Addendum: A 4th Way phonics denialists will try to fool you

December 2, 2017

Last week I wrote about phonics denialism for the first time in ages. About 24 hours after listing the arguments I most often hear from those who deny the evidence about early reading I remembered I missed one out. So here it is.

4) When phonics doesn’t work

Some children struggle to learn to read. There are a number of possible reasons for this. It could be that the child has some particular difficulty. It could be that even where they were supposedly taught high quality SSP, they weren’t, but learning to read goes wrong sometimes.

Now, in some cases there may be a problem, for instance with hearing, that can be treated directly, but generally most difficulties are lumped together under labels such as dyslexia. This, combined with those children with the opposite aptitude, who learnt to read more quickly than expected, has led to a notion of different types of learners needing different methods of teaching reading. A few decades ago the argument was made that SSP was only suitable for dyslexic students, while everybody else needed the discredited denialist methods. Nowadays the argument has been reversed, and the denialist methods are for those students who make slow progress even with phonics instruction. But neither of these are supported by the evidence, only by the argument that “if evidence based methods didn’t work the first time, we have to resort to magic”. If there were special learners who can only learn to read through denialist methods, nobody has yet found a reliable way to identify them. They still appear largely in anecdotes, not reliable research.

More importantly, what about those with identified reading disabilities, who will be those where phonics may well have failed first time round? Here is what a review of the best evidence for interventions for them found.

“The results revealed that phonics instruction is ….the only approach whose efficacy on reading and spelling performance in children and adolescents with reading disabilities is statistically confirmed..”

Despite the anecdotes, the evidence is that phonics is still the best shot. Some people, however, prefer anecdotes to evidence, so here’s one about how believing that phonics cannot work for a child can be wrong.

This is from Nancy Gedge’s award winning blog in January 2014 about how her son, needed something other than phonics:

The phonics weren’t working, so, …, I made him a set of flashcards of whole words instead.

I was astonished at how quickly he picked it up.  Before long, I had made him a set of interchangeable cards that made sentences, and enjoyed showing him how they fitted together.

I didn’t know that he would go through what felt like a string of teachers who insisted, despite the way his brain processes information more slowly than an ordinary child, that a phonic approach would work, that if they kept on banging his head against the brick wall of unattached letters and sounds he would eventually ‘get’ it.  I wasn’t going to accept any more the battering that his self-esteem was taking at his continual confusion, and my increasing frustration.

I’m not denying that phonics doesn’t work as an excellent way to teach children to read. I use it myself.  But if [he] has taught me anything, it’s that there is always an exception to the rule.

This is what she wrote in June 2014:

If you had asked me three years ago whether [he] would be reading using a synthetic phonic based approach, I would have laughed in your face.  We tried, we really did, but when it came to reading, [he] couldn’t blend efficiently enough to create words out of print, let alone any meaning out of a sentence….

At thirteen years old he has had a year of instruction on a phonics programme, and guess what?  He’s reading.  He’s reading all sorts of things.  From posters to calendars to road traffic signs to Which Caravan Magazine to the blessed reading book that still comes home, after all these years.

Her account (if not her interpretation of the events) fits with the evidence. The best intervention when phonics doesn’t work, is more phonics.


  1. I’ve taught hundred of pupils with learning difficulties, and there is no doubt that the most severely ‘dyslexic’ (a mere term of convenience) will make very little progress with the best teaching. The main problem is normally developing automatic recall of gpcs; they can be taught to blend phonemes with oral exercises without too much difficulty, but the time it takes them to retrieve the correct phoneme upon presentation of a grapheme is so long that the previous phoneme is forgotten by the time they’ve identified it.

    In the end we developed a programme which used a set of Montessori-type letter tiles which we had made up by a local firm, and wrote a programme which used a large variety of multi-sensory exercises. It was all based upon extensive modelling inside an SSP format, teaching synthtetic and analytic skills in parallel.

    Nearly all these cases were pupils we taught privately after their school had concluded that they ‘couldn’t learn phonics’. Parents brought them to us after their teachers had failed utterly to make any progress with whole-word, multi-cueing strategies.

    Once a Canadian specialist told my wife of some research that claimed that pupils who failed to learn the arbitrary connection between letters and sounds could need several thousand exposures to succeed, but after the first one was learned, every successive one took about half the number of exposures of the previous gpc. Sadly, she never wrote it down, but it certainly tallied with our experience with exceptionally slow children.

  2. Perhaps I should have added that they all got there evenually, and as their rate of progress accelerated, their motivation increased no end. Contrary to the claims of the ‘Gift of Dyslexia’ folk, I agree with Michael Rutter–in 1975, he argued that if ‘dyslexia’ were a unitary condition, you would expect their scores on batteries of tests to cluster around similar patterns, and this is not the case. I’ve never heard SSP teachers suggest that slow decoders were in any way different from other pupils once they could decode automatically and effortlessly.

    At the moment, I’m teaching a Yr6 pupil maths with a view to getting him into one of the top sets when he goes up next September. Six years ago, he was one of the most severely dyslexic pupils I’d ever taught, yet he is now making good progress in all areas of the curriculum.

  3. Reblogged this on The Literacy Echo Chamber.

  4. See slides 35 to 38 where I show that the Driver Youth Trust (an organisation focused on children with dyslexia to which Nancy Gedge belongs) and the Education Endowment Foundation both continue to give mixed messages and misinformation about reading instruction.

    The Driver Youth Trust continues to promote multi-cueing reading strategies and downplays the importance of phonics, and the Education Endowment Foundation promotes the idea that if children who are 10+ still have reading difficulties, then phonics hasn’t worked for them and they may need something different.

    For two such influential, well-funded organisations, this is shocking and irresponsible, see here:


    I have found, however, that one cannot hold such organisations to account.

    Thank you for your addendum.

  5. Addendum now added to your thread via the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction here:


  6. […] Addendum: A 4th Way phonics denialists will try to fool you […]

  7. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  8. All posts I see about phonics are about it teaching to read. Which I don’t even see as a debate. It will teach 90% of people to read at a younger age than any other method that can be mass-applied.

    The question is the cost in later spelling skills. You teach an outright wrong phoneme-to-grapheme link and people then apply it the other way. How do you apply “more phonics” to someone who won’t remember how to spell business, for example? It can be done whole-word or it can be done through morphology (with a tricky y-i change). But phonetically?!

  9. […] Addendum: A 4th Way phonics denialists will try to fool you […]

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