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The arguments against the phonics screening check have been discredited

April 2, 2015

I had the inevitable holiday run in with phonics denialists on Twitter. Not really worth rehashing any of it here; none of the arguments are new. However, I hadn’t realised that a lot of them, including primary teachers (and presumably this may also apply for a lot of primary teachers who are not denying the evidence for phonics on Twitter) are not actually aware that the main arguments used to deny the usefulness of the phonics screening check have now been discredited.

We now have the results from the students who took the phonics check in 2013 and did their key stage 1 reading assessment in 2014. And (from page 12 here) we learn that:

Pupils who do well in the phonics screening check do well in reading at the end of key stage 1. 99% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding in year 1 went on to achieve level 2 or above in reading at the end of key stage 1. 43% of these pupils achieved level 3 or above in reading. 88% of pupils who met the expected standard of phonic decoding at the end of year 2 achieved level 2 or above in reading. Only 34% of pupils who didn’t meet the expected standard of phonic decoding by the end of year 2 achieved level 2 or above in reading.

Looking at the more detailed results from here (Table 14) we can break down performance in the KS1 assessment by the results of the phonics screening check. The differences between those who passed 1st time (blue), those who passed 2nd time (red) and those who didn’t pass (orange) are striking.

image (1)

If you were around for the debates over the introduction of the check, you’d know that the following claims were made at the time:

  • Good readers would do badly in the phonics check.
  • The check would not tell us anything useful about their ability to read.
  • Teaching students to pass the phonics check would harm students’ ability to read later.
  • It would tell us nothing that teachers did not already know.

If you know anything about testing, you’d know that a test that identifies loads of pupils (in fact a big majority of the cohort) who will have a 99% chance of succeeding at the next level, is incredibly useful. And even the 66% figure for indicating those who will do poorly in the reading assessment is remarkable for a 5 minute check. Which teacher would not want to know if students were in the blue, red or yellow distributions above? This is remarkably extensive information about probable future performance gained in really very little time. It also tells us the first 3 claims above made by opponents of the phonics check do not match up with what generally happens. Those who do badly in the phonics check (particularly twice) are rarely good readers. Check performance tells us a lot about subsequent reading scores. Those students who have been most effectively prepared for the check, also appear to be better prepared for the reading test.

Of course, the last claim of the opponents, that teachers already knew all the stuff the check told them, could be true. But given the impressive figures for the predictive ability of the phonics check, I think the burden of proof now lies squarely on those who claim that teacher assessment would be more accurate.

Update 2/4/2015:

I was perhaps a bit naive with this post. I didn’t guess that the general response for phonics denialists would be to claim that everybody already knew that performance in the phonics screening check would be closely correlated to reading ability and effectively deny that any of the claims above (except perhaps for the claim that teacher assessment would be more accurate) had ever been an issue. So just in case there is any doubt that people claimed that the phonics check would cause problems for those who could read and would tell us nothing about reading ability, here’s a link to a letter opposing the phonics check from June 2012.

Please note it contains the following claims:

we [don’t] believe that this will help parents know how well their children are learning to read…

They will not show whether a child can understand the words they are reading, nor provide teachers with any information about children’s reading ability they did not already know…

The use of made-up words …. risks … frustrate [sic] those who can already read

…using unrealistic, arbitrary benchmarks in the checks plucked out of the air is of benefit to no one.

The signatories included:

  • Mary Bousted (General secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers)
  • Russell Hobby (General secretary, National Association of Head Teachers)
  • Christine Blower (General secretary, National Union of Teachers)
  • David Reedy (United Kingdom Literacy Association)

It also included Stephen Twigg and Lisa Nandy who were both Labour frontbench education spokespeople and the prominent anti-phonics activist Michael Rosen.

This was not some fringe group. These were the loudest enemies of the phonics screening check. And they were all utterly wrong.

Anybody know if any of them have acknowledged this?

 

 

94 comments

  1. Only anecdote I know, but my son did the phonics check in 2013 and about 80% of his class failed to most parents’ surprise and shock as it contradicted the teacher assessments and levels which had been communicated earlier that term. It was noticeable how much additional focus on literacy was placed by his Y2 teacher and the class had 93% meeting or exceeding the KS1 reading level. Had there been no phonics check it is quite likely that on the basis of the other teacher assessments there would not have been seen to have been any need to ramp up literacy work in Y2 for that class.


  2. These results – that performance in two closely-related measures is correlated – are hardly surprising. I’m not sure how far they support your conclusion that the check is a good thing.


    • The phonics denialists denied the correlation. Claimed good readers were likely to fail the check and no useful information would result.


      • I think they claimed that some good readers were likely to misread the alien words which was a fair concern although it hasn’t, apparently, led to them failing. It would be really useful to see data on performance on individual words to know if there is any truth behind this.

        Whilst the information demonstrates a strong correlation, what you don’t have here is a comparison of two conditions. I don’t dispute that it is likely to be useful. But it’s not conclusive that the check is a worthwhile exercise.


        • No but it is conclusive that most of the arguments used to claim it would not tell us anything useful were wrong, and that the assumptions they were based on are also likely to be wrong. And, as I said, who would not want to spend 5-10 minutes checking which of those three categories a child was in?


          • That depends on whether you have better methods of your own. If I was asked to spend 32*5 mins (plus admin time, setting cover, etc.) to measure something that I was already measuring, possibly in such a way that I got much better insight into pupil ability, I might feel a bit resistant.

            The usefulness of the check is only proven once there is evidence that it has had an impact on performance. This would mean it correctly identifies something (school/teacher/pupil) that would not have been picked up on before.


          • I suspect that the biggest effect of the Check has been in getting some schools that were not teaching phonics well to get their act together. The following may illustrate this point:

            Number of children achieving the expected level of reading comprehension at the end of Year 2

            2007-2009 – 84%
            2010-2011 – 85%
            2012 – 87%
            2013 – 89%
            2014 – 90%:

            2010 was the first cohort to take the Key stage 1 test after being (well, some of them at least) taught via a phonics approach from entering reception in 2007. The phonics screening check pilot took place in 2011, and was then rolled out nationally in 2012.


  3. This from the Final conclusions of the NFER report 2014:
    “Will/hastheintroductionofthephonicsscreeningcheckhave/hadanimpacton the standard of reading and writing?
    Exploratory analysis of NPD data suggests that the check provides additional information on pupils’ progress as their literacy skills develop from the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage to their outcomes at the end of key stage 1. Scores on the check tend to be consistent with, but not the same as, other measures of literacy development during these first years of school. Most children who achieve level 2 in reading and writing at key stage 1 have previously met the expected standard on the check, but there is a substantial minority who have not. In addition, initial analysis by multilevel modelling revealed that positive attitudes and practices towards the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics and the value of the check are reflected in higher scores on the check for pupils. In contrast to the phonics scores, there were no significant associations with school typology on the results for children at the end of key stage 1. Thus attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check, and by their approach to the teaching of phonics.”
    http://www.nfer.ac.uk/publications/YOPC02/YOPC02_home.cfm


    • 19 schools not really likely to be a big enough sample, given how wide poor practice appears to be.


      • It draws on data collected from case-study interviews with staff in 19 primary schools and midpoint surveys of 583 literacy coordinators and 625 Year 1 teachers in schools.


        • And how many were actually rigorously trained in the use of phonics? Could be a very small subgroup.


          • The point is that schools who were less enthusiastic about SSP still did well at KS1. Whether the teachers were well-drilled in SSP is not relevant to this, is it? Besides we don’t now. You assert in a further comment below that SP is proven to be the best way to teach reading. Many seem to believe this. However, SSP has never been tested out used as it is advocated at present, and there is a fair amount of evidence that shows that other phonic approaches are as effective. The evidence is in favour of systematic phonics. The government itself is confused about this and have difficulties when it comes to teasing out the differences between phonics, synthetic phonics, systematic phonics and systematic synthetic phonics. Just look at the evidence summary supplied by the DfE for the select committee’s web forum on phonics:
            http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-committees/Education/evidence-check-forum/phonics.pdf


          • I’m sorry, but most of what you are saying here simply isn’t true, and if you comment here you’ll find that most of the audience already know what you are saying isn’t true.

            And please don’t make blanket statements about difficulties in “teasing out the differences” between different types of phonics, all this does is attempt to confuse. Yes, labelling varies, and some of the research will say “phonics” works, some will say “systematic phonics” works and some will say “systematic synthetic phonics” works. But none of it says guessing or whole word approaches work and that’s what the people who deny the effectiveness of SSP are actually pushing for.


          • In reply to your accusation of lies on my part: readers of your blog only have to look at the sources I have given – none need to take my word for it in the way they apparently must take yours, Andrew. In my experience there is not a movement of people wanting children to guess words using whole language instead of phonic strategies. The people you label as ‘denialists’ in various places are generally in favour of children having a good understanding of phonics. However, applying phonics alone does not guarantee correct decoding of words or access to the meanings of texts and the worry is that current emphasis on phonics may not be the best use of an important and useful tool *towards* reading.

            It’s true that people on here seem quite happy to digest your viewpoint and accept that you know and can vouch for the evidence, that you can legitimately label people denialists as though they are guilty of ignoring a crime against humanity – this term seems to have been generally adopted without criticism by people making comments. You’re welcome to your few minutes of influence.


          • I label people “denialists” if they seek to obscure or deny the evidence on something that has been clearly demonstrated. I label things as “lies” if they are not true and said by people in a position to know they are not true. Both of these are the usual definition. Your last post claimed both that SSP was in some way untested, and sought to obscure the evidence by suggesting that we need to distinguish in each piece of evidence for phonics, which type of phonics are or are not included. The former is simply untrue. The latter obscures the fact that, however you subdivide the methods, the evidence shows that the more phonics included, and the more systematically it is taught, the more effective the method.

            Now you are trying to obscure matters by talking as if the emphasis on phonics is a problem, without actually stating clearly what you would replace it with. Of course, anyone who is familiar with the phonics debate knows that whatever you suggest will be guessing, memorising whole words, or at a stretch something to do with motivation rather than learning. That you will not say this clearly, ( not to mention, that you make obscure statements about “movements” rather than denying it clearly) and will instead attack the one approach that rules out guessing and memorising whole words is why the term “denialist” fits. Phonics advocates will state clearly what they are against and what they are for. Phonics opponents will seek to obscure what is actually being debated, usually claiming not to be against phonics while opposing every attempt to implement phonics. That is why they are denialists and you can moan about being called one, or you can try to provide a coherent argument for a clear position instead of all this smoke and mirrors stuff.

            Oh, and of course I don’t suggest anyone believe in the effectiveness of phonics because I said it. I want people to look at the evidence and realise when they are being lied to. I’m not a teacher of early literacy, I have no reason to back one method over another beyond what the evidence says as I haven’t used, and won’t be using, any of the methods. I only get involved in this because I don’t like it when lies are spread through the education system and teachers are encouraged to teach in ways based on lies and confusion not informed choice.

            By the way, you seem to be avoiding the actual topic of this post, which was just one particular way (predictions about the phonics screening check) in which the denialists have been proven to be wrong in their ideas. Is there any particular reason you wanted to change the subject?


          • Are you really saying that you have accepted that the evidence for phonics without looking at it? When you do you will find that the differences you gloss over are of significance within the evidence and within the argument. An advocate of SSP will not accept that ‘systematic’ is enough, and certainly not that ‘analytic phonics’ is enough – it’s SSP or nothing. You could look at the principles of SSP on the RRF forum, and the definitions used in the core criteria for match-funding.

            ‘Denialist’ is a term borrowed from climate change denial and holocaust denial. It’s not appropriate for a person who says that SSP taught now, in the form recommended, may not eradicate illiteracy in school leavers. What does the denial actually consist of here? Denial that English is an alphabetic language? Denial that reading involves decoding letters into sounds? Could you define what is being denied please. What is the idea that ‘denialists’ are denying which is proved by the graph? I haven’t heard anyone denying that learning phonics will help you to read. The graph shows that pupils who have picked up decoding do well in the reading test, which is to be celebrated. However, the information is not clear when combined with more qualitative analysis from the NFER report which I quoted. And pupils are still failing the check and the reading test. Is this because they haven’t been taught phonics, haven’t learnt phonics (why?), haven’t been exposed to other teaching initiatives with a wider literacy focus? The graph is silent.

            The logic of the ‘denialist’ position lies in the fact that English is a deep orthography and decoding involves deciding, among alternative pronunciations of words, which is correct when reading. A second point is that phonic decoding will not ensure communication unless the words/text decoded are recognised from oral vocabulary. Clarity in both these areas is available through applying an intention to find meaning and good language skills. Neither of these are supplied by SSP training which is about sounding out and blending. Where this important skill is tested through requiring a child to read a list of isolated words and nonwords in a high-stakes test some teachers will emphasise it – reputations and jobs are at stake – and the ultimate aim of reading may be neglected. The check itself is muddled – it falls down as a decoding check because children may know the real words used by sight.

            The ultimate necessity is that pupils recognise written words automatically, can tackle new words quickly and make sense of text.

            Whole word learning has to happen alongside decoding ie children have to gradually come to recognise whole words in their specific forms, for accurate reading and spelling. This does not demand an exclusive whole word approach but this stage is acknowledged in research into reading. Readers build up a lexicon of known words to which new words can be compared, supporting decoding and whole word recognition. Reference to this is found in Dahaene’s ‘Reading in the Brain’. David Share is also useful:
            http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7789090
            Neither denies SP; both describe processes not addressed by SP.


          • Are you really saying that you have accepted that the evidence for phonics without looking at it?

            No.

            As for the rest, I’m sure you can knock out these “I’m not a denialist, but…” tracts in your sleep. But it is abundantly clear that for all the doubts about SSP you attempt to raise, you haven’t spelt out your alternative. Questioning the effectiveness of SSP in the abstract without actually saying what you would do instead and looking to see what the evidence says about phonics being more effective is utterly pointless. It is simply trying to obfuscate and cast doubt on the evidence, not discuss what works best. And, of course, that is exactly what climate change denialists do, which is why the term “denialist” fits. There is no plausible alternative explanation of climate change than the increased production of carbon dioxide, but as long as everything is discussed in the abstract as a theory, not something in the real world that demands explanation, then doubts can be encouraged.

            If you are going to comment again here, please either refer back to the topic of the original post, or provide your alternative to SSP so we can discuss the evidence against it. Otherwise, I think I’ve given you more than enough of a platform.


          • I think part of this is down to the politics of accountability. If education methods are complex, subjective and debatable it is more difficult to hold anyone to account for outcomes. If there is an agreed action that can be implemented systematically and should lead to measurable improvement and it doesn’t someone is going to say what are you doing wrong? If an individual has a lot of their investment and possibly enjoyment in a particular set of activities they are not going to give them up easily and will find every reason not to, no matter what evidence is presented. There is no easy answer to this except patience which is bad news for any child that is likely not to benefit as soon as they should.


          • I’m surprised hat you haven’t come across discussions of alternative approaches while looking at the evidence, Andrew. What evidence is it that you have looked at?

            When looking at alternatives, I’m sure you will agree, the status quo and where it falls down has to be a starting point. This is why criticisms of existing systems will always be relevant to the formulation of a better system. You correct what is going wrong, not what is going right. SSP is going right a lot of the time.

