Against dogmatism: a foray into phonics

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.

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33 Comments on Against dogmatism: a foray into phonics

  1. This is spectacular. You appear to have made a prolonged case for “other methods” without once mentioning what those other methods are. I think that might actually be key to the debate, not whether *in theory* there can be nothing but phonics, but establishing whether any of the alternatives actually work better for anybody at all. The best illustration that they don’t is probably that nowadays phonics denialists rarely even dare to describe their alternatives.

  2. Well as said I’m no expert so I can’t name other methods. I don’t know the name of the method behind, for example, the Peter and Jane books. I know simply that I was not taught using SSP. I should be clear that I’m not arguing ‘it worked for me so why not others’ – clearly the evidence is that SSP should be the norm. But I did learn to read and I’d wager you and most others were not taught using SSP, so there must be other things that work, if less well in most cases. It’s not equivalent to homeopathy. If you could suggest some readings on non SSP methods I’d be delighted to follow it up. My argument is not to advocate those methods, but rather to say that, provided they haven’t been shown to be complete claptrap, such methods should be known about and, if SSP is not working, tried out. I hope that clarifies my position.

    • The point is that when compared objectively with SSP the other methods *do* appear to be complete claptrap. Which is presumably why you have argued in this roundabout way that there must be methods and they must be effective for some and it would be dogmatic to reject them, rather than identifying the methods and providing evidence of their effectiveness. If the best evidence we have that “other methods” might work better for some is that not everyone became illiterate during the era where phonics was widely forbidden, then it’s not really much evidence at all to justify using those methods. You might as well argue for the medicinal power of cigarettes on the grounds that not everyone was ill in the era when cigarettes were most popular. How much harm would the “other methods” have had to have done for you to consider it acceptable to abandon them? How discredited do they have to be before you abandon the idea that they might work better for some?

      • If you’re telling me (and as a non-expert on this I’m quite willing to be told) that there is strong empirical evidence that SSP will be the best method for all children in all circumstances with no exceptions then I am very happy to accept this point. The reason I hadn’t thought of this as a possibility is that 100% certainty of this sort from an empirical study is, to my knowledge, unprecedented. In any case, if you could direct me towards the reading then I’ll chase this up.

      • OK, say someone claimed that cigarettes were good for health, and backed this up by saying that not every smoker gets ill. Epidemiologists would effectively challenge this by pointing out that the general health and life expectancies of nonsmokers were better than of smokers.

        Then say someone claimed that a type of teaching was good for teaching reading, saying that not every child failed to learn to read when it was used. Would it be an effective challenge to point out that children who were not taught to read were better at reading than those who were taught? No, it would be easily shown that those taught to read were better readers than those who were not taught. This is true whatever the method of teaching.

        It is possible that more children learn to read when taught using the strict, exclusive, SSP method being promoted at present than if they were taught using previously popular methods. I’ve heard there is some evidence for this from research studies, although also seen criticism of the validity of such studies. However, it is of no comfort to a child who does not learn to read in an SSP class/school that it has been proven to work in the majority of cases. *Perhaps* if teachers persevere with the SSP method these children will eventually learn. *Perhaps* 100% of children will not only learn to read through SSP, but will learn to read through SSP after initial failure, and will all become better readers faster than through an alternative method. That’s what needs to be proved before SSP should be used in the form advocated in all cases including those where it initially fails. Has it been proved? I haven’t seen proof. In fact, there’s an experiment going on with this at the moment. If all schools are brought into line to teach SSP in exactly the form advocated and banish anything else, we should know at some point how effective it proves to be – as long as good quality studies are done. Meanwhile, to serve a belief, teachers may have to go against common sense and instinct in teaching the children they encounter.

      • “It is possible that more children learn to read when taught using the strict, exclusive, SSP method being promoted at present than if they were taught using previously popular methods. I’ve heard there is some evidence for this from research studies, although also seen criticism of the validity of such studies.”

        Okay, we seem to back in the territory of talking about “other methods” imprecisely, as if there were a clear variety of methods and that SSP was one among many that could be mixed in. But really, there are only two methods of teaching reading. Decoding using all the phonetic information and guessing. We can mix some decoding with some guessing, but we know that the more decoding there is in a method, and the less guessing, the more effective it is. As well as knowing this empirically, the reasons for this are fairly obvious from common sense and from psychology.

