On ‘phonics denialists’

David Aldridge is Principal Lecturer in Philosophy of Education and Programme Lead for Professional Education at Oxford Brookes University.

Friday’s TES published a letter from a group of educationalists to Michael Gove calling for the abolishment of the Year 1 ‘phonics check’. Signatories included the general secretary of the UK Literacy Association, the chairman of the National Association for Primary Education, the general secretary of NASUWT, and the chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English. In response to the letter, one well-known educational commentator (@oldandrewuk) tweeted “See some phonics denialists got a letter in the TES”. I’m not going to spend any time questioning the use of the markedly pejorative term ‘denialists’, and the attribution of a questionable ethical agenda that is usually implied by it. I’ve done my homework here and see that Andrew Old has used this term in relation to phonics for some time, been called out for it, and made his responses.

But the substance of the charge (implied in this tweet but offered explicitly elsewhere) is that a large number of academics and other educationalists in positions of significant esteem in relation to the teaching of literacy persist in objecting to the application of phonics, or refusing to assent to certain propositions about phonics, despite the overwhelming evidence stacked against them. This is a claim that needs to be questioned.

An initial observation one could make is that the letter objects to the mandate around the phonics ‘check’ and the specifics of its design rather than the teaching of phonics per se. This is important and I will come back to it later. A further observation would be that where the literature cited in the letter (here I mean the philosopher Andrew Davis’s short book on phonics) has a broader scope than the phonics check, what is objected to is in fact the exclusive employment of the methods of synthetic phonics (SP) rather than, again, phonics per se. In fact, Davis argues for what he calls an ‘analytical phonics’ that draws on some of the techniques associated with SP, such as teaching letter-sound correspondences and the practice of blending, but also employs other elements that have been claimed to be a distraction from SP, such as looking at context or reading for meaning. But here I might be in danger of wandering into a well-laid minefield. Andrew Old has forcefully argued his criticisms of ‘mixed methods’ teaching approaches, both in relation to phonics and in education more broadly. So I’ll save that for the time being too.

When pressed, Old sets out his specific criticism of Davis’s argument as follows:

‘His argument is that teaching methods don’t exist, therefore the evidence they work doesn’t count, therefore it’s wrong to impose them. The issue is that the premise is absurd and the conclusion contradictory’ (you can find this in his twitter feed)

I don’t think this is suitably sensitive to the argument Davis sets out. Davis’s argument rests not so much on the non-existence of method as the false analogy set up between teaching methods (and ways of gathering the evidence that they work) and clinical trials and similar ways of gathering evidence about, say, medical interventions or agricultural fertilisers. It’s the same mistake that’s being made in Ben Goldacre and others’ advocacy of employing the randomised control trial to inform policy and practice in educational contexts.

A drug, or a fertiliser, has a chemical composition that can be isolated and reproduced. When a doctor prescribes a drug, there will be all kinds of professional complexities and variations at play: the doctor’s bedside manner, their knowledge of the patient’s medical history, their attentiveness to the patient’s description of their symptoms, etc. But as far as gathering evidence for a clinical trial into the success of a drug is concerned, what matters is the drug, and when the patient gets better (or doesn’t), this will be attributable to whether the drug has (or has not) done its intended work. Now I’m not really suggesting that a doctor’s bedside manner and the like don’t have any bearing on patient recovery, I’m just interested in the drug-method correspondence. The point is that in the educational context, the ‘drug’ (method) cannot be separated from the rest of the teaching and learning situation as it can in the medical context. In any educational situation, teachers constantly make practical judgements about the best way to respond to the diverse range of individuals in their classroom and act in accordance with these judgements. In responding to any given question, or utterance, or assessment of a pupil’s current understanding, the teacher will draw on available resources pertaining to a student’s particular background, their prior learning, their specific motivations and whatever else they know about the student concerned and other contingent elements of the classroom situation. This will necessarily call for different actions in relation to different students, or with different classes, or on different days. Davis’s point is that there is nothing about a teacher’s response from one situation to the next that could be isolated in the manner of the chemical composition of a drug and to which a particular educational result could be attributed in a similar way.

