3 ways phonics denialists will try to fool you

November 25, 2017

I don’t teach reading. The only reason I take an interest in the phonics “debate” is that it’s the one area of teaching where the evidence seems overwhelming. Study after study, review after review (or rather the ones that look at a significant body of empirical evidence) conclude that the closer a method of teaching reading is to Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP), the better it is. This is not just the best established empirical result in education, it’s probably the best established result in the entire social sciences. As such, the teaching profession’s willingness to listen to the evidence about this, also indicates our status as evidence-informed, rational professionals.

Unfortunately, like climate change, evolution or vaccination, the conclusions reached are challenging to some ideologies. This means there are those who wish to deny the evidence, usually by confusing people, misleading them or outright lying to them. I wrote about phonics denialism  a few years ago.

Since then, some of the debate has moved on. The introduction of the phonics check has undermined those who claim to be teaching phonics, but not SSP. The check is a test of being able to read the phonetic information in text, if children have been taught phonics successfully they will pass it. Anyone who claims that the check will not work for the kids they have taught phonics to, has not taught phonics, and that seems to have ended that debate. Another, now discredited, argument was that the phonics check would penalise good readers because, despite decades of research indicating the opposite, good readers no longer use phonetic information to read. The results show this isn’t true. So denialists have moved on (or at least they have when there are people around who might challenge them, there are still publishers and newspapers that will print any old nonsense uncritically). Here are the 3 arguments I now hear most often from phonics denialists.

1) The Phonics Fork Ad Hominem

I suppose technically this is 2 arguments, but they are often combined and they are both attacks on the person not the content of their argument. Phonics denialists are most often challenged by one of the following two types of people:

  1. People who are phonics experts.
  2. People who are not phonics experts but know the evidence supports phonics.

The way that the Phonics Fork works is that there is a go to ad hominem argument for both situations.  If they are challenged by somebody who is an expert on phonics, then the phonics denialist will point out that they earn a living from phonics and are, therefore, a vested interest who cannot be trusted. One denialist troll actually used to respond to experts by saying “kerching” – onomatopoeia for the sound of a cash register or a fruit machine paying out – in order to indicate they make money from their expertise and, therefore, cannot be trusted. (Yes, that is the level of sophisticated debate we are dealing with here.) However, if they are challenged by somebody who isn’t in any way an expert, somebody like me, who is only aware of the broad thrust of research and how often denialists have been proven wrong by the evidence, they respond with “well you haven’t taught anyone to read, we shouldn’t listen to you”. This means the only opinions that are permissible in the phonics debate are from those who have been involved in teaching kids to read, but have no expertise in the best way to do it. Which is, of course, the people who are least likely to be in a position to challenge the denialists.

2) Ron Burgundy Syndrome

The consensus amongst the experts about how children learn to read is that once children can decode a word phonetically, then if they understand the word when they speak, then they can understand it when they read it provided they can read fluently enough. If children are not fluent decoders, then they may end up sounding out a word successfully, but not be able to pay attention to meaning at the same time. Also, if they do not know the words in the text they sound out, they will not understand it. Phonics denialists have seized on this as a problem with phonics, rather than a lack of fluency or a lack of vocabulary and claim that non-phonics methods of teaching reading are required to prevent Ron Burgundy Syndrome, an implausible condition where children can decode fluently, reading out familiar words, but having no idea what they’ve said. The only evidence that this condition exists is in the following clip from the film Anchor Man, which I guess for phonics denialists was a documentary not a surreal comedy (warning: contains strong language).

James Murphy wrote a great blogpost listing just some of the evidence that SSP is not just “barking at print” (a common slogan used by denialists) but actually helps understanding too. But phonics denialists will claim that their discredited methods, which undermine good phonics teaching, are necessary if children are to develop “inference skills” or some other ephemera that is meant to underlie comprehension.

3) I’m just saying phonics is not the only part of reading

Perhaps the most common argument I see from phonics denialists these days is one based on equivocation. It is based on phrases such as:

“Phonics is not the only part of reading”.

“There is more to reading than decoding”.

“Reading is more complex than just teaching systematic synthetic phonics”.

All these phrases are wonderfully ambiguous. On the one hand they may be saying children need other things, such as vocabulary and background knowledge, as well as systematic synthetic phonics, to become good readers.

This is something that everybody agrees with. If anybody disagrees with one of the phrases above, a phonics denialist will simply say “well what about vocabulary?” or “well you could sound out words in a language you don’t understand, that wouldn’t be reading” or some other way of arguing (correctly) that phonics alone is not enough without the knowledge needed to understand the language in the text.

However, if not asked to clarify that this is what they mean, phonics denialists will claim that what you need as well as SSP, is teaching using discredited denialist methods: (multi-cuing, word recognition, look and say, etc.) that actually undermine good phonics teaching. It is absolutely vital that, the moment somebody says anything along the lines of “there is more to reading than systematic, synthetic phonics” you pin them down on exactly what they mean. I find just asking “are you advocating multi-cuing?” can be enough to call their bluff.

Another variation on this is to look at the ways a teacher might develop a student’s vocabulary, such as talking to them, using picture books, reading them stories, having interesting books in the classroom, and suggest that teachers who accept the evidence on phonics are against all of these things. In this fantasy, phonics denialists are the only people saving children from 8 hours a day, sat in rows, being drilled in learning letter combinations from a chalkboard while being banned from seeing a book or an illustration.

