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'A plague on the fundamentalism of synthetic phonics'

Andrew Davis, research fellow at Durham University's School of Education and former primary teacher, writes:

The coalition prides itself on no longer telling teachers how to teach. Yet the revised National Curriculum insists on a "first, fast and only" phonics approach to early reading. I’ve recently written about all this in a very short book, published in the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain’s Impact series, entitled To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics.

You might like a sample of the responses:

“Anyone who can get past para 3 is a saint”.


"A good read".

"….very detailed analysis of the highly promoted synthetic phonics approach. While seriously challenging synthetic phonics it is not dismissed as irrelevant, but set in context alongside other approaches. "

"I can't be bothered to answer the pretentious nonsense Davis dreams up. He doesn't teach YR/Y1!"

"…load of specious nonsense."

"Superbly argued piece...”

I am also said to be opposed to science per se, and compared to creationists.

Indeed on the TES Connect forums, more than 3,000 responses have been posted since I gave a lecture on the subject back in 2012.

So why the anger and the amazing range of reactions?

Just to remind you: the Year 1 programme of study in the new national curriculum says children must be taught to “respond speedily with the correct sound to graphemes (letters or groups of letters) for all 40+ phonemes, including, where applicable, alternative sounds for graphemes; read accurately by blending sounds in unfamiliar words”. It goes on to say that pupils must “practise their reading with books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words”.

All 5- to 6-year-olds in England now have a phonics "check". Children tackle twenty simple words and twenty  "pseudo words". Those knowing letter sounds and how to blend them will succeed. The results are reported to parents, Ofsted and the government. Nearly 180,000 Year 1 children failed to reach the expected standard in 2013.

What follows is a summary of where I stand on this issue (you might want to check your blood pressure before continuing).

Blending sounds does not immediately result in words, but in more complex sounds. The latter sometimes fit more than one word. For instance, "tax" blends to a sound which also fits "tacks", while the "mints" blend also matches "mince". Readers may need a context to identify the word concerned and how to say it. "Wind" and "row" are familiar examples, of which there are many in English.

It is a big step from mere blended sounds to words and meaning.  Accent affects pronunciation, which changes over time, as do spellings. The phonics "check" provides no context, so requires blending rather than reading. Arguably, no real words actually feature here. Yet the backwash from statutory assessment is a very familiar, powerful and often damaging phenomenon. Some fluent readers fail the check more than once.

I do not oppose phonics or even synthetic phonics, but, like many others, reject its universal and exclusive imposition on early readers. There are deep issues here about the very nature of teaching expertise and the extent to which it can, and should, draw on research. Here, in brief, is the argument that has provoked the greatest fury.

What actually counts as synthetic phonics? There are "principles", of course. Schemes requiring matched funding must “be designed for the teaching of discrete, daily sessions progressing from simple to more complex phonic knowledge and skills and covering the major grapheme/phoneme correspondences; demonstrate that phonemes should be blended, in order, from left to right, ‘all through the word’ for reading; ensure that as pupils move through the early stages of acquiring phonics, they are invited to practise by reading texts which are entirely de-codable...”.

But these abstract principles are open to a great variety of interpretations. What do teachers do when their accents differ from their pupils? When their pupils have a range of accents? When several pupils do not speak English as their native language? How will "letter sounds" be explained?

In some cases, the results of blending will be described as "words". How might the teacher invoke contexts to turn these blends into words with meaning? What are the strategies for pupils who already know which word or words the text might represent without blending? Surely there are plenty of good answers to all these questions, so lots of good interpretations of the abstract principles, depending on the pupils and circumstances.

What do real teachers do? They continually scan pupils’ faces, behaviour and replies, seeking to diagnose levels of knowledge, understanding, concentration and motivation.

Accordingly, they make multitudes of decisions modifying their language, task setting, organisation and timing. Once intelligent and sensitive teacher-pupil interaction is permitted, teacher-proof methods such as synthetic phonics, allegedly justified by certain research studies, vanish in a puff of non-educational smoke.  

There are no analogies here with the rigorous testing of drugs in randomised controlled trials. Teachers worthy of the name must respond to their pupils, who cannot be treated as though they were crops being fertilised.

The approaches of a good teacher are almost impossible to codify, and that is surely how it should be. Were it possible for the very general synthetic phonics principles to be made much more precise and detailed, we might then have a "teacher-proof" method, which in theory might be tested, but surely not in practice. For if teachers were to follow such a method they would arguably cease to be teachers.

So why the rage? You tell me.

Dr Davis is presenting his short book To read or not to read: Decoding synthetic phonics at a launch event at the Institute of Education, University of London, this evening (Wednesday 29 January). Dr Davis’s is the 20th short book to be published in the IMPACT series. IMPACT is an initiative of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain.

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