This is not a criticism of education research in itself or its potential to inform practice. Davis in fact calls in his book for more research into the different ways in which early years practitioners go about teaching reading. And although Davis doesn’t say a great deal about it, his argument doesn’t require that we give up on the possibility of offering explanations in educational contexts, or even of generalising certain causal mechanisms. But it does entail that we cannot separate out an educational ‘method’ from a particular case or group of cases and roll it out with the expectation of similar results across the board. The only way the concept of ‘proving’ or ‘testing’ an educational ‘method’ could be made meaningful would be if that method could be separated out from other situated judgements that the teacher makes on a continual basis, and it follows from this that the only way the method could then be said to ‘work’ in its wholesale employment would be if teachers were then expressly required to stop making other sorts of judgements within the particular domain with which the method was concerned.

It is, of course, quite difficult to get teachers to stop making situated judgements about the particular needs of pupils in particular contexts that they know well, because teachers are intelligent professionals who are motivated toward the wellbeing and learning of their pupils. That is why so many of the more terrible educational policies of the past have not been nearly as deleterious to pupil learning as they might have been. Davis refers to the way that experienced professionals who are well versed in the nuances of teaching reading have already ‘sanitised’ the (at least implicitly) exclusivist policy on SP, and emphasised phonics as part of a suite of approaches to teaching early literacy. This is what teachers do all the time, of course. They don’t let educational policy get in the way of doing best by their students, and find all sorts of ways of promoting best practice within a prescriptive system.

Andrew Old has strongly criticised ‘mixed methods’ approaches to teaching reading. His standpoint here is not abundantly clear. On the one hand, he has charged advocates of ‘mixed methods’ with not actually adding anything of value to what is offered in synthetic phonics. On the other hand, he has claimed that ‘There are also plenty of practices which are not directly related to phonics, like practising handwriting or reading stories to children, that a teacher might be happy with doing alongside phonics without becoming a supporter of “mixed methods”’. Comprehension strategies are, however, ruled out as a distraction. It would be easy to get bogged down here in a discussion of which techniques or practices properly fall within the remit of synthetic phonics and which do not. Such a discussion would only have value, of course, if you were trying to isolate and prescribe a universal and exclusive ‘method’ for the teaching of reading.

To understand Old’s vitriolic condemnation of those who advocate phonics as part of a suite of approaches to teaching reading, one needs to see this within the context of his discussion of ‘mixed methods’ in education more generally. He writes that, ‘There is no good reason to assume children have different learning styles which require different methods’. It is hardly surprising that Old defends a one size fits all approach to teaching if he sees so-called ‘learning styles’ as the obvious alternative. Although it has proved sticky in school teaching and learning policies, the idea of learning styles has rather lost currency in the educational research community. Although Old does not at this point employ the obvious straw man, one might imagine that much-discredited educational myths such as those propagated about visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners (a favoured, and easy, target of those who would discredit educational ‘theory’) are waiting to be deployed and ‘exposed’ to strengthen Old’s claim that once a method has been identified, if it does not work then what is required is not a creative alternative approach, but simply a larger ‘dose’ of method.

As we have seen, Davis does not rest his critique of one-size fits all methodological approaches to teaching on any reification of supposed ‘learning styles’, but on the claim that the situatedness and inter-connectedness of teaching practice means that we cannot isolate methods that we can then impose in other quarters. This claim applies to anything you might call ‘mixed methods’ as much as to any single method; it makes no difference whether the method is to be applied to a whole year group, say, or to a smaller subset of that year group. The mixed methods approach, in fact, labours under the same broken analogy we have already discussed. Even if you claim that different strains of a disease will need different drugs, or different crops will need different fertilisers to achieve the same results, there is still a method being likened to a drug or fertiliser here.

