More on Phonics

@oldandrew replied to my earlier blogs on phonics here:

I posted a response on the site, which I have reproduced here.

Thanks Andrew. If you would kindly print these comments in your thread, I’m happy that this debate has probably run its course. I take each point in turn.

1. If you could claim with reference to evidence that there is some distinct method – you call it ‘SSP’ – that ‘consistently gets the same result’, then you would indeed trump the argument. But the point is that you are not warranted in claiming that it is SSP that ‘consistently gets the same result’, at least not if the intended result is the ability to read. The evidence could not possibly support such a claim given the complexity of the classroom contexts you are prescribing for.

You also waver between implying that SSP has bounded, distinct and exclusive properties (exactly along the analogy of the chemical composition of a drug) and that it is a blurrier group of mixed practices (as you claim in response 2). Your own position is inconsistent here. The more you interweave your insistence on phonics teaching with all sorts of other undeniably valuable teaching activities, the less likely it becomes that any of the ‘evidence’ you point to will support this nuanced collection of activities as a distinctive ‘method’. But that’s a good way to go: actually, it brings our two stances on what teachers should actually be doing in the classroom much closer. They should be making situated judgements, using what they know from research and other sources, about the best way to go forward with particular children in a particular context. But this problematises the phonics check, of course (see my original argument and my response to 2).

2. I restricted my comments largely to the phonics check, which by design (as the open letter originally argued) tests the method of synthetic phonics exclusively. The check is also methodologically broken, but I think the letter makes that argument just fine.

3. Here I think quoting out of context puts you in danger of misrepresenting my case. The point is that ‘learning styles’ is an easy target: no-one I know will seriously defend that fad. My case for the complex situated judgement of teachers rests rather on the infinite contingency of the classroom situation, taking in all sorts of factors and including the complex prior experience and awareness of each individual student. You don’t knock that down by knocking down learning styles. I believe you are aware of the nature of a ‘straw man’ argument.

4. We are, at least, agreed on this point. “The phonics check will put teachers under pressure to teach phonics effectively”. This will indeed deter teachers from acting in ways that do not promote (systematic synthetic) phonics knowledge. I think it is important to add: even if those ways of acting might themselves promote literacy.

5. I have argued that teachers engage with educational research; they can and should also conduct their own. I have also argued that they should do so with a sensitivity to the way that academic researchers normally communicate their findings: as a piece of a much bigger and varied endeavour that might shed some light on a particular issue of classroom practice, rather than as warrant for the wholesale imposition of some particular technique.


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