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How to win the phonics argument.

BaldtwoJohn Bald writes

The Left is blazing away at phonics, and especially at the phonics check.  They are good at getting on tv and radio, and truth takes a back seat. Michael Rosen on ITV Daybