Phonics - the phight back!

Stephanie Gibson's picture
I know I am far from alone in lamenting the government's current obsession with synthetic phonics. However, the potential for this approach to the teaching of reading to become statutory (per the new English curriculum, and to some extent the new Professional Standards) is far more sinister and has wider implications for all of us as teachers. I cannot think of any other example where it has been a legal obligation to teach any element of any subject in a particular way.

It is particularly galling from a government which claims it wishes to give schools and teachers more professional freedom over their curriculum and indeed does not require academies to follow it at all, nor potentially to employ qualified teachers.

It is now vital that those of us who wish to challenge this dangerous state of affairs speak with a strong and united voice. so that the government has to acknowledge the degree of unease there is around the country.  If you disagree with the move towards all reading being taught through phonics OR regardless of your views on the phonics debate, you disagree with any teaching method becoming statutory, I would like to hear from you. I would also like to hear from parents whose children are struggling with phonics and for whom the remedy is more phonics.

Please see my letter in the TES of August 10th and get in touch on
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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 12/08/2012 - 12:13

See TES article "What keeps me awake at night - Please read up on phonics, Mr Gibb" which expressed disquiet about the excessive emphasis on synthetic phonics as the only method of teaching children to read and the brushing aside of other evidence (including some from the DfE) which says that phonics alone is not enough.

Andrew Old's picture
Sun, 12/08/2012 - 13:17

Janet, did you write that article which you are linking to?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 12/08/2012 - 13:24

Andrew what makes you think she didn't write it?

And please can you explain your comment below it? That's the kind of comment the TES regulars used to write to me shortly before I was banned or punished in other ways.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 12/08/2012 - 13:27

Ooooops - sorry I thought you were talking about Stephanie's letter not the article Janet linked to. My sincere apologies 'Andrew'.

Andy's picture
Sun, 12/08/2012 - 15:23

Stephanie, forgive me for what follows because it pure speculation on my part but I believe that the core, or a the very least a singularly significant, influence on the SoS's drive on phonics comes from his connection with one Tom Burkard:

"In a speech delivered at St Stephen’s Club on 5 November 2009, Michael Gove acknowledged that “Tom Burkard has done more than anyone living in the fight against illiteracy in this country.”

So love it or loathe it, this is where I look to find the centre piece for the drive on phonics.

Your fears may be well founded as I as friend of mine has recently completed their Additional Inspector training and had to pass a module on phonics top enable them to inspect in Primary schools.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/08/2012 - 10:25

Andy - Tom Burkard's proposal for a "military" free school in Oldham was rejected by the DfE. His connection with phonics was discussed on this thread below.

Andy's picture
Mon, 13/08/2012 - 14:00

I have mixed feelings about the rejection of the Pheonix Free School. On one hand I can see that the DFE gave way to the negative feed back the concept received but on the other it has become apparent that it may very well have been Mr Burkard's own single-minded intransigence regarding the mix of experienced teachers alongside appropriately qualified but inexperienced former service personnel that was his - and schools - undoing. Indeed, the level of sour grapes from Mr Burkard is self-evident in his comments on the schools website:

" • Application for proposed free school – the Phoenix School, staffed by Armed Forces veterans and backed by Lord Guthrie – was today rejected by DfE
• Phoenix had been identified as one of the 16 strongest out of about 250 Free School applicants by the New Schools Network
• Phoenix had 85% oversubscription of pupil numbers – yet DfE claims lack of community support
• Head of Studies would have been a former Tornado pilot who has been Head of Science at three independent schools. Free Schools programme only demands one qualified teacher in each school. Yet DfE rejects on grounds that Phoenix is reluctant to recruit ‘experienced’ teachers to run the show

“Michael Gove is fighting a difficult war against entrenched interests, but if the Free School programme reflects the prejudices of bureaucrats rather than the wishes of parents, there isn’t a lot of point to it.” Tom Burkard

"But perhaps the strangest reason given for rejection was that Burki and Burkard are reluctant to recruit experienced teachers to run the show. The designated Head of Studies is a former Tornado pilot with who has been Head of Science at three independent schools—aren’t British private schools good enough? Nor does it matter that the senior ranks it has been recruiting have proved that they can produce excellent results with young men and women who have been failed by conventional schooling."

The latter extracts reflect an arrogance and lack of tangible understanding of the differences between students at fee-paying schools and those in the maintained sector and the suffocating national curriculum in the state that fee payoing schools are not tied to and which despite the hollow rhetoric Free Schools still are largely tied obliged to follow.

I still believe that the concept has merits and could produce good results but this will not come to fruitition all the time Mr Burkard insists on his abject minimalism in recruiting experienced teachers and pins the literacy/oracy strategy to the single silo pedagogy of synthetic phonics. Draw on the full toolkit available within education and the Pheonix could well rise from its latest ashes ...