            There’s a powerful argument that evidence collected in favour of an SSP approach has been collected in special circumstances, and that applying any theory in classrooms will always demand accounting for special circumstances. Simply put, if a teacher finds that SSP is not working with a pupil (the graph shows it has not helped a substantial number of learners), the teacher needs to be free to address the actual problems presented by the pupil not react with a stock response dictated by those not present. This approach would be freed up were the pressure of the PSC and the phonics programmes to be removed.

            There’s an argument that concentration on SSP removes emphasis from wider literacy and emphasises the mechanics of reading at the expense of the whole picture of functional, effective reading for meaning. Learning using nonwords, for instance, is about the mechanics; learning using real words in textual contexts is about literacy. Again, removal of the PSC and support for different reading initiatives would free up teachers in this department – reading for enjoyment. It’s essential because this reading is the basis of learning. The curriculum plays lip service to this but there is nothing like the same emphasis and level of enforcement. Initiatives around reading for enjoyment have floundered because the agenda has become phonics.

            SSP runs up against the deep orthography of the English language. Consider what pupils are expected to learn – graphemes representing multiple phonemes and phonemes represented by multiple graphemes. Gough was right when he said that there is a consistent cipher behind the English language, and also right when he said it isn’t phonics. As pupils have to learn specific spellings for words they have to go beyond phonic decoding of abstract symbols into abstract sounds followed by blending with a wing and a prayer. SSP won’t do it all: it’s a good support where pupils are reading and experiencing well-chosen texts. The issue of ‘tricky words’ comes into play here. For SSP they have to be appreciated as containing unusual versions of spellings and learnt using these. However, this distracts from learning them usefully as whole units which are essential to reading even the simplest of texts. So an alternative to SSP would combine whole word learning of some words with the usual supporting analysis ensuring that children don’t consider them undecodable and become confused. It is at this stage, too, that children’s existing language skills have an influence – the better the vocabulary and understanding of spoken text the better prepared they are to find the words they know in texts and apply their knowledge of how text works. Reading instruction has to have a comprehension element.

            As regards the PSC: this test is not fit for purpose because it combines real words, which a child might know by sight, with nonwords. Therefore the score is not guaranteed to relate clearly and unequivocally to the child’s phonic decoding skills. The check needs, at the very least, to be reformed. Meanwhile, the alternative I’ve heard suggested is a five minute analysis of children’s reading skills taking place in informal reading time – something which happens all the time anyway (it is to be hoped). Children who need a specific phonic check can be given one.

            Please note that none of the alternatives recommend look and say or whole word practices from the past. With your nose for fallacy, Andrew, maybe you should have noticed this combination of straw man with false dichotomy which is continually rolled out. To be fair, I think its roots are in the past – the moment that Stanovich saw that good readers did not use context. This discredited Whole Language and much of what was written subsequently was written in the spirit of discrediting it further.

            SSP as the chosen method here dates back to the Rose Report (2006). Looking at the history, this was all rather hurried through. The Rose Report dismissed qualms about the existing research. The recommendations of the education select committee (2004-5) for further focused research to be undertaken seem to have been ignored:
            http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmselect/cmeduski/121/121.pdf
            In this situation it is good practice for teachers to question and have open minds. It is worrying that teacher training seems to be losing its critical edge and unambiguously promoting one view.

            Maybe you could browse this blog and others in the series:

            https://community.tes.co.uk/reading_theory_and_practice/b/weblog/archive/2014/06/01/how-secure-is-the-clackmannanshire-study.aspx


          • You could have just answered directly, instead of adding all the denialist stuff. But let me try to pick out your actual alternatives to SSP.

            reading for enjoyment. It’s essential because this reading is the basis of learning. The curriculum plays lip service to this but there is nothing like the same emphasis and level of enforcement. Initiatives around reading for enjoyment have floundered because the agenda has become phonics.

            So the first alternative is to encourage children to enjoy reading? This is not actually an alternative method. There’s every reason to believe that the better you can read the more you enjoy it. Reading for enjoyment is just something denialists claim (without good evidence) their methods result in. It’s not actually a method.

            So an alternative to SSP would combine whole word learning of some words with the usual supporting analysis ensuring that children don’t consider them undecodable and become confused.

            Oh what a shock. Learning whole words. This is where all you complaints fall apart. This is exactly the thing the evidence shows phonics beats hands down.

            It is at this stage, too, that children’s existing language skills have an influence – the better the vocabulary and understanding of spoken text the better prepared they are to find the words they know in texts and apply their knowledge of how text works

            No advocate of SSP opposes this. This is a non-issue. And I’m willing to guess you know this and have added it only to confuse the fact that your only alternative to phonics is learning whole words.

            Please note that none of the alternatives recommend look and say or whole word practices from the past.

            Er.. you only recommended one alternative and it was to add in “whole word learning of some words”. Declaring that this is different to when it didn’t work in the past hardly makes it so.

            As ever, you have put a lot of effort into obscuring the issues and creating doubt, when 2 words “whole words” would have answered my question and clarified everything. When we get down to it, the only alternative you have to SSP is to go back to the methods that have failed so badly in the past that you won’t even support them openly and clearly.


        • Aah well, I gave you what you wanted but you’re not prepared to bring your intelligence to bear onto seeing how the alternatives would necessitate change in the SSP position: this position *is* problematic in relation to reading instruction in its fullest sense. Your reduction of my position to ‘whole words’ is a oversimplification of what I spent time and patience explaining, just as ‘phonics denialist’ is a rhetorical device designed to shut down reasonable discussion between those who support and those who critique. I suspect it is a reluctance to look at the detail of what you are accepting as evidence for SSP, and where the evidence does not fit the SSP solution. Like the government, you like the blanket provided by an unnuanced approach. Also there’s a lack of familiarity with small children and they’re miriad ways of being, perhaps.

          Let’s have a look at the points you pulled out.

          Reading for enjoyment: there are going to be methods of introducing reading which give weight to reading for enjoyment, and they are alternative to SSP lessons. Using interesting texts and story-times will enable pupils to start gathering information and knowledge of how texts works, build vocabulary, and gather information and knowledge about the world. Support is given to comprehension.

          Learning whole words: children have to know whole words automatically in order to read fluently. A stage in learning whole words will generally involve decoding the words initially and becoming familiar with them so that they achieve automacity. That’s the SP-stage which no one is denying. There are alternatives: some words show such rare and unusual uses of graphemes/phonemes in the English language that decoding is somewhat of a theoretical exercise – yes, this grapheme must stand for this phoneme, but it’s not general – it happens in very few words. It makes sense to associate the unusual grapheme/phoneme with the single, common word in which it is found, and maybe not so much by the grapheme/phoneme, which can be represented in multiple ways. That way you know the word when you see it, which is the ultimate aim. This is not all words. Self-teaching, however, will lead pupils to generalise from the knowledge built up through recognising many variations to make reading of new words more fluent through application of whole word knowledge. In addition, as I didn’t mention before – as children get to encounter atypical words they need to be aware that spellings are word specific and associate whole words directly with their pronunciation/meanings. This goes back, again, to the points about vocabulary and understanding – the child has to know the word they are decoding in its spoken form.

          Existing language knowledge: you say this is a non-issue. However, there is a huge discrepancy between the amount of exposure to language and the styles of that language experienced by different children. This relates to the point above about enjoyment of books. We need to address the quality of language children are immersed in to make reading accessible to them. SSP doesn’t do that. It’s all very well saying that it will be addressed anyway. Is it? We don’t know: I cannot see the pressure of the PSC and getting pupils up to speed on phonics as supportive of talk in classrooms.

