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Ministers fail comprehension test – cited evidence supporting synthetic phonics doesn’t actually do so.

The teaching of systematic synthetic phonics is “the proven best way to teach early reading”. This was enshrined in the Education White Paper and is constantly repeated by ministers.

“Research shows clearly that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read,” said new education minister, Elizabeth Truss, in a written answer to a Conservative MP who must have been asleep during the speeches of her predecessor, Nick Gibb. Or perhaps he was just lobbing Truss an easy question. She reminded the House that the Government supported phonics teaching by granting matched-funding for the purchase of material that used synthetic phonics (as opposed to other methods of teaching phonics).

Truss must be referring to American research cited in the Education White Paper. The first was “Teaching Children to Read: the fragile link between science and federal education policy.”

The cited evidence seems to support Truss, at least at the beginning: “the NRP [National Reading Panel] found that systematic phonics instruction was more effective than alternatives in teaching children to read.” But the writers of the Education White Paper (and ministers, past and present) should have read on. The authors explain that they found problems with the methodology of the NRP research. Nevertheless, they found that the effect of systematic phonics was indeed substantial but this effect was tripled when combined with language activities and individual tutoring. They cautioned against the over emphasis on phonics which was “one aspect of the complex reading process.”

So the first piece of evidence cited in the Education White Paper to support synthetic phonics as the “best way to teach reading” doesn’t actually do so to the extent claimed by the Government. Instead, the evidence says systematic phonics should be combined with other activities. The term “systematic phonics” means the methodical teaching of phonics using any phonics technique and is not confined to synthetic phonics (see NRP for further details).

What, then, does the second piece of evidence cited in the Education White Paper actually say? This piece of evidence is from the National Reading Panel (NRP) in the USA. It actually recommends a four-pronged approach: explicit instruction about phonemic awareness (understanding that spoken words consist of smaller parts called phonemes), systematic phonics (in its widest sense), improving fluency and increasing comprehension. The recommended phonics teaching methods were not confined to synthetic phonics although NRP found synthetic phonics was an effective tool for improving the reading skills of pupils with special educational needs.

CONCLUSION: The two pieces of evidence which are claimed to underpin the Government’s confident assertion that synthetic phonics is the “proven best way to teach early reading” do not do so. Both pieces of evidence say that “systematic” teaching of phonics – that is, any method of teaching phonics as long as it is approached methodically – is effective but should be combined with other methods. It is essential, therefore, that teachers are allowed to use their professional judgement to decide which method of teaching reading is appropriate for any given pupils or situations. It should not be dictated by ministers who rely on half-digested research papers which do not say what the Government claims. And neither should Ofsted be judging schools on their use of synthetic phonics when the evidence does not support its sole use in the teaching of reading.


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  1. I’m trying to work out which part of this is actual evidence disproving the claim. Most seem to be you selectively quoting from things you have selected yourself as possible sources of evidence.

    The evidence for systematic phonics is overwhelming and you know it. The evidence for synthetic phonics over other types of phonics is good enough to suggest we pay attention to it, if not conclusive.

    Weasel words like “sole use” can always be used to suggest that, even though the evidence supports the effectiveness of phonics over all other methods, it would be more effective to do less of it, but this is such an unlikely claim that the burden of evidence should be on the people who make it.

    As for the argument that teachers should be free to teach as ineffectively as they like, even someone like me who whose default position is giving teachers freedom has to draw the line somewhere, and ideologically motivated efforts to keep kids illiterate are certainly on the wrong side of that line.

    By the way, last time we discussed this I asked some direct questions. In particular I wanted to know if you had linked to an article by yourself as one of your sources of evidence without telling us you were the author. Any chance you could answer that one?

    • “teachers should be free to teach as ineffectively as they like”
      Could you tell us a little about your teaching experience Andrew? As the resident ‘expert teacher of the internet’ it would be nice if you gave us some insight into your roots.

      My son is on a comprehension based reading scheme at the minute. It’s absolutely excellent. I’m loving hearing him read to me and it seems to make perfect sense. He did a bit of phonics in KS1. It was fine. But mainly his class seem to use other things.

      How are your children getting on Andrew?

  2. Geraldine Carter says:

    Perhaps you would care to look at the results of Oxford – amongst the worst performing City and Counties in the country. They have been exemplary in following your advice and the students on the PGCE course at Oxford Brookes have been taught very specifically not to use the “sole” method.

    Have you read the findings of the Australian enquiry into early reading or Diane McGuinness’ book, Early Reading Instruction:What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading?

    Those of us who tutor children who are struggling very quickly move them on to ‘real reading’ as SP instructed children very quickly understand the logic of the alphabetic code when it is taught systematically and in incremental steps.

    A good percentage of those children referred to me came from book-filled families whose parents read to them nightly. It was the ‘mixed methods’ so beloved of the education establishment that resulted in their lack of reading progress.

    • Geraldine – Oxford doesn’t appear on the list of the 20 “worst-performing” areas of the country in data compiled from DfE data. Perhaps you could provide a link to your statement that Oxford is “amongst the worst performing City and Counties in the country.”

      And do the graduates of Oxford Brookes only teach in Oxford?

      If you read my thread you will see that one of the pieces of evidence which was used by the Government to support synthetic phonics did actually say that this method “was an effective tool for improving the reading skills of pupils with special educational needs.” However, both pieces of evidence did not focus exclusively on synthetic phonics but used the term “systematic phonics” which is the methodical teaching of any type of phonics instruction. And both pieces of evidence (sorry to labour the point) recommended a mixed approach.

  3. I read this recently:

    “Experiments showed that all practised readers proceeded by ‘look and say’. All that they knew of genetic psychology was opposed to analysis in the early stages. The results showed there was much more rapid progress in the early stages by look and say than by phonic methods. Miss Barbara Foxley MA, in another paper, concluded: ‘If my observations are correct, it seems children do not learn to read by means of analytical methods, but in spite of them.”

    This appeared in “The Schoolmaster”, September 14, 1912 (reproduced in “The Teacher”, September/October edition, 2012).

    I don’t offer it up as evidence but merely to point out that controversy over the teaching of reading has been going on for at least a century.

  4. Ricky Tarr says:


    There is no need for you to indulge in all this speculation. The DfE is absolutely clear on the evidence that informs its policy on phonics. As well as the US NRP, there’s :

    Johnston and Watson (2004) carried out two experiments, one controlled trial and one randomised controlled trial (the gold standard of scientific research) to understand the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment. The research is known as the ‘Clackmannanshire study’… The analysis concluded that using systematic synthetic phonics instruction enabled the children to read and spell better than those taught by alternative approaches (including analytic phonics). At the end of primary school, following the completion of the intervention programme, children in the synthetic phonics group had word reading 3 years and 6 months ahead of chronological age, and their spelling was 1 year and 9 months ahead.

    Then there’s:

    The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative .. led by Professor Tommy MacKay, an educational and child psychologist. West Dunbartonshire is the second most deprived area in Scotland and the 10-year research project saw the authority become the first to state it had eradicated illiteracy among school- leavers. In the Final Research Report (2007), MacKay explains: “Among the individual components of the intervention, the synthetic phonics study has highlighted the benefits of a strong and structured phonics emphasis. The study indicated the superiority of the synthetic over the analytic or traditional approach, and the clearest policy recommendation would be for schools to adopt this approach.”

    Anyone still in phonics denial might also try

    Ofsted’s 2010 report ‘Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It’. The report explains that “concentrated and systematic use of phonics is key to their success; this is based on high-quality and expert teaching that gives pupils the opportunity to apply what they have learnt through reading, writing and comprehension of what they are reading”.

    You might also want to note:

    In 2006, the Department for Education and Skills commissioned the Universities of York and Sheffield to conduct a review of the experimental research on using phonics to teach reading and spelling. Torgerson, Hall and Brooks found that systematic phonics teaching “enables children to make better progress in reading accuracy than unsystematic or no phonics…

    If you like your evidence to have an antipodean flavour:

    In Australia, the committee for the National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy produced the report ‘Teaching Reading’ (2005). The committee concluded: “The evidence is clear, whether from research, good practice observed in schools, advice from submissions to the Inquiry, consultations […] that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is aessential foundation for teaching children to read. …systematic phonics instruction is critical if children are to be taught to read well

    ….and let’s not forget an old favourite:

    In England, Jim Rose (2006) in his ‘Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, Final Report’ emphasised that beginner readers should be taught using a systematic approach to phonics and cautioned that evidence submitted to the review suggested that, for almost all children, diluting the approach by using a mix of approaches can hinder children’s progress: “A model of reading which encourages switching between various strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers, [for example] if beginner readers are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode …It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.”

    ….oh and, Janet, the world really, truly isn’t flat.

  5. Geraldine Carter says:

    Nov 2010: Key Stage 1 results at schools in Oxford revealed as worst in country, with almost a quarter failing to reach expected levels in reading. Oxfordshire placed second from bottom in list of similar local authority areas.
    Feb 2011: Oxfordshire County Council plans an inquiry into the results.
    May 2011: Cabinet member for schools improvement, Michael Waine, stands down but denies poor results are reason. Melinda Tilley appointed to succeed him.
    Oct 2011: New tests show Oxford city is still bottom for writing but has made slight improvements in maths and reading in Key Stage One results.
    Nov 2011: Six-point improvement plan launched
    Dec 2011: Key Stage 2 results which show nearly a third of Oxford 11-year-olds fail to get the expected grade branded “rubbish” by Mrs Tilley.
    May 2012: New county council leader Ian Hudspeth told to make improving education standards a priority by Prime Minister and Witney MP David Cameron.

    • “Whilst Oxfordshire’s Key Stage Two results for 2012 have outstripped the national rise in achievement by three percent, the county’s reading standards amongst primary age children are currently lower than expected, with 2011 Key Stage 1 results causing particular concern.”

      To address this concern Oxfordshire County Council has commissioned The National Literacy Trust to work with 81 local primary schools and improve standards of reading of Year 2 pupils (7 year olds). The National Literacy Trust hopes their intervention will foster “a culture of reading and a love of books children will have a better chance of future success” and will include the use of volunteers which will provide one-to-one support.

