‘…a substantial body of evidence shows that systematic synthetic phonics is the most effective way to teach all children to read.’
School Reform Minister, Nick Gibb, speech
to Reading Reform Foundation, 28 March 2015
But it doesn’t. Regular readers will know (see sidebar) that Gibb’s ‘substantial body of evidence’ supports ANY method of teaching phonics as long as it’s systematic.
Even the quotation Gibb cites from the Australian National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy doesn’t endorse just synthetic phonics:
‘The evidence is clear […] that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. […]’
No mention in the evidence of synthetic phonics – the method which Gibb endorses so enthusiastically.
The substantial body of evidence also says phonics is but one component, albeit a very important one, in teaching reading. This was confirmed in a report
commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) in May 2014:
‘One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that many schools appear to believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods.'
But Gibb ignores ‘other methods’. There is only one way of teaching reading – synthetic phonics.
Gibb appears to think it is only this Government’s relentless focus on phonics which is improving reading. But systematic phonics was embedded in primary schools before Gibb started promoting his systematic/synthetic/one-or-the-other-or-both phonics programme. When he announced his matched-funding scheme for phonics materials, take-up was slow
. Gibb had to resort to naming-and-shaming local authorities where schools hadn’t rushed to buy the materials. This was because schools were already teaching phonics. The money would have been better spent in promoting comprehension. It was comprehension which needed more work, the Eurydice report
into the teaching of reading in Europe found - phonics was already well-established.
The phonics screening test assesses decoding. Decoding isn’t comprehension. Teachers say fluent readers, those who read for understanding, sometimes struggle with the pseudo-words in the test because they’re looking for meaning not nonsense.
Failing to understanding the difference between ‘systematic’ and ‘synthetic’; failing to understand the two terms are not interchangeable; and failing to understand what evidence about reading methods actually says - these result in nonsense.
Let’s hope future school ministers can comprehend as well as decode.