          I hope that has explained a little more clearly what the alternatives are. I don’t agree that the only alternative I have put forward is teaching whole words. I have suggested that learning whole words for the most common words with unusual spellings probably enables children to learn them more quickly than if they are sounded out each time, sometimes mistakenly. I have pointed out that children need to know whole words for reading to be fluent; they shouldn’t stop at the decoding stage. I think you’ll find researchers tend to agree that reading has to reach a stage of automacity to be fully effective, and that the English orthography is deep, which poses difficulties for learning through phonics alone, as if the orthography were shallow. I’ve put some links in before, and suggested authors: try looking at what Gough really says about the simple view; look at Rayner and what he says about eye-movements – skilled readers process letters in parallel, that is the profile of someone who can recognise whole words.


  4. It is unutterably depressing that less than nine years after the publication of the Rose Review that there are so many infant teachers who are still in denial of the blindingly obvious. The fact that we ever doubted that children need complete mastery of the spelling code–or that children learn this far more quickly and reliably when it is explicitly taught–casts a damning light on the leading lights of the early years sector. Even more depressing is the coverage given to Philip Pullman and Michael Rosen when they denounced the phonics check.

    Good teachers may well not need the phonics check. If you teach phonics systematically from day one of Reception, you very quickly know which pupils are going to need additional help. And you can ensure that they get it before they fall behind. The consequences of failure are devastating for child and parent alike, and there has never been any question but that early intervention is essential. The further children fall behind, the more their overall cognitive development suffers, and the more likely they are to develop behavioural problems. And the final wicked twist is that the SEN industry has been primed to use these problems as excuses for failure.

    The fact that we need the phonics check testifies to the failure of successive governments to check the anti-phonics propaganda that is still a part of most training programmes for early years teachers. In 2009, three years after the publication of the Rose Review, we obtained the reading lists for primary English in 44 ITT courses. With very few exceptions, the recommended texts either ignored synthetic phonics or were openly hostile. Until these Augean stables are cleaned, this pathetic debate will inevitably continue.


    • Is that examination of the reading lists available?


      • I’d be happy to send it be email–but I can’t find your address.


        • Should be a “contact me” bit in the side bar. Thanks.


        • I seem to recall that you had to use the Freedom of Information Act to get the lists from our publicly-funded ITTs, am I right?


  5. It’s down to understanding the use of stats. You will always be able to find individuals that are atypical. It is not a sensible rational approach to provide these as evidence that there is no or weak correlation – that is what politicians will try to do. It is worth bearing in mind specific and individual needs that might be contrary to the correlation and why but the overall information provided has to be useful. Anyone who says it isn’t must either be mathematically/scientifically illiterate or so overwhelmed by political emotion they have completely suppressed the rational centres in their brains. Maybe a bit of both.


    • Why is this information useful? The information that is useful to teachers is in the detail. The overall picture is expected – pupils tend to do well/ less well on a range of related measures. Teachers need to know the substance of the problems. The best assessment for this is targeted assessment for the children in question, not a remotely commissioned check with a blunt measuring technique.

      Meanwhile, thanks to the PSC, we have teachers teaching SSP through nonword decoding and concentrating on phonics uncritically.


      • Isn’t the point that we now know no harm has come from focusing on phonics? Kids doing well on phonics test also did well on the reading test, despite denialists claiming that wouldn’t happen and it’s not how reading works.


        • This rather depends on what would have happened to pupils who did less well had a different approach been taken. Most pupils learn to read whatever method is used. The concerning pupils are those who don’t. Are these children the same group now as would have been vulnerable pre-PSC? Without detail and analysis there is no way of knowing whether or not PSC has caused harm. Additionally, we need to know if intense SSP has made a difference to pupils’ attitudes to reading – wide reading improves knowledge and understanding of the world but phonics training may not.


          • Hang on, we already know that SSP is the most effective way to teach reading. That’s not under debate here. What I’m pointing out is that the claims made about the screening check being useless for indicating reading ability were wrong. Of course, the fact that the people who claimed the PSC would not indicate reading ability, also tended to deny the effectiveness of SSP, may also tell us something about whether phonics denialists have any understanding of reading. But you can hardly complain that proving them wrong about this has failed to prove them wrong about everything.


      • Actually detail is often as confusing as it is helpful. It is more efficient to look at the broad principles first and then make specific modifications for individual applied contexts. That is what has made science really effective in improving lives. Efficiency is important because it means resources can be better deployed to those individuals that really need it.


    • The trouble is, those imbued with this variety of political emotion have a potent get-out-of-jail-free card, in the form of the post-modernist view, still I suspect quite popular in educationalist circles, that science is merely one discourse among many, which should not be privileged over others. For example, take this example, objecting to a National Research Council report that called for greater rigour in educational research: “Poststructural theorist Michel Foucault (1980) called officially created discourses “regimes of truth” that construct the valued or authoritative knowledge, in relation to power, in particular times and spaces. The governing discourse of “hard science” (based on the authoritative experts who defined research in the NRC report) must then be viewed as having created a regime of truth about good educational research that is based in its own cultural, political, economic, and social context…..The role of power in the naming of rigor, truth, and science is denied.”


  6. Reblogged this on Phonic Books.


  7. The story the graph tells is easier to “comprehend”/understand, if you keep in mind that the purpose of the Screening Check is to identify children at the end of Yr 1 who need further instruction in handling the Alphabetic Code–the link between written and spoken communication.

    The blue curve shows what happens to children who pass the Yr 1 screen, and the tan curve shows what happens to those who don’t. The difference is inter-ocular significant–it hits you between the eyes. The Screening Check is doing what it was intended to do.

    The red curve shows what is not yet happening in Yr 2 instruction.
    If the “further instruction” in Yr 2 was happening as intended the read curve would be the same shape as the blue curve. Obviously, the curve is back to the bell-shaped distribution that is observed any time instruction is not under control.

    Everyone is free to have their opinion about “phonics”–it’s a teaching method and is interpreted differently even within “approved” phonics schemes/programmes. As yet, there has been no analysis of the Screening Check results to determine which of the differences of opinion matter. The “data” are there, but they haven’t been examined. Until that happens, “phonics denial” will continue to be a tis-taint matter.

    But Alphabetic Code denial is a serious consequential error. Not only does it disparage the history and structure of the English language, the denial has detrimental instructional consequences–per the graphical evidence of the chart.


    • As I describe further up, this chart does not, in any sense, show the check doing anything except measuring a skill that (unsurprisingly) closely correlates with future performance. There is no context, so no way to know how effectively it is doing this.

      There are plenty of measures that will give similar results. For example, progress through a reading scheme is also likely to be a strong indicator of future performance.

      It doesn’t even disprove the denialists (unlikely) claim that the check is harmful. This could be easily demonstrated through comparison with previous years but this data isn’t shown.


      • You seem to have have missed that the correlation was being denied.


        • Can you share a post where someone denied the correlation? That sounds foolish – even for some of the wackier ones.

          I was under the impression that they were arguing that, by measuring only phonic decoding ability at one point in the year, it would be a less useful than general assessment of reading that occurs anyway. It’s this hypothesis that I don’t see being disproved.

          I hope this doesn’t come across as me being opposed to phonics – I am most definitely for them. It’s more that triumphantly presenting a graph which shows the bleeding obvious (to reception teachers, at least) and claiming the check is ‘useful’ seems unjustified.


          • I’ve now added a link to a letter opposing the screening check signed by a number of usual suspects.


      • The chart is purely descriptive; it doesn’t purport to present a “correlation” or a “prediction.” The chart displays what happens to children who do-and-don’t pass the Screening Check against teacher judgement of their reading status at the end of KS2. That’s all it does and all it needs to do.

        You’re absolutely right. There are many other variables that one could one could compute correlations with KS2 teacher ratings. But that’s irrelevant to the point of the Screening Check–or to the Chart.


  8. What happens to the 12% of children who don’t pass the check in either Yr 1 or 2?


    • You use the savings from more efficient screening to focus additional resources on finding ways to help them.


