By Mike, Nov 20 2014 9:16AM
Successive reports prepared by the National Foundation for Educational Research have shown that phonics is commonly taught alongside word-guessing – from context, pictures and so. In my book, Phonics and the Resistance to Reading, I described this as ‘partial phonics’ – in which bits and pieces of phonics are taught as simply one of a range of cues or searchlights.
A common feature of partial phonics is that the daily phonics teaching sessions are very short. And many schools justify this on the grounds that the Notes of Guidance that accompanied the freely-distributed Letters and Sounds phonics scheme recommended “around 20 minutes” of daily discrete teaching of phonics.
It would have seemed reasonable to teachers studying those Notes of Guidance to assume that the timing suggested was chosen on the basis that this was the amount of time needed to teach phonics effectively. But actually the 20 minutes was arrived at by way of a calculation of what was the maximum amount of time that the early years lobby would 'stand for'.
And just how little the early years lobby might be prepared to stand for was brought home to me very vividly during a high-level meeting I attended just a few years before Letters and Sounds appeared. During that meeting I was astonished to hear a prominent member of the early years movement likening the early teaching of reading to teaching children to lie down in the middle of the road!
So the 20 minute recommendation in Letters and Sounds appeared as a diplomatic gesture designed to placate the early years sector. The consequence is that years later many schools are still sticking to a time restriction that makes it virtually impossible to teach phonics thoroughly and effectively.
How long is actually needed? It will, of course, depend on the teacher and the class, but somewhere between 30 minutes and an hour should be a basic starting point when planning-in the daily sessions. Sticking to sessions so brief that they are inevitably ineffective is not the only factor needed to explain why so many schools routinely short-change children in the teaching of phonics – but it makes a significant contribution to why so many children never become capable readers.
By Mike, Nov 12 2014 9:57AM
A critic takes me to task for seeming to suggest that the ‘Reading Wars’ are still active. His point is that that those wars have ended and that phonics has won. And from some points of view he is, of course, right.
Academically the argument has been conclusively resolved in favour of phonics. The late Ken Rowe, who headed the authoritative Australian enquiry into the teaching of Reading, crisply expressed it this way: “…the incontrovertible finding from the extensive body of local and international evidence-based literacy research is that for children during the early years of schooling (and subsequently if needed), to be able to link their knowledge of spoken language to their knowledge of written language, they must first master the alphabetic code – the system of grapheme-phoneme correspondences that link written words to their pronounciations. Because these are both foundational and essential skills for the development of competence in reading, writing and spelling, they must be taught explicitly, systematically, early and well.”
It’s true, of course, that there are a few who continue to sail the old boats out there on the oxbow lake – but they are just fossilised remains from the long-since resolved clash of ideas. Their only relevance today is to remind us of how the study of reading has moved on from the days when the mantle of expertise in reading could be assumed without effort. It was so easy to develop a theory without the trouble of analysing the evidence – and so easy to accept and promulgate a theory that required no study.
And those who profess still to stand by the discredited guesswork model of word recognition seem to have tacitly accepted that it is no longer defensible – so they don’t bother to try. They don’t articulate an alternative position – their only stock-in-trade is misleading and misinformed attacks on phonics. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the real purpose of much anti-phonics propaganda is to serve as a release for angry embitterment.
But although the reading wars may be over, the casualties continue to mount. The biggest obstacle to reading success is, however, not anti-phonics propaganda, it is the state of professional knowledge. The average primary teacher has never been equipped with so much as a simplified form of the scientific understanding of reading. Without even a basic knowledge and understanding there is little incentive to study the simple view of reading, the alphabetic principle and the elaboration of the simple and complex codes. Without this background of essential professional knowledge phonics is too easily perceived as unreliable and unproven. The result is that teachers are simply not equipped to implement the reading provisions of the new National Curriculum and, despite the statutory requirement that “pupils should be taught to apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words”, in too many schools teachers will continue to muddle-on using the mixed methods of word guessing that, as I have shown in my book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading, have characterised the teaching of reading in England for a hundred years or more.
The Reading War are over. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose…
By Mike, Oct 6 2014 11:32AM
Out soon in paperback, a new picture book that tells a personal story - a journey through each Christmas in the life of a child as she grows up.
The pages of A Child At Christmas together create a stunning and evocative timeline of words and pictures that frame and capture the magic of childhood.
By Mike, Apr 3 2014 12:48PM
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has in a speech this week declared that Britain needs to eradicate illiteracy. This might appear to be just another shot in the battle over the best way to achieve this, but I suspect that some of his critics will take exception even to his basic aim. The eradication of illiteracy is not demonstrably a universally-shared ambition in this country.
The conventional interpretation of the so-called ‘Reading Wars’ is that it is a dispute about teaching methods. According to this view those who oppose phonics are entirely benign in their intentions, just ill-informed in their view about the best way to teach reading. Seen in this light the critics of phonics are just innocently mistaken.
