By Mike, May 28 2015 7:30AM
The trend today is towards the tiny. Smaller, leaner, thinner, lighter. Modern innovation and design is a restless drive to miniaturisation. But sometimes less is just….well, less.
In too many primary schools – perhaps it is the majority of those schools – the phonics teaching provided is a cut-down version of what children should be entitled to. The children are short-changed by a version of phonics which is fragmentary, partial and disjointed– and for so many the inevitable price of this cut-down teaching is stunted reading development.
A number of devices are typically used to pare down the phonics curriculum. One of them is to allocate insufficient time; phonics sessions of fifteen to twenty minutes are quite simply too brief to give children sufficient time to learn. To make matters worse, the time that is allocated is often cluttered with extraneous games and activities that divert the focus of the session away from what should be learned.
Another technique of the reductionists is to give too little emphasis in the phonics sessions to reiteration, practice, consolidation and application, so children never have the opportunity to take their learning beyond the superficial. Further dilution is achieved by creating a disconnection – a sort of cordon-sanitaire – between what is taught in phonics and work on reading and writing during the rest of the day. This is often compounded by the use of non-decodable books as home readers.
The teaching of phonics is further diluted by a lack of attention to what children are learning – mistakes and misconceptions are not rapidly picked up and corrected. When children are noticed to be making poor progress, schools are often slow to take action – and when action is taken, it is commonly in the form of poor-quality support. In some schools, setting is used not to narrow gaps in progress, but to legitimise and widen them.
But the most destructive trick of all is to water-down the phonics curriculum by teaching it alongside word-guessing, with phonics positioned as just as one strategy among many. This is fatal to the building of children’s confidence and success.
Two factors seem to me to be particularly at work in encouraging teachers to persevere with this pale imitation, which passes for phonics only in the eyes of those who lack the understanding and experience to know what children should be entitled to receive.
Firstly, teachers lack an understanding of the way in which the sound to spelling system works in English and their lack of knowledge prevents them from understanding the utility of phonics. They simply don’t see how it ‘works’ and they discount the value of phonics teaching because they don’t understand it. You don’t teach well something you don’t value and (equally relevant here) you don’t value something you don’t teach well.
Secondly, teachers seem remarkably unconcerned about the long-term impact of poor teaching of reading. They apparently take it for granted that many will make only poor progress and regard as fanciful the notion that something approaching 100% success should be taken for granted. Teachers often seem unaware of or indifferent to the life-long handicaps imposed by poor literacy skills. As a result too many teachers are not motivated to question the success of their traditional method of teaching reading and see no reason to believe that any changes would make much difference.
The consequence of all this is that, despite the clear requirements of the new National Curriculum, phonics is rarely taught as it should be – thoroughly and professionally. Children instead are palmed off with a watered-down and adulterated substitute for the good teaching to which children should be entitled.
The tricks of the bonsai gardener include such techniques as root reduction and defoliation. In too many primary classrooms the art of phonics teaching is the art of bonsai.
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.
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