        While one might feel entitled to speculate that there are children with a “guessing”-learning style who will only learn to read if they are not encouraged to decode, we have had the best part of 100 years to find an objective way to identify these children and it still hasn’t happened. At times, phonics denialists have argued that it was dyslexic children who fit this style (but the evidence didn’t support that). At other times they have argued that it is everyone but the dyslexic children who have that style (and the evidence didn’t support this). So now we end up with people arguing that such an unlikely learning style exists because nobody can prove it doesn’t.

        Of course, advocates of any type of teaching can speculate that there exists children whose learning style means it works best for them. They can then demand that other people prove that those learning styles don’t exist and that they should use those methods until such proof is forthcoming. However, such an argument justifies any old rubbish, and so we end up with all these attempts to reframe the debate so that “not guessing” (or synthetic phonics) is classed as one strategy amongst many, and an “exclusive” one in that it is incompatible with other strategies that do involve guessing. Actually making a case for children to ignore some or all of the phonetic information in a word is something they seem unwilling to do openly or explicitly beyond misleading statements about “regularity” that seem to imply that less common ways of spelling particular sounds are somehow unteachable.

  3. Phonics have been around for about 500 years.

    • Thanks manyanaed – though I imagine what is understood by ‘phonics’ and the pedagogy that is associated with it has changed significantly over those years? Could you provide me with some examples? I’d be keen to see what phonics teaching looked like in the 17th century!

  4. “If you’re telling me (and as a non-expert on this I’m quite willing to be told) that there is strong empirical evidence that SSP will be the best method for all children in all circumstances with no exceptions then I am very happy to accept this point. The reason I hadn’t thought of this as a possibility is that 100% certainty of this sort from an empirical study is, to my knowledge, unprecedented. In any case, if you could direct me towards the reading then I’ll chase this up.”

    This does seem to come down to what kind of evidence is required. Tell me, are you happy to accept that conventional medicine is a better choice than homeopathy for all patients without exception?

    • On homeopathy, see above.

      Evidence wise, I’m interested now in reading any serious academic literature (I can access online) that supports the points you’ve been making this evening, particularly that SSP will work for all children without exception with practice. Meta-studies preferable, but I’ll take what you can give me.

      • How can I possibly find evidence for that if you are refusing to tell me or discuss what you would (in general) consider to be evidence?

      • Let’s keep this simple then. You argue passionately that SSP will always be the best method for all children in all circumstances.

        I want to know what academic studies that conclusion is founded upon.

        From various websites (e.g. dyslexics.org.uk) I’ve found links to various studies (of quite a diverse nature) that show that in most cases SSP is best (hence my support for it) but your claim goes further than the studies I’ve been able to find, and I want to know what academic research you read which gives you the views you have.

  5. “Let’s keep this simple then. You argue passionately that…”

    I’m sorry but this is really just dodging the question. I’m not going to try to make a case for this until I know what kind of evidence is required to prove this type of point to you beyond what you have already found.

    It would certainly help if you could clarify the point over homeopathy instead of dodging it. Assuming you don’t think homeopathy is worth a try then you must have found the appropriate evidence in that case, unless you are applying a double standard.

    • On homeopathy – I don’t know of a single serious academic study that says homeopathy works. Would be pleased to hear otherwise. I’ve found plenty of studies already though which say that non-SSP does work, just not as well (or no where near as well) as SSP. If all doctors tomorrow started using homeopathy, public health would collapse. If SSP is never used (and it hadn’t been until the latter 20th century, at least not in the form its advocates now demand) then most kids will still learn to read, just in general more slowly and less well. So this is a difference of degree. You are right to say the argument is similar in kind – it is wrong to doggedly hold onto something when something else is proven to be better. But comparing the SSP-sceptics to homeopaths is unnecessary and just helps to polarise the debate which, incidentally, makes it even harder to convince sceptics of the merits of SSP.

      I think I’ve read somewhere else where you’ve got hung up on what someone’s asking, and I’m trying very hard to make it as clear as I can. I am defining ‘evidence’ here as peer-reviewed publications of empirical studies where researchers have used large samples to assess the benefits of SSP. I have now found several such studies which reach the conclusion that SSP is better on average (e.g. across a cohort). I cannot find one that says SSP is better for all children in all circumstances (e.g. including outliers in samples.) So for me to accept this argument (SSP will always be the best method, no exceptions) I want to read someone saying that in the conclusion to a peer-reviewed published empirical study. Preferably more than one.