Andy's picture
Mon, 13/08/2012 - 10:34

Thank you Janet, I remember the thread well. You no doubt recall that I participated in it making several contributions.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/08/2012 - 11:48

Andy - that's why I provided the link so that other people could read the contributions if they wished to do so. However, it is a very long thread and can perhaps be summarised by this: 'The Rose report 2006, which strongly supported synthetic phonics made it clear that phonics, although important, was “not sufficient part of the wider knowledge, skills and understanding which children need to become skilled readers and writers.” ' In other words, phonics alone is not enough. Children need to be presented with a wide range of strategies to be used appropriately when children are learning to read. They also need more work on comprehension as recommended by the Eurydice report. And even a DfE report found that “phonics should be accompanied by innovative teaching practices that engage pupils in exciting lessons… or co-operative learning methods where pupils work in groups.”

Stephanie Gibson's picture
Wed, 22/08/2012 - 10:58

Sir Jim appears to be hardening in his attitude, sadly (viz his letter in the Guardian recently, aimed at Michael Rosen and quite unpleasant in tone, I thought.)
I read the Euridice Report recently and found it interesting - it says that phonics instruction clearly benefits children's reading and writing (and I don't think any of us would claim anything else) but also points out that this is much more effective in languages with more consistent phoneme-grapheme relationships. Having just spent a week in Italy, learning a little of the language through my phrase book, I could see that phonics teaching would be pretty straightforward for them - simple rules with very few exceptions. In English, however, it seems to me that children trying to read by "sounding out" expend so much energy doing so that the reading loses all meaning for them. This cannot be a sensible way to teach them! It is certainly counter to everything reading recovery teaches.
Two other brief points: firstly, that the vitriol with which our concerns are greeted by the SSP lobby suggests that there is more at stake here than meets the eye; and secondly, if it were that simple (to teach reading purely through SSP), most of us would have stumbled onto it by accident long ago. Don't they remember that it's all been tried before, including the ITA?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/08/2012 - 14:59

Unfortunately, the Eurydice report doesn’t seem to have had much impact on Nick Gibb and other supporters of synthetic phonics as the only way to teach pupils to read. Instead, they keep repeating such studies as that done in West Dunbartonshire (link below) which used synthetic phonics. However, the West Dunbartonshire programme didn’t rely just on synthetic phonics but recommended a “multiple-component literacy intervention” which is described as a “process” not an off-the-shelf product. The use of synthetic phonics was just one of ten strands in the process which included, among other things, individual support and engaging parents. The evaluation said the programme created a “buzz” around reading which inspired not just schools but families.

Yet not only is the Government forgetting all the other nine strands of the Dunbartonshire process but is recommending off-the-shelf products via its matched funding.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/08/2012 - 15:12

And we mustn't forget conflict of interest when phonics supporters (including one whose company published phonics materials which are now included in the list of the Government's matched-funding products) were on the national curriculum advisory committee.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/08/2012 - 18:14

Stephanie - you'll be interested in analysis by Adam Lefstein (Ben Gurion University of the Negev) of the Newsnight programmes on synthetic phonics teaching. He looked at the way Newsnight presented the argument and how the educational researcher who “invoked his academic authority” by expecting evidence to have been subjected to academic rigour (eg peer review) was set against someone who relied on her own personal experience of “what works” for her. The latter practitioner was presented as a “saviour” in the same mould as “Supernanny”.

Lefstein wrote that television is intolerant of complexity and asked “How can experts, who are typically attuned to the complexity, multiple contexts, history and ambivalence of their professional domains, effectively participate in a medium that “punishes” what they have to say?”

Lefstein found that Newsnight latched on to synthetic phonics and ignored other aspects of the “Read, Write, Inc” programme such as co-operative learning which Ruth Miskin, the founder of the programme, stressed were important. And teachers were not treated as experts in their field by being asked professional questions such as the advantages/disadvantages of particular schemes but were asked about their “feelings”.

Lefstein concluded: “The prestigious news programme has poorly served public debate: by narrowing the problem of educational improvement to a question of teaching method [synthetic phonics alone], by promoting a “makeover” approach to school reform, and by casting the issue in the inherited yet inadequate terms of the traditional “reading wars” frame. “

Andrew Old's picture
Wed, 22/08/2012 - 15:48

Outrageously selective as ever. If I remember correctly, the Dunbartonshire study was a study of a multi-component intervention which worked and so that's what it recommended. However, it did not compare "multi-component" with "synthetic phonics" and conclude that "multi-component" was better. It judged intervention to be better than no intervention.

It did also look at individual parts of the "multi-component" approach and discovered:

"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."

Incidentally, I haven't had time to read the whole Eurydice report, but when I skimmed through it, the only justification I could find for it rejecting the evidence on phonics was one single pamphlet (not peer-reviewed research) by a phonics denialist group in the US.

If you think the Eurydice report includes solid evidence against synthetic phonics, perhaps you could identify it? Otherwise it looks like you think the Eurydice report is, itself, the evidence and we are back to the situation where you simply look for opinions that agree with you and call that "evidence".