      The National Literacy Trust links to a wide range of documents re literacy including “Literacy under the Conservatives”.

      “Failing to realise synthetic phonics place within a broad and varied programme of learning will reinforce many of the negative attitudes that school children have towards reading.”

      “A broad and varied programme of learning” – that is what I am supporting not the excessive focus on just one method.

  6. Please note that this post only referred to the TWO pieces of evidence cited in the Education White Paper (linked in post). The TWO piecies of evidence, known as the American research, have been cited by Nick Gibb. They also appear in the Ofsted training manual:

    “The Schools White Paper 2010 referred to ‘the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics as the proven best way to teach early reading’ (p.22). The footnote accompanying that sentence referenced publications from the United States. The earlier Rose Review in 2006 was more circumspect. Although coming down on the side of synthetic phonics, it preferred to use the term ‘systematic phonics’ and continued with this throughout the review.”

    Perhaps if posters had read the post thoroughly they would have understood that I was only discussing these TWO pieces of evidence “referenced in the footnote”. It would have saved them a lot of time finding other pieces of evidence.

    Note that Rose used the term “systematic phonics”. As I explain above this term refers to ALL methods of teaching phonics as long as these methods are approached systematically (hence the word “systematic”).

    Nil points for comprehension, then, to posters who equate “systematic” with “synthetic”, to posters who failed to understand I was discussing only TWO pieces of evidence (the ones cited in the Education White Paper in the footnote) and to Ofsted trainers for fudging the difference between “systematic” and “synthetic”.

    • Actually you referred directly to Elisabeth Truss’s claim that ““Research shows clearly that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read.”

      You then claimed, with no justification, to know exactly what evidence she was relying upon and reinterpreted what she said in light of your selective quoting of that evidence.

      However, all this did was leave your entire argument very confused, and your demands that everyone else only pay attention to the texts you have suggested does not clear anything up, it just indicates that you are being deliberately selective with the evidence.

      But then you’d have to be, as phonics denialism is not an alternative evaluation of the evidence; it is an ideological position based on ignoring the mass of evidence.

  7. As highlighted above, this thread is a discussion of the TWO pieces of evidence highlighted by the Government in the Education White Paper. However, anyone wanting further info re the West Dunbartonshire study access it on the second link below or read my post on 22/8/12 2.59 pm on this thread:

    The West Dunbartonshire study did indeed recommend synthetic phonics but as part of a “multiple-component literary intervention”. In other words, it needed to be part of a complete literacy strategy and not as a stand-one method to the exclusion or the downgrading of anything else.

    • Ricky Tarr says:

      No, sorry Janet….. with respect, you are not being straight here.

      In your original post above you wrote:

      Truss must be referring to American research cited in the Education White Paper
      … and you imply she was referring to/relying upon the American evidence exclusively.

      But what evidence do you have that Truss (or any other minister) has relied exclusively upon the two pieces of evidence you happen to select?

      Since the DfE has gone to the trouble of publishing an ‘evidence paper’ summarizing all sorts of other studies (linked in my previous comment), isn’t it more likely that ministers are basing policy on the totality of the evidence cited in the evidence paper, considered in the round?

    • Guest says:

      ‘It can be concluded that the synthetic phonics programme led to children from lower socio-economic backgrounds performing at the same level as children from advantaged backgrounds for most of their time in primary school. It also led to boys performing better than or as well as girls.’

  8. Comprehension alert: “systematic phonics” highlighted in much of the evidence cited by RT above is NOT exclusively “synthetic phonics”. The two terms should not be confused especially by those who claim to be experts (ie the DfE, ministers, Ofsted…).

    It does not follow that in criticising the Government’s misuse of evidence which is supposed to support the exclusive use of synthetic phonics but does not that one is in “phonics denial”. The methodical teaching of phonics is part of an overall literacy strategy which comprises different strategies. Teachers need to be free to choose the most appropriate method for their pupils at any given time and not be forced into a straight-jacked imposed from above.

    • There is always a lot of confusion on this issue, because the argument is invariably between advocates of synthetic phonics and phonics denialists (i.e. people who wish to reduce the amount of systematic phonics either to nothing, or to one strand among several in early reading). The alternative position of non-synthetic, systematic phonics is often ignored because it has far fewer advocates (particularly as the most recent research seems to discredit it).

      However, I’m really not sure what this issue has to do with anything here. Elizabeth Truss’s claim just mentions “phonics”. It looks like you are just trying to confuse matters.

      • Hansard exchange in full (link was provided):

        “Mr Laurence Robertson: To ask the Secretary of State for Education what his policy is on teaching children to (a) read through phonics and (b) decode phonics. [120251]

        Elizabeth Truss: Research shows clearly that phonics is the best way to teach young children to read. This is why we are strongly encouraging schools to use phonics, and have made available up to £3,000 of match-funding to enable schools with Key Stage 1 pupils to buy high-quality systematic synthetic phonics resources and/or training. The Year 1 phonics screening check which we have introduced will help teachers to identify which children are able to decode accurately using phonics, and which children need further support.”

        Truss mentioned “phonics” and then made it clear that Government support would be for “systematic synthetic phonics”.

      • “because the argument is invariably between advocates of synthetic phonics and phonics denialists”

        Absolute bunkum. You just like to pretend it is so that you can create straw men you can set light to.

    • Ricky Tarr says:

      Comprehension alert: “systematic phonics” highlighted in much of the evidence cited by RT above is NOT exclusively “synthetic phonics”. The two terms should not be confused …

      it should be noted that, in most instances, the term systematic phonics appears to refer to synthetic phonics because of the specific instruction methods it uses. (In the United Kingdom, the term systematic phonics is “generally understood as synthetic phonics” according to the reading review which was conducted in 2006.

      • I thought we’d been discussing research from outside the UK?

        • Ricky Tarr says:

          Then you haven’t been paying attention. Most of the work I cited is from the UK.

          • Essentially, Ricky, children seem to start learning to read through two strategies – decoding text (phonics) and whole world recognition. Other, more complex strategies seem to be added in later.

            My son’s class did what is most commonly called synthetic phonics in British classrooms at the minute – where children learn phonemes and associate text, sounds and pictures with them and they learn to read through texts associated with the scheme.

            I watched the children in his class learning to read. I was surprised how many of them were going for whole word recognition even though they hadn’t been taught it in school. I think their parents were teaching them it as they read with them or maybe they had a propensity to think that way for other reasons. They made quick progress at first and then got stuck and had to engage with phonic decoding. The way they’d been taught with actions, sounds and pictures meant that the component parts of this strategy had stayed with them even though they hadn’t been paying as much attention to it as they would have been had it been their main strategy for reading, making the task of switching slightly easier.

            My son is very logical and he worked with phonics and learned to decoded. He did not use whole word recognition. He didn’t find reading interesting but he made gradual progress and then things got worse. He got completely stuck and started to hate it. His teacher diagnosed that he had not learned whole word recognition at all and this meant that he couldn’t read the common short words, many of which are atypical for phonics.

            So we got fridge magnets of the first hundred words and drilled him until he could read them as whole words. His reading took off and ever since then he seems to have decoded words when they’ve been new but quite quickly moved the words he has decoded into his ‘whole word recognition reservoir’. After year 1 his school seems to use more traditional phonics – building word power and spelling by focusing on different letter groups at a time. By this time all children are switching between decoding and word recognition fluently. If they are not then individual interventions are used and this is appropriate because the children who are still struggling often have particular issues which respond well to individual diagnosis and support.

            Synthetic phonics proposers rightly point out the difficulties dyslexic children have with decoding (they tend to be very good at whole word recognition and this can mask the fact that their decoding is poor for a long time). But synthetic phonics is no perfect fix for dyslexia – mainly because english is so irregular and because the link between phonemes and graphemes is so weak. People have been coming up with fixes for these issues so long as I can remember. Changing the english language to make it more phonetic is an obvious one. The use of transliterated phonetic schemes such as the phonetic alphabet or a synaesthetic system like the silent way have much going for them as they allow the reader to read any language but there’s more time investment in teaching them. I suspect the ready availability of tools like google translate will revive interest in them and that they greater time investment may prove to be very powerful for children and adults with dyslexia. In many countries children are taught to read later so that they can use more sophisticated learning strategies and don’t tend to pursue one strategy to exhaustion quite so much as four-year-olds do.

  9. The issue of ‘evidence’ is far, far bigger than the citing of a few pieces of evidence. We have an overarching body of evidence gathered over many years, internationally, which has enabled an understanding of common features of teaching which are the most effective. The greater overview has also enabled an understanding of methods which are in danger of undermining learners’ literacy potential – including damaging their long-term habitual reading and spelling reflexes.

    It is essential to clarify what each debater means when they refer to various literacy ‘strategies’. Rose and his team of inspectors raised this in the Final Report through comments made and by providing descriptions of children reading aloud in different scenarios – an example of which has already been provided by Ricky Tarr in an earlier posting:

    “A model of reading which encourages switching between various strategies, particularly when phonic work is regarded as only one such strategy, all of equal worth, risks paying insufficient attention to the critical skills of word recognition which must first be secured by beginner readers, [for example] if beginner readers are encouraged to infer from pictures the word they have to decode …It may also lead to diluting the focused phonics teaching that is necessary for securing accurate word reading.”

    Many readers do default to multi-cueing reading strategies which amount to guessing words through various cues. This is an instruction approach which has mistrained teachers and caused misery for some learners – but which has been inevitable, in a sense, when children are given books to read which they cannot realistically decode without the code knowledge required for the book. Whilst many children can indeed succeed in becoming literate through multi-cueing which amounts to a great deal of guessing or whole word recognition – many other children have been damaged by such an approach – both in terms of their struggles to read in this way as children and in terms of their subsequent ingrained life-long guessing habits. I suggest that the teaching profession may largely be unaware of the damage that is possible from such multi-cueing strategies as this approach still dominates our schools and various intervention programmes. Individual pupils hit a ceiling with this multi-cueing guessing approach and neither they, nor their teachers and parents, may have a clue about the causes or consequences of earlier experiences.

