There is currently an important debate on how to teach our children to read. In a Radio 4 Today interview on 18 June 2012 head teacher Greg Wallace claimed 100% success through the exclusive use of phonics. He’s either a genius or a liar. Michael Gove, more omniscient than god, has ordered that phonics be the only teaching method used in English primary schools and has even listed the words to be taught, he’s an expert on teaching as he worked for Murdoch as a journalist.
The following article was written by John Bald in Conservative Home but who is John Bald? ‘I was lead author for Policy Exchange’s publication Faith Schools We Can Believe In…I am a member of the Department for Education’s ministerial steering group and training reference group for languages.’
Policy Exchange, Michael Gove’s personal think tank.
How to win the phonics argument.
The Left is blazing away at phonics, and especially at the phonics check. They are good at getting on tv and radio, and truth takes a back seat. Michael Rosen on ITV Daybreak, for example, repeatedly said that two thirds of children in the pilot scheme for the check had failed, and that the school by law had to tell parents that their child had failed. The truth is that schools are advised to tell parents that their child needs more help with phonics, and to examine their own work to ensure that phonics are properly taught.
Meantime on Radio 4, Dr Mary Bousted, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, protested that “I’ve got a PhD in this and should not be patronised in this manner” (by Hackney headteacher, Greg Wallace). The title of her PhD is A socio-political analysis of the personal growth ideology of English teaching. What evidence this provides on how children learn to read I’ll let you know after I’ve read it. Her alternative strategies amount to guessing games, and were smashed by research evidence years before she wrote her thesis – eg Schatz and Baldwin, Context Clues are Unreliable Predictors of Word Meanings, 1986. I’ll see if this and the work of others, notably Stanovitch, are cited in her work, but am not holding my breath.
John Humphrys told Dr Bousted that having a PhD did not mean that a person could not be wrong, which leads to the broader question of whether this medieval degree actually meets the needs of modern research. It doesn’t – or at least not always. Communication and publication, especially in brain research, are moving so fast that it’s hard to keep up. At the other end of the time-scale, most educational issues take more than the standard three years to investigate, so that work is often truncated to get it completed. I’ve recently seen a doctorate that were based on no more than 10 weeks of direct observation of children.
PhDs should be treated on their merits, and not with deference, so well done to Mr Humphrys.
The debate continues, and more is needed for the government to win it, as win it must. First, the political point needs to be made that phonics were also the policy of the previous government, advised by Sir James Rose. The unions have not consulted their members on the issue, at least in any systematic way, and academics are not above giving a partial version of the truth in their discussions of research. The US government’s oft-quoted reading survey, for example, said that phonics were particularly useful to disadvantaged pupils, a point conveniently left out of Professor Dominic Wyse’s account of their work. I am not alone in my concern about ill-informed comments by people with little practical experience of teaching people to read, and this is not confined to Michael Rosen’s recent analogy between reading and reversing a car (R4, Reading Between the Lines).
Next, the question of what to do when phonics don’t work needs to be answered more convincingly. Any parent who takes a child to the library soon meets irregular words – “Where the Wild Things Are”, for example – and no-one wants to protect children from libraries. However, the fact that English is not completely regular does not mean that it is chaotic. The challenge is to provide a fully accurate description that puts awkward features in their place, and allows us to build children’s knowledge and understanding of the regular features that are the basis of the language, and hence of learning to read.
The draft national curriculum says that irregularity – which it euphemistically describes as “unusual grapheme-phoneme correspondences” – should be explained in terms of changes in pronunciation over time This is part of the story. The two other parts are adopting words from other languages, most often French, and the tidying up of spelling by printers in the seventeenth century, made permanent by Dr Johnson’s Dictionary. Borrowing and sharing words are easy ideas for children to understand, and Dr Johnson’s changes can be explained in terms of dressing up, as they aimed to make English more respectable (posh if that makes more sense to some children) by regularising groups of letters and borrowing spellings from Latin and Greek. Borrowing, sharing, being scrubbed up, changing our mind, even
misbehaving, are all things children understand.
The good news is that there are patterns to all of these things in English words (Where is like there, for example), and that once we have learned and understood the pattern, we can remember and read these words as quickly as those we can sound out. Wordbuilding is an older and, to me, better description for the process than those using long Greek words that I have to look up.
Leaving aside the fact that Bald is apparently very poor at comprehension or an insulting bastard, or both, let’s look at some evidence.