The coalition’s requirements on phonics may or may not be intended to be exclusive of other approaches, but if we are feeling hospitable we could imagine that the policy potentially leaves space for teachers to employ the approaches associated with synthetic phonics as part of a suite of ways of teaching children to read. However, there is no doubt that the phonics check (which is the specific target of the open letter) is explicitly designed to be exclusive of other approaches. Words and pseudo-words are deliberately presented outside of any context of meaning that a student might draw on to guide their decision about pronunciation. As is pertinently observed in the letter, if one wanted to check a student’s progress in learning to read, the obvious way to do this would be to listen to them reading a short meaningful passage. The purpose of designing a check specifically for synthetic phonics is to test the application of the method itself rather than the outcome it is claimed to promote. Teachers who wish their pupils to be successful in this test will be forced to concentrate with those pupils on the method of synthetic phonics rather than another approach or combination of approaches that might equally or better promote their success with reading but will not be relevant to the phonics check. The result of the check will be to validate the success of phonics as a method of promoting literacy by removing from teachers any independence or agency in selecting the best approach to promote literacy among their own students.

Andrew Old is one of a number of vocal professionals who are currently calling for ‘evidence-based practice’ in teaching. However, the argument that teachers should become consumers of educational research in order to identify the ‘best’ method for achieving a particular educational outcome, so that they can then employ this method across the board, neither empowers teachers nor improves the educational experience of their students. The result is rather to set teachers against the academic research community (who do not, for the most part, claim that their research should be employed to identify the ‘best’ teaching method and impose it across contexts; this is a claim more often advanced by policy makers) and against their own autonomy as professionals capable of making nuanced situated judgements. If I intended to deliberately undermine the status of teaching as a profession, these are the very two relationships that I would need to weaken.

The Open Letter is here:

Dr Andrew Davis is a research fellow in philosophy of education at Durham University and a member of the executive committee of the Philosophy of Education Society of Great Britain (@philofedgb). His short book that I refer to, ‘To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics’, is available open access here:

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8 Responses to On ‘phonics denialists’

  1. I’ve discovered this posting via the long ‘discussion’ (for the want of a better word) with various folk and Andrew Old using Twitter.

    Below is my response to Reedy – which I add here because he has headed up the open letter to Michael Gove on behalf of the UK Literacy Association and other ‘leading educationalists’ that is the subject of your blog posting – please note the response is over a year old:


    I have added this response here because I consider that many of the arguments against the Year One phonics screening check are not identifying the correct issues – such as the emotive point that children are getting upset by the check. I suggest that this is more about teacher-mishandling than the check itself. Please do read the response to get a fuller picture.

    I would like to give some different perspectives and describe some different experiences:

    As I am clearly in the field of phonics and reading/spelling instruction, I visit schools and many teachers and parents contact me. There is not a day goes by that someone is not emailing me for advice – or emailing to tell me about spectacular results from a change in their reading instruction to SSP.

    Even when I visit schools and they are not, by my standards, doing an ‘amazing’ job of their phonics teaching, nevertheless, they still get much better results than they have ever done before.

    In fact, interestingly, noteworthy (although Reedy et al don’t seem to think this is worth mentioning re the check), there are a greater number of children year on year
    able to lift the words off the page (the check).

    Shall we celebrate for those children who might not have been taught more effectively if their teachers were not made aware of teaching effectiveness if the check did not exist?

    If children are able to accurately and effectively lift the words off the page, they are more able to read books which is, quite frankly, an amazing, empowering skill for children.

    Whilst professors and leading educationalists go to considerable lengths to undermine the check (whilst still claiming they acknowledge that phonics may be of benefit), it’s as if they’re not really concerned, or aware of, the real improvements in teaching effectiveness which is happening all around them.

    Well, actually I’m a little premature in that statement because we still have a very long way to go in terms of excellent reading instruction everywhere. But we do have schools where nearly all the children can lift the words off the page (the check) which is an indication that they are on their way to good decoding.

    I would ask all adults to consider what they actually ‘do’ when they encounter a new word not in their spoken vocabulary? There are no picture clues. There may well be ‘context’ which will no doubt help with ascertaining the meaning of the new word – fine – but how does the adult come up with a pronunciation for a new word?

    Phonics knowledge and the skills for decoding and encoding are life-long skills – they are adult skills.

    We are getting better and better at providing our youngsters with lifelong literacy skills.

