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.
By Mike, Feb 27 2014 5:52PM
Misconceptions about so-called tricky words abound. For example the website of a Swindon primary school tells us: “Tricky words are words that cant (sic) be sounded out such as: the, to, no and go.” A Bristol primary school informs its parents: “Decodable words can be 'sounded out'. Tricky words need to be learnt by sight.” A South Gloucestershire primary says: “There are some words in the English language which you can't sound out (at school and in homework these are often know (sic) as the 'Tricky words'). For these words your child needs to use a variety of other skills, starting with 'sight reading' (learning to recognise the word as a whole instead of trying to break it down into its individual sounds).”
The confusion revealed in this small sample of examples is widespread. It seems that in a very large number of schools ‘tricky words’ are taught as words that cannot be decoded with phonics and which have to be learned by sight. The new National Curriculum for English refers repeatedly not to ‘tricky words’ but to ‘common exception words’ but it looks worryingly likely that this formulation will inherit all the misconceptions that have attached to ‘tricky words’. So the risk is that many teachers will continue to believe that these are words for which phonics ‘doesn’t work’ and which have to be learned by sight, as individual visual patterns.
Helpfully the revised National Curriculum does state clearly in the context of common exception words that “The understanding that the letter(s) on the page represent the sounds in spoken words should underpin pupils' reading and spelling of all words.” This is a very important point: In our writing system letters of the alphabet are used to represent the sounds we hear in those words when they are spoken and the point of phonics teaching is to make this principle plain to children and to enable them to unlock the code so that they can turn the letters on the page into the sounds they are used to hearing in the words those letters represent.
Of course what makes our teaching of this more difficult is that English has a complex code. The same letter or letters can be used to represent different speech-sounds – and the same speech sound can be represented by different letters. But despite the complexity there is a fundamental order to our sound-spelling system and good phonics teaching sets out to teach and explain this complexity in a carefully-ordered sequence – starting with an initial stage (typically covered in reception classes) that teaches only what is usually referred to as the simple code, followed by a further stage (intended to be covered in Y1) that deals with the complex code.
The aim from the beginning is, of course, to teach sound-spelling relationships in a way that makes them immediately useful – in other words the intention is that children should be able to apply their developing knowledge to a rapidly growing stock of words. The grapheme-phoneme correspondences are not being taught in isolation to read just a specific word.
However there is a need for some additional phonics teaching focused on its application into specific words. These specific words are the common exception words.
Some words use the alphabetic code in a very idiosyncratic way – the way in which the letters represent one or more of the sounds in those words is either more-or-less unique to that word or else is used in only a very small number of words. If these words were all rare or unusual words they could be dealt with later on as schooling progresses, but some of these words are very common and children will meet them frequently in their reading. So children need to be able to read these words and they are taught as ‘common exception words’.
These common exception words all use the alphabet to represent the sounds in those words, but the coding is uncommon or exceptional. So children need to be shown how the alphabetic code works in those words so that they can learn to decode them when they meet them in their reading. These words should not be taught as words to be learned as ‘wholes’, to be recognised as a single visual pattern or as words for which ‘phonics doesn’t work’. When children are being shown how the alphabetic code works in these common exception words they are being taught this new bit of code specifically to be able to read those particular words.
But as well as words with very rare grapheme-phoneme correspondences the category of tricky words also includes many words that use the sound spelling system in a way that is very common but is usually taught as part of the complex code in Year 1. Yet some of these ‘tricky words’ are very common and children will encounter them frequently even in quite simple texts. So those tricky high-frequency words have to be taught in Reception, in advance of the more general teaching of the relevant grapheme-phoneme correspondences in Year 1.
The same principle applies to the teaching of these words. Children should be taught how the sound-spelling system works in these words so that they can decode them when they meet them in their reading. These words are not to be taught as ‘sight words’, they are words that can be ‘sounded out’ just like any other words once children have been taught the additional phonic knowledge needed for these words. At this stage the phonic knowledge is being taught for word-specific application, but later on (probably in Year 1) they will encounter the same piece of phonic knowledge and see how it is used more widely in other words.
The widespread confusion amongst teachers about tricky words is actually a symptom of something else - a widespread lack of understanding of how the sound-spelling system works in English, including its complexities, and recognition of how a good phonics programme handles that complexity. The emphasis on phonics in the revised National Curriculum is greatly to be welcomed. It is the first time that the National Curriculum has so explicitly and definitively established phonics as the required approach to teaching reading. But its successful implementation will depend on teachers having the secure professional knowledge to understand the alphabetic code and how it works.
By Mike, Sep 17 2013 11:07AM
The sentence in the child’s book is ‘The man got on his horse’ but the child reads aloud “The man got on his house”. This reveals that the child is over-reliant on phonics.
You’ve probably come across this old chestnut before because it’s a genuine example of an argument used by supporters of the whole-language movement to demonstrate the importance of multi-cueing and to expose the limitations of phonics.
