Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 3July 8, 2014
In this final post on the debate over Andrew Davis’ phonics pamphlet I respond to the arguments addressed to me in this post by David Aldridge. There are quite a few arguments (and points) in that post (one might even suggest more than in the original pamphlet) and I will attempt to answer them in turn.
1) There is a “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”.
I pointed out last time that this is not Davis’s argument. It is also lacking as a response to me given that I have more than once disagreed with simply trying to ape medical research too closely (for instance here and here). Regardless, the reason we should listen to the empirical evidence on phonics is not because it is exactly the same as other forms of research, but because it consistently gets the same result. The evidence tells us that whenever we look into the matter, we find (with a good degree of reliability) that the more children are taught with phonics, and the less they are encouraged to guess words from other information, the better they end up being able to read. This is all we really need it to tell us. As with Davis’s actual argument, Aldridge’s is an argument that empirical research could not ever tell us what it has already told us. Engaging too directly with the argument for why phonics research wouldn’t work would be like going back to look for flaws in the arguments of those who said flying machines could never be built. We know the argument is wrong. The only thing that makes Aldridge’s argument seem vaguely more plausible is that Davis’s argument implied that the evidence couldn’t exist, whereas Aldridge implied that it cannot be of the right type. However, neither’s descriptions of the inevitable flaws in the evidence can account for the evidence that has been found. Davis’s argument would lead us to believe no evidence exists. Aldridge’s argument would lead us to believe that the evidence could not reliably tell us anything one way or the other. Both are evidently wrong.
2) Systematic Synthetic Phonics is “exclusivist” and my position on this “is not abundantly clear” as I have both “strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches” and suggested that SSP does not prevent use of certain other techniques in the teaching of reading.
The confusion here probably comes from being unfamiliar with Systematic Synthetic Phonics. SSP is about learning to decode written words using the phonetic information in them. This is incompatible with methods of identifying words that ignore some or all of the phonetic information. So this rules out trying to recall the whole word (or a large chunk of a word) as if it was a hieroglyph. It prevents guessing what a word says from the context rather than decoding it. It doesn’t allow for partially decoding a word and guessing the remaining parts. It would discourage the teaching of vague “meaning-getting” skills that are meant to compensate for those whose decoding is so lacking in fluency that they cannot decode and pay attention to meaning at the same time. (If I have opposed “comprehension strategies” before, it is this I was objecting to). It does not, however, rule out any part of learning to read that doesn’t discourage paying attention to phonics. So there is no prohibition on improving vocabulary (including finding out about the meaning of words). It doesn’t rule out telling stories. It doesn’t ban books with pictures in, as long as they are not used to guess what words in the text say. It positively encourages (and includes) working to be able to distinguish phonemes in spoken language. Now the principle here is not difficult and I’m able to grasp it as a layman. If a “method” involves either learning or guessing words using something other than the phonetic information in the word (thereby discouraging use of SSP) then it has no place in SSP, but that is all that is “exclusivist” about SSP. The confusion comes from the habit denialists have of rebranding guessing and whole word learning as things like “mixed methods” or “balanced literacy”. If denialists hadn’t suggesting that encouraging readers to guess more, and decode less, was merely adding extra tools to be used to decode then I don’t think phonics would ever have been seen as “exclusivist”. This is not some deep ideological objection to spending time in the primary classroom on anything but phonics, it’s just the same sort of practical objection that would stop a teacher handing out calculators in the middle of a mental arithmetic test. If you genuinely favour the teaching of phonics, why would you suddenly say “stop decoding and guess”?
3) I defend “a one size fits all approach to teaching”as if I see “so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative”.
This is one of those contentious issues in all types of discussion in teaching. In so many debates any suggestion that there is a wrong way to teach something is immediately faced with the suggestion that it is the right way for some particular child or group of children. On the face of it, the flaw with making this suggestion indiscriminately is obvious. Some methods are just not going to work, or just not work particularly well, for anyone. Beyond that there is the disturbing possibility that false assumptions about how certain types of child will require something different can lower expectations in line with existing prejudices. It is also an easy way to blame a teacher when a child doesn’t learn something if it can be claimed that every child can learn everything easily providing the correct method is used. It is also highly lucrative to sell silly gimmicks that will enable teachers to reach those students who are hardest to teach and differences in “learning styles” are one explanation used to justify those gimmicks.