In my book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading I suggest that perhaps at its heart the ‘reading wars’ are not really an argument about teaching methods at all. In the course of the book I analyse the ‘mixed methods’ around which the critics of phonics piously congregate and show that these methods have been the standard approach to the teaching of reading in this country for at least a hundred years. I also show that over the same period surveys have repeatedly identified that this approach to the teaching of reading results in the exclusion of a large section of the population from functional literacy. This link between the anti-phonics support for ‘mixed methods’ and the evidence about the way in which those methods fail, strikes me as being at least suggestive that there might be more to the reading wars than first appears.
A further indicator is that support for phonics is explicitly associated with the desire to improve standards. Anti-phonics argument often avoids any mention of standards at all or dismisses any concern as part of a rhetoric of imaginary decline. Meanwhile survey after survey continues to show unmistakable evidence to justify concern – the data commonly suggesting a figure of about 15 -20% functionally illiterate. Yet those who argue against phonics appear relatively unconcerned about this state of affairs – and seem determined to protect and maintain an approach to reading that has consistently left so many excluded at the margins.
So perhaps the argument between the advocates of phonics and the supporters of ‘mixed methods’ is not really an argument about teaching approach at all. The dispute is really an argument about reading standards. Some of us believe that those standards can be radically transformed leading to something we could recognise as universal literacy. Some it seems believe that reading standards are not just ‘as they are’ but ‘as they have to be’. These traditionalists believe that improving literacy standards is impossible (some may even believe it is in any case undesirable). The stubborn clinging to guessing from pictures, context and other clues is not just a persistence of teaching habit. It is a persistence of low expectations.
According to a statistical briefing issued by the National Literacy Trust, one in six people in the UK struggles with literacy. Systematic, synthetic phonics is promoted by those who care passionately about that struggle and are determined to put an end to it. Anti-phonics propagandists campaign aggressively against the prospect.
By Mike, Mar 25 2014 12:24PM
Today's post is an extract from my book 'Phonics and the Resistance to Reading' available in paperback or as an e-book from Amazon.
Within a few miles of each other, seeded through the most affluent parts of town, stand the prestigious clubs of London – the Athenaeum, the Carlton, the Reform, Boodles and so on – of which membership is, for many, still an avidly sought mark of status. These clubs are aloof, mysterious and, above everything else, exclusive.
Anthony Samson, that legendary anatomist of the British establishment, wrote of these places: “The point of a club is not who it lets in, but who it keeps out”.
In the nineteenth century it was evidently quite socially acceptable to argue explicitly and openly that literacy should be treated as an exclusive club with membership reserved for the social elite. Speaking in the House of Lords in 1839 the Bishop of Exeter declared “looking to the poor as a class, they could not expect that those who were consigned by Providence to the laborious occupations of life, should be able largely to cultivate their intellect.”
Such a view would, of course, be inexpressible today. But in its place has developed a body of opinion that instead of arguing against mass literacy argues against the only practical means of bringing it about. This shift in position is not demonstrably a significant moral or social advance.
It is perhaps understandable that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, some people still prize their literacy as though it were membership of an exclusive club. Their easy access to reading and writing gives them a privileged advantage in life that self-interest suggests should only be shared sparingly. Their literacy makes them part of an elite and they have no interest in devaluing their membership by supporting universal admission – they want others kept out of the literacy club, just as members of, say, the Athenaeum, close ranks to exclude those who are, to adapt Margaret Thatcher’s coded language, “not one of us”.
Of course some of those who strive to keep the literacy club exclusive do so without being consciously aware of their bias. In fact some have convinced themselves that the outsiders have not been kept out at all, but simply remain on the outside because some innate handicap makes it inevitable that they are unfitted to climb the entrance steps. Teachers who think like that often explain children’s exclusion from the ‘literacy club’ in this way: “What can you expect when children have these problems?”
For these teachers, and others like them, the idea of universal literacy is simply impossible. They believe that the world as it is – in which about one in five cannot read well – is, if not pre-ordained, certainly inevitable.
A varied range of ‘problems’ is used to explain why so many children make so little progress in reading. Favourite scapegoats include social and economic circumstances, home language and ethnicity, home culture and unspecified ‘special needs’. These issues are sometimes referred to as ‘barriers to literacy’. But the way in which these circumstances and situations are used to justify limited expectations suggests that these ‘barriers’ might be more accurately depicted as ‘barricades’, used to keep the disadvantaged safely on the outside.
No wonder anti-phonics propaganda keeps going, in the face of all the evidence and despite the innumerable times that its arguments have been shown to be false. The ‘debate’ is perhaps not really an argument about teaching methods at all. What seems to touch the nerve is the explicit determination to raise standards – and perhaps most controversially of all not just to raise standards for those who are safely on the road to becoming readers but also to raise standards for those who are currently left behind. To open the doors of the literacy ‘club’ to all.
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