Biggest Faux Pas, by a Minister of Education, in British Educational History
Alan Davies, Chartered Educational Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, says, “It is madness to believe that you should start the literacy process by first doing only phonics. There is much that can be done before children start school, as I said live on Sky News (11.10 AM, Dec 1), ‘The best thing they (parents) can do, if they want to teach their child to be literate in English, is to put a three-year-old child on their knee and turn over the pages of a favourite book to anticipate the story and the pictures’. It is wrong to believe that synthetic phonics is the ‘best route to becoming skilled readers’, as stated in Jim’s report. In my view, Ruth Kelly and Jim Rose have both been misguided and Ruth Kelly has probably made the biggest faux pas, by a Minister of Education, in British Educational history.”
Quincy, MI (PRWEB) December 7, 2005
In an interview with Sky News, 6.12PM, Dec 1, British Minister of Education, Ruth Kelly, stated that, “We should have a systematic approach to teaching Synthetic Phonics, that should be taught first and foremost to all children, certainly by the age of five and then, yes, other strategies should come in after that to help and support those readers for whom a variety of methods is appropriate.”
However, British Synthetic Phonics expert, Alan Davies, Chartered Educational Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, strongly disagrees and believes that she, and her main adviser, Jim Rose, have been misguided.
Davies says, “It is madness to believe that you should start the literacy process by first doing only phonics. There is much that can be done before children start school, as I said live on Sky News (11.10 AM, Dec 1), ‘The best thing they (parents) can do, if they want to teach their child to be literate in English, is to put a three-year-old child on their knee and turn over the pages of a favourite book to anticipate the story and the pictures’. It is wrong to believe that synthetic phonics is the ‘best route to becoming skilled readers’, as stated in Jim’s report. In my view, Ruth Kelly and Jim Rose have both been misguided and Ruth Kelly has probably made the biggest faux pas, by a Minister of Education, in British Educational history.”
Davies believes that the British Government got it 100% right when they wrote in 1998, “All teachers know that pupils become successful readers by learning to use a range of strategies to get at the meaning of a text”.
Davies is the pioneer of the widely used Synthetic Phonics programme THRASS (Teaching Handwriting Reading And Spelling Skills), which is used in many schools in the UK, but more extensively in Australia and, over the last two years, Southern Africa. The Botswana Government aim to implement THRASS in all primary and secondary schools and the THRASS two-day training course is a compulsory module for trainee teachers at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and a growing number of other universities in South Africa.
David Cameron, new leader of the Conservative Party, the Government’s opposition, is meeting with Davies, at the House of Commons, to clarify the differences between the ‘Artificial Synthesis’ approach to Synthetic Phonics, as used in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, and the ‘Natural Synthesis’ approach of THRASS.
Davies believes that the main problem with the National Literacy Strategy has been the weak and inaccurate training for the ‘Phonics Searchlight’ – training for the 44 sounds and 120 key spelling-choices of English. In support of his case, he has produced a video, with the help of a ‘Whistleblower NQT’ (Newly Qualified Teacher) and many course evaluations from other NQTs e.g. “I’ve learnt more from the training in these two days, about phonics, than the three years that I’ve been at university” – viewable on http://www.thrass.co.uk/nm.htm
Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading: the debate surrounding England’s ‘Rose Report’
I will just give the conclusion of this report here:
The Rose Report’s conclusion that synthetic phonics
should be adopted nationally as the preferred method
for the teaching of early reading is not supported by
research evidence. The available research evidence
supports systematic tuition in phonics at a variety of
levels (e.g. phoneme, onset-rime) combined with
meaningful experiences with print. The Rose Report’s
conclusions are based on assertion rather than rigorous
analysis of appropriate evidence, as the following
‘‘Having followed those directions, and notwithstanding
the uncertainties of research, there is much convincing
evidence to show from the practice observed that, as
generally understood, ‘synthetic’ phonics is the form of
systematic phonic work that offers the best route to
becoming skilled readers’’ (Rose, 2006, p. 19).
The ambiguous notion of ‘‘leading edge practice’’ is
used as a rationale for the opinions in the report. The
lack of attention to research evidence seriously calls
into question the extent to which the remit for a
‘‘thorough examination of the available evidence and
engagement with the teaching profession and education
experts’’ (p. 19) has been met.
