Let's admit we were wrong about phonics

24th May 1996 at 01:00
Quite remarkable. When Her Majesty's Inspectorate reported on low standards of reading in three London boroughs, the findings were not disputed by teachers - even though it was the teachers who got the blame.

HMI was roundly attacked, of course, but not for its conclusions. It was the presentation that irked the profession. Obsessed with their public image rather than with their performance, teachers didn't want OFSTED to keep focusing on the problems but to seek out and praise instances of "good practice". They resent discussion of failure - even when it is widespread Q and believe that inspectors should accentuate the positive instead.

Such a "supportive" approach is no doubt right when dealing with children. But it would be quite out of place in an audit of this kind, when a profession is revealed as "committed to methods and approaches that are self-evidently not working". Let us not fool ourselves about the extent of this failure: the report says "the amount of direct teaching of reading seen in Year 6 was small"; "direct, systematic teaching of phonic work was relatively rare"; "in many cases . . . very little actual teaching took place".

Critics of the report who say it should have focused on "analysis of good practice to provide evidence for what methods work" have missed the point. We know what works. We have known it for decades but have chosen to ignore it. The OFSTED report goes out of its way to state it one more time: children need "systematic teaching of an effective programme of phonic knowledge and skills". This should be "on a systematic and daily basis", including "group and whole-class teaching".

The point is not that "good practice" is a mystery; the point is that the profession continues to shun it.

With research evidence so overwhelmingly in favour of a phonics approach, teachers have started to claim that they never really abandoned it, that it has always been part of the "eclectic mix" of methods. If only. As an inner-London special-education-needs co-ordinator and as a parent, I have never come across any systematic whole-class phonics instruction at all, although I did once read of a case in Norfolk.

My own experience is not limited to the inner city. Two years ago, when my daughter went to a well-resourced Suffolk village school, where her class size was 16, she not only received no phonics teaching, she was actually forbidden to use phonics for herself. Instead, pupils were issued with books to be read at home with parents. The teacher did occasionally listen to pupils read; when my daughter tried to "sound out" a word she didn't know, she was told it was wrong, and the teacher supplied the word for her.

Teachers' shifty attitude to phonics is well illustrated by a letter in last week's TES. The writer is a teacher and an OFSTED inspector; she begins, "we know that phonics has a crucial role to play in the teaching of reading". So far so good. However, she continues, we should not be led "down the seductive route of an over-emphasis on phonics". She rightly says Q who could possibly disagree? - that "phonics on its own is a barren path". No one actually recommends such a path, but still she implores us: "Don't let's go back to rehearsing all the old simplistic arguments which can create a false sense of security for those of us who are willing our children to read".

No, don't let's. But where is the danger? OFSTED has just made clear that any phonics teaching at all is "rare". Might the profession not go at least a little way down the "seductive path" before shrinking back in fear? Why is direct instruction, at least in primary schools, still such a bogeyman?

The profession clearly remains in a nervous and defensive mode. We feel unable to admit just how deep and widespread our mistakes really were, and we can't bear it when it's pointed out. We know that parents have been baffled for decades by our teaching methods and have become alienated from us, but we routinely blame the situation on others. So Chris Woodhead is condemned as "political" simply because he states baldly what we've all known for ages.

We don't need someone to be kind to us. We can be kind to ourselves. We know that we are a caring, committed and talented profession - it's just that we were wrong. Let's admit it and get on with the job.

Stephan Shakespeare is a special needs teacher

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar, Buyagift.com, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today