    Regarding ‘other literacy approaches’, however, where this amounts to all manner of language and literature enrichment, these are all invaluable contributions to developing literacy in our children. There has never been an issue with this from synthetic phonics proponents – only from their detractors. Rose himself made it clear that the phonics provision was within a literacy-rich environment – of course all these things contribute. The Simple View of Reading diagram illustrates clearly that word decoding is only one aspect of being a ‘reader’ and, to my knowledge, synthetic phonics proponents have welcomed the clarity brought to bear that the phonics is only one aspect and not the be-all-and-end-all of reading instruction.

    One thing that Rose and his team of inspectors also brought to bear was an honesty about what they saw with their own eyes when they visited schools using various approaches ranging from the ‘synthetic phonics schools’ which do not promote the multi-cueing guessing strategies to the schools which did teach with phonics but mixed this with multi-cueing. This should not be underestimated. I would suggest that we are poised in an historic moment whilst more and more schools are begining to uderstand and appreciate the improved effectiveness of not detracting and diluting from thorough teaching of the English alphabetic code and the skills of blending and segmenting – skills which are required to be proficient life-long readers and spellers (skills which adult, literate readers and spellers take for granted as they have ferreted out on their own the alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills).

    Regarding the discussion about types of phonics, one reason for the promotion of synthetic phonics which is mainly at the level of the phoneme is because of its efficiency, flexibility and mathematical sense. It is not helpful for little children if teachers are inconsistent with the type of phonics they promote. Teaching phonics at the level of consonant clusters adds a further 76 units of sound over and above phoneme-level letter/s-sound correspondences – and teaching with onset and rime adds a huge number of additional units of sound. It is not sensible, either, for one teacher to teach a skill of all-through-the-word blending or segmenting at phoneme level and another teacher to teach through onset and rime snapping together necessitating a huge number of end units for single syllable words.

    So, when the debate/discussion broadens out beyond the citing of individual studies into the overview picture of studies and the actual details of teaching and learning with the synthetic phonics approach, perhaps it enables sensible explanations, and enables a more common understanding of the efficacy of systematic synthetic phonics in place of getting bogged down in a minute part of the field alone.

    • Debbie – thank you for your post. However, it does not undermine the point that the two pieces of evidence that the Government cited in the Education White Paper were not the unequivocal endorsement for synthetic phonics that the Government claimed.

      The DfE report into the Year 1 Phonics Screening Test acknowledged that the results in one of the pieces of evidence cited in the White Paper, the NRP report, could have been artificially inflated because “some pupils who received phonics may also have received elements of whole-language approaches.”

      The DfE report said that “There is sound evidence that specific systematic phonics programmes are all more effective to teach pupils to read than non-systematic phonics programmes or teaching that doesn’t include phonics”. It made it clear in the footnote that systematic phonics included “synthetic, analytic etc.”

      Later the DfE report cited evidence about the efficacy of synthetic phonics eg Clackmmananshire (updated here):

      The DfE then cited the Gross report for the Centre for Policy Studies which produced this lively exchange in the TES:

      And FullFact voiced concerns that the Gross report contained no references and the factcheckers were puzzled about where the report’s data came from.

      The recent report into reading by Eurydice which found that the teaching of phonics was already widespread but what was needed was more work on comprehension.

      Finally, Rose pointed out that it was perfectly possible to be a competent decoder and not have a clue what the words mean. He used the example of Milton’s daughters who could decode the Greek text and read to their blind father. However, they did not comprehend what it was they were reading.

      • And now we are back to the usual situation where you are quoting *opinion* rather than evidence and hoping that if you keep doing it fast enough, and without answering direct questions, you can confuse matters enough for people to think there is some kind of controversy over the evidence, rather than simply between those who believe in empirical research and those who ignore it.

        I know that people with pseudo-scientific beliefs do this a lot, but you must know that there are enough people looking at threads like this who know the actual evidence base and will point out that no amount of TES opinion pieces or Eurydice’s casual dismissal of the evidence, can actually change the facts.

        • Andrew – I am quite sure readers can differentiate between opinion and facts. Of course, the TES piece was opinion – I included it not as evidence but as an example of lively debate around the issue. I don’t think I have to insult readers’ intelligence by labelling everything with an emoticon differentiating between what is obviously opinion eg the piece in TES, and research/analysis eg the Eurydice report: Teaching Reading in Europe: Contexts, Policies and Practice. It’s 224 pages long and was the result of research so I don’t think it can really be described as “casual dismissal of the evidence”.

          I think that this thread shows that there is “some kind of controversy over the evidence”, don’t you?

          • Ricky Tarr says:

            I think that this thread shows that there is “some kind of controversy over the evidence”, don’t you?

            No, I think it demonstrates that there is no genuine controversy, merely what Andrew Old correctly identifies as a willful obstinacy based on ideology.

            You may just be clutching at straws, but you seem to be making a meal of the distinction between “systematic phonics” and “systematic synthetic phonics” – such that you imply that if only the DfE would give a fair crack of the whip to analytic phonics, you might come round. Yet nowhere do you spell out what you find attractive (if anything) about analytic phonics, or why you believe (if you really do) that it is superior to synthetic phonics. And you also give the impression sometimes that the chief reason you object to synthetic phonics is because the system was championed by Nick Gibb. It was also championed by Labour’s Ruth Kelly.

          • Not really no.

            I mean you can pretend that the Eurydice report is “evidence” on the basis of how many pages it has, but its only argument for rejecting the evidence on phonics consists of this assertion on page 36:

            “Overall, it is important to remember that although phonological awareness, phonemic awareness, phonics instruction and fluency have become the most popular, widely used and researched approaches to teaching reading, they are not the only approaches. They address only some of the processes that need to be developed in conjunction with others in order for the pupil to become a reader. For example, Cowen (2003, p. 2) reviewed six major research studies into learning to read and found that reading for meaning and understanding should be taught separately from direct phonics
            instruction and vice versa. He therefore calls for a ‘balanced programme’ for early reading instruction, which ‘requires a very comprehensive, integrated approach, demanding that teachers know a great deal about literacy research related to emergent literacy, assessment-based instruction, phonological and phonemic awareness, the alphabetic principle, phonics and word study, selecting appropriate levelled readers, reader response, writing process and constructivist learning.'”

            The one source given is not actually an academic study or peer-reviewed research, it is an obscure pamphlet by a US-based phonics denialist group. So, no, there is no evidence here for doubting the research on phonics, simply a further indicator of how willing phonics denialists are to misrepresent opinion as research.

            Obviously there is “controversy” over phonics, but that is entirely different from saying there is a rational argument for the denialist position. There is controversy over phonics in the same way there is controversy over the theory of evolution, global warming, the historicity of the holocaust or the idea the earth goes round the sun. There is the evidence, and there are denialists trying to obscure and misrepresent it.

            By the way, now you are talking to me again, any chance you can answer my question from the previous thread? The one about whether you were actually the author of an article you linked to?

        • “no amount of TES opinion pieces… can actually change the facts.”

          Indeed. But they can conceal them for quite a long time.

  10. Hi Janet,

    I mentioned the Simple View of Reading to make the point that no-one, including SP proponents, are suggesting that all there is to reading is synthetic phonics. But synthetic phonics teaching does not work against language comprehension processes – it is not an either/or scenario. Children are more likely to be able to comprehend the content of age-appropriate books, however, when they can decode the words on the page – and decode them with greater ease – but of course they will only be able to understand the words that they have decoded at their level of oral comprehension and in their own language.

    A child’s level of comprehension is the level of the child’s spoken language – and underpinning the child’s language development, of course, will be plenty of experience of literature – enjoyed and shared with supportive adults wherever possible.

    Suggestions that a focus on phonics teaching and learning undermines language development (comprehension), or enjoyment of books, are simply not founded. I am a SP teacher-trainer and although I am not privy to the content of other SP trainers events, I can assure you that it is made very explicit indeed how important spoken language and literature enrichment is as part of my training events – and I do know of other SP trainers who also strongly emphasise these aspects of provision.

    Rose recently wrote a letter to the Guardian and described (Rosen’s) anti-phonics protests as ‘sterile argy-bargy’. He said:

    “The interminable debate about the teaching of early reading grinds on mired in arguing about fake opposites that set phonics at odds with ‘the enjoyment of reading’. At a time when we know more about the teaching of reading and writing than ever before, it would be no bad thing to move on from the sterile argy- bargy about phonics and focus on how best to train and support teachers to teach reading and writing to greatest effect.”

    What I am suggesting is that more often than not, anti-synthetic phonics arguments of one description or another are ill-founded, begrudging, political, based on lack of understanding, misinformation or lack of experience of lack of actual teaching experience using a systematic synthetic phonics approach.

    Worst of all, they seriously detract from some truly excellent improvements in the standards and methods of reading and spelling instruction and levels of children’s learning in many schools. We could, arguably, be poised at a most inspirational point in educational history as we unpick the complex English alphabetic code and make it more teachable and learnable in enjoyable ways than ever before.

    There are teachers in schools of all sorts of circumstances, some extremely challenging with children speaking many different languages from one another, who are so ‘up for’ improving their teaching effectiveness, so willing to do justice to every single child in their classes with a ‘no excuses’ approach, and yet this inspirational stuff is missing in the media.

    It’s been far too easy in the past to blame ‘within child’ reasons for weak literacy and illiteracy, but now the teaching profession is increasingly aware that the very complex English alphabetic code and the failure of the teaching profession to teach it at all, or well, has contributed hugely to poor literacy in English-speaking countries. The profession is also becoming more aware that ‘method’ or ‘approach’ does make a difference – for example, it’s common place nowadays to note that the ‘real books’ era was a disaster for so many of our children in the past.

    The teaching profession has been led to largely abandon the teaching of the English alphabetic code – and now, at last, they are being supported to understand it more thoroughly and to teach it effectively in the classrooms. Be pleased for that – and go and visit some of the improvements that are going on around the country.

    • Debbie – it’s interesting you should mention what Rose described as “fake opposits”. That was the criticism of the Newsnight programmes on synthetic phonics which were analysed by Adam Lefstein (Ben Gurion University of the Negev). He criticized the way the programme promoted a “makeover” approach whereby a “savior” in the same mould as “Supernanny” was parachuted into schools to improve reading.