      In short, I want you to tell me where I can find someone making the same argument as you in a peer-reviewed published empirical study – given how passionately you hold your view I assumed there would several such studies quickly at hand.

      • Now we are getting somewhere. This hinges on what it means to say something works and at what point something can be rejected for everyone.

        Firstly, you are wrong to say that studies show homeopathy doesn’t work. Virtually everything works because of the placebo effect. The level

      • Sorry, last comment was posted early. I will continue in this one.

        The level at which a medicine is considered to “not work” is one of two options. 1) It is no better than placebo. 2) It is less effective than the alternative treatment.

        Please note that neither of these actually amounts to some individual academic paper saying that the usual treatments are more effective in all circumstances for every patient – i.e. the burden of proof you are demanding in the phonics debate. That will always be impossible to prove empirically, we will only ever have the most plausible hypothesis about what works. This is why the homeopathy analogy is so important. We do not have any grounds to try homeopathy when conventional medicine appears to be failing.

        Now, by refusing to name alternatives to phonics and refusing to discuss the homeopathy example, you have simply skipped consideration of 1) or 2).You have simply assumed that 2) can never be grounds for rejecting a treatment in all cases.

        Now let’s consider these 2 situations. For situation 1) in medicine placebos can be carefully designed. An intervention is identified as completely baseless and its level of effectiveness is considered the baseline. However, this is not as easy as it seems because different placebos have different levels of effectiveness. Now in education it is far harder still to determine the baseline. Hattie drew it at an effect size of 0.4. But what we do know (again from Hattie) is that almost all interventions appear to work. So simply claiming that an intervention can’t be rejected because it works to some extent is likely to be an unreliable method. Your argument that alternative methods work to some extent and therefore cannot be dismissed would definitely justify homeopathy.

        How about the second situation? It is definitely true that doctors will consider more than one kind of treatment and if one doesn’t work they might try another. However they will not usually consider either a placebo or homeopathy; because their first treatment didn’t work. They will consider the plausibility of different treatments and the accumulated knowledge of how the body works. Sometimes if a treatment doesn’t work the first time then the best that can be done is a second dose or a bigger dose. Now your argument seems to be that if the evidence based treatment doesn’t work first time then we should immediately abandon them and switch to treatments that may actually be placebos. Moreover, you are claiming that it is dogmatic not to, and that it is up to anybody who refuses to switch to the (possible) placebos to prove that placebos don’t work.

        This is not how the burden of proof works in medicine. Your argument just doesn’t work when we consider it with regard to medicine and remember the placebo effect. Which presumably is why you want to come up with a special education-only methodology that would allow for crank methods in a way you wouldn’t find acceptable in medicine.

  6. On-going debate aside, the post here speaks wisely of the need to stop just short of narrow-minded stubbornness. We can recognise what is usually most effective, without demanding it in every case. Even when the number of exceptions is exceptionally small, it is important to recognise that they (may) exist.

    • Is it not important to consider whether there is evidence they exist and whether there is any good reason to doubt they exist? As it is we seem to have a lot of claims that you must believe something exists because its existence can’t be disproved to one’s satisfaction. In so many contexts this is considered a terrible argument.

  7. Heather F // 18 August 2013 at 23:19 // Reply

    First, this collection of historic primers is fascinating: http://venezky.stanford.edu/
    Second, I found your blog an entirely rational reaction to what you have read but I think if you found time to do more reading on why the other methods aren’t good options the dogmatism you encounter might become understandable.
    It stems back to the reason why SP is so successful compared with the other methods. This is because it explicitly draws the child’s attention to what they need to know to become a fluent reader. That is the fact that the symbols on the page represent spoken sounds. Other methods fashionable in the 20thC worked because children had enough opportunity to infer this relationship despite not having it made explicit. However, those other methods actively encouraged children to learn using positively unhelpful strategies which drew the child’s attention away from the key relationship a child needed to understand between sounds and symbols. When SP fails it does not help to return to discredited strategies based on theories that have been entirely disproven.
    In fact there are plenty of rival approaches that have the sound to symbol relationship at their heart and it certainly makes sense to consider which of these are likely to be most effective for that very small percentage of children that fail to learn using a particular method. What doesn’t help is resorting to a strategy that is definitely nonsense because it denies that a child needs to grasp the sound to symbol relationship to be a fluent reader.