    • The Check is a “fit for purpose” psychometric instrument for screening individuals who can benefit from further instruction in how to handle the Alphabetic Code at any age. However, if students have not been taught/learned how to do so by the end of Yr 2, the likelihood is that they will either have acquired “good enough” work-arounds or will be “dyslexic” for life.

      The thing is, these children aren’t evenly distributed throughout the country. Some schools have taught all (or 95%) of their kids at the end of Yr 1. Others have taught half (+/-). All indications are that the difference lies in the instruction the kids are getting, not in the kids. However, no analysis of the Screening Check data has been performed to pursue these indications.


      • So why no analysis yet? Do we know?


        • Damned if I know. I chalk it up largely to inexperience.

          –The Screening Check is a very different kind of “reading achievement test” than the psychometric technical community has become accustomed to. The standard psychometric analysis has been performed, and “what else is there to do?”

          –There is a strong belief in many quarters that only “randomized control trials” constitute “legitimate” research, and no understanding that the population of “experimental subjects in this case is sufficiently large that random sample of adequate size can be pulled as many times as necessary to test the replicability of any conclusion.

          –The general unpopularity of the Check both in “higher education” and in “lower education” hasn’t helped.

          –The “protection of privacy” of kids and teachers has weighed against analysis at the school and classroom level. This is a legitimate concern, but “invasion of privacy” can be feasibly avoided. However, it’s “easier” just to not do the analysis.

          –The purveyors of instructional programmes are reluctant to “test their programmes.” Both publishers and authors tend to fall in love with what they have created. Testing kids is OK, but testing instruction is not OK when it comes right down to it. Researchers tend to regard themselves as immune from “resistance to change.”–that’s only for teachers who mess up “implementation.” Actually, the reverse holds. Few authors or publishers change anything in their programmes after the programmes are initially released.

          That’s 5 reasons, and there are likely more. Whatever. More data analysis is needed.


          • I suspect you are coming at the problem from an American point of view. The reality in England is that the civil service staff of any government department are permanent, and can’t be changed by whatever politician is in charge. Most staff of the Department for Education share the standard views of the “blob”, and are resistant to / suspicious of phonics. That’s why the government programme “Letters and Sounds” had to be watered down the way it was. It takes a politician like Gove, with huge drive and commitment, to force them to do anything they don’t want to do.


  9. That letter does not say there would be no correlation between the check and later reading ability assessments. The people you oppose blog prolifically so I was expecting (hoping) you would quote someone actually expressing this viewpoint. Unfortunately, this appears to be a straw-man.

    Whichever methodology you endorse, you would still expect the results of the check (which is a single word reading test not all that different from those that have existed previously) to correlate with later performance on reading assessments.

    If the check is useful (by which I mean more useful than anything schools already used) then we should see some sort of improvement down the line as:
    -Bastions of schools not teaching phonics effectively are brought into line.
    -Large numbers of pupils with deficient decoding skill, previously missed by the system, are identified and given the support they need.

    If/when this data is available, then you can shove in in the face of the deniers. Right now, you’ve got nothing.


    • Not sure what you’re on about here. If you look at page 12 of the report showing the scatter diagram, you’ll see there is a strong positive correlation between performance in year 1 and year 2. No coefficient is stated but it looks to me in the region of + 0.7; considering this represents an entire national cohort, the value of the test in establishing year 1 performance and as a predictor of year 2 performance in undeniable. Seriously, undeniable; the only possible grounds for doubting this is to admit to statistical ignorance. Proponents of such doubt are then effectively saying: “I don’t actually understand what’s going on statistically and so I am immune to persuasion”.

      Furthermore, you claim above: “I suspect that the biggest effect of the Check has been in getting some schools that were not teaching phonics well to get their act together.” I tend to agree with you but, ironically, this will have actually reduced the correlation coefficient. If schools had failed to act, we might have seen a coefficient of around 0.8-0.9. So it seems to me that testing must be viewed in a highly positive light. It has both identified a need for intervention and proved a highly effective predictor of future performance. I really can’t see how the efficacy of the test can be denied. I’d be rather more open to arguments about a flat earth or the healing power of crystals tbh.


    • Well, there are some discrepancies here. Certainly, teachers (+/) “already know” the reading status of the kids they have been teaching for a year–the kids know and other kids know. But why aren’t all their kids passing the Screening Check at the end of Yr 1? Teachers (+/-) attribute it to the kids or their parents–and there is something to that. But the fact that schools and teachers with the “same kind” of kids and parents have all or nearly all of the kids passing the Check contradicts possibilities other than “it’s in the instruction.”

      You’re right about the further improvements down the line. The Screening Check data have been collected to identify schools and classrooms where children aren’t reliably passing the Check.
      The data just haven’t yet been analyzed.

      Likewise, with children have fallen through the cracks at the end of Yr 2 and it later years. (The red curve in the chart tells us that what is happening now in Yr2 isn’t much).

      The data and the analyses of the data England now has is more than any other English-speaking country has. Given the deniers, that’s a remarkable accomplishment. It’s not “everything,” but it’s certainly a lot more than “nothing.”


    • “That letter does not say there would be no correlation between the check and later reading ability assessments. The people you oppose blog prolifically so I was expecting (hoping) you would quote someone actually expressing this viewpoint. Unfortunately, this appears to be a straw-man.”

      Had a feeling somebody would try to simply deny the content of the letter. The four points from the letter that I listed all deny the correlation between phonics check results and reading.


    • Nic, you say: “If the check is useful (by which I mean more useful than anything schools already used) then we should see some sort of improvement down the line as:
      -Bastions of schools not teaching phonics effectively are brought into line.”

      Please see the table I have posted above. The scores for SEN children have also risen, by 8 percentage points in the last 3 years. While it is impossible to know how much of this might have occurred anyway, without the Check, there are plenty of anecdotes about headteachers and literacy coordinators being shocked by their poor results into putting greater attention and resources into how phonics is taught in their schools.


  10. I’m sure Michael Rosen will be admitting to his errors any time now. After all, as he stated in his open letter to his former SWP associated following their recent troubles: “People are entitled to examine us and ask us if we can suggest anything better. If, at the heart of what we’re doing, there are things going on that are indefensible or plain wrong, we have to say so, or we go backwards.”

    I dare say he’s recalibrating his dialectic as we speak.

    As for the others….meh…useful idiot liberal progressives who’ve sold generations of kids and the British left down the river for decades.


    • That should have read:*# “I’m sure Michael Rosen will be admitting to his errors any time now. After all, as he stated in his open letter to his former SWP associateS (not ‘associateD’) following their recent troubles: “People are entitled to examine us and ask us if we can suggest anything better. If, at the heart of what we’re doing, there are things going on that are indefensible or plain wrong, we have to say so, or we go backwards.”

      I dare say he’s recalibrating his dialectic as we speak.

      As for the others….meh…useful idiot liberal progressives who’ve sold generations of kids and the British left down the river for decades.#

      I’ve just got in and I’m pretty drunk. I hate typos and just read this back and, in a cartoon/ sitcom type fashion, actually slapped my forehead…what I think is now referred to as a ‘facepalm’…only I still had my keys in my hand and so I’m going to go to ask the neighbours if they’ve got a plaster. I’m posting a longer reply tomorrow. I’m disquieted and bemused by this thread.


  11. Note: I was replying to Nick. I agree fully with Rainbow Warrior.


  12. I think the real problem was that it was not the profession but a politician that drove the phonics initiative. This politicised it so that for some people, irrespective of its objective value it is resisted because it must be wrong if it came from them.


    • I’m afraid phonics was politicised a long time ago, back in the 70s and 80s when the inventors of “whole language” labelled it as “right wing”, despite most reading researchers being on the left. The notion that phonics is “oppressive” to children has been an accepted part of both radical and “alternative” left dogma for a long time now. This is partly because it involves instruction, rather than “discovery”. They essentially made opposition to phonics an obligatory credential for membership in certain circles.


