Nick Gibb returns as schools minister – time to refresh memories about the evidence he uses to support synthetic phonics
Nick Gibb’s return to the Department for Education (DfE) has been warmly welcomed by John Bald, writing on Conservative Home. However, when I commented that Nick Gibb’s evidence about synthetic phonics didn’t entirely endorse the method as the best way of teaching children to read, John remarked that I was talking “absolute bunkum”.
So perhaps it’s time to revisit the evidence promoted by Gibb and the DfE which allegedly supports synthetic phonics as the best and only way of teaching reading.
National Reading Panel (NRP USA 2000) found systematic phonics instruction was more effective than alternatives in teaching children to read. NRP recommended a four-pronged approach: explicit instruction about phonemic awareness (understanding that spoken words consist of smaller parts called phonemes), systematic phonics (any method), improving fluency and increasing comprehension. NRP found synthetic phonics was an effective tool for improving the reading skills of pupils with special educational needs.
A meta-analysis (Ehri et al 2001) looked at different ways of teaching phonics. Findings suggested “no one program or delivery system is better than others for teaching phonics systematically and that multiple ways can provide effective phonics instruction.” Authors found systematic phonics instruction to be more effective than alternatives and recommended it be part of literacy programmes. But systematic phonics instruction meant any phonics instruction not just synthetic.
Teaching Children to Read: The authors explained they found problems with the methodology of the NRP research. Nevertheless, they found the effect of systematic phonics was indeed substantial and 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.” Again, systematic phonics covered all methods of teaching phonics.
A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling, by Torgerson et al, recommended systematic phonics teaching as a “routine part of literacy teaching, in a judicious balance with other elements.” As before, the systematic methods were not confined to synthetic phonics - the authors actually found no significant differences between analytic and synthetic phonics.
The authors found a design fault in the Clackmannanshire study (cited by Nick Gibb) and claimed this meant “ part of the synthetic phonics group’s greater progress was probably illusory” (pp 20-21).
Torgerson et al considered the advice given by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) that synthetic phonics should be taught “first, fast and only”. Nick Gibb spoke at the 2011 RRF Conference where he endorsed synthetic phonics. This is what Torgerson and co-authors found:
1 the “first”, the authors found no research evidence to support this;
2 “fast” the authors found no experiments had taken place.
3 “only”, the authors found there was not enough randomized controlled trial evidence to support or contradict this suggestion (pp 55-56).
The authors conceded that RRF had practical examples but concluded these only show what “can be done, not whether it should.”
All of these reports have been used by the Government at some time to support the teaching of synthetic phonics “first and fast”. But while all recommended the systematic teaching of phonics none endorsed synthetic phonics as the best method.
Ironically, a DfE report which carried a foreword by Nick Gibb,said further analyses suggested the greater effect attributed to systematic phonics instruction found in earlier reviews may have been due in part to “the fact that some pupils who received phonics may also have received elements of whole-language approaches. This may have resulted in an artificially high estimate of the effect of phonics.”
The same DfE report said “phonics should be accompanied by innovative teaching practices that engage pupils in exciting lessons… or co-operative learning methods where pupils work in groups.”
“Co-operative learning” and group work are likely to be methods Gibb dismisses as “progressive”. These methods, he claims, have “failed”. He asks people to join him in the “battle” against them. But his description of “progressive” education is a misleading parody – soundbites which pander to stereotypes of what “progressive” teaching methods are.
But as I’ve argued before, pitching “progressive” against “traditional” is a false dichotomy. Both are needed.
But I don’t expect Nick Gibb will agree with me.