      Newsnight latched on to a sole method, synthetic phonics, and ignored other aspects of the “Read, Write, Inc” programme (eg co-operative learning) which Ruth Miskin, the founder of “Read, Write, Inc” stressed were important.

      An educational researcher, who expected evidence to be academically rigorous, appeared on Newsnight and was set against someone who relied on personal experience of what worked for her (in the same way that FullFact found that Gross had done for the Centre for Policy Studies report cited in the DfE report on the phonics screening test). Lefstein wrote that the researcher was effectively punished for being “attuned to the complexity” instead of being adamant about “what works”. The programme was looking for easy answers not nuance and did the subject a discredit by placing it within a context of “reading wars”.

      And so it is with the Government’s position – there is but one “proven” method of teaching reading but the picture is more complex.

      And here’s Nick Gibb, ex-minister for schools, citing the faulty OECD PISA 2000 figures for the UK in a speech to the Reading Reform Foundation:

      How can we trust someone who makes speeches containing data known to be flawed?

  11. And talking of reading wars, there seems to be quite a furore going on within synthetic phonics circles as this website shows:

    Of course, the authors are publishers of phonics teaching material which could mean that they are not impartial. But they made an interesting point in their conclusion:

    “The ‘reputability’ of research is determined by peer review, not by Departments of the government, and certainly not by lobby organisations. ” Lefstein made this point in his analysis of the Newsnight programmes (see above) – Newsnight had already made up its mind about “what works” and sidelined the educational researcher who wanted evidence to be subjected to academic rigour.

  12. A number of programme authors recognise a commonality in their approach of teaching the alphabetic code mainly at phoneme level in a systematic way – and after only a few letter/s-sound correspondences introduced, teach the all-through-the-printed-word blending skill, and all-through-the-spoken-word segmenting skill (then allot letters or letter groups for the identified sounds). There are variations on this theme – but not so different as to cause concern – for example, there are good systematic programmes which their authors describe as ‘linguistic phonics’ rather than synthetic phonics – but they more or less accomplish the same teaching.

    Children can then practise their blending and segmenting (and handwriting) skills with a cumulative bank of words plus cumulative sentences, texts and reading books which include the correspondences which have been taught. This is in common in the programmes.

    Further, a number of programme authors agree something in common which is NOT to teach the multi-cueing reading strategies when these amount to guessing from picture cues, first letter cues, and going on to read the whole sentence then guessing words which ‘might fit’. These authors recognise that whilst some children have indeed learnt to read by these methods, they are not advisable as they can damage children’s potential and detract from applying alphabetic code knowledge and blending – the skill required even by adult, literate readers when they need to decode unknown words in their reading material.

    The programme authors recognise that for years children have been given reading books to take home in their bookbags which they could not read other than by guessing their way through the text. This has been traumatic for many, but not all, of the children – and traumatic for many, but not all, of their parents.

    None of the authors, that I am aware of, suggest that little children should not be exposed to all manner of literature – they just say that children should not be required to read ‘independently’ reading books which they cannot actually read.

    In other words, these authors, and other people, have studied the research and the literature in the field, they have a great deal of collective experience in education – and they are respectful of the idea that variations of materials and practices based on the criteria above can be very successful.

    The Read America paper is indeed one person’s conclusions and not impartial and, arguably, riddled with inaccuracies and personal ideas and statements. I have neither the time nor inclination to delve into the paper concerned – nor do I consider it relevant to my point which is the need to move forwards and acknowledge the very good advances being made in most of our schools.

    Here is the truth of the matter: We have an illiteracy and weak literacy problem in English-speaking countries and yet the vast majority of the teaching profession (at least in the UK) has not been trained in the English alphabetic code nor in teaching blending and segmenting until very recent years. Even then, many student-teachers and new teachers have reported a very brief or generally inadequate training. Neither have most teachers been trained in marking for spelling – or teaching spelling specifically.

    Many teachers routinely call upon the mantras that ‘No one size fits all’ and ‘Children have individual learning styles’ but they fail to appreciate that it is the same alphabetic code and blending and segmenting skills that we need to teach – and that whatever the learning style, most proficient, adult, literate readers and spellers apply their phonics knowledge and skill to reading and spelling – these are long term requirements and should be taught specifically.

    So this really is a discussion which is detracting from the current advances arising in teacher-training, in continuing professional development – and in the teaching and learning of the basic literacy skills in our schools – very long overdue!

    There are many people like me who have had to put a huge amount of effort and time into drawing attention to very flawed methods of teaching little children – and children with learning difficulties – and thank goodness we had Nick Gibb who was prepared to listen to us and to look into both the research and the classroom findings.

    Nick Gibb helped to establish a parliamentary inquiry into the teaching of early reading and subsequently we have had the Rose independent review undertaken by Rose and a team of inspectors. There is so much more involved into looking into reading instruction than can possibly be outlined on a blog.

    It would be like starting all over again to go into all the research – and to research the research – and to observe school after school and to conduct all the same old, same old arguments.

    I urge you to visit some schools with an open mind and heart and see the advances for yourself.

  13. Geraldine Carter says:

    I’m afraid that you do not know the history of the owner of the USA site , and her antagonism to synthetic phonics. She bombarded UK sites, speaking in different voices – a ‘headmistress’ on some occasions to sneer at synthetic phonics programmes – on one occasion questioning whether there was a paedophilia connection between ie ‘John’ a teacher reported in the media for paedophilia and a ‘[John’ who supported synthetic phonics. There are thousands of examples of her tragic deviation from normal standards of decency. .

    • Geraldine – the tone of the site was antagonistic, I agree. And the writer accused certain lobby goups of using just the same tactics that you describe. I deplore the use of such tactics, whoever is using them.

      It’s always difficult to ascertain whether posters are using multiple personalities in order to bombard websites with anecdotes or manufactured “evidence” which supports one particular point of view. I guess that was what was behind your suggestion that I wrote many of the article which I cited. That’s why I provide links to primary sources where possible so people can read the evidence and find out the authors or organisation publishing the source. Any LSN threads started by me have my name on them.

    • Geraldine – do you know which names she’s been using?

      • Geraldine Carter says:

        Rebecca – yes I have paperwork of some of the 2006 and 2007 entries.

        • Anything you’re prepared to publish I’d gratefully receive. Alternatively I’m easy to find on and through my blogs. The US Dept Ed are investing heavily in forums for teachers and I’ve been advising them on all sorts of things and I’m just generally interested. I write about mass online discussion as well as about education.

          • Geraldine Carter says:

            Rebecca – I’ll get back to you on Linkedin but in a week or so – but I don'[t think I will have time to go through the long and tortuous history – I’d like to move on!

  14. Geraldine Carter says:

    To bring the subject back to the importance of synthetic phonics those of us who have worked intensively with struggling children see daily the damage done to these children.

    Instead of providing the intensive practice required to master the skill of decoding to automaticity, children are offered a range of strategies. While these practices undoubtedly help some children, others can be left floundering. who The latter are left confused by the number of strategies they must consider. What is more, the vital opportunity to practise their fragile skills is fragmented.

    When teaching the piano, it’s important to make sure that children learn to achieve automaticity. You do not denigrate music teachers for so doing, you do not tell them that music is a complex language full of subtlety, art, skill, complexity, and ask children to play Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky . Of course reading ia subtle, demanding, complec -it’s fatuous to think that because foundational skills are required that most synthetic phonics teachers don’t take great delight in moving children past the foundational stage.
    It is, quite simply, one of the most wonderful things to witness: a 7 year old, guessing and floundering their way through reading a book and then being guided ,with synthetic phonics instruction, to read anything that’s within their spoken vocabulary.

    For too many years, we watched as more and more children were labelled as having within-child problems and few people fought for this c.100,000 children a year in order to give them clear, rational instruction.

    I have asked many times for names of inner city schools and those with a deprived intake who successfully use mixed methods. As you so passionately believe in multi-cueing you must be able to produce the names of hundreds of such schools.

    I, too, would also like to know whether one of the articles you refer to was written by you?

    • Ricky Tarr says:


      I hope you will consider carefully the points raised here by Debbie and Geraldine and pay heed to Rose’s warning on the ‘dilution’ of the efficacy of phonics by contextual clues.

      You do seem to be hung up on an Aunt Sally. No one advocating systematic synthetic phonics argues that phonics are the only strategy to be used in teaching children to read. The point is in the timing and sequencing.

      My local primary has a policy of using phonics FIRST, FAST and SOLELY for the initial sixteen weeks of learning. Parents are given classes before the programme begins to ensure that nothing they do dilutes the effect. After 16 weeks, other methods are introduced. The results are astonishing.

      Earlier in this thread you made passing mention of the professional freedom teachers should enjoy to select and mix different approaches. An analogy can perhaps be made with the professional freedom a doctor has to prescribe drugs.

      Notwithstanding a doctor’s professional independence, I’d imagine you would be pretty cross with your doctor if he –

      a. refused to prescribe a proven remedy because of his ideological distaste for the drug company that manufactured it


      b. prescribed two drugs in combination, one of which nullified or reduced the efficacy of the other.

      Yet you seem to be advocating something very similar in teaching reading.

      Others here have alluded to the dangerous consequences of following your line. Please re-consider.

  15. Geraldine Carter says:

    The observations below are from the American mother of a profoundly cognitively and physically impaired child – mitochrondrial disease, epilepsy,poor hearing,sight, severe stammering. A large number of mixed methods programmes had resulted in this nine year old unable to read a single word. You, Janet, presumably would have advised the continuation of the mixed methods (with a bit of phonics thrown in)?

    ( Synthetic Phonics) here replaces the name of the specific synthetic phonics’ programme used.

    “She just turned 14 and started public school for the first time. She is in 7th
    grade in a classroom for cognitively impaired kids.
    They just did the Woodcock Johnson test with her. Her overall IQ score came out
    as 35 (with 100 being average)—so severely impaired. This is an age
    equivalency of 5 years, 5 month—or like most kids starting K. Her cognitive
    efficiency as 4 years, 11 months–so still a preschool level. Her working
    memory was less than 4 years old—so very severely impaired.

    Now, for the GOOD part. She scored 9 years, 6 months or 4th grade for sound
    blending, 8 years or end of of second grade for word identification, 7 years, 3
    months for reading fluency (2nd grade), 7 years, 8 months for spelling (end of
    2nd grade), and end of 1st/early 2nd grade for passage comprehension, applied
    problems and writing samples.