    How wonderful it would be if all the leading educationalists would visit some schools where teachers are proud of their new-found teaching expertise in phonics and the following higher standards that arise from this – reaching all the children – schools where they say they do not identify children with ‘dyslexia’ for example, in that they teach them all to read and to read well. I know of teachers who have been tangibly excited to discover how their Year One pupils will fare in the check. We never hear of these teachers in the press because they are just getting on with it – and because, no doubt, it doesn’t make controversial news to be positive about a government initiative.

    How wonderful it would be if the leading educationalists had insight into all the thrilled teachers and parents – and headteachers – who contact me with their results.

    Take the British School of Costa Rica where the children took the Year One phonics screening check as a consequence of me encouraging its use around the world once the DfE provide it online. There are numerous schools around the world who know of SSP in England and who are adopting the approach. Well – the indications are that schools like the British School of Costa Rica may be teaching more effectively than many of our schools here.

    I received an email to tell me that they hired a teacher who did not work in the school to aim for as much objectivity as possible and 88% of their children reached or exceeded the 2013 benchmark and yet English is their second language – they are really Spanish speakers in the main! In Spanish there are virtually half the sounds of the English language and their written code is not nearly so complex. High-quality SSP teaching is working wonders in various schools in Spain and in South America.

    I have a zillion examples of positivity and often a kind of objectivity – same teachers, same type of intake of children, change of approach – massively improved results.

    Your leading educationalists need to get around a bit.

    Kind regards,

    Debbie Hepplewhite

    Author of Phonics International – written to support people in all circumstances.

    Phonics Consultant for Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters – written to bring Oxford Reading Tree up to date with the research and leading edge practice.

    Anyone is welcome to contact me if they would like to learn more about SSP teaching and results with real children.

  2. I have added this posting onto my Phonics International message forum as it contributes to the national picture. Thank you.

  3. Diane Leedham says:

    Thanks to Ms Hepplewhite for making her professional and commercial interest in SP transparent at the end of her comment. It might be better were it clearly signposted earlier in the main body of her text (not just via the link). Her comment does not explore the issues actually presented in the blog post so readers may not follow it through to the end and thus may miss it.

  4. Ruth says:

    Thank you for this astute analysis of Old’s rhetoric, and his stance on Davis’ paper in particular.

    I would like to make two points in association with those you make above.
    You quote Old as claiming, ‘There are also plenty of practices which are not directly related to phonics, like practising handwriting or reading stories to children, that a teacher might be happy with doing alongside phonics without becoming a supporter of “mixed methods”’. This is similar to claims made by other SP enthusiasts and programme authors, that SP is taught within a rich learning environment where children encounter texts, listen and join in with rhymes and stories, and practise speaking and listening. But it needs to be pointed out that this rich learning environment in no way results from following an SP programme; it is simply advised, not catered for within SP. For this reason it is disingenuous to imply that SP somehow contains the necessity of this provision, which is after all commonplace in any good quality infant classroom. The government, too, identifies in the literacy curriculum the necessity of providing general literacy activities of this sort. Yet the dominating SP element in the curriculum it promotes, and the phonic check, are about decoding and decoding alone, not about the broader literacy picture, and not about testing the efficacy of the broader literacy picture.

    I would also like to point out that underpinning government policy is an assumption that because (it believes) SP has worked in certain research circumstances that it will work if swept out to every primary school in England. Besides the factors Davis identifies, the very fact of government control over this process casts doubt on research results being duplicated, because of this control. This micromanagement of schools de-skills and undermines teachers in a way not present in the original research, carried out on a small scale with willing and involved staff. Mary Beard has written an interesting article on this subject here:

  5. Jenny Robinson says:

    I’m an Early Years teacher.
    I’ve just come across this blog:

    I’m thinking ‘skyhooks’ = Synthetic Phonics (or could be a number of other things people try and make teachers do. )

    Am I right??

    As for Hepplewhite’s labelling of clear thinking about what to do in the classroom as ‘philosophising’ .. well, words fail me (and very many of my teacher colleagues..)


  6. Pingback: Revisiting the Debate Over the Davis Phonics Pamphlet: Part 3 | Scenes From The Battleground

  7. @oldandrew replied here http://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/revisiting-the-debate-over-the-davis-phonics-pamphlet-part-3/

    I posted a response, but will reproduce here in case it gets edited:

    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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