Every time someone compares the medical and teaching professions a fairy dies. So for that I am truly sorry.
As a secondary school history teacher I depended heavily on the ability of my pupils to read, though I was remiss in not investigating how children were taught to read before they came to me in secondary school. The debate about systematic synthetic phonics is clearly a live one online and I have dipped my toe in over the last few days. My expertise on this is minimal, though plenty of others have offered their views while professing their lack of expertise, and so I shall do the same. My aim in this post, however, is not to debate whether or not systematic synthetic phonics should be how children are taught to read (from what I can see it should) but rather to challenge the way in which I hear people talking about it on various sides of the debate. In particular I want to support a case I heard made by Tim Taylor about the dangers of dogmatism in education.
Let’s begin anecdotally with my own experience. I was taught to read in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I remember learning to read at pre-school and at home with Peter & Jane books. By the age of six or seven I could read independently and plunged into Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome and Roald Dahl. My parents read with me in the evenings, and my teachers and their assistants read with me at school. At weekends we went to the public library in Exeter where I was part of a reading scheme: I would take books out one week, read them, and then discuss them with someone at the library the following week. I remember well the first time the librarian told me that the book I needed was in the adult library rather than the children’s, and feeling very grown-up as I left the children’s corner for the rest of the library. I am in no doubt at all that learning to read was the most important thing I ever learnt to do. In this whole process, I do not think that I was once taught using systematic synthetic phonics. People have learnt to read for millennia and my guess is that the vast majority of readers in the past were also not taught using the method. It is, thus, common sense to accept that there are other ways to learn to read that can lead to success. They may well not be as good, but they are not all defunct. Those who compare all other methods of learning to read with something like homeopathy are pushing the argument too far: we have no evidence that homeopathy has ever cured anyone of anything, but non-systematic synthetic phonic teaching clearly did teach plenty of people to read, so let’s avoid such crass simplifications.
To say that there were other methods that worked in the past, however, is not to say that anything should go in the present. From what I can gather, and I am relying here on what is very much an introductory reading list, there is a very strong evidence base that suggests that systematic synthetic phonics is the best way, on average, to teach children to read. The words ‘on average’ are, of course, very important. The evidence does not, from what I can tell, support the conclusion that ‘if you use systematic synthetic phonics a child will definitely learn to read well’. Rather, it supports the conclusion that there is a statistically significant probability that using systematic synthetic phonics will result in a child learning to read well. Such strong statements are a rarity in education and, if this conclusion is correct, then I am pleased indeed that more children than ever before will now be enjoying what I too enjoyed as a child.
It is here, however, that I find it necessary to kill a fairy. If I go to my doctor with a particular condition, then she knows what treatments are most likely to make me better, and is therefore likely to begin there. If my physiology is similar to the majority of others then there is a good chance the treatment will work and I can be thankful that medical science has provided us with a treatment that will work on most people. It is quite possible, however, that this standard treatment might not work for me. My doctor would then, after an appropriate period of time, try something different. Maybe an additional drug is needed; maybe the way in which the original treatment was applied did not suit my particular body; maybe this treatment clashes with one I am having for something completely unrelated. I might well be a special case, worthy of study as an exception, not least because others may share my exceptionality. Ultimately, what might work for me may well turn out to be something that is shown to be less effective than the normal drug for normal people. Before I run too far with this analogy, I shall pause here, for I think my point is made.
There are of course some important differences between my analogy and teaching. For one, patients typically get one-to-one treatment and that makes it much easier for doctors to tailor a treatment to a patient. In a class of 30 the approach needed has to be that which works for the majority, and for that reason it would seem quite right that systematic synthetic phonics is the norm. Yet as teachers we can tailor things to an extent and, when it comes to reading, there are all sorts of opportunities for modifying a pedagogy. Our main source of one-to-one reading is of course parents, and good parents would, to my mind, be talking regularly to their child’s teacher about his or her reading progress, meaning the home experience can be tailored further too. I can imagine the conversation I would be having with parents: ‘well, systematic synthetic phonics is normally what works, but this doesn’t seem to be having the effect we’d like, so we’re going to try something different for a bit. I think we should try this.’ That last sentence is the most important reason why teachers need to know about other approaches to teaching reading. As a professional, I would expect to know why systematic synthetic phonics normally works best and to recognise when it is not working. I would expect to know too what else might be tried and for there to be the knowledge and resources out there to help me do that. This is why dogmatism in education is always wrong and a well-educated profession is essential. I cannot bring myself to believe that, if a child is failing at reading under systematic synthetic phonics, then there is not something else I might try, something I can do, that might help them. This is not an argument in support of mixed-methods or even complete professional freedom: it is, rather, a request for pragmatism where well-read and knowledgeable professionals can make appropriate choices in atypical cases.
There is one further reason why phonics dogmatism cannot be justified. Knowledge is always changing and every year we, as humans, find out new things and change the ideas we had in the past and, at least as far as science goes, this tends to be a positive thing. Those who advocate using systematic synthetic phonics on the basis of randomised controlled trials are treating pedagogy as a science (we’ll leave debates about that aside for a moment) and therefore we should expect that our knowledge of this is going to change. It might well just be a refinement; my understanding is that Einstein, contrary to general belief, did not disprove Newton’s laws, but instead showed them to be a particular case. Our arrogance would be in the superlative if we believed that systematic synthetic phonics is the ‘holy grail’ solution. Further improvements in our knowledge are very likely, and this is a good thing. Dogmatism, however, is no good basis for change. All new ideas are met with scepticism and those advocating them should be made to push hard (I’m temporarily with Kuhn over Popper here) but not all those who want to challenge a status quo are nut-jobs. I should note, of course, that the onus is on proponents of new ideas to produce the evidence. Educationalists, psychologists and practising teachers need to have the confidence to push boundaries, to test new ideas and to rethink old ones, and if teachers are under the illusion that in systematic synthetic phonics we have found the final answer, then future progress is likely to be attenuated.
This post has become more critical than I would have liked, so I should like to make my position clear to finish. I can see no good reason why systematic synthetic phonics should not be the mainstay, day to day pedagogy used to teach children to read. I think, however, that dogmatism needs to be avoided for two reasons. First, there is the fact that phonics probably does not work in every case, and as such teachers need to have access to a wider repertoire to use in unusual cases. Secondly, dogmatism must be avoided as it might make it more difficult to make further progress which, in part, might come from those challenging the status quo.
My condolences, finally, to the bereaved fairy community.