    Her phonemic awareness was 66 while her working memory was 15 (over 3 standard
    deviations from her average).

    To me, this shows that (synthetic phonics)can and DOES work with kids with severe LDs and cognitive impairments. Her profile, with scores ranging from36-87 (with 85-115 being normal for her age) this shows that she has a cognitive impairment as well
    as some significant learning disabilities. Thanks to (Synthetic Phonnics) she can read and read quite well. Right now she LOVES to read and was reading a horse encyclopedia the other day.

  16. Can I remind posters that this thread is about the Government’s use of TWO pieces of evidence (aka the American research) which it claimed to support synthetic phonics unequivocally when they did not. The Government implied that the American research supported synthetic phonics and uses this to justify both the emphasis on synthetic phonics (thereby sidelining other methods) and its matched funding which has not been widely taken up for reasons discussed in the link below and which teachers might have wanted to buy other literacy materials or library books.

  17. Few, if any, posters have commented on these TWO pieces of evidence. Instead, unreferenced comments and reports from places as wide apart as Scotland and Australia have been thrown into the pot in an attempt to discredit, or draw attention from, my concerns about the misuse of evidence.

    The thread has been illuminating. Tactics used include:

    (a) implying an ulterior motive (eg I object to it because it was advocated by Nick Gibb). Nick Gibb may “have been prepared to listen” to synthetic phonics advocates but he ignored the prohibition on the use of the OECD 2000 PISA results by the organisation that first published them and found them to be flawed afterwards. Gibb was not alone, Gove regularly cites them, they even appear as a foreward to the Education White Paper.

    (b) complaining that I include both opinion and facts supported by evidence in my posts. That’s what argument is – stating an opinion and backing it up with evidence, preferably with links to the primary source (sadly lacking in many of the posts).

    (c) setting up binary opposition ie “You’re either with us or against us”. There’s no room for nuance here. Anyone who expresses concern about the excessive emphasis on synthetic phonics is branded a heretic, a “phonics denialist” and must be silenced.

    and, (sorry, but this one had me crying with laughter),

    (d) implying I’d written many of the cited articles myself. No, I wasn’t responsible for the Eurydice report (European Commission), the two pieces of American research, the report on the phonics screen test (DfE), Ofsted training (Ofsted), or the TES editorial. I was responsible for the linked LSN threads (that’s obvious, they’ve got my name on them). As for the TES opinion piece in the “What keeps me awake at night” – that was written by anon (and included a link to the Eurydice report which was not written by me).

    I’ll leave you to speculate on the identity of anon.

    • Like.

      Janet I think you’re making the mistake of suggesting that Liz Truss reliably bothers with evidence.

      Hence your post is deeply flawed.


      • Thank you, Rebecca. I am obviously deeply flawed because I want teachers of reading to be able to choose the most appropriate method(s) for any particular child(ren) or circumstances and not have to teach one method because a minister says so. It doesn’t matter if the minister is Ruth Kelly, Nick Gibb, Liz Truss or the Great Gove himself.

        I am deeply flawed because I think the £3000 matched funding should be available to buy whatever literacy materials, including library books, that teachers want. I’m not alone in this, see thread below, written by me (I thought I’d better make this clear).

        I’m deeply flawed because I object to the Government misusing evidence – I should just accept what it says like the animals in Animal Farm, Gove is Always Right.

        • The main flaw you show on here is the inability to see how contradictory your arguments are. For instance in this comment you are simultaneously arguing that teachers should ignore the evidence on phonics while at the same time complaining that the government is misusing evidence. Is evidence to be followed or not? Or is it to be followed by people you disagree with and ignored by those you agree with?

          • Indeed Janet – you opinion that
            “the £3000 matched funding should be available to buy whatever literacy materials, including library books, that teachers want”
            is clearly an argument that teachers should ignore the evidence on phonics – should they already have a clearly plan for literacy in their school which is robust and they can enact or enhance with this money.

            Why do you think such teachers should be deprofessionalised and be forced to implement phonics despite the obvious fact that they are probably already using phonics and are looking for materials which will enhance understanding such as the excellent scheme recently introduced at my son’s school Andrew?

            Your blog doesn’t indicate that you particularly liked it when silly ideas were forced on you from above. If, of course, you were ever actually a teacher at all.

      • Geraldine Carter says:

        Liz Truss has only been connected with education for the past week or two as far as I’m aware.

    • My speculation about the anonymous writer of the “What Keeps Me Up At Night ” phonics denialist article in the TES is that they are you. The way you linked to it on a previous thread, as if it was authoritative but without admitting authorship, would indicate a significant lack of integrity on your part, so I would be happy to apologise if I am wrong about this. It seems odd that you are not willing to confirm that I am wrong.

      Nobody has claimed that there is a problem with combining opinion and facts. The problem is the double standard. You’ll write one commenting attacking ministers for pressing ahead with their opinions and not listening to evidence, then, when they do, you’ll write another comment saying they should actually listen to opinions and ignore the evidence. It’s a hypocrisy that infects almost everything you write on this website. You continually demand other people conform to standards of logic and evidence-based decision making that you completely fail to keep to yourself. As you know, I have frequently asked you to set out a standard of evidence that you would be willing to apply to yourself as well as those you argue against. You have repeatedly ignored the request.

  18. Janet – I worry that whilst you challenge the use of two pieces of specific evidence by Nick Gibb on the one hand, you are not at all concerned with providing any evidence per se that teachers (in general) are trained or equipped well enough to make the best choices for teaching reading and spelling.

    My experience is that they are not. The Sheffield Hallum University’s review of teachers who took part in the Year One phonics screening pilot indicated that nearly three-quarters of the teachers still used the multi-cueing reading strategies that are not supported by research. They were also using the multi-cueing strategies despite the parliamentary inquiry into teaching children to read, despite the Rose Review and despite the recommendations of government.

    I find in my travels that most teachers are unaware of the dangers of using multi-cueing reading strategies – indeed these strategies are still promoted in some reading instruction programmes and through some training providers. Established programmes underpinned by multi-cueing defend them to the hilt regardless of the evidence provided in research and classroom findings that they can be damaging to at least some children.

    It takes a huge amount of personal time and effort to study the field of reading instruction and to add to the mix years of experience of teaching the children themselves. If you consider that up until recently, the universities charged with the duty of training student-teachers did not generally provide information in the English alphabetic code nor promote the blending and segmenting skills required for life-long reading and spelling, then it is no wonder that the teaching profession is generally ill-equipped to make personal choices.

    Also, how can any teachers very young in service have either the requisite knowledge or experience to know which personal ‘choices’ to make regarding their methods of reading and spelling instruction?

    Further, in the area of basic knowledge and skills in literacy, it is arguably unacceptable that what children may or may not receive in their infant and primary years is based on personal preferences and choices of the teachers – I suggest that this is nothing short of ‘pot luck’ and simply not good enough.

    • “Further, in the area of basic knowledge and skills in literacy, it is arguably unacceptable that what children may or may not receive in their infant and primary years is based on personal preferences and choices of the teachers – I suggest that this is nothing short of ‘pot luck’ and simply not good enough.”

      Absolutely. But you are describing a school where all teachers are doing what they feel like with no co-ordination between them. Where is the headteacher in your scenario? Your describing a failing school – no a school which has decided to pursue an integrated approach to literacy as many have.

      Welcome to LSN Debbie. Janet is a long time contributor who’s very disciplined in her contributions and knows her stuff. I’m a cyberwarrior and a pragmatist – always challenging people in order to try to make them connect their beliefs to a world I understand. I wander from forum to forum. Janet seems to stay here as far as I know. Ricky is a Govite. OldAndrew turns up on this forum to spout about how anyone who doesn’t see how wonderful phonics is very ignorant and appears to be some kind of Woodheadesque quack academic although he claims to be a voice from the chalkface on his blog and in other forums.

      Personally I quite like synthetic phonics but in general I only want to see it as part of an approach as there are some wonderful understanding based systems around and I have a bit of an ‘if it aint broke don’t fix it approach to life. Most primaries round here get all their children reading. They know what they’re doing, it works for them and if it stopped working they would adapt. They’re very open to learning about new things which work and quickly abstract the bits of them which make sense to them. I also think the total immersion synthetic phonics approach shown on the program with Ruth Miskin looks great for schools with major problems to address. But the program showed that other things were slipping becuase of the focus on phonics. I don’t think they should have been punished for that – just given support and time as they were clearly capable of addressing their issues given support.

      • Rebecca – are you referring to the Newsnight programmes about synthetic phonics? If so, you’ll be interested in a critique of the programmes by a university academic who concluded that the programmes had done a disservice to serious television by (a) presenting them in the form of a “makeover” whereby a saviour comes to the rescue of helpless incompetents (who were, lest we forget, professionals although they were not treated as such but asked about their “feelings”), (b) setting up binary opposition between an academic who wanted evidence to be subjected to rigour and supporters of the saviour who were only interested in “what works” for the saviour and wanted evidence to endorse that approach, and (c) setting the debate in the context of “Reading Wars”.

        For further info and link to the primary source (with name of author), see my post above dated 27/9/12 at 5.48pm

        • I’m not sure Janet – it was a series of about 4 programs which I think focused on the introduction of Synthetic phonics at one school which had huge literacy issues.

  19. Sorry – Sheffield Hallam – not Hallum!

    • Debbie – the point of this thread was to challenge the Government’s use of two pieces of evidence which did not do what the Government claimed. This thread was not about the search for evidence for or against synthetic phonics; neither was it about the training of teachers.

      That said, you, a trainer, say that teachers are unaware of what you consider to be “the dangers of using multi-cueing reading” and that they have been misled by other trainers. Those trainers might say the same about you.

      You talk of “personal preferences and choices of teachers” and suggest it’s “pot luck”. I talk of teachers’ professional judgement. You say that teachers are “ill-equipped” because they haven’t been trained using your training methods.