Incidentally, I asked you a whole bunch of questions before about the basis on which you decide what you do or do not consider evidence and you chose not to answer any of them. Any chance you could sort that out?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 22/08/2012 - 18:30

Stephanie - you're correct that the Eurydice report shows that phonics is beneficial (especially when the pupil's native language is regular). It also showed that most teachers in English schools already use this method. And Eurydice pointed out that phonics alone is not enough - work on comprehension was also essential.

However, to say that is to risk venom being heaped on your head and your being accused of being anti-synthetic phonics. If you say that reading programmes which include phonics also include other strategies (such as the co-operative learning recommended in Miskin's scheme) or that West Dunbartonshire was a multi-component programme which praised phonics but recommended other strategies as well or that the Government is wrong to push synthetic phonics as the one-and-only-method of teaching reading, then you risk being accused of being a heretic. Expect the Inquisition to heap coals on your head.

Andy's picture
Thu, 23/08/2012 - 10:26

It strikes me that there is the danger that one contributor is attempting to drag the debate down to the level of a polemical argument in that they clearly portray any criticism of synthetic phonics as outright educational heresy. The basis of this is that their personal and borrowed experiences, which do not appear to have been subjected to external validation and verification, lead them to believe that synthetic phonics provides a one size fits all panacea in remedying literacy and oracy ills. Therein is the singular flaw in that position. That is to say that there have never been and never will be a one size fits all strategy for any aspect of teaching literacy/oracy. Whereas there is ample evidence that phonics is clearly a powerful and important tool alongside others that when harnessed together bring about tangible sustainable results.

This is - or could be - a fine example of how the much maligned personalised learning approach that focuses on what is best for the pupil has considerable untapped power. That is to say, know your pupils well enough that your lesson/unit of work can be delivered effectively with sustainably improved outcomes through a variety of strategies whether that be synthetic or analytical phonics or other blended approaches but this must be backed up by robust, consistent and well-understood teaching and learning, and behaviour policies alongside provision of appropriate funding/resources and realistic class sizes. The latter components in and of themselves underscore that one strategy/pedagogy alone is insufficient to do the job.

Some will undoubtedly accuse me of stretching a point to destruction here but I see a parallel thought process with the Pheonix Free School at play here:

1. Synthetic Phonics is the singular cure all pedagogy for literacy/oracy. The Pheonix FS only needs one formally qualified and recognised teacher because ex-Forces personnel are the cure all for all barriers and obstacles to learniing.

2. Anyone that criticizes or raises questions about synthetic phonics doesn't know what they are talking about. Critics of the Pheonix FS project who worry about the lack of formally qualified teachers are 'prejudiced bureaucrats' causing the SoS to fight against entrenched views. The latter reflects a similar polemical approach to those that attack all who question synthetic phonics as the only answer.

It follows then that it is somewhat rich to state that other contributors are being "Outrageously selective ...", when that is exactly the position adopted by the commentator themselves.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 23/08/2012 - 12:08

Andy - thank you for your measured response. I worry that the debate around teaching children to read degenerates into a "reading wars" scenario (this was a criticism of the Newsnight programmes - see above). Any criticism of a one-size-fits-all approach - in this case synthetic phonics but it could equally well be whole-books or ITA - is attacked vehemently as opposition to the system being promoted.

The debate is also highjacked by setting up false dichotomies such as: intervention v non-intervention (rather than different intervention); traditional v progressive; synthetic phonics v "look and see" (sic)* and reading success (via the favoured strategy) v reading failure (without it).

*the interviewer on the Newsnight programme described one way of teaching reading as "look and see" despite putting herself forward as a knowledgeable person qualified to discuss the teaching of reading with experts.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 28/08/2012 - 09:24

I absolutely loved this program on BBC4 last night about dyslexia and phonics.

It was particularly nice to have the opportunity to watch evidence about child development being turned over slowly and carefully completely away from policy or headlines.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 28/08/2012 - 10:51

Rebecca: it was interesting that the programme highlighted research which found that dyslexics had difficulty in differentiating sound and rhythm. This in turn stressed the importance of singing and dancing with very young children (from day one).

I was intrigued by the suggestion that texting actually aids learning by letting texters apply language rules to use language creatively.

The quiz accompanying the programme said this about phonics:

“Phonics approaches teach children the relationship between sounds, letters and words. Systematic phonics emphasise blending isolated sounds to make whole words. Analytic phonics uses whole words to teach the recognition of word patterns and sounds. Research evidence supports the use of both approaches and early intervention, but overall does not support the use of one over the other. Multi-sensory approaches that combine sounds, textures and images are recommended by teachers but have yet to be supported by a robust evidence base.”

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 28/08/2012 - 11:27

The obvious thing to me, Janet, is how little we still know.

If dyslexic children aren't hearing rhythm and pitch correctly how come their speech is not impaired? This points to learning by 'sampling' sounds rather than by parsing doesn't it? If they are 'sampling' rather than decoding sounds then different things might work for them....

