Phonics 'fundamentalism' is based on flawed science, says education expert

By Jonathan Owen on 22 November 2017

Learning to read requires more than merely sounding out words, according to leading academic

The Department for Education’s promotion of synthetic phonics can be damaging to early readers and is seriously flawed, according to a leading education academic.

The way reading is being taught has “disturbing and potentially destructive consequences” for teachers and pupils, warns Dr Andrew Davis, honorary research fellow at the University of Durham’s school of education.

Synthetic phonics teaches children to sound out letters and blend those sounds into actual words and is the government's favoured reading method for primary school pupils.

In a new book, Dr Davis says: “It really does look as though they are trying to make all teachers teach all pupils in a particular way, regardless of what those teachers know of individual differences and needs”.

He adds that giving children who are already reading “a rigid diet of intensive phonics could make a destructive impact on their emerging identities as persons”.

'An aberration'

It is wrong to claim that science can show the best way of teaching reading, according to Dr Davis, who says: “The legitimate authority of [science] has been extended to domains where it has no place. Popular culture – and even educational research – sometimes endorse this aberration”.

Evidence-based methods “constitute a threat if attempts are made to impose them on all teachers and young children on the grounds that they are endowed with ‘scientific’ authority”.

This is because such “so-called methods prove to be singularly elusive on closer examination – and policy based on empty constructs can be especially dangerous. It attempts to force teachers to engage comprehensively in certain specific kinds of classroom practices when there is no justification for doing so”.

Phonics has its place

Dr Davis “used phonics in all shapes and sizes” during his time as a primary school teacher and says “this aspect of supporting early readers seemed like basic common sense”.

But a “fundamentalism” has sprung up around the issue, where unless you teach only synthetic phonics “for a period of time for early readers, you are in fact deemed to be against it”.

School standards minister Nick Gibb is criticised in the book. It says: “Gibb ‘knows’ that synthetic phonics first and fast is the way to teach early reading".

"If a health minister professed to know how to use a scalpel, the government might decide to put in place a ‘scalpel effective use’ check, to be taken by all would-be surgeons. Those failing the check might be obliged to retake it. Meanwhile, patients would continue to die.”

Mr Gibb insists: “UK and international research overwhelmingly shows that phonics teaching in a language-rich environment is the most effective way of teaching children of all abilities and backgrounds to read”.

The schools standards minister adds: "Thanks to the hard work of teachers, and our continued focus on raising standards and emphasis on phonics, 154,000 more six year olds are on track to becoming fluent readers than in 2012. We want every child to fulfil their potential and this means ensuring all pupils can read fluently by the time they leave primary school".

Dr Davis’s new book, A Critique of Pure Teaching Methods and the Case of Synthetic Phonics, published by Bloomsbury, is being launched at the UCL Institute of Education in London today.

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