      You say that “established programmes underpinned by multi-cueing defend them to the hilt regardless of the evidence provided in research and classroom findings that they can be damaging to at least some children.” Those who support multi-cueing would no doubt say the same of those who support synthetic phonics. For example, Janette M Hughes, Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Education, University of Ontario Institute of Technology, writes in “Teaching Language and Literacy” that the “English Language cannot be taught solely through the use of phonics.” She goes on to describe four cueing systems.

      Teachers are professionals – they must use their professional judgement to decide what is the most appropriate method for their pupils. Faced with contradictory messages from trainers, a teacher must decide what works for him/her and the pupils.

      • Ricky Tarr says:


        The whole of your original post and your most recent and strident defences of it are built upon a falsehood. You keep saying that the government cited and relied upon only two pieces of research in the White Paper – and that they didn’t stand up the claim.

        But this is untrue.

        The White Paper references other evidence too.

        The White Paper cites Systematic Phonics Instruction Helps Students Learn to Read: Evidence from the National Reading Panel’s Meta-Analysis by Ehri, L.C., Nunes, S.R., Stahl, S.A., & Willows, D.M., (2001), which found:

        Systematic phonics instruction helped children learn to read better than all forms of control group instruction, including whole language. In sum, systematic phonics instruction proved effective and should be implemented as part of literacy programs to teach beginning reading as well as to prevent and remediate reading difficulties.

        But although this is the first entry under footnote 56 in the White Paper, you ignore it.

        You do mention the next one (Camilli et al 2003) but then you ignore the following two – Torgerson, C. and Brooks, G. (2005), A systematic review of the use of phonics in the teaching of reading and spelling and Torgerson, C., Hall, J. and Brooks, G. (2006), A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling.

        Why did you single out two citations and ignore the others?

        • Is there any research on synthetic phonics which contrasts the effect of using synthetic phonics with the effect of using coherent integrated strategies which combing decoding strategies with the construction of context, imagination and understanding?

        • Thank you, Ricky, for pointing out the other evidence. I had relied on Ofsted (I should have known better). Their training manual said:

          “The Schools White Paper 2010 referred to ‘the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics as the proven best way to teach early reading’ (p.22). The footnote accompanying that sentence referenced publications from the United States.”

          Page 22 linked to footnote 32 as follows:

          “Camilli, G., Vargas, S. and Yurecko, M. (2003) Teaching Children to Read: the fragile
          link between science and federal education policy. Education Policy Analysis
          Archives, 11, no.15. National Institute for Child’s
          Health and Human Development accessed 28th October 2010 http://www.nichd.nih.

          I looked at both these pieces of evidence and the summary is in my post. I went further and cited a longer piece of National Reading Panel evidence (indicated in the post as NRP). This can be found at:

          You mention the Meta-Analysis by Ehri et al. That can be found here:

          Note that Ehri et al talk about “systematic” phonics which as you know comprises all methods of teaching phonics. The meta analysis looked particularly at synthetic phonics and “larger-unit” phonics as well as others (labelled miscellaneous). The analysis concluded:

          “These findings illustrate how both synthetic and larger-unit approaches to teaching
          systematic phonics were found to be effective in helping students with severe reading difficulty improve their reading skills.”


          “findings indicated that the two approaches [synthetic and larger-unit] did not differ in their impact on reading, with both producing effects close to moderate in size.”


          “When seven specific programs to teach systematic phonics were compared, they were found not to differ statistically in their effectiveness, with all producing a significant advantage in reading…Thus, these findings suggest that no one program or delivery system is better than others for teaching phonics systematically and that multiple ways can provide effective phonics instruction.”

          It should be borne in mind that this meta-analysis was the one which was found to have methodological flaws (see Camilli et al Nevertheless, the meta-analysis found ALL types of systematic phonics to be equally effective. The quote you provided from the meta-analysis confirms this.

          The Ofsted training manual is here:

        • I have not read Torgerson (2005) or Torgerson (2006). Do they refer just to synthetic phonics or do they discuss systematic phonics? The distinction is important particularly as the Government pushes only one type of phonics teaching when two (now three thanks to Ricky’s diligence) refer to systematic phonics.

  20. Geraldine Carter says:

    Thank you Janet for answering the question about TES provenance. I had thought that Andrew Old’s question implied that you had not answered this on a previous occasion.

    Your comment :’ Anyone who expresses concern about the excessive emphasis on synthetic phonics is branded a hereti’c

    is wide of the mark. Over and over again academics and synthetic phonics trainers, teachers, tutors have explained how and why mxing synthetic phonics for beginner readers simply confuses 20%+ of children. The argument is not about ‘excess’.

    Where the debate could be fruitful is over how long synthetic phonicsteaching should continue. As a former children’s book editor, collector of children’s books, occasional contributor to Books for Your Children, I’m keen to get the main characteristics of the alphabetic code understood by young children, their automaticity in place and phonics done and dusted long before the end of Year 1 to enable virtually all children to progress to ie Arnold Lobel’s wonderful Frog and Toad and Mouse Tales, Anne Fine’s Diary of a Killer Cat, some Roald Dahl books etc.etc.There will then be only between 1%-5% who need more careful practice of blending and segmenting into Year 2. Reading continuous text is vitally important for all sorts of reasons – it’s the bedrock of future learning. But children need to be able to decode and a few find this skill difficult – much easier to guess, look at the glossy pictures that seem to be de riguer now.
    Where a fruitful debate could take place is the part synthetic phonics plays in developing spelling skills and whether ‘extension’ synthetic phonics is advisable – ergo possibly enabling children to write more fluently, more cogently. Programmes like Sounds~Write, with a longitudial study demonstrate conclusively that synthetic phonics and linguistic phonics improve spelling. This is, indeed, the conclusion of heads, teachers who use synthetic phonics. However, there are other considerations : does synthetic phonics, after year 1 (and to a lesser extent in year 2), take space from other areas of the curriculum,, does an in-depth knowledge of the alphabetic code stymie creativity, or enhance creativity… and so on.
    Janet, the evidence for clear, logical, focused synthetic phonics for beginner readers is overwhelming. Unless you want to see the disastrous levels of illiteracy continue, unless you want to see billions of pounds leeching into ‘catch-up’ programmes instead of being spent on school libraries, visiting poets, authors, dramatists, improving music provision, introducing languages, giving the care and attention to those who need it, the nit-picking has to stop.
    And please, please can you point to the hundreds and thousands of schools in deprived and/.or inner city areas with mixed method teaching where all children are taught to read. That is the minimum a ‘professional’ teacher at primary level should be achieving.

    There is thunderous silence whenever I ask for this evidence that mixed methods are working for all children..

  21. Geraldine Carter says:

    sorry – para 3 sentence got truncated:

    mixing synthetic phonics with analytic phonics, onset and rime, shapes of words, complex rules, blends…

  22. Geraldine Carter says:

    Rebecca – illiteracy rates remain alarmingly high;. Most teachers have introduced phonics as part of WL/analytic/ instruction. It is the schools in areas of high deprivation and inner-city schools that are failing 20%+ of children through mixing their methods. Muddled thinking doesn’t work for 20%+ of children. It hasn’t worked for 40 odd years. (No-one will name a signficant number of schools using mixed methods in areas of deprivation that are succeeding. Will ;you obtain this information?) I have heard of one successful school after years of asking this question. There is little ‘professional’ tuition on early reading instruction taking place in teacher training institutes. Jim Rose and his team, Nick Gibb and Miriam Gross between them have visited hundreds of schools, mostly in deprived areas, teaching their children to read with SP.
    Why do your son'[s school need ‘catch-up’ programmes? They are expensive, work only for some but not for others (unless they are specific programmes with a ‘catch-up’ element). It is surely much easier to teach little children how to read in the first place and give them plenty of opportunity to practise the skills needed?

    In the North East in a primary school where ‘Our children arrive unable to speak in sentences, (some don’t even use words just grunts) some have – never seen a book before they get to school’ they have Shakespeare (The Tempest) , Percy Jackson and Spiderwick as Y2 guided reading texts with ALL children reading in turn. This is a teacher who has shown, through her many posts, an outstanding understanding of how the alphabetic code should be taught (the Year 1’s in that school had no trouble with the Phonics Check – they enjoyed it apparently).

    Oxford is now spending 1/2 milllion in introducing the dumbed down Project X CODE books for the hundreds of poor readers in Year 2. Children who have been misinstructed for 2 years will be relieved by the 80%-90% of mechanically generated pictures and the tiny amount of banal text on each page – plus the undivided attention from one-to-one help. The scheme was chosen by a committee lead by an Oxford Brookes adviser/lecturer. Oxford Brookes influence is widespread – student teachers carry out their practice in the schools education chiefs blame children, society, immigrants for their poor results. No-one is held accountable for destroying so many lives. Brighton which I know well having lived nearby for 13 years has schools also dominated by mixed method teaching. Brighton University and Henrietta Dombey have been in the forefront of using miscue analysis and all the plethora surrounding mixed methods. Brighton schools are performing very badly..

    • I’m talking about mixed systems, not muddled systems Geraldine.

      In essence I think it’s most useful if we think about there being two components to literacy. Firstly the child needs to be able to decode written language and turn it into sounds. Secondly the child needs to have a rich experience of the world and the language associated with it so that it can turn those sounds into meanings.

      My son’s school isn’t doing a ‘catch up scheme’, it’s focusing on building the experiences and imaginations of children so that the language they learn to read is much more meaningful to them. Texts are selected to build from all the experiences they are being given (they are out of school at least once a week most weeks from their second term in reception class).

      He and his friends did some synthetics phonics in reception class and I thought it was a good classroom strategy for teaching decoding. But there are many other strategies – obviously – since synthetic phonics is very new and children have learned to decode text since before it was around – often in complete classes of children who all learned to read well.

      Proposers of synthetics phonics tend not to explore its limitations and that annoys me and makes me sceptical. English is a ludicrously complex language and synthetic phonics can only get you so far with it. If you’re interested in robust phonic decoding why aren’t you looking at ‘the silent way’? Why is no research being done on that?

      I do support projects to ensure that schools which are failing to get children reading are transformed, including synthetic phonics. And I accept that synthetic phonics is probably the best developed system at the moment for such schools to use. But I would also like to see other systems which work such as the Finnish model being tried as I think these would enhance other areas of children’s learning while synthetics phonics can sometimes harm it due to the amount of attention required.

