Imposing synthetic phonics is 'almost abuse', says academic

Insisting that children who can already read when they start school must learn synthetic phonics is “almost a form of abuse”, a leading education academic has claimed.

Andrew Davis, research fellow at Durham University, said that it is an “affront” to those pupils if teachers feel they still have to go over the links between sounds and letters, when they should instead be encouraged to read at the level they have already reached.

In his publication, To read or not to read, Dr Davis adds that for children not yet able to read, the emphasis on synthetic phonics can give them the illusion that “proper” reading is mere "decoding and blending".

Synthetic phonics teaches children the link between letters or groups of letters and the sounds they represent and then how to blend the sounds into words. The argument over the best way to teach children to read has raged for decades, but has become increasingly fierce with the increasing prominence of synthetic phonics in the last decade.

Davis likens rival camps in the argument over synthetic phonics to “religious fundamentalists” because each party is convinced that their particular approach is right and they insist no other strategies are appropriate while theirs are being pursued.

Speaking to the TES, Davis said that it was not the value of synthetic phonics that he was questioning, but its universal imposition.

“Suppose we found a way of teaching multiplication that involved teachers not smiling. The most sensible approach would be for teachers to say that is worth knowing, but it doesn’t settle the issue, because there may be some children who are upset by this method.

“Teachers can learn a lot from educational research, but must be left to make professional decisions.”

The drive to embed synthetic phonics in schools began under the last Labour government, which recommended that children had one discrete 20-minute synthetic phonics session a day. The coalition government has since introduced a statutory phonics test at the end of Year 1 as part of changes to the national curriculum.

But Debbie Hepplewhite, one of the prime advocates of synthetic phonics and author of the Phonics International programme, said that she fundamentally disagreed with Davis.

“What is extraordinary and very worrying is that some academics think that teachers should have the autonomy not to teach the alphabetic code, the link between sounds and letters, or to teach it less thoroughly or just teach it to some children," Ms Hepplewhite said.

“It shouldn’t be controversial, teaching the alphabetic code should be like teaching the times tables. To use language like ‘child abuse’ just makes no sense.”

Rosamund McNeil, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said: “Synthetic phonics is one way of teaching reading but it is not the only one. The government needs to trust the profession to make the right decisions for the children they teach, not harass and bully them until they feel that they have no choice but to accept the latest diktat from above.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities.”

In 2013, 69 per cent of pupils reached the standard expected in phonics by the end of Year 1 and 85 per cent did so by the end of Year 2.

The short book will be launched at the Institute of Education in London tomorrow. Meanwhile, the debate over phonics rages on on the TES Connect forums.

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