Scenes From The Battleground

3 ways phonics denialists will try to fool you


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.