      I’m maths by the way:
      Montessori structures – which were well publicised a couple of decades ago – are very useful for primary learning but only the schools which took the aspects of them they wanted and left the rest still use them today. Those who took more then had what they’d done wiped out by the next initiative.

    • Geraldine – you make many assertions but provide no evidence eg about 20%+ being failed by what you regard as “muddled thinking”, that there is little “professional” tuition on early reading instruction taking place in teacher training institutes, the number of children arriving at school who just “grunt”, and your attack on Oxford Brookes.

      You mention Miriam Gross. But FullFact voiced concerns that the Gross report which contained no references and the factcheckers were puzzled about where the data in her report came from.

      Oxford Brookes has just won a grant in partnership with Science Oxford (SO), from the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), a grant-making charity set up by the Sutton Trust. So not everyone has such a low opinion of Oxford Brookes.

      And are ALL Brighton schools performing very badly? Not according to the 2011 Key Stage 2 Sats with 36 of the 43 primary schools exceeding the Government benchmark of 60% achieving Level 4 and Maths and English. 19 schools had scores of 80 and above.

      Last year the Institute of Fiscal Studies found that a school’s intake governs its performance. It is, therefore, a little harsh to say that when schools say their low performance can be explained by their intake that these schools are shifting blame on to children, society or immigration because these schools are actually incompetent (some might be, but many are not – see post re the findings of the Education Endowment Fund into underperforming schools, second link below).

  23. […] I’m on the subject of ideologues ignoring facts, this thread over at the Website of the obnoxious Local Schools Network is both informative and entertaining, […]

  24. “A Systematic Review of the ResearchLiterature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling”, by Torgerson et al, another piece of evidence cited in the Education White Paper recommended:

    “Since there is evidence that systematic phonics teaching benefits children’s reading
    accuracy, it should be part of every literacy teacher’s repertoire and a routine part
    of literacy teaching, in a judicious balance with other elements.”

    Again, the Government cited research which approved the systematic teaching of phonics to justify just one method – synthetic phonics.

    The authors found a design fault in the Clackmannanshire study and claimed that this “means that part of the synthetic phonics group’s greater progress was probably illusory” (p20).

    The authors also considered the advice given by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) that synthetic phonics should be taught “first, fast and only”. On the “first”, the authors found no research evidence to support this; and on “fast” the authors found that no experiments had taken place. The authors conceded that RRF had practical examples but concluded that these only show what “can be done, not whether it should.” On “only”, the authors found there was not enough randomized controlled trial evidence to support or contradict this suggestion (pp 55-56).

    So far, then, four of the five pieces of evidence cited by the Government in the Education White Paper to justify its support for synthetic phonics turn out to support any method of phonics teaching as long as it is systematic. Which raises the question about why the Government pushes synthetic phonics so hard when the evidence cited in the White Paper actually recommends ANY methodical teaching of phonics?

  25. Re the TES “What Keeps Me Awake At Night” article. The writer actually said, “The method is important” after pondering why teachers weren’t taking up the matched-funding offer by asking the question, “Could this be because English primary teachers use systematic phonics comprising all methods of teaching and don’t rely on just one strategy?”

    “The method is important” – these are not the words of a “phonics denialist” as alleged above.

    I’ve given the link below, not because it is “authorative” as alleged above but because it criticises the narrow focus of the then Minister for Schools. Anon clearly thought it made the point in an amusing way (although anon recognises that not everyone shares the same sense of humour, and some people seem to have none at all).

    Nevver mynd, u carnt win em orl.

  26. Janet said:

    “Nevver mynd, u carnt win em orl.”

    I have to confess that when people make a play on phonics by mis-spelling words such as the above (and there is certainly an increase in this at the moment), this immediately brings to mind a number of points which I think are important:

    1) Very often people who do this are, sadly, mocking phonics in some way – perhaps to make a point – but, indeed, what point are they making?

    2) It illustrates incredibly well (although not ‘clearly’ or people would refrain from doing it when they are poking fun at phonics), that the English spelling system is extraordinarily difficult and needs expert teaching.

    Why doesn’t this lead, however, to everyone wanting to ensure really excellent phonics teaching in our schools – for both reading and spelling?

    If you take any ordinary word (recently I used the word ‘welcome’ to make this point) – and ask people to jot down how many ways they can write the word with invented spelling, this demonstrates what a huge task it is to learn to spell in the English language. (Some people managed to spell ‘welcome’ in 15 to 20 ways in only a few minutes – and yet it is only one word out of many thousands).

    We had abandoned the English alphabetic code for a long time in England and in other countries teaching English. We have teachers who have never been trained to understand the English alphabetic code themselves – and they certainly have not been trained in how to unpick it to teach young children, or to support older pupils – or to teach people who want to learn English as an additional language.

    I, and others, have done our utmost to point to both research and classroom findings and we set up the Reading Reform Foundation website and message forum to discuss research and findings – and yet it seems to me that the arguments will go on and on without recourse to the sheer ridiculous-ness that we have not taught the code routinely, nor trained teachers in the code and how to teach it – and now people are going to extraordinary lengths to be detractors, begrudgers and critics without, it seems to me, considering the horror of the larger picture in our schools for many decades.

    The silly phonics spelling should be shouting out to everyone the enormous need of the most excellent phonics teaching for reading and spelling.

    Or is everyone blinded by this fact because they are so incensed that governments deem to promote phonics teaching and training? I think they should have been promoting such teaching as a constant – not just in recent times.

    Re all the ‘other’ things which need to be taught – no-one is arguing about all the language and literature enrichment/content – Rose recommended the Simple View of Reading and the government at the time accepted his recommendations. This should be making it clear that, of course phonics is not ‘everything’ – but my goodness phonics is exceedingly important – and, as yet, not all people fully appreciate just HOW important.

  27. Texting does indeed reflect an awareness of both the sounds linked to letters and an awareness of various letters in real words.

    It is worrying, however, that researchers, and others, would see this as great for supporting reading and spelling in the sense that the challenge is for long-term correct spelling – not invented spelling.

    And that is also what I am endeavouring to point out regarding invented spelling – that the job of phonics and the alphabetic code is not ‘over’ at the point of children or adults being able to make links between letters and sounds – they have to go beyond that and be steeped in the awareness of correct spelling.

    Why? Because the chances are higher that an prospective employer will discard those application forms riddled with invented spelling.

    Worse than that, the chances are higher that young people who cannot spell at all well are less likely to think of themselves capable of further education – in fact the worst case scenario is that they may even think of themselves as not bright enough for higher education – let alone that they’d simply struggle to do the written work.

    It is essential that phonics is better understood in terms of life-long literacy – not just for being able to ‘read and spell’ but for being able to read and spell very well – and as well as possible.

    These are issues of well-being – self-esteem – increasing young people’s options – their perception of themselves – and the perception of their abilities in the wider domain.

    No-one should be poking fun at phonics – or undermining the need for it – if they really understood the significance of providing the best basic literacy skills possible.

    Further, the better the child’s capacity to decode literature with ease, the more likely the child will enjoy reading – and reading widely underpins our very intellect and our knowledge and understanding of the world – and our empathy for others.

    Shame on people who continually detract from the need for the most excellent phonics teaching possible.

    • “No-one should be poking fun at phonics – or undermining the need for it ”
      Please could you show me some examples of where this is happening Debbie?

      • Referring to the research on texting is not poking fun at phonics Debbie. It’s just highlighting the obvious and often forgotten reality that our understanding of the acquisition of language and literacy is still rapidly developing and what might be considered to be best practice now may be superseded soon, as has happened so many times before. This is one aspect of the situation we are addressing.

  28. HI Rebecca, you said:

    “Please could you show me some examples of where this is happening Debbie?”

    LOL! Everywhere in the public domain and the media – and a number of academics in universities, children’s authors, union leaders, representatives from other professional literacy groups…

    This is the general mantra…”OK, you do need some phonics BUT….” – then they proceed to undermine phonics or downplay it – and come up with a plethora of ‘buts’.

    Check out the various TES articles for years…

    I suggest that this very thread is one of those ‘buts’!

  29. Geraldine Carter says:

    Rebecca – aren’t there very few primary Montesorri schools and aren’t most of these inhabited by middle class parents – sort of equivalent of the best and most innovative of Free Schools? Certainly not local authority controlled?

    The other thing that puzzles me is where were the Fiona Millar’s, the Melissa Benn’s, and the middle class school governors, during the 70s,80s when schools were being so dumbed down, literacy rates plummeting? We failed children horrendously in these schools – a situation described with stark honesty by Andrew Adonis in his book Education, Education, Education. and, for that matter, succinctly by Fiona Millar’s partner…

    The things that are happening at your son’s school are exactly the sort of things that are happening in all good, creative schools – it’s just that the schools we refer to make sure that virtually all children are reaiding by middle of year 1.

    • Montessori teaching is very interesting but has always been very difficult to understand from texts and much easier to understand when you see it in operation – which has become much easier since people started putting videos of it onto YouTube Geraldine.

      Some state schools looked at it and took aspects of it which they thought would enhance what they already did. So for example one local primary near here has a lovely Montessori influenced foundation state which it has nurtured for a couple of decades. Children learn to self plan their work the moment they start school, they do lots of exercises with manipulative materials that have self closure (children can see when they’ve got them right), the are very deliberately socialised and are out and about in society from the beginning of reception class and they use task which integrate subject areas. But the school I’m thinking of still has disciplined and overt teaching of literacy and numeracy. And no it’s not in a middle class area. Over time some of these idea have become more and more mainstream and they’ve come in through other sources of inspiration outside of the Montessori influence.

      I went to a sink school at the time you’re talking about. It was in a council estate where everything was vandalised, crime and drugs were rife, kids had no aspirations or hope of anything (many of them got locked up in borstals young), arson was common and strikes were frequent. The tory policy at the time was to give all the middle class families subsidised places at private schools and to let these schools rot. The reasons why we failed children so hurrendously in these schools were not down to the teachers being stupid or using ignorant methodologies. It just suited the government to pretend it was.

