Phonics: myths and alternatives


Trust teachers – not the phonics fundamentalis
–>Trust teachers not the phonics fundamentalists.

England is one of the few countries where politicians dictate to teachers how they should teach. Why do they think they know best?

A BBC News report has just highlighted the damage which results from following Government rules on teaching reading. It quotes the claim by Andrew Davis (Durham University) that a strict diet of phonics could damage children who are already on their way to reading.


It isn’t only the most advanced who will be harmed. Many children have never had the chance to enjoy picture books at home. The phonics fundamentalists want to deprive them of books until they have learned to pronounce the letters and blend them into words.


Andrew Davis argues strongly that reading is making sense out of print, not just pronouncing the letters.


The myth that teachers don’t know how to teach


Most successful teachers actually use a combination of synthetic and analytic phonics, along with other activities and approaches. Synthetic can be fun (eg Cbeebies’’ Alphablocks, on TV or the internet version) and even empowering (you quickly start to write words). Analytic phonics is more easily integrated with reading real books and labels and posters around the classroom. It involves getting children to notice features of significant words, and also fun with rhyme and alliteration. Either can be demotivating if children aren’t involved in reading for pleasure and real purposes.


The impression has been created that, without government interference,  teachers would neglect phonics. This is a complete myth. The teaching of reading has always included phonics, alongside other activities and approaches.


In fact, an investigation by government inspectors in 1990 concluded that “phonic skills weere taught almost universally and usually to beneficial effect” and that “Successful teachers of reading and the majority of schools used a mix of methods each reinforcing the other as the children’s reading developed”.


This was a comprehensive investigation, with visits to 120 schools, and observation of 470 classes. Over 2000 children read aloud to HMI.


In 1997, the incoming Labour Government imposed its own “searchlight” approach and the Literacy Hour. In 2005 the Conservative opposition claimed it didn’t include enough phonics, and pointed to a new magic answer ‘synthetic phonics’. This was based on a very small experiment based on a few schools in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, which concluded that synthetic phonics was more effective than analytic phonics.


The Clackmannanshire researchers found that children learned how to pronounce words more effectively, but had to admit there was little lasting improvement in reading for understanding.


Where is the evidence?


An enquiry was commissioned, led by ex-inspector and consultant Jim Rose, which predictably found in favour of synthetic phonics. It found the research inconclusive, but, based on visits to just 20 schools, half of them chosen by the pro-synthetic phonics lobby, concluded that “the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach.”


This is echoed now by Michael Gove: “Research has consistently and comprehensively shown that systematic phonic instruction is the most effective and successful way of teaching children to read.” The politicians seem to get confused: as if the only systematic approach were synthetic.


In fact, Gove’s own officials have been forced to admit that they have no evidence that synthetic phonics improves reading for understanding. “The evidence is inconclusive on whether systematic phonics has an impact on pupils’ reading comprehension.”


Despite this lack of evidence, the Coalition Government are imposing their will on teachers and schools through the new National Curriculum. Time to resist! Reading is more than phonics instruction. It is about making sense of books and enjoying them. 


For more detail, see Dominic Wyse and Morag Styles’ excellent article in Literacy, April 2007.


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