Let’s start at the beginning. The child who mis-reads ‘house’ for ‘horse’ is allegedly over-dependent on phonics. Now, some of us think that actually the mistake emerges from insufficient phonics but let us agree to put that to one side for a moment and move on to the next stage of the whole-language analysis which is to assert that the substitution of ‘house’ for ‘horse’ reveals that the child is not reading for meaning. Presumably because the idea of a ‘man on a house’ does not make sense. This analysis is not entirely convincing. You and I have all seen a man on a house; we would probably say we had seen a ‘man on a roof’ but I don’t know that young children should be expected to conform to this usage.
But, once again, let us put our reservations to one side and persevere with the way the whole-language theorists want us to see it. Let’s, for the sake of argument, accept that ‘The man got on his house’ is self-evidently nonsense and put ourselves in the shoes of a ‘mixed methods’ teacher. The sentence that the child has supplied doesn’t make sense so we have to ask the child to think again.
But how exactly is this re-thinking to proceed? The only thing in the sentence that tells us that ‘The man got on his house’ is wrong is the letters in the final word. But directing attention to those letters would, according to the whole-language diagnosis, only reinforce the child’s alleged over-reliance on phonics. So what is the child to do?
I know, let’s ask him to read the sentence again from the beginning. And this time he gives us, “The man got in his house”. Now that, according to whole-language thinking, is progress. The sentence now makes sense. It isn’t correct of course but perhaps that doesn’t matter. In fact it had better not matter, because it’s very hard to help the child to put it right without pointing out that the child is not paying sufficient attention to the letters in the words. And since we’ve diagnosed the problem as over-dependence on phonics we can’t be seen to be admitting that phonics is needed to get the sentence right.
Well, still in the shoes of the whole-language teacher, perhaps the cue of prediction can help here. “The man got on his….?” And it turns out this useful prompt enables the child to complete the sentence differently “The man got on his… bike”. Damn and blast! No, let’s be patient and persevere. We can suggest he tries again (“The man got on his…?”) but it turns out that there are a large number of alternatives that the child can suggest – feet, knees, computer… Now it happens that none of those words has a spelling that is remotely like ‘horse’ but we can’t tell him that, because, according to the whole language analysis, it’s looking at those bloody letters that’s got him into this mess in the first place.
This whole-language approach is all turning out to be rather difficult, but I seem to remember reading somewhere that a text is “jointly constructed by the author and the reader” so perhaps it doesn’t really matter if the man is on his house, rather than his horse.
So let’s suggest that the child turns over the page and – Oh Thank God! There’s a picture of the man on his horse! I can tap the picture of the horse meaningfully on its hindquarters and say again “The man got on his…?”
“Horse!” says the child. Oh, what a relief. His reading is really coming on.
Okay, I can now step out of the mind-set of this imaginary whole-language teacher and I admit it feels good to escape. All that getting the child to look here, there, and everywhere except in the right place felt rather silly. But that’s because the multi-cueing strategy inevitably leads to silliness. The fact of the matter is that unless the act of reading is sidestepped altogether (as it is when the picture clue is used) then the clues won’t work because by and large these clues only present themselves to the minds of those who don’t need them. Time and time again the clues so firmly believed in by the whole-language theorists only exist when you already know what the text says. Of course the clue of context tells you that the man got on his horse (rather than say his bike, or his phone or the ladder) when you already know that ‘horse’ is the final word in the sentence.
Now the whole-language theorists might tell us that context would eventually work as a clue because if the child reads further on he will discover that what the man got on was a four-year-old chestnut filly that last Tuesday romped home in the Whole Language Handicap at Kempton Park. Well, all right not that, but some other words that will point the child to the realisation that the man isn’t on his house at all but on his horse and enable him to go back to the previous page and self-correct.
But, in my imaginary scene – invented yes, but entirely plausible - the child has already tried the strategy of ‘read on and then return to self-correct to make sense’. And as a result the child provided ‘The man got in his house.” So the use of context to correct an earlier mistake has already been tried. And it failed. And, come to that, why should the whole language teacher assume that the child will only apply the contextual strategy to correct previous words? Why shouldn’t the child attempt to preserve meaning by applying the same strategy to ‘correct’ the words coming next? (the words that are supposed to make him realise it’s not a house but a horse). So when he does go on to where on the next page it says the man’s horse was trotting, he could be entitled to self-correct this to the man’s house was rotting. Or, for that matter, that the man’s house was ‘beautiful’ – after all the letters in the words are apparently the last thing he’s supposed to rely on.
And all this mess and confusion starts from the bone-headed assumption that a child who reads ‘house’ for ‘horse’ is over-reliant on phonics… How long will this kind of nonsense persist before teachers understand the folly of pointing the children in every direction except the right one? The letters in the words.
By Mike, Sep 10 2013 1:10PM
The level of anti-phonics hysteria has intensified in the last few years. Myths, misunderstandings and downright falsehoods not only persist but proliferate. Phonics and the Resistance to Reading is a robust demolition of the arguments put up against phonics and an exposure of the damage and harm resulting from the longstanding muddle of teaching reading using ‘mixed methods’. The book exposes the dark side of phonics denial, its social costs and human consequences.
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