  8. The DfE have published a very specific set of criteria for teaching synthetic phonics.
    http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/teachingandlearning/pedagogy/a0010240/criteria-for-assuring-high-quality-phonic-work
    Point 1 of the criteria is “present high quality systematic, synthetic phonic work as the prime approach to decoding print, i.e. a phonics ‘first and fast’ approach (see note 1)”
    The term “decoding” is that defined in the Rose report and the Simple View of Reading. It means “pronounce” and it does not include the meaning of the word. So, by definition, SSP teaches pronunciation only.
    SSP teaches the pronunciation of discrete phonemes, but discrete phonemes do not exist.
    A) Phonemes are categories of sound, not single discrete sounds (explanation available).
    B) Phonemes are abstractions from the continuous stream of speech to match the written symbols.
    C) the smallest units of sound humans can articulate are syllables.
    So the DfE criteria has teachers trying to get very young children to blend phonemes which they can’t articulate, in order to pronounce strings of letters which may or may not have meaning for them..
    This is at a time when these children are learning meaningful words to grow their vocabulary and they do not have the cognitive development for abstract thinking.

  9. Wow – in 24 hours I’ve seen the very best (though some are arguing the worst) that the web has to offer in terms of discussion about education. All it took was the word phonics – but then I guess I expected that and, without exception, I’d like to thank everyone for making me think so hard. I want to offer a few points now which the discussion has made me conclude: some of these are repetitions of what I’ve said, some are clarifications, and some are me changing my mind based on the arguments that have been presented.

    (1) I’ve discovered I’m a fan of phonics

    Before this week I shamefully knew nothing about it other than hearing occasional comments that it’s a good thing. Having read lots on it (and thanks particularly to Heather for helpful links and constructive comments) I now see why it has such widespread support and, as said in the post, I see phonics as the entitlement that all children should receive.

    (2) What about where it’s not working

    The first contentious point I made on this was about what should happen to those who continue to struggle under phonics and I’m willing to make some concessions here. I never made the argument that it should be dispensed with immediately and I see plenty of value in persevering; practice does work. I left the question of what alternatives open in my post simply because I did not know what these were – I’d seen references to other alternatives, knew that I had been taught with them, read in peer-reviewed publications that other alternatives might work, and assumed that they must therefore hold some value. The response has been (particularly from Old Andrew) that all other methods are bunk, equivalent to homeopathy or a placebo. I have now seen several well-argued accounts that other methods are bunk, though as yet no empirical studies, though proving a negative is very difficult indeed. Heather made an interesting comment about different types of phonics teaching to systematic synthetic phonics, and I found Old Andrews’s recent post on the question of when other methods might be used after beginning with phonics interesting.

    To clarify, therefore, I do not advocate using methods which are proven not to work though I’d always want to engage with the debate before making a judgement on this, particularly to understand why many people do not reach this judgement. The point I would want to continue to push, however, is that there is nothing wrong, within limits, with teachers being creative and thinking for themselves. As a teacher I know that phonics works best, so I’ll use it but the enthusiast in me would also be trying to refine the method, improve it, develop it and shape it to a particular situation. If I heard of something new, I’d be willing to give it a try if I was confident that this would not be detrimental. This is not about bringing back defunct methods because nothing else is working; it’s about developing new methods in the hope of developing further our professional knowledge.

    I remain unconvinced on the point Old Andrew makes about homeopathy. In one randomised controlled trial study I read, one group of children was explicitly not taught using systematic synthetic phonics. They progressed more slowly, significantly so, but they did progress nonetheless. I can’t accept that this was a placebo effect along the lines of ‘children thought they were learning to read so they did’. As said, Old Andrew is right to the extent that the comparison is the same in kind, but I do not think it’s the same in extent; above all, I think it polarises the debate unhelpfully.