None of the above 3 denialist tactics are rational arguments. They are tricks used by people who at best intend to confuse, and at worst, intend to deceive. If you see these points being made, I encourage you to challenge them.





  1. I agree with the letters from primary teachers that you have posted previously: Letters and Sounds did the cause of SSP more damage than any number of smug children’s authors braying about kiddies’ imagination and creativity. The great merit of commercial programmes written by our best teachers was their flexibility–they allowed teachers to give slow readers enough additional help so they didn’t fall too far behind. By contrast, L&S was written by educational experts with no classroom experience and dropped from on high by the DfE. Unsurprisingly, when children fell behind, many teachers decided that SSP was over-hyped and they went back to the eclectic methods advocated in the National Literacy Strategy. It also sent out a message to teachers: don’t bother using your initiative.

  2. Thank you as always, Andrew, for your informative and thoughtful post. I’ve added it to the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction ‘General’ forum here:


    I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for the time and trouble you’ve taken to write these various blog posts about phonics over the years. They are much appreciated.

  3. Great post Andrew, although I’m rather fed-up that you’ve (understandably) felt the need to write it.
    I teach reading through SSP and it damn well works.

    During my PGCE (about 12 years ago) SSP was only mentioned by lecturers with either repugnance or horror. It was only after I had finished the course and saw what some brilliant Early Years teachers were doing with SSP, that I realised so much of what I had been told about reading during my PGCE ( onset and rime , multi-cueing!) was just utterly useless. I suggest that phonics deniers get off their backsides and into primary schools to actually see some of the great SSP work that is being done with the children .

    I think that one of the reasons that so many phonics deniers get their knickers twisted over SSP, is that by about Year 2 or 3 you can have a situation where children can decode fluently, even read out unfamiliar words, but have no idea of what the words mean. Well I think that’s great . We celebrate that in my Year 3 class – “Wow, you can read a word there that you’ve never come across before, and you don’t know what it means? Fantastic!”. I checked with my class on Friday to make sure they knew what to do if they read a word they didn’t know the meaning of or couldn’t understand parts of a sentence because of that word – “Look in a dictionary” or “Ask you” . Yep, that’ll do it .

    ps. There is no such thing as ‘inference skills’ really is there?

    pps. Picture books are usually detrimental to developing a child’s reading comprehension.

    • I can agree with lots of things here. Anecdotally my children learnt to read effortlessly with SSP. They can decode virtually any word and so we work on meaning.

      I would.like to ask you to expand on this “Picture books are usually detrimental to developing a child’s reading comprehension,” though.

      • If you are a KS1 teacher and you have 150 bright, colourful picture books in your class library, you’d be unlikely to find more than 2 or 3 that have any use in helping the children understand what they are reading.
        But then that’s not what they were written, illustrated or designed to do. Helping children to read is not part of an illustrator’s brief for a picture book. cf. Maurice Sendak ‘You must never illustrate exactly what is written. You must find a space in the text so that the pictures can do the work’.

        With regards to theory, I have found Ferdinand de Saussure’s concept of semiotics and the arbitrariness of signification to be most useful in explaining the problem. But put simply, I want to teach children to read words not look at pictures.

        That is not to say that picture books do not have other uses in class. They can be pleasing objects for the children to pick up, look at and hold. But even then, I am not sure that a Year 1 child selecting an attractively illustrated picture book from the shelf can be said to have been ‘encouraged to read’ by it.

        Some interesting research here:

  4. When we moved to the UK in 1976 my brother was taunted by his English teacher about the fact that in the USA we were taught grammar. The prevailing belief was that it is all absorbed so doesn’t need to be taught. The spread of apostrophes before a terminal ‘s’ is proof this only works when good grammar is being reinforced somewhere (and schools are the obvious place) so is the norm in public life.
    It seems to me the fault-line for this and the ‘look say’ vs phonics debate lies between those people who basically believe that the world is logical and can be understood by applying basic rules, and those that believe the world is basically NOT logical. The second group seize the rare exceptions to rules to show that they are irrelevant or even dangerous to apply. This is the argument I’ve heard most often against phonics.
    I have realised via one-to-one tutoring that science teachers seem to fall into two groups. Both may say ‘do you understand?’ but for one group that means ‘have you memorised the facts’ and for the other group it means ‘would you be able to explain it?’. Real problems arise when a teacher who is one type is teaching a student who is the other type. The best science students are those who do a bit of both……. the same goes for reading.

  5. […] Teaching in British schools « 3 ways phonics denialists will try to fool you […]

  6. Reblogged this on The Literacy Echo Chamber.

  7. Regarding your point 1 above, about the phonics fork: it’s worth pointing out that there is a reason why our phonics experts have come almost exclusively from the grassroots, and therefore are obliged to make a living outside academe.

    It’s because most of the people whose paid job it was to read the research, extend on it, and disseminate good practice (education academics) completely abrogated their responsibilities in this area, preferring instead to promote an evidence-free ideology supported by group-think.

    To understand how this could have happened, it’s important to be aware that much of the research supporting phonics was conducted by reading researchers in university Departments of Psychology, not in Schools of Education. Given the nature of university politics, and the rivalry and the often hermetic seals between departments, this made it (and still does make it) easy for education academics to ignore or disparage the research.

    Ironically, they themselves had, and in many cases still have, a financial incentive to succumb to the group-think, if they want to keep their jobs and achieve tenure.

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