      My son’s school allows students to progress with reading at their own rate (with some disciplined teaching of phonics going on on a regular basis) until year 2. In year 2 they do organised tracking and a ‘shake down’ with interventions to ensure all children can basically read before year 3. This seems fine. In Finland and many other countries children don’t start school until year 3. Childhood isn’t a race.

  30. Geraldine Carter says:

    Thanks, Rebecca. Certainly in South London in the 70s and 80s, schools were awash with money – and even with Assisted Places and Private Schools the vast number of children went to Comprehensive Schools. Fast forward 15 years and the head of a primary school (leafy Sussex village) told me that children were coming out of the woodwork in Year 3, unable to read. I ended up teaching around 1/5 of Years 1 – 3 how to read.
    By the mid-70s illiteracy, semi-literacy had become endemic. Of course there are schools which have succeeded in teaching children to read without using phonics but these are rare. There is only one alphabet code – and its English orthography is complex unlike that of most European languages where the transparent orthography means that teaching with phonics is over in less than 6 months.
    It really doesn’t have to take up too much of the day and, well taught, children love the satisfaction of understanding ‘how reading works.’

    • I was taught using phonics in the 70s. We would work through different sound and letter groups in a systematic order which seems to be just what children get now. Learning at the bottom end was more Janet and John but we had Listen with Lenny as well. Was Listen with Lenny letters or phonics?

      A lot of our policy is exceptionally London centric. Is this a London/big city problem? London has always seemed to have had access to big pots of money most of the rest of the country can’t dream of too.

  31. Somewhere in this long thread was one comment citing Wikipedia as a reliable source. According to the linked article the terms “systematic phonics” and “synthetic phonics” are regarded in the UK as being the same thing (despite the evidence cited in the Education White Paper which stated that systematic phonics was any methodical instruction in any system of phonics).

    The person who cited the Wiki article (I forget who it was – it’s too far up the thread) missed the warning given prominently at the top:

    “This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. This article may rely too heavily on sources with too close a tie to the subject to be verifiable and neutral. (May 2012) This article is written like a personal reflection or essay rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (October 2011). The neutrality of this article is disputed. (October 2011).”

  32. Emily says:

    Helo all,

    I am currently writing a dissertation into the ideas discussed in this post, with specific attention to the links between phonics and guided reading- I found the above conversation extremely insightful. However when reading through the posts and reading subsequent links, I am finding it difficult to track the timeline of publications, journals and government documentation surrounding how phonics came about, current attitudes and changes to policy etc and wondered if anybody knew of a source that provided an up to date list of information in chronological order? Any help would be much appreciated.

  33. Geraldine Carter says:

    These would be well worth reading for your research project:
    Jeanne Chall Learning to Read: The Great Debate
    Marilyn Jager Adams: Beginning to Read
    Bonnie McMillan : Why Our Schoolchildren can’t Read
    Diane McGuinness: Why Children Can’t Read
    Diane McGuinness: Early Reading Instruction
    Rudolph Flesch: Why Johnny Can’t Read
    Rudolph Flesch: Why Johnny Still Can’t Read
    USA National Reading Panel Report – US 2000
    Australian National Enquiry into the Teaching of Reading Jan 2006
    UK Rose Report June 2006
    A very knowledgeable and comprehensive website:
    Two literate, well reasoned and elegant blogs:
    The Literacy Blog
    The Phonics Blog

  34. Two brief points on this rather unpleasant thread:
    1 – I am very fed up with being labelled as “ideologically opposed” to SSP. Having worked with struggling readers for over thirty years, I try to find what will make a difference for them, whether it’s phonics or anything else.
    2 – Debbie objects to those she considers to be “sneering” at phonics and then proceeds to sneer at what she calls “guessing.” Use of context enables a reader to limit the number of possible words, making it easier to identify the correct one using either whole word recognition or phonics – this is far more complex (and effective) than is suggested by the word “guessing.”

  35. Ricky Tarr says:


    I am very fed up with being labelled as “ideologically opposed” to SSP.

    Really? Then there are two easy ways to avoid that charge being levelled against you in future:

    1. Stop parading yourself around TES and here as the resident smart-Alec of the phonics denialist camp (e.g. by eschewing cheap gags like ‘the phight back’ etc.).

    2. Stop ignoring the empirical evidence.

    • Stephanie the thing to do is to pretend to be a professor and to pay to become the resident expert at a Tory think tank. You also need to join some very posh and exclusive clubs near Westminster and wine and dine Tory MPs there.

      Then you can get your ideas turned into policy without every having to work as a teacher or achieve any relevant qualifications.

      Ricky can tell you more about how it’s done and how you get the SoS for Education to declare publicly that you have done more than anyone living in the fight against illiteracy in this country.

      You made the classic mistake of having experience. It’s a real no no these days to talk about experience or reality as it compromises the clarity and sincerity of the message destined for the tabloid headline in the Tory press.

  36. Geraldine Carter says:

    Stephanie – you have a point. ‘Guessing’ is just the bottom line, followed by ‘intelligent’ guessing, use of context, syntax etc. However, around 20% of children are confused and cannot access competent reading skills with higher order thinking before they are able to decode competently, therefore ‘guessing’ per se becomes their default position.. This is why over the last 30+ years there has been such a growth in reading tutors. Debbie is a member of a group that has been recommending change in early reading instruction – we have members with dyslexia qualiifications, educational psycologists, heads, deputy heads, teachers, tutors and between us . We have seen the great change to the lives of children who now understand ‘how reading works’, can confidently read simple books and then proceed to read age-appropriate books – the world becomes their oyster.
    Many of us used ‘balanced reading’ instruction before SSP – and in spite of our efforts and enormous amounts of time spent making visual aids and trying new ways to give these children the foundational skills they desperately needed we were unsuccessful.

    Rebecca – it was Tony Blair, Ruth Kelly, Andrew Adonis and other Labour Education Ministers who fully supported Jim Rose’s 2006 recommendations to use synthetic phonics for early reading instruction. You may have seen his recent letter to The Guardian. There are many left-leaning people who support alphabetic code instruction for beginner readers. The Unions, higher echelons of the Education Establishment and those training institutes with a vested interest in massively expensive ‘catch-up’ programmes are bitterly opposed to evidence-based instruction. Why would we want to squander millions on expensive programmes when school libraries, libraries, children with profound learning difficulties (and their parents) are desperately in need of further funding. And what about spending the money instead on increased musical provision, drama, inviting poets into schools …and so on?

    • Geraldine – you are correct that the last Labour government took up synthetic phonics with enthusiasm. The Rose review (now shipped off to the National Archives) said:

      “Despite uncertainties in research findings, the practice seen by the review shows that
      the systematic approach, which is generally understood as ‘synthetic’ phonics, offers most direct route to becoming skilled readers and writers.”

      So, Rose acknowledged “uncertainties” and then erroneously equated systematic phonics instruction with synthetic phonics. As I said above (29/9/12 5.03pm):

      “four of the five pieces of evidence cited by the Government in the Education White Paper to justify its support for synthetic phonics turn out to support any method of phonics teaching as long as it is systematic.”

      So, the “evidence-based instruction” which you claim is opposed by the usual suspects of “Unions, higher echelons of the Education Establishment and those training institutes with a vested interest…” points to any method of teaching phonics which is, in any case, only a part, albeit an important part, of teaching children to read.

      And talking of vested interests – many enthusiastic proponents of synthetic phonics also produce teaching materials or offer training. Some are even on the Government’s approved list for matched funding. Why, indeed, would schools want to spend thousands on these programmes when they might wish to spend the money on providing books for the school library or helping children with learning difficulties?

  37. Sally Collard says:

    Wow! The words can and worms comes to mind having read your interesting article, Janet, and seen the response it has triggered. I am currently researching issues surrounding ‘the sole use of’ synthetic phonics and have to agree with your conclusion (“systematic” teaching of phonics … is effective but should be combined with other methods). No time to evidence my findings, but having seen the stick you were getting, thought I’d just write a note of positive encouragement!
    Despite suggestions above, I do not read your article as one written by a ‘phonics denialist’ … and ,overall, commend you on your patient and detailed responses to all the postings.
    Ofsted’s 2012 report ‘Moving English Forward – Actions to raise standards in English’ suggests more attention needs to be paid to spelling. Their overall literacy strategy continues to promote a dominate emphasis on systematic phonics (although case studies identifies the use of other methods too in schools where spelling success is being achieved). Personally, I believe shining the spotlight on spelling will increase the need to identify additional methods of teaching and learning that go beyond systematic phonics, unless, as someone above suggested, we change English into a transparent language to remove the varied coding choices and irregularities for which English spellings are renown.

  38. Thank you, Sally. Any suggestion that systematic phonics comprises more than just synthetic phonics seems to be greeted with howls.

    However, the difference was made clear in the Lords in January 2010 when Baroness Verma asked why the then Government hadn’t taken the recommendation by “Sir John (sic) Rose” to introduce synthetic phonics in schools. Baroness Morgan of Drefelin answered:

    “The Government accepted all of the recommendations made by Sir Jim Rose in the final report of the independent review of the primary curriculum, published on 30 April 2009.”

    “The report did not recommend introducing synthetic phonics in schools.”

    Baroness Morgan then said that Rose had recommended systematic phonics and that method had been implemented.

    However, not only has systematic phonics become synthetic phonics, but the latter is promoted as “first, fast and only”. Yet the authors of one of the reports that the Government says supports its synthetic phonics policy found there was no evidence to support this (see my reply 29/9/12, 5.03pm)

  39. In coversations around this time I remember discussing but struggling to explain transliterated phonics and the silent way.

    I found this nice video of it in action today and thought readers might be interested. Essentially in reading using the silent way you learn to read with colour in a way which enables you to read any language instantly and the specific phonic sounds are represented in universal ways.

    This method of teaching literacy fits along side other strategies Caleb Gattegno developed to make economies of learning and subordinate teaching to learning many of which are in evidence in this video.

    I was referring to ‘The Silent Way’ to demonstrate how silly it is for government minister to support one idea they like when there are so many other good ideas they’ve not heard of. Good policy and good inspection should define underlying aims and should specify what is bad practice rather than tightly defining best practice.

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5 + = 10

Ministers fail comprehension test – cited evidence supporting synthetic phonics doesn’t actually do so.

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