    • As far as the Reading Reform Foundation (founded 1989), an entirely apolitical body, is concerned the push for phonics came from *teachers* and others concerned about children’s poor reading .

      It was determined lobbying by concerned teachers, parents and Ed Psychs that forced poilticians to look seriously at the issue. A rare example of politicians listening to the folk they represent…


  13. This may be of interest in explaining why some schools are more likely to achieve 100% of their pupils reaching or exceeding the threshold mark in the Year One Phonics Screening Check:

    http://www.phonicsinternational.com/Simple%20View%20of%20Schools.pdf


  14. I’ve just read back through these comments. There was something bugging me and I’ve just discovered it was. It’s your term ‘denialists’. I may be wrong but I think you may be using the term in preference to the more usual ‘deniers’ because you consider it less ‘loaded’ but essentially equivalent. Either way, It’s pretty much justified in view of the fact that you’re dealing with people who are effectively standing firm in the face of incontrovertible evidence.

    In fact, one might argue their denial is more egregious than that of the climate change variety since there’s undeniably a genuine counter claim to AGW based on natural fluctuations in the Earth’s climate/ solar activity etc. ( I decline to comment on other uses of ‘deniers’ by advocates of identity politics.) Exactly what the argument of those who refuse to accept the effectiveness of phonics might be, I can’t imagine. It certainly can’t be quantitative.

    The ‘denialists’ may be such from mistaken ideological motives but, none-the-less, are basically well meaning and genuinely want the best for the kids in their charge. I think this should be acknowledged. The use of ‘denialists’ just seems antagonistic. In fact, from what I can see any ‘dialogue’ which takes place on Twitter ends up that way. It’s rarely helpful. The textual restrictions allow for little more than posturing and grandstanding and the continual restating of the disputants’ initial positions in ever more belligerent terms.

    The objections of opponents of phonics seem to stem from an entirely understandable objection to a mass instrumentalist approach to the teaching of reading. Despite the impossible and impractical demand for differentiation at every level, phonics is undoubtedly the way forward. It might only be so in a desultory utilitarian sense, but it does appear to be the route to maximal functional literacy at least ‘cost’. It may not ensure a lifelong love of literature but what ever did?


    • I’ve discussed this before, and I’m not trying to be antagonistic by my terminology, however, nothing else seems to fit. They do not state a clear position, so they can’t be identified by that. They do not have an agreed methodology, so they can’t be identified by that. They do not organise in groups that openly declare their agenda, so they can’t be identified by that. Their only uniting feature is their denial of the evidence and inability to debate honestly and openly. “Denialist” is, I think, the least offensive term I have for that, although others have suggested “crank” is less offensive.

      Oh, and at the risk of a massive digression, I don’t think climate change denialists have a rational argument either.


      • It would help if both sides would acknowledge the fact/evidence/reality: We (aggregate humanity) don’t know how to reliably teach children how to read English. We don’t even have any consensus on when a child “can read.” Kids know; other kids know, but the closer one gets to a “reading comprehension test” or a “reading specialist,” the more one doesn’t know. Isn’t that somewhere between bonkers and babel?

        The (Alphabetic Code) Screening Check is a “disruptive technology” because it pierces the ideologies and clears the way to consider the question: How best to teach children how to handle the English Alphabetic Code?–the link between written and spoken language. Not much of the “debate” as yet has that focus, but in due time. . .(the faster, the better).


      • ‘Opponents of..’ strikes me as fitting the bill without appearing quite so judgemental. Recent usage (often Twitter based) means that ‘deniers’ or ‘denialists’ carries a connotation of wilful rejection of an unassailable truth. I don’t think this is the case here.

        There’s undoubtedly an incredibly strong empirical evidence base supporting the efficiency phonics against other current alternatives but some ‘opponents’ may indeed be objecting because they prefer a system not presently in widespread use which may one day supersede phonics if the evidence is ever found to support it.

        I don’t disagree re. climate change but in that case opponents are often disputing the existence of a phenomenon which has been comprehensively established. Nobody actually denies the existence of phonics they are disputing its relative benefits compared with current alternatives. As I say above, there may well be better system which will one day take the place of phonics; they may even be in use now although on such a small scale that nobody has ever seriously studied them. Anybody who does use such a system would be perfectly justified in opposing phonics. Being labelled a ‘denialist’ would seem unnecessarily harsh in such a case.

        That said, if by ‘denialists’, you refer strictly to the denial of the existence of a performance gap between phonics and other mainstream alternatives, then fair enough. However, if as you mention above, they don’t organise in groups then you haven’t really got an opposition as such and so the ‘argument’ is effectively over and it’s surely time for a period of ‘reconciliation’. To this end, the use of such abrasive language is surely counterproductive…magnanimous in victory…more flies with honey than vinegar etc.

        Also, when I types ‘denialists’, autocorrect tries to replace it with ‘denial it’s’ then underlines it in red. Are you sure it’s even a word?…not that that matters to supporters of phonics of course.


        • “Opponents of phonics” does not work to describe them because, being denialists, they will immediately switch to “I’m not opposing phonics, I’m just asking questions”-mode. In the absence of clear statements of their own position, and clear arguments rather than ever-shifting attempts to cast doubt on the evidence, “phonics denialist” is the only term that seems to fit. Of course, all this would be solved if they gave themselves a name, or stuck to a single line of argument. But as long as they remain an incoherent movement united only be the aim of manufacturing doubt about the evidence for phonics, “denialist” is the best description.


          • I would just add that the resemblance between the argumentative tactics used by these people, and those used by creationists, for example, is very striking. As soon as one criticism has been answered, they shift to a different one. Particularly exasperating is the way they will demand that knowledgeable people spend hours responding to their questions and criticisms, only to press the reset button and reappear a few days later wanting to repeat the whole exercise: the Internet version of argument ad nauseam. The more tenacious of them, in particular a certain children’s poet, are also very adept at using rhetorical tricks and insinuation to create false impressions, whilst being careful to allow themselves room to retreat to a more moderate position if challenged. They would not need to use these tactics if they had actual solid ground to stand on, but they don’t. Most of them have an emotional/philosophical/political preference for the “philosophy” underpinning the “Whole Language” approach to word recognition – but this has no evidence base.


  15. I’ve just finished reading Mike Lloyd-Jones’ excellent book Phonics And The Resistance To Reading. Chapter 4 is called Phonicsphobia, a term coined by the reading researcher Joyce Morris in 1954 in response to the irrational and emotive response of some teachers to her lectures. Perhaps phonicsphobics is gentler than denialists? Fear is often the basis of denial.


    • Oooh, I like phonicsphobes. They’ll still object. Too much like homophobe.


      • Or how about ‘phonbuts’? As in ‘I agree phonics should be taught but…”
        Fewer characters for twitter ;-)


    • Why do you suppose it’s fear. What are they afraid of? Unless it’s fear of humiliation. To admit, after such an investment of time and effort, that you’re proposition was plain wrong all along is demeaning. It’s asking a lot of somebody to do so. Obviously, they should but it’s still hard for them. In some cases you’re effectively asking them to admit that their careers have been a joke. Calling them names is hardly going to help.

      I genuinely think most of them know they’ve called it wrong, feel a bit silly but haven’t got the nerve/integrity to admit it. That’s just how people are. Fair enough, I can see that there’s obviously been plenty of thought put into the appropriate terminology and maybe ‘denialist’ is the most apposite. I’m not so sure about ‘phobe’. It implies an irrational fear and a fear of looking like an idiot or looking mendacious is not really irrational. It’s dishonest and cowardly but not irrational, as such.

      Do they really never state an overarching reason for their objections to phonics? I’ve seen vague hints that they regard phonics as too dogmatic nor sufficiently touchy-freely and progressive but is there anything else that stands up…or ever looked like it might stand up? Not that I suppose it matters. There’s not much that’s harder to shift than a self-loving liberal who’s spent years striking radical poses.


      • Michael Rosen came close to articulating what I suspect is his real rationale when he referred to phonics teaching as resembling a “master-servant relationship”, adding: “The teaching of phonics comes loaded with a set of notions about children’s consciousness and agency. If you’ve watched Ruth Miskin at work, you’ll see that her phonics teaching is wrapped up in ideas around conditioning and control. Underlying this is the old theory of behaviourism, that children operate on a stimulus-response basis.”

        Underlying these ideas is the postmodernist notion, subscribed to by many people educated in the humanities (including the ones that teach our teachers) that “evidence” is worthless because there is no one “truth” out there: it’s all subjective. And that therefore the only thing that matters is opposing the hegemonic forces of power. In teaching terms, that implies that the essential component of any pedagogy is that it be “liberationist”, regardless of whether it is effective in any other way.

        When you say “I genuinely think most of them know they’ve called it wrong, feel a bit silly but haven’t got the nerve/integrity to admit it,” you are seriously underestimating the human ability to ignore cognitive dissonance. There’s an excellent book by Carol Tarvis, called Mistakes Were Made But Not By Me, that investigates this phenomenon in other professions, such as psychotherapy.


        • Phonics denialists do actually sometimes come out and admit what the ideological reasons for their beliefs are, usually based on some of the usual tropes from progressive education about there being something wrong with adult authority or instruction.

          This appeared in this blogpost:

          Training is not the same as educating. I can paint a picture using a ‘Paint by Numbers’ kit. The kit does most of the work for me. So long as I follow the rules, I will end up with a picture. But this is not the same thing as creating a piece of art. Making mistakes, trying to predict, searching for meaning – these are all vital parts of the learning process. With systematic synthetic phonics, the adult does most of the work. We chop up the language, then train the children to sound out the bits. The children are fairly passive recipients of the system. Where is the cognitive challenge? Do we know what long term impact it might have on the brain when we cut so much of the effort out of the process?

          So there you have it. Synthetic phonics is wrong because the children are too passive and there is too much adult instruction. Another reason why phonics denialism should be of concern to anyone who wants to teach, regardless of whether they actually teach early reading.


          • The amount of ignorance on that thread is incredibly depressing. Speculation and hunches rather than knowledge of the evidence. As for “Do we know what long term impact it might have on the brain when we cut so much of the effort out of the process?” – well, we certainly know the long term impact on the brain when children can’t read well: reading psychologists call it the Matthew Effect – to him that has, more is given. And vice-versa.


          • I’ve always thought that the cognitive challenge comes from making meaning from the words one has decoded.


          • That’s worrying. I can’t even see how that’s internally consistent within their own ideology. Surely you teach a child to read as quickly and efficiently as possible and thereby liberate them to ‘discover’ literally anything. It must count as the ultimate liberationist tool.

            I’ve seen a few bike riding analogies on here. I wonder how learning to ride a bike would go if you applied the same pedagogical ethic. Isn’t it likely you’d run into a few lampposts as you searched for meaning in the surrounding scenery or failed to correctly predict which bits were the brakes as the juggernaut emerged from the next junction.


        • I’m not so sure it’s cognitive dissonance with all of them. Michael Rosen…fair enough…he’s committed to the end. There’s that old joke about the aftermath of a nuclear war when all that survives will be the cockroaches and the guy on the corner selling the Socialist Worker.

          I went to school with a lad who did a 6 month trying course to learn how to fix Betamax video recorders. Everyone told him again and again he was wasting his time but he wouldn’t have it. He even started buying second hand ones cheap once the writing on the wall was in 5 foot bold capitals. It wasn’t cognitive dissonance. He just didn’t want to admit he’d been a dick. People will go to extreme lengths to avoid admitting they’ve done, said or believed something stupid. I agree that some take it to extremes and actually start to convince themselves of the ‘truth’ of the fallacy but some just keep talking rubbish to avoid the shame of facing up to their stupidity.

          And of course there’s always vested interest. I’m sure there are many psychotherapists who’ve seen the data on the effectiveness of their ‘cures’, the evidence of Freud’s self-serving depictions of his cases and his tactical readjustments but still have people willing to show up and stump large amounts of money to be ‘treated’. If they’re honest and tell their patients they were wasting their time, they’re not just giving up their livelihoods, they’re admitting their careers have been a sham. It’s not necessarily cognitive dissonance and, of course, psychotherapy has an in-built defence mechanism in that it never set out or claimed to make testable hypotheses.

          For its opponents, Phonics suffers from the inconveniently determinate fact that it can be quantitatively assessed for its effectiveness. Do they go as far as to deny this? I don’t know why I’m asking this actually. I can pretty much guess…I’m sure there’s some intangible qualitative factor whose importance I just lack the nuance to appreciate.


          • I’m often astounded by how little opponents of phonics actually know about the research. In debate on twitter hardly any of those opposing phonics appear to have read any of it. Some really high profile opponents make comments that take my breath away, they show such an ignorance of the basics. They are able to deny the research because they haven’t read it.


          • In reply to heatherfblog: could you perhaps give some examples of these ignorant and uninformed responses on Twitter? In general Twitter is not a forum for in-depth discussion of issues – for a short tweet to say something significant enough for it to be judged as proof that a person has not engaged with the evidence rather stretches things. So some examples, please, of tweets which show the tweeter not to have looked at the evidence.

            It’s possible that you believe evidence has not been read because an interpretation of content of the evidence is different from your own. Or perhaps there is further and/or different evidence used by the tweeter in question. These issues can really only be discussed on a more extensive forum. Unfortunately, some forums which could lend themselves to some interchange of views, explanations of interpretations, citing of different studies, examinations of relevance and value of studies etc. are closed down to those who see problems with current policy, with only selected views allowed.

            How sure are you that the evidence has not been engaged with? Where’s your evidence for the lack of knowledge? Where are your own Twitter contributions showing that you know all the evidence and have a correct interpretation?

            Your interpretation that there are people on Twitter who ‘oppose phonics’ is pretty mind-boggling in itself – are you referring to Michael Rosen? If so you probably have to look again at what he’s said on the subject. Blanket opposition to phonics doesn’t seem to exist as far as I can see. So perhaps some examples of this phenomenon, too, would not come amiss, to back up what you’re saying.


          • could you perhaps give some examples of these ignorant and uninformed responses on Twitter?

            Dr Becky Allen of the IofE recently crticised the Clackmannanshire research for the number of classes in the control group, apparently unaware that there were two experimental conditions, not one.

            Where are your own Twitter contributions showing that you know all the evidence and have a correct interpretation?

            Fallacy of the complex question. I challenged you some time ago on your use of this logical fallacy, on another forum, but I see it made no impression. This is an excellent example of the kind of snide attempt to misrepresent your opponents’ positions that is not infrequent in your posts. I have read hundreds of them over the years, and I have seen enough of this kind of tactic, among other logical fallacies, to suspect that this is the main reason why people have grown weary of engaging with you.


          • In reply to chrisanicholson.

            Yes, there are questions over the Clack study. I haven’t read any comments by Dr Allen. Were they in a tweet, a paper, a lecture? It would be good if you could link to the material. That’s what Twitter is good for – signposting for interested people to the wider discussion.

            ‘Fallacy of the complex question’: as I understand this it refers to a loaded question through which the responder is put on the spot of accepting a precondition if they are going to answer the question directly. As the precondition is an assumption, not a fact, the question is fallacious – classic being, “When did you stop beating your wife?” You have to admit something nasty about yourself whether you say yes or no – so I guess it’s just a variation on adhominem really.

            Are you saying that this question is an example?
            “Where are your own Twitter contributions showing that you know all the evidence and have a correct interpretation?”

