The phonics debate: a further modest philosophical contribution

@oldandrewuk has recently posted on his blog some further engagement with Andrew Davis’s short book on phonics and the recent letter calling for the abolition of the phonics check.

I notice that he has ignored my own defence of Davis’s argument on this blog. Old has therefore chosen to directly re-post his previous arguments rather than defend them against recent fresh criticism that has engaged directly with those arguments.

Nevertheless, in the little bit of further elaboration that Old does indulge in, I was able to pick up a significant error in his reasoning that I will detail here. It is significant, because his ‘knock-down’ rebuttal of Davis’s argument rests on it.

A few things to get out of the way first. Davis’s position is not as ‘extreme’ as painted by Old in that it does not claim that teaching practice cannot be informed by research. The argument is that research into a particular classroom situation, or across a group of situations, will not allow us to extract a method or cluster of prescribed activities or interactions that could produce the same results in other, even similar, contexts. This goes for all educational situations. Any method we might produce would fail to do justice to the complexity of the interactions that were going on in the situations studied, and in any other situations where teachers were striving to bring about similar results. This does not mean that we cannot learn from educational research, but that we do not do this by pulling out and imposing prescriptive methods which limit the opportunity for teachers to make situated judgements in their own classroom contexts. But this case has been well made in Davis’s book and to some extent in my last post.

Now for the big mistake. Old writes, in response to Davis’s case about the difficulty of identifying prescriptive teaching ‘methods’ on the analogy of a drug in clinical contexts (because of the complexity and interconnectedness of the educational situations we are researching):

“Of course, while the extreme nature of the claim should be highlighted, and it justifies the use of the word “denialist” to describe the argument, an extreme position could still be correct.”

Well, so far so good, actually. We might disagree about the appropriateness of the term ‘denialist’, and about the extremity of Davis’s position, if one engages with a great deal of material that is being produced by the educational research community, but the important point here is that we are all in agreement. Davis’s position could be correct.

Here comes Old’s knock-down (and it is a pretty important knock-down, since without it Davis’s position is acknowledged to be possibly correct):

“Unfortunately, this mistake is not made in isolation. It is part of a pamphlet which argues against the imposition of teaching methods, particularly the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. As I argued above, if teaching methods (or even just the methods of teaching reading) cannot be identified then they cannot be imposed, for there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them. Nor can the claim that teaching synthetic phonics is “almost a form of abuse” be squared with the picture painted of an invisible, undetectable method.”

My own bold highlighting identifies where Old has failed to engage with Davis’s argument as written. So we cannot identify teaching methods. Given. It does not follow from this that they cannot be imposed, for the simple reason that anyone labouring under the impression that teaching methods can be identified can still seek to impose them. This we know: there is any amount of literature out there in which the pedagogical ‘expert’ in one or other area fails to engage with the essential complexity of the situation they have researched and seeks to extract general principles or procedures that can then constitute a fail-safe approach to teaching in that area.

But the second part is even more important: “there can be no possible consequence for not implementing them”. We have said that teaching methods cannot be (successfully) identified. However, (spurious) methods can nevertheless be imposed, by those who are labouring under the misapprehension that methods can be identified.

There can of course be consequences for not implementing the methods, and this brings us back to the phonics check. Note how the method of synthetic phonics is supposed to bring about the result of literate children, but the phonics check does not test this. The phonics check (as I pointed out in my last post) tests the application of the method, i.e. whether or not children have been successfully taught to apply the principles of synthetic phonics. This is the classic outcome of the kind of educational reasoning that argues that catch-all educational methods that will work across all contexts can be extracted from the ‘evidence’ we have available. The methods are imposed through the introduction of checks that divorce the method (in this case, a specific form of phonics) from its intended result (literacy) and compel teachers to adhere to the methods rather than seek to bring about the intended result. The outcome of these kinds of educational policies will be to put pressure on teachers to slavishly adhere to a set of procedures prescribed by an authorised educational method rather than apply their situated judgement, their knowledge of educational research, and their knowledge of the complexity of a particular classroom situation, to bring about the desired educational result (in this case, children who can read).

