Minister’s mixed messages re phonics evidence raise concerns about enforced use of just one method.

Janet Downs's picture

For decades, the overwhelming weight of international evidence – including the influential longitudinal study from Clackmannanshire in Scotland – pointed to systematic phonics as the most effective way to teach children to read.’

Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, 23 February 2018   

Gibb is right: the international evidence cited by Gibb in the past supports the systematic teaching of any phonics method.  Unfortunately, Gibb’s other utterances support just one method: synthetic phonics.    His muddling of systematic and synthetic (or just plain phonics) suggests he’s unclear about the difference.  

Gibb’s promotion of synthetic phonics has proved very profitable for producers of synthetic phonics materials.   

Despite Gibb’s zealous endorsement of this method,  the EEF found insufficient evidence for the sole use of  synthetic phonics.      In Northern Ireland, where 10 year-olds performed better than English ones in the 2016international PIRLS reading test, the emphasis on synthetic phonics is much less than in England.  

But Gibb is undeterred.  The rise in the proportion of pupils passing the Key Stage One decoding test is down to a relentless focus on phonics, he says.  But a report commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in 2014 found teachers combined phonics with other methods.  

More recently, another DfE report said it’s too hasty to say policy changes introduced during the Coalition had improved reading performance in PIRLS.  

David Laws, schools minister during the Coalition, described Gibb as being ‘obsessive about phonics’ (p20 Coalition Diaries).      But ministerial obsession has spilled over into prescription.   This is disturbing.  I say this not as a ‘phonics denialist’ but someone who’d be just as annoyed if a minister prescribed Whole Books, Look-and-Say or the Initial Teaching Alphabet.

It’s doubly disturbing when minister-endorsed methodology becomes an Ofsted requirement.  This overrides teacher professionalism and prevents teachers from choosing other methods if they deem them to be appropriate.  

International reports, the EEF, even the DfE, show the evidence supporting the sole use of systematic synthetic phonics is not as conclusive as Gibb suggests. 

But what of Clackmannanshire, the lengthy trial which ended in 2005?  Do Clackmannanshire schools all use systematic synthetic phonics today?  That will be the subject of a future post.   

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