As well as phonics associated with reading there are also phonic systems associate with parsing sound in ways which bypass standard reading. One of these is 'The Silent Way'. Here's a link to a lecture about this which I was at which gives an introduction to what this is.

Essentially it is literal phonics - each colour links to an actual sound. Letters, of course, make different sounds depending on their context.

I wish there were some research going on into whether dyslexics can read colours laid out in this way. It takes some time to learn to read the colours so a significant amount of commitment is needed by participants. It also takes time to train teachers.

Aspects of 'The Silent Way' directly contradict Matt Davis' findings - in that he's concluded that young children need exposure to a language if they want to later speak it like a native. The amazing thing about the Silent Way is that once you can read it you can read it in any language immediately and speak it with perfect pronunciation with only a small amount of intervention focusing on phonemes (colours) which exist in the new language but with which the student is not yet familiar. Interesting stuff. We know so little about the brain!

It was good to see the program emphasising the importance of the visual and multi-sensorial teaching which were so popular before they were effectively obliterated by the national framework.

Stephanie Gibson's picture
Tue, 04/09/2012 - 17:39

The debate really needs to move on from whether synthetic phonics is effective in teaching reading (about which we are all entitled to have our own opinions. Some of us have opinions based on thirty years' practical experience and academic learning which we are entitled to have taken seriously), and to address the underlying question of whether it is morally justified for the government to decide that this is the only method which is allowed by law to be taught in our schools. To my knowledge, this has never happened before. It is dangerous and misguided.
Based on my experience and learning, I fear that it will all go horribly wrong - but not before it has blighted the literary experience of a whole generation of children, particularly those who already struggle to learn to read.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 09:39


Okay, so let's move the debate on as you indicate.

On anther thread I raised an analogy that I'd like you to consider. Imagine your own reactions if you were to go to a doctor and he, standing on his dignity and with much talk of his professional independence, either

a. Refused to prescribe a drug for your condition that is known to be the most efficacious and recommended by NICE on the grounds that he had ideological objections to the pharma company that manufactured it.


b. Knowingly and willfully prescribed two drug together despite Department of Health warnings that one nullified or, at least, considerably reduced the effect of the other?

As I understand it, the supporters of synthetic phonics want 'best practice' to be that phonics is used 'first and fast' and alone for up to 16 weeks. In my local primary that is done - the 16 weeks beginning in reception, whereafter a range of other strategies, sight word cards etc are introduced. I can't see how this approach is likely to 'blight the literary experience of a whole generation'. In fact, the opposite is the case, with nearly all the kids being independent and keen readers quite early in Y1.