            Heatherfblog wrote:
            “I’m often astounded by how little opponents of phonics actually know about the research. In debate on twitter hardly any of those opposing phonics appear to have read any of it.” The belief here is that a tweet can show that the tweeter has or has not read the evidence and knows about the research. There are no examples or evidence given for this assertion. But if this belief exists it is surely reasonable to take as a presupposition, in any discussion of heatherfblog’s post, that there may be tweets in existence which refute the basic errors made and close down the argument. And I simply asked to be directed to them. I’m looking for the precondition assumed in this which loads the question. There is a presupposition: I’m asking for examples of something which may exist; I’m presupposing that in Twitter out there somewhere there might be a discussion which shows that heatherfblog has read all the evidence and can refute others in tweets. So a precondition may be there, a very tentative one. But, further – to be the complex question fallacy, heatherfblog has to cast herself in a poor light by answering directly. Does the presupposition meet the requirement that heatherfblog puts herself in a bad place by responding?

            So: is it a disguised adhominem? It isn’t:
            If she says ‘yes’, that’s great: she directs us to a discussion in which it becomes clear that you can discuss all the issues on Twitter and expose the errors cited and where her responses have swept the objections away. So she can say yes without being accused of beating her wife.
            If she says ‘no’, she can’t supply the evidence, does it cast her in a bad light? Well, maybe a bit, given the energy of her assertions in the post. But on the other hand, saying no can just be seen as an acknowledgement that a Twitter discussion is unlikely to get down to the nitty-gritty because of the nature of Twitter – which is the context of what I am saying. This acknowledgement would be useful because the discussion of the evidence and who knows it and what it really says etc etc might stand a chance of being transferred to a better forum, such as this blog which seems to welcome all comers. Meanwhile Heatherfblog can say no without being accused of beating her wife. There is no veiled adhominem and no complex question fallacy. My enquiry is still out there. Perhaps you could come back with what you know about Clack and Dr Allen’s mistake.

            All I was doing in my post was simply asking for evidence in the hope it might be acknowledged that Twitter is not a good place to discuss the evidence, its possible interpretations, nuances of government policies or even the alphabetic code. Saying that all opponents are ignorant and ill-informed, without evidence, on the basis of tweets, really does not move the discussion on.

            So, chrisanicholson, I suppose you have to decide whether you’re going to talk to ‘opponents’ (you know that is too strong a term – these people aren’t anti-phonics) or you’re going to ignore them. Sounds like you’re going to ignore them – it’s your choice. But if you could direct me to the place where you believe I used the complex question fallacy in a previous discussion I would be grateful. I can’t recall ever ‘meeting’ you before. I am @marianruthie on Twitter, nemocracy on wordpress and Thumbshrew on the TES.


  16. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


  17. For what it’s worth, this has pretty much convinced me. I was never hugely anti-phonics, but I’m a bit anti-testing, have my doubts about phonics, and I love Michael Rosen. So I was basically anti this test a few years ago. But those stats are impressive. If the information can be used in the right way, that would be a great thing. Thanks for helping to communicate the gritty empirical stuff.


    • Nemocracy, I purposely chose not to single out individuals because I wanted to avoid making it personal. I chose to use the term ‘people who oppose phonics’ to avoid using the controversial denialist term. I felt it was obvious that I meant people who deny the evidence on phonics from the context. In terms of ignorance I mean things like when people suggest that their fluent reading is from word shapes or that ‘English isn’t a phonetic language’ and that you can’t sound out obviously simple words.


      • “Things like when people suggest that their fluent reading is from word shape” – ie somebody describing their personal experience as a reader – umm – a *fluent* one, in order to share experiences with others – not someone denying that the written language represents sounds through letters. Does this person oppose teaching phonics or deny the evidence that children can learn and become fluent through phonics? I suppose it’s possible. But you’d need more than that remark to jump to that conclusion.

        “Things like when people suggest … ‘English isn’t a phonetic language’ and that you can’t sound out obviously simple words” There is a tendency to say that English is not phonetic in order to point out the complexity of phonic representation, which makes it a deep orthography – a fact accepted universally by researchers – and it may be coupled with this observation the fact that there are many words which are not simple to sound out because they have unusual spellings – a necessary rider to the fact that the orthography is deep. Do the people saying this oppose teaching phonics or deny the evidence that children can become fluent through phonics? When you/they say ‘simple words’ do you mean a word like ‘cat’ – I’d definitely need an example tweet for that one as I can’t imagine anyone from Michael Rosen to Debbie Hepplewhite making that claim.

        As touched on before, the people you refer to are chatting on Twitter – 140 characters to give a snapshot view of what they want to say as part of a discussion.


        • I didn’t write my comment to try and persuade you, or justify how I formed my view. Your view of my ability to judge the context of tweets (and blog posts) is far from complimentary!


  18. Has any denialist / opponent of phonics ever used the term ‘phonics apologist’ of a phonics supporter?

    I really hope they have…the circle would be complete. In fact, can you really have a proper ‘Twitter war’ unless these two terms have been flung back and forth a few times? If not, surely it’s just a Twitter spat, no?


  19. I’m simply responding to what you’re putting out there, Heatherfblog. Complimentary doesn’t come into it! Inaccuracy, and jolly abandonment of objectivity in describing arguments and the content of discussions used aren’t exactly complimentary to holders of the views in question either.


    • How can you have any idea if I’ve been inaccurate or abandoned objectivity? I never gave the evidence for my suppositions as it wasn’t necessary in the context of a discussion in which I just wanted to share my view. I still haven’t done so as I’d have to do hours of research to put it together as it is the product of years of reading people’s arguments in tweets and blogs. I have no wish to invest the time trying to persuade you, largely as that would be pointless!
      You have just leapt to the conclusion I must be stupid enough to have those suppositions without any foundation for them or have based my view on a few decontextualised tweets. Ironically this meant presuming, also with no way of knowing, that the people I was thinking about (unnamed) were almost certainly sensible.


      • I do not think anyone is being stupid and I have not said so. All I’m interested in is pulling out and testing the arguments made because that is the way of getting at what is actually going on – ie whether arguments are being backed up with evidence, whether conclusions are fair and whether people should take what is said at face-value. You don’t need to persuade me of anything unless you actually want to improve the credibility of your statements – entirely up to you. I’m not going to respond again – enough said.


    • I posted this reply on Schools Week:

      The phonics screening check is a poor substitute for a standardised reading test. Non-word reading can only test phonological skills at the most basic level, since ambiguous digraphs such as /ou/ and /ea/ cannot be included. Children should be well beyond this basic stage by the end of Year 1.

      However, it would be a mistake to conclude that the ability to read non-words is optional: we know that it is essential. At the age of 9, most new vocabulary is acquired through reading. Without the ability to decode unfamiliar words, children’s overall cognitive growth suffers drastically. Stanovich’s 1986 paper on the “Matthew Effect” is the most-cited article in google scholar, and not without reason.


      • For some reason Mr Burkard’s comment does not appear under the linked article on Schools Week


      • Some ambiguous digraphs appear in the nonword test eg, this year in ‘strow’. Teachers are instructed to accept any of the possible pronunciations. However, with the ‘real’ words in the check, teachers only accept the correct pronunciation. This inconsistency has been pointed out – the check does not check phonological skills with any clarity as a pupil may know the real words. It’s worth noting, too, that the comment box on the marking sheet is ‘optional’. This means that teachers are not obliged to keep a record of the exact mistakes made by children, information which could contribute to planning further lessons and analysis of data.


  20. […] Pointing out how wrong phonics denialists were about the accuracy of the phonics screening check; […]


  21. […] (a big deal for a written language that’s been around for millenia). In a very similar way, phonics seems to be effective but is widely opposed, with many objecting to how it seems to distort and oversimplify the […]



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