    (3) On dogmatism

    This was really the focus of the post, and comments on this have made me think hardest. The impression I get from the discussion is that some thought I was making a deliberate, personal attack on them. In fact, I never used the word dogmatist in the post and only once, at a rather tired point in the debate, on Twitter. My post was not calling for a witch-hunt on dogmatists: it was, rather, challenging dogmatism as an idea. I take the point some have made about this potentially being a straw man argument but I do not think there is anything wrong with arguing against an extreme form of an argument: Brave New World and 1984 are important reads despite the fact that no one ever lived in societies quite like that. Such books exist to warn of the danger of pushing something to an extreme, and, increasingly, I think this is what I was trying to do in my post. I am a big fan of Karl Popper, particularly his works on the Open Society, and I think that public, critical debate is a crucial part of a modern democracy. That debate can be heated – and rightly so – but I think it is important for it to remain polite, open and constructive. This is what I meant by being against dogmatism and, if that was the wrong word to use here, then so be it. I do not believe that anyone in this debate does not want children to learn to read better – no one desires illiteracy – and as such we are all on the same side.

    Further comments welcome here but I’m now going to focus my efforts elsewhere – it’s time for a bit more ‘Clio’ and a bit less ‘et cetera’!

  10. Thank you for a measured and interesting blog post.

    You say you have come across convincing research that comes out in favour of SSP practices. I would be interested in any links etc. you could provide. From my experience it seems to be taken as a matter of trust, in the phonics debate, that such research exists; that SSP is used in the classroom research in a similar way to that being promoted at the moment; and that certain academic research gives support to the argument. Early on in my phase of interest in the subject I spent time looking at various papers etc that were said to support SSP, only to find that they were not equivocal in support and that a particular interpretation had to be applied to shoehorn them in. In particular here were papers by Stanovich, eye movement studies by Rayner and the work on self-teaching by David Share and colleagues.

    I wonder if you would take the time to look at this blog on the TES site, where various views on, and links to, the work will be found, as well as the history of the debate in the UK.

    https://community.tes.co.uk/reading_theory_and_practice/b/weblog/default.aspx

    I think the history explains the dogmatism you have come across. Those less enthusiastic about SSP do not, on the whole, advocate a different single method. It is exactly this feature of dogmatism and reliance on one method (teacher and child proof) that they find worrying. To risk mass fairy genocide: they do not see an SSP injection in early years as assuring that a pupil will not come across text that they cannot read, either in the sense of pronouncing the text correctly or in the sense of understanding it. One course of treatment is unlikely to deal with all the ‘diseases’ of which that is the outcome.

    I would be interested in reblogging your post to the TES blog I mentioned. I’ve not attempted reblogging before so not sure of the procedure. But if I find a way of doing it would you be happy for me to go ahead?

  11. In response to teachingbattleground’s reply of 20th January:

    We are certainly back on familiar ground, and back to some common misconceptions:

    1. There is no guessing in SSP; alternative approaches are all about guessing from context:
    There is guessing in SSP. Where there are alternative phonically plausible ways of pronouncing words there is guessing between alternatives. Such guessing is more informed if context is taken into account. Guessing purely from context is unreliable in most cases. Such guessing is more informed if phonics are taken into account. Guesses which are subsequently shown to be correct can enlarge children’s sight vocabularies; they are essential to learning.

    2. The only way of decoding is through SSP; alternative approaches do not involve decoding:
    Of course, any method which enables a pupil to pronounce and understand a written word is a method of decoding written language into spoken language. Skilled readers use neither phonics nor context to decode and efficient, functional reading takes place at this level – not at the level of decoding phonically. At the automatic recognition level readers do not need to use informed guesswork to decode as they know the words automatically. Whatever method was used in teaching a child to read, if they can read they can decode. Additionally, reading does not always involve pronouncing words correctly as text can be read without the reader saying the words out loud. It’s important to note that when Gough, originator of the simple view of reading, referred to ‘decoding’ he was not referring to a decoding that uses phonic skills alone. Any method of teaching reading encourages children to decode.

    3. Teaching reading is about choosing a single precisely defined method and applying it:
    Any teaching involves interactions and relationships between people – pupils and teachers. Teachers get to know their pupils, and note their enthusiasms, their openness to different types of teaching and the approaches that, if you like, switch them on or turn them off. Teachers are in a unique position in this regard, and the task of teaching involves a sensitivity to what each child is learning and how – called assessment. They should know a variety of ‘methods’ of teaching readers and their strengths and weaknesses. Armed with the research and with their knowledge of the children in their class they make decisions about teaching, responding as necessary to pupil needs. It’s called professionalism. It cannot operate in a climate of prescription. To go back to the medical analogy – medicines are not prescribed by governments. They are prescribed by doctors, who can (in fact, must) change tack when they observe that a treatment isn’t working.

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