I hope that I can make a positive contribution to this thread without it being perceived as a 'vitriolic' SSP response as referred to above. My aim is to provide some thoughts to clarify some of the issues raised in previous posts which I consider to be based on some misunderstanding, or misinformation, some lack of logic - even some bias.
The common ideas of 'No one size fits all' and 'Children have different learning styles' are very understandable. These were addressed by Jim Rose in his Final Report when he stated that it is the 'same' alphabetic code knowledge that all beginners need and that children should not be left to 'ferret out' this information on their own.
For many years, however, many children have been left to ferret out alphabetic code information. It is highly unlikely that, in the main, a couple of generations of people have received anything like the systematic, synthetic phonics teaching which is currently recommended in our schools. Thus, the phonics alphabetic code knowledge and skills which most teachers have acquired themselves is most likely to have been 'ferreted out' - perhaps supported by some casual, or partial, phonics teaching and learning acquired at school or at home as children. Whatever the case, it is understandable that many adults comment that they never had rigorous, systematic phonics experiences so they question why such teaching is needed now.
I suggest, however, that just because it is possible for people to become totally literate from being able to pick up phonics knowledge and skills over the years does not justify not teaching the alphabetic code of our language in the present. The extraordinary situation is that the teaching of the alphabetic code in a comprehensive and systematic way was abandoned in our schools in the first place.
The reality is that phonics teaching was abandoned in general terms in our universities and in our schools - instead, as everyone knows, a plethora of approaches - and philosophies - have influenced teaching practices over the years - and still continue to do so.
It seems to me, possibly, that so many people are up in arms about the current promotion of systematic synthetic phonics for a number of reasons, one being that they, as children, did not require such teaching to have enabled them to be literate - and also that they, as teachers, have had considerable success in teaching children to become literate without teaching the alphabetic code comprehensively - so why should they teach it now.
What I am trying to say is that it is understandable from the persective that people can become totally literate without experiencing comprehensive teaching of the alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills - for people to object to the emphasis of such explicit and comprehensive teaching in the modern context.
I myself experienced very little explicit phonics teaching as a child - and managed to become literate without it - but I don't hesitate to recommend/promote/train in SSP now because I recognise its enormous advantages for all the children/learners - and I have witnessed the damage from not teaching alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills for many children. It took me many years of teaching, parenting, tutoring, however, to understand all the issues, to investigate the research and leading-edge practice, to hone my teaching skills leading me to my current position (of promoting SSP).
The arguments regarding whether SSP is a magic bullet as a 'one and only' approach are not at all clarified in the public domain or in the teaching profession. I, and other SSP proponents, totally agree that phonics is only one aspect of teaching reading, and literacy, and I (we) have welcomed the Simple View of Reading illustration for many reasons - one being that it shows clearly that being able to read the words on the page is only part of the bigger requirements to creating 'readers'.
I (we) also totally acknowledge other issues which affect outcomes - such as classroom management, rigour, motivation, language and literature enrichment - and so on - all as key and essential components to creating literate people with an enthusiasm for reading and writing. But no-one in the so-called SSP camp has ever denied these things and I actually don't understand why this accusation is being made. It is a misunderstanding to suggest that SSP proponents consider 'success' is attributable to SSP alone.
But, where the mantra 'phonics first, fast and only' arose some years ago - this may have misled people to think of SSP as very narrow and exclusive. What it refers to is that SSP teaching does not include 'multi-cueing guessing strategies' specifically when these amount to guessing words by their shape, guessing words from picture cues, guessing words from reading on and thinking what word 'might fit'. This is an area of contention as these are reading strategies which teachers have been trained in for a number of years, they are strategies which children need to default to when they are asked to read books independently which include alphabetic code that they have not been taught, or simply cannot access - so they have to get through the books with lots of guessing. These are strategies which are embedded in much of general reading instruction and in many 'established' intervention programmes.
Rose pointed out that such strategies detract and dilute the phonics teaching - but it is even worse than that because some children are not served by these multi-cueing strategies at all even though other children will be more or less fine and can cope with them - especially if they are generally articulate children.
These multi-cueing strategies, however, are not based on research, can damage children's reading habits in the short and the long-term - and they are not what adult, literate readers need. We, the adult, literate people need phonics knowledge and skills to decode new and unknown words - there are no picture cues in the long term, and if new words are not in our oral vocabularies to give us a 'leg up' for reading the words, then there is only phonics application which will enable us to read those new words.
This idea that SSP is the 'only' approach for early reading relates to 'not multi-cueing reading strategies' bit I suggest that this has become confused and misinterpreted as meaning a denial of the role of various components of teaching, for example, in the Dunbartonshire study and in the effectiveness of Ruth Miskin's approach to teaching.
Re the role of government in promoting SSP: I suggest that where countries have a persistent problem of a high percentage of weak literacy, it is right that there should be governmental concern. It is in the English-speaking countries that there is a large group of people with weak literacy - and this, without doubt, is a 'life-chance' issue for the individuals concerned and understandably this causes national concern.
In the UK, there has been a parliamentary inquiry, and the independent Rose review into the teaching of reading where both research and leading-edge practice was investigated - both taken into account - and part of this process was to look at a number of schools using different programmes and practices. It is very unfortunate that only one programme, in the main, has been highlighted in the media - such as the Newsnight series and the Channel 4 series. This is not to downplay the great success of the RWI programme and practices in being able to train teachers and assistants 'en masse' and to turn schools around where literacy levels (and often behaviour) were/are an issue.
Part of the success of the SP 'lobby' (as everyone likes to put it), however, is the voice of many people using different programmes and routines who have approached government to share their results. Partly they have done this through the auspices of the UK Reading Reform Foundation and partly they have done this independently - but the common voice has been the recognition of the practices which are 'in common' to these different programmes.
What is so sad, and so unfair (I think) is the lack of appreciation that this voice has come from the classroom - and many classrooms. I myself am someone who has taught for many years in many schools in many circumstances - as have others who have tried to have their voices heard. When teachers can say, "We are the same staff, teaching in the same school with the same intake, and yet when we changed our practices to SP we noted a huge difference in results" then this, in itself, is a very note-worthy state of affairs. Such teachers have had no edge, nothing to sell, nothing to gain, they just wanted to share their findings with others.
In reality, it has taken years and years for people with any degree of authority to sit up and take notice. Sue Lloyd of Jolly Phonics (and her colleagues) tried for years to alert their Local Authority, for example, of their findings at Woods Loke to no avail. Why would this be?
So, whereas Ruth Miskin has attracted considerable attention, for good reason, according to the outstanding results in one of the schools where she was headteacher for many years, and according to the results in many schools subsequently, it is not only one person, with one school, and one programme that has helped to raise attention to the potential of SSP teaching.
You could look at it like this, why wouldn't the government pay attention, at last, to this 'voice' of so many who have been trying to attract attention to their results from a change of practice - a change away from multi-cueing reading strategies and predictable, repetitive reading books - to SSP and cumulative, decodable reading books?
Why would people like me spend years of personal time investigating the research findings and lobbying government - because of our concern for the dramatic improvement in teaching and learning effectiveness with the application of SSP teaching in our classrooms which was being ignored by people in authority for a very long time.
So, we are now perceived as being people with commercial interests, extremists, lobbyists, and so on - but we are simply human beings in the teaching profession (and/or research community and parents) who have found something which works so much better for our children despite their individual learning styles - and despite the fact that we, ourselves, may not have been taught with SSP as children.
We are educationalists - and have often put our personal lives on hold to try to further our understanding and to share our findings - so important do we consider them to be.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 02/10/2012 - 19:33

Good post Debbie.

