectly well, no one is arguing that professional judgement shouldn’t be ‘informed’ by research-based evidence.”

        Actually, you are wrong about that. I have seen quite a few infant teachers post that they aren’t interested in research because they “know their methods work”. I refer you once again to my post above on the problems of confirmation and availability bias, etc, in professional judgment, which you do not seem to have addressed.

        “You, like many others, employ the loaded term ‘what works’..This will often be contested, and legitimately so. Learning as ‘measured’ by certain kinds of tests will be what one party counts as ‘working’. Yet there are other defensible accounts of learning..”

        Are you seriously arguing that it is impossible to measure whether or not someone can read fluently and with comprehension? I think most parents (and most teachers) would disagree with you.

        “However, Davis and others argue that ‘informed’ should take a different form when we think of the relationship between any social science research, however splendid, and what teachers do in the classroom.”

        Davis may well argue that; but it does not mean that he is correct. Did you look at the research paper I cited? Psychologists have clear evidence that good readers need to have a thorough knowledge of the alphabetic code, based on, among other things, sophisticated eye movement research. Merely disparaging this and other relevant findings as “social science research” does nothing to disprove them.

      • And, as you know perfectly well, no one is arguing that professional judgement shouldn’t be ‘informed’ by research-based evidence, whatever the inherent limitations of the latter might be.

        Surely that’s precisely the implication of Davis’s argument that the research-based evidence on phonics cannot possibly show anything ?

        • Davis says that SP will not and should not look the same in every classroom. If that is happening teachers have ceased to teach in the accepted understanding of the word. We could argue about definitions of ‘teacher’ I suppose, but surely any definition would include listening to pupils and basing teaching on pupils’ knowledge, understanding and skills.
          This is not the same as saying that teachers should ignore research which will help them to understand their pupils knowledge, understanding and skills. Quite the reverse. But it does imply that when research is used to prescribe a method, the method should not be followed uncritically. Research cannot prescribe a method of teaching because it cannot allow for all the circumstances in which pupils and teachers find themselves.
          There may be some teachers who would prefer to ignore research because it might lead to change, or because they feel it undermines their expertise. But that is not the issue here.

  16. […] Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 2 […]

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