Now, these considerations (which do include the nonsense of “learning styles”) indicate reasons why I think the burden of proof over suggestions that certain students need different teaching methods should be with those making the suggestions. There are, however, some undeniable differences between children. Some children have learning difficulties. Capacity of working memory and other cognitive abilities will differ between children. Children also vary in their prior knowledge. I have no problem in taking account of any of these. The contention appears to be over how much variation in teaching should be allowed in light of these differences. Nobody can deny that SSP will differ in effectiveness between children. Some children seem to learn to read with little support; others really struggle. Different methods of teaching might be used to address some of these differences. However, if one wishes to use this as an argument against SSP working best for all, the claim would have to be that some children benefit from methods, like learning whole words or guessing from context, which ignore phonetic information and discourage decoding. It is this that there seems to be a remarkable lack of evidence for.
There is not even consistency in the claims about which children the alleged exceptions to the effectiveness of SSP apply to. When the denialists were at the height of their power SSP was relegated to being a method for those with dyslexia. Now, I more often hear it claimed that it is those with dyslexia who most require the denialist methods instead of phonics. Admittedly, I also hear it claimed that phonics is unnecessary for the most able readers (here, at least, there is a plausible chance that they might have absorbed a large amount of phonic knowledge before anyone taught it to them explicitly making some phonics instruction redundant). Given the confusion, it seems better to assume that children learning the same system of writing will require the same knowledge of phonics, unless there is good evidence to the contrary, and being either faster or slower to learn than other children should not be considered evidence of needing the denialist methods, only more or less time spent on phonics instruction.
4) The phonics check will force teachers to concentrate “on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check”.
This one is simply begging the question. The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively. This may well deter methods that are alleged to be a form of phonics teaching but which don’t actually result in good phonics knowledge. It will also deter methods of teaching reading that ignore the evidence on phonics. Neither of these is a bad thing, unless you have already made the decision to ignore the evidence or to teach phonics ineffectively.
5) The argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students.
This strikes me as missing the point of “evidence-based” teaching. The reason that many teachers are interested in research is not to create a monolithic list of activities that must be carried out in order to teach. We’ve seen that doesn’t work. It is to protect us from such demands. To read the debate on phonics you’d think there was never an era when phonics teaching was marginalised or pushed out. You’d think that no phonics denialist ever had power or influence and no teacher was ever forced to use denialist methods. In reality, there’s no shortage of stories from the 80s and 90s of teachers using SSP having to hide what they are doing from their managers. There are plenty of people who became marginalised because they spoke out against the phonics denialist orthodoxy. There was no freedom to skip the “Searchlights” model of the NLS. We are still suffering from their apparently exclusive domination of primary teacher training in our universities and many sensible people leave teacher training wedded to bizarre notions like the belief that “reading” is a synonym for “comprehension” or the idea that an enthusiasm for books must always precede the ability to read them.
Teachers will always be under pressure to teach a particular way, even if it is from fashion, training and school level pressure rather than national policy. When I argue for an evidence-based profession, I am arguing that teachers should know the evidence and that the trump card when resisting pressure to teach in a particular way is being able to say “but the evidence shows this is not a good idea” without it getting you singled out as a troublemaker. I believe our professional judgement will hold more sway if it is professional judgement backed up by evidence and rational argument. If anything has brought about the statutory phonics check it is teachers ignoring the evidence on phonics or, worse, pretending to teach “phonics” while actually teaching children to guess rather than decode. I don’t want evidence-based practice to create a new orthodoxy, I want it to establish the rules by which orthodoxies can be resisted and overthrown. Evidence will never tell us exactly how to teach, but it will expose when we are mistaken or, worse, when we are dishonest. While we should have plenty of freedom to make our own decisions, we should not be arguing for the principle of making decisions based on ignorance or irrationality. I don’t want the freedom to teach by telepathy or to encourage children to rub their brain buttons. I want the freedom to make informed and reasonable judgements and that requires an informed and reasonable profession.