You may not be aware of the dynamics around you in cyberspace.

One of the most challenging aspect of the debate about phonics is that the powerful proponents of it on the internet also seem not to be particularly well grounded, they can be highly political, they are often anonymous and they can also be aggressive and seem to have dubious agendas.

When you first contribute to a forum like this you will feel some of the annoyance this behaviour causes. You will find that good contributors ask you some quite challenging questions. This is mainly because these challenging questions are needed to prompt you to talk in the kind of length and depth which will actually allow you to make coherent points. Unless we do that you will just blur in with the less savoury and constructive contributors. Sadly the character attribute and experience you attribute to supporters of SSP are not universal.

Welcome to the forum. It's a feisty place but it's also very liberating when you get used to it.

If you'd like to chat in rather less fraught forums I recommend joining linkedin and contributing to some of the groups there. Because there are no anonymous contributors and you can see what people do they're easier to manage. But if you stick it out here and contribute quite often you'll find it does become easier because the regular contributors get to know you.

Thank you for your welcome, Rebecca.

You said:

"Sadly the character attribute and experience you attribute to supporters of SSP are not universal."

I don't know the history of this forum as I have only just discovered it, so I don't know to whom you refer.

The enormous irony of this is that I perceive the situation the reverse way around.

There is a great deal of antagonism in the public and educational domain regarding the use of, and promotion of, SSP. Many of the accusations levelled at the type of teaching is entirely unfounded - and I shall continue to clarify various confusions as much as I can when I can.

The bottom line is that there are choices the teaching profession can make regarding the teaching of the alphabetic code:

1) Teach it in part
2) Abandon teaching it
3) Teach it thoroughly

I'm in the latter camp - and believe it is a great shame that we don't have everyone on board because this is a life-chance issue to so many of our young people.

Thank you for your welcome, Rebecca.

You said:

"Sadly the character attribute and experience you attribute to supporters of SSP are not universal."

I don't know the history of this forum as I have only just discovered it, so I don't know to whom you refer.

The enormous irony of this is that I perceive the situation the reverse way around.

There is a great deal of antagonism in the public and educational domain regarding the use of, and promotion of, SSP. Many of the accusations levelled at the type of teaching are entirely unfounded - and I shall continue to clarify various confusions as much as I can when I can.

The bottom line is that there are choices the teaching profession can make regarding the teaching of the alphabetic code:

1) Teach it in part
2) Abandon teaching it
3) Teach it thoroughly

I'm in the latter camp - and believe it is a great shame that we don't have everyone on board because this is a life-chance issue to so many of our young people.

PS: Are there editing facilities on this forum for typos and grammatical errors? I should take more care when I first post!!!

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 04/10/2012 - 21:27

Just some comments which you may find helpful as you get your bearings Debbie. If they miss the mark please ignore them and accept my apologies. I don't know you.

The first thing to say is that when people first contribute to forums, blog communities and so on they often feel like they are under vicious attack. I work with people on learning to cope with this. I often use an analogy of a dinner party where everybody there is extremely autistic but is unaware that they are. Forums are like that because you get no non-linguistic cues regarding how people feel about what you're saying. You can't pick up on body language at all. And beyond that most people have their sensitive points, their sacred cows, their 'elephants in the room' which in normal social circumstances they work around but in forums they can't. Everything is rapidly and scarily hung out to dry and it can feel like you're under violent emotional attack. But it's usually not deliberate. It's just the nature of the medium we're working with. And you'll be having that effect on other people too - which is the hardest thing for most people to realise as they're used to being perfectly sensitive and accommodating people face-to-face. Anyway after a while you get used to it and it actually becomes liberating.

But it does take a while to get used to. Here are some notes on tactics which help:

Secondly, on the particular topic of phonics, the conversation which you joined in had been about whether a school should be put into special measures / forced to become an academy because it hadn't completely sorted out it's problems with phonics as rapidly as some other schools had. So although phonics was the apparent topic there was actually a lot going on which was making posters angry. So you were right to change thread and find a conversation which really was about phonics to post on.
(end of part 1 of this post)

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 04/10/2012 - 21:32

(part 2 of the above post)
Thirdly - regarding the individuals who are supporting phonics. If you look at 'Old Andrew' on this thread (who is a very powerful anonymous character in cyberspace) and the likes of Tom Burkard and so on you'll find there appear to be a group of posters who are violently pro-phonics and claim to be teachers but have disturbingly political agendas and seem to have a Woodheadesque quack academic feel about them. They don't tend to be able to ground their comments in anything I recognise as reality. This frustrates me because I'm interested in having conversations which relate to the real world and it scares me partly because many of their comments seem to be violently naive but they can't talk about them because they can't mentally manipulate reality but also because they seem to have a lot of power.