Despite these serious omissions, the Rose Report has
already begun to have a direct impact on national
educational policy in the United Kingdom. This can be
seen in the consultation that was initiated by the
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority:
‘‘Review of early reading
In June 2005 Jim Rose led an independent review on best
practice in teaching early reading. The final review was
published in March 2006. It recommends that:
‘High quality, systematic phonic work as defined by the
review should be taught discretely. The knowledge,
skills and understanding that constitute high quality
phonic work should be taught as the prime approach in
learning to decode (to read) and encode (to write/spell)
‘For most children, high quality, systematic phonic
work should start by the age of five, taking full account
of professional judgements of children’s developing
abilities and the need to embed this work within a broad
and rich curriculum’.
Implications of the review
The Secretary of State for Education has decided that
the findings of the review should be secured through
the revised framework for teaching literacy, currently
being developed by the Primary National Strategy,
and through changes to:
the key stage 1 English programme of study for reading
an early learning goal’’ (Qualifications and Curriculum
Authority (QCA), 2006b, p. 1).
Particularly worrying for the future of children going
to school in England was the proposal to make changes
to the programmes of study in the National Curriculum,
which unlike the Primary National Strategy
literacy Framework, are a legal requirement. The main
proposal was to replace the following wording:
1 To read with fluency, accuracy, understanding and
enjoyment, pupils should be taught to use a range of
strategies to make sense of what they read’’ (Department
for Education and Employment (DfEE) and The
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA),
1999, p. 46, emphasis added).
1. Pupils should be taught to read with fluency, accuracy,
understanding and enjoyment’’ (Qualifications and
Curriculum Authority (QCA), 2006b, p. 2).
The consultation ran for 12weeks from 8 May to 31 July
2006. It is claimed that a leaflet raising awareness
of the consultation was sent to Key Stage 1 schools,
foundation-stage settings and other key partners
and stakeholders. During a keynote speech that one
of the authors of this paper gave to a national early
years conference, the audience was asked if anyone
had seen the consultation leaflet. Not one of the
delegates, a mixture of early years practitioners, local
authority workers and academics, indicated that they
had seen it.
However, the report of the consultation shows that
there were 568 respondents, 372 of whom answered
question 1 about the National Curriculum, a question
which required a yes or no response. Of these,
286 agreed with the change, which resulted in
deletion from the National Curriculum of the explicit
mention of use of a range of strategies to make sense of
what is being read. Yet somewhat contradictorily, in
the ‘further comments’ space on the consultation form,
40 Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading
r UKLA 2007
‘‘The most common comment, cited by a third (32 per
cent) of respondents, [was] that a variety of teaching/
learning methods needs to be used alongside phonics,
including contextual understanding’’ (Qualifications
and Curriculum Authority (QCA), 2006a, p. 13).
opinion, the lack of publicity about the consultation
and the very small number of respondents means that
the statutory change to England’s National Curriculum
cannot be regarded as legitimate.
The Rose Report concludes with the signal of stronger
state intervention in the training of teachers:
monitoring of the teaching and learning of phonic
work by those in positions of leadership’’ will be
required and this ‘‘priority must be reflected in the
effective training of the teaching force’’ (Rose, 2006,
In view of the way that the NLS Framework for
Teaching was enforced by OfSTED in schools and
teacher-training institutions, and the growing realisation
of the problems caused by its inadequacies,
the Rose Report’s recommendations make worrying
reading. Furthermore, in our view, the Rose Report
provides the most prescriptive, rigid and limited
view of what it means to teach early reading to
have appeared in England. The United Kingdom
Literacy Association’s response to Rose’s interim
report reminds us of a more appropriate reading
‘‘Best practice in the teaching of early reading brings
together two key components: the acquisition of the
alphabetic principle and comprehension. These components
should not be developed in isolation. Best practice
integrates skills teaching with more authentic, contextually-
grounded literacy activities, responding to the
interests of the learner and the literacy contexts of their
homes and communities’’ (United Kingdom Literacy
Association (UKLA), 2005, p. 3).
The conclusion of the Rose Report, that teachers and
trainee teachers should be required to teach reading
through synthetic phonics, ‘‘first and fast’’ is, in our
view,wrong. In the light of this, there is a pressing need
for the government’s requirements and guidelines for
early reading to be subject to further critical scrutiny in
the hope that a more balanced approach to reading
may once more prevail.
My personal conclusion – Michael Gove is not someone I would trust with the education of any child of mine.