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3 Responses to The phonics debate: a further modest philosophical contribution

  1. Whilst the philosophers are philosophising about this issue, and the bloggers are blogging and debating about this issue, there are many very hard-working teachers getting on with teaching real children how to really read – the mechanics and the underpinning language comprehension – both enhanced by lots of language around a range of literature.

    Whether people are in agreement with the Year One phonics screening check or not, nevertheless it has sharpened teachers’ minds about the effectiveness of their teaching in terms of teaching the most complex alphabetic code in the world – and the phonics skills not only for lifting the words off the page – but also for putting the words on the page (that is, spelling and handwriting).

    I read as widely as I can regarding reading instruction – including the blogs and the various discussions around the subject of reading instruction – and what strikes me is a total disconnect between those discussing the subject and those getting on with the teaching.

    No-one has ever, ever said that teaching the alphabetic code and phonics skills is ‘reading’ in its entirety, but philosophers and others are deluding themselves if they cannot appreciate, or refuse to appreciate, that the more easily and efficiently children can decode words – within their oral vocabulary and new to them – then the more likely they will be able to become ‘readers’ in the full sense – that is, understanding the literature they can read by decoding more readily.

    It is a tragedy that for many years the teaching methods – or lack thereof – sent little children home with their ‘reading books’ in their ‘bookbags’ with their ‘reading record books’ to attempt to read those books for which they had not been taught the alphabetic code and blending skill. This is largely what happened – and may still be happening in some cases.

    How many stressed scenarios at home with tired children, tired parents, feeling obliged to ‘hear’ the child read his or her reading book – which could only be ‘read’ through guessing the words. If you cannot decode the words, all that is left is guessing.

    And as children get older and the pictures and obvious storylines are not so obvious, then all there is is phonics to lift the words off the page if they are not known already.

    Philosophise and argue all you like – but there are many of us, programme authors, teacher-trainers, teachers – who are working extraordinarily hard day in and day out to enable ALL the children to lift the words off the page so that they can read independently – and write independently – which is truly empowering and opens up the world contained within the literature.

    The Year One phonics screening check has made a major contribution leading to far more of the children being taught the mechanics of reading more effectively by more teachers. If philosophising academics really cannot appreciate that, what a sorry state of affairs this is. If philosophers get some kind of satisfaction from undermining the Year One phonics screening check which, in effect, also undermines phonics teaching, then the state of affairs is beyond mere words.

    Kind regards,

  2. oldandrew says:

    You do have a habit of defending an argument other than that which has been made. Davis is not shy about criticising the method of systematic synthetic phonics and imposing it, despite claims that the method is not identifiable. He does not simply criticise attempts to impose it on the grounds that it is *not possible* to impose an unidentifiable method, and therefore such efforts are futile or wasteful; he criticises imposing it. That is the incoherence, and it is there and there is no logical error on my part in pointing it out.

    As an additional point, Davis claims that he is not against phonics, just systematic synthetic phonics, which (if true) would make it hard to claim that a check on phonic knowledge would be the imposition of a particular method. But then, I’m not sure anyone sincerely believes “analytic phonics” is phonics rather than just a way to get round the arguments for teaching phonics.

    • I’d read again. Identifying a ‘method’ from classroom evidence is one thing (impossible, or at least impossible without crude loss of any educational insight). Identifying, and then condemning, a ‘method’ that is being imposed is another. Davis can do the latter without inconsistency. You only need to look at the phonics check to see a method being imposed. Perhaps the subtlety eludes you because the activities I have in each case labelled as ‘identifying’ are not identical.

      In the first, you are trying to work out what it was that made a learning event successful and spell out its ‘chemical composition’, as it were. In the second case, you are just identifying some person or text that claims to have done the first. The ‘methods’ they spell out will, by virtue of not doing justice to the complexity of educational situations, be relatively easy to comprehend.

      Further, what distinguishes your take on the phonic method from others is the insistence that, in the beginning at least, the phonic approach is to be used exclusively. An early check (which could easily, as I said in my first post, have been a literacy check) that checks *phonics only* rather than, say, reading a few lines of text (as the open letter suggests) is tied to a particular understanding of the early teaching of reading: synthetic phonics is valued in the check where reading for meaning is not.

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