But the grants for phonics materials initiative seems to have come from the real world as I know it - especially in its current form where on 50% has to be spent on phonics materials. I'm getting good feedback from a wide variety of schools who are using it in different ways.

Re: your three points.
I think maybe I'd like to add another dimension.

Quite a lot of schools work through phonics by giving the children homeworks every week focusing on a different group of letters (learning spellings, making up sentences etc.). This is simple to do and it seems to be very effective in schools where the vast majority of children do their homework. I agree that a good FSKS1 synthetic phonics introduction is needed to.

But I think the most substantial work (such as that demonstrated in the program with Ruth Miskin) is needed in the schools which have substantial chunks of some of the issues which destabalise learning (such as children not doing homework, substantial E2L issues, transient populations and so on). But it is not needed if such schools have managed to get properly on top of literacy through other means (such as typical teaching supported by large bodies of volunteers who are hearing reading in an effective way).

I think I'm in camp 3 too but I'm trying to say that for schools which are on top of literacy teaching phonics thoroughly need only be introducing synthetic phonic sounds to support children in learning to decode and traditional systematic phonics through homework worksheets, a bit of classwork and tests. I suppose I'm replacing the emphasis you have placed on 'teaching' phonics with an emphasis on children 'learning' phonics.

I think I'm also saying that 'teacher centred' phonics and literacy is good enough in quite a lot of schools but that more 'child centred' phonics is needed in those which face many challenges which would mean that too many would get left behind with a fully teacher centred system.

I'm using phonics a bit carelessly as a term when perhaps I should be using literary or alphabetic code.....?

Anyway - I'm out of my depth by now so back to you. I'm interested to read what you have to say.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 03/11/2012 - 10:27

Stephanie's article, "No swimming allowed in the phonics pool" (or should that be "Know swimming aloud in the fonix pool") was published in TES on 26 October. TES published a short letter from Colin Richards in response on 2 November.

Stephanie Gibson's picture
Sat, 03/11/2012 - 11:34

It's one of life's ironies that we all feel attacked and labelled by those with different views about this subject!
Debbie - you are certainly a more measured proponent of SSP than some others. I heard a headteacher say on Radio 4 recently that he "can't see when you would ever need any other strategy."
It's interesting that you say that although most of today's adult readers are perfectly literate without having been taught phonics, this means that they aren't really literate at all. (Illustrated by my point in my Swimming Pool article.)
When do adults ever need to decode new words without any other cues? I'll give you one example - I was visiting a National Trust garden and wanted to look up the name of a plant. I had to decode the word (which I do pretty efficiently, despite my own deficient primary education) but it was still slow and labour intensive. If a new word is not in our vocabulary and therefore we do not know its meaning, there is scant advantage in being able to decode it. In fact, we can't be absolutely sure we are decoding it correctly, because so much depends on the context. Is it "progress" or "progress"? Depends on its place and role in the sentence.
Interestingly, whilst I was doing some research online, I came across an American reading program. In its introduction, it says: "This is primarily a phonetic program. But children cannot learn to read just using phonics. It is boring and difficult..." This is very different from claiming that "children don't need any other strategies."
In terms of phonics, of course if you teach it in the way Ruth Miskin did in her school, there will be improvements. But she may well have been replacing nothing (or nothing much) with phonics, rather than something else that was being delivered with the same rigour. In my own school, I raised the profile of reading, which wasn't really being taught at all - books were sent home for parents to work on, and standards were poor. Not surprisingly, standards have now risen considerably. But we aren't using a phonics fast and first approach. In fact, our children are reading books by the end of reception that they couldn't possibly be reading using phonic decoding.
My other concern is that this has not been tested in the long term. We seem to be obsessed in this country by getting children doing things at four and five years old which most other countries agree are not appropriate and have homed in on a system that appears to deliver early success. But we don't yet know what sort of adult readers this approach will produce.
There is also a concern that this approach is at odds with our understanding of children's phonological development. We go in at phoneme level when children are just four - many of them are not ready for this. Children begin with a logographic understanding which moves into alphabetic at a later stage. I've yet to hear how
Finally, we need to keep the debate in proportion. We currently have 20% of children - or just under - not reaching Level 4 by age 11. That means 80% are. And Level 5 reading is around 35 - 40%. In my experience, the children who don't achieve Level 4 have poor language skills and limited vocabulary which makes reading difficult, and cannot yet infer meaning beyond the literal. I can't see that SSP will have much impact on this.
I spend a lot of my time working with children who are struggling with reading and usually with writing too. In the vast majority of cases, it is over-dependence on phonics that has caused their problems. It is by taking the phonics out, building other strategies and then re-introducing phonics gradually that I see a turnaround.
Mr Tarr - your analogy is meaningless and offensive. I don't generally object to anything on idealogical grounds (except maybe torture) and certainly not in education. Frankly, if my doctor told me s/he had ideological objections to a company, I'd ask why and might well share them, in which case I'd prefer a different medicine anyway.
But my concerns about this issue are grounded in the evidence I have seen before my eyes over thirty years of teaching. Actually, I want the best for children too!

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 04/11/2012 - 09:14

Masha Bell, Literacy researcher for the English Spelling Society, also had a letter in TES 2 November 2012 calling for English spelling reform:

Andy V's picture
Sun, 04/11/2012 - 11:03

Personally I do not agree the focus of Masha's letter, which I perceive to be misplaced in terms of language useage. Nor do I see that there is much, if any, relationship to phonics. It is surely important to understand the different meanings of words irrespective of the fact that sound the same e.g. if the story book says 'the swings are over there' will become nonsensical if one were to write 'the swings are over they're'. The inference of Masha's letter is that the vocabulary should change to reflect one word that covers the meanings for their, there, they're would, in my humble opinion, only serve to further complicate the language.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 04/11/2012 - 11:55

Andy - I think the relationship between phonics and spelling is that English spelling is not phonetically regular in the way that, say, Spanish is. David Crystal, author of Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling, has a different idea - become familiar with the history of English spelling. If writers know why English words are spelt the way they are then the barrier to good spelling would be raised (although not removed entirely, I fear).

However, knowing the history of English spelling isn't going to help beginner readers struggling to learn to read via phonics alone.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 04/11/2012 - 12:06

Thanks, Janet - I may even invest in a copy.

I recognise the difficulties of learning the language and accept that the construction of a word is what makes it easier or harder to grasp and pronounce but I still minded that phonics is no reason for the eradication of homophones. Beneath the homophone label lies the crucial element of meaning and therefore the necessity to understand that words with similar/the same sound as each other have very different meanings.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 04/11/2012 - 13:16

And on a lighter but telling note:

The English Plural
according to George Carlin 1937 - 2008

We'll begin with a box, and the plural is boxes,
But the plural of ox becomes oxen, not oxes.
One fowl is a goose, but two are called geese,
Yet the plural of moose should never be meese.
You may find a lone mouse or a nest full of mice,
Yet the plural of house is houses, not hice.

If the plural of man is always called men,
Why shouldn't the plural of pan be called pen?
If I speak of my foot and show you my feet,
And I give you a boot, would a pair be called beet?
If one is a tooth and a whole set are teeth,
Why shouldn't the plural of booth be called beeth?

Then one may be that, and three would be those,
Yet hat in the plural would never be hose,
And the plural of cat is cats, not cose.
We speak of a brother and also of brethren,
But though we say mother, we never say methren.
Then the masculine pronouns are he, his and him,
But imagine the feminine: she, shis and shim!

Let's face it - English is a crazy language.
There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger;
Neither apple nor pine in pineapple.
English muffins weren't invented in England.

We take English for granted, but if we explore its paradoxes,
We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square,
And a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.
And why is it that writers write, but fingers don't fing,
Grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham?

Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend?
If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them,
What do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught?
If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat
Sometimes I think all the folks who grew up speakingEnglish
Should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane.
In what other language do people recite at a play and play at a recital?

We ship by truck but send cargo by ship...
We have noses that run and feet that smell.
We park in a driveway and drive in a parkway.
And how can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same,
While a wise man and a wise guy are opposites?

You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language
In which your house can burn up as it burns down,
In which you fill in a form by filling it out,
And in which an alarm goes off by going on.

And in closing..........

If Father is Pop, how come Mother's not Mop.???

English a beautiful and eminently flexible but deeply frustrating language ...

Jenny Byrne's picture
Wed, 06/02/2013 - 19:02

Why do you all confuse phonetics with phonics and spelling with grammar? English has 44 sounds. Something like 170 letter combinations cover all those sounds except one. Phonics requires connecting the sound to the various letter combinations that represent it in print. So 'f' = (initially) 'f' and 'ph' and also (in endings) 'ff' and 'gh' (as well as 'f'' and 'ph' obviously). That is a finite number of possibilities and does not require any guessing games.
As a child my mother taught me to read, and I read Janet and John (which I had never seen before - we had Noddy, Sunny Stories and the BBC's children's mag) while the rest of the class did phonics (I was bored by Janet and John (though it gave me an insight into how other children lived) and spent a lot of time wondering about the difference in shape of the letter 'a' as printed compared to written). I have a speech impediment which led later teachers to think I could not read, but it made no difference to my ability to learn to read. Grammar has little to do with decoding and something to do with meaning - and meaning is deduced from the context - spelling has to do with letter combinations that represent sounds as is linked to awareness of sounds. Why is this so difficult?
Reading, of course, should be taught in a rich environment of stories read from books by the teacher and parents, and parents should become involved in the learning process. But neither pleasure nor meaning can be got if you cannot read the words accurately and without having to predict or guess the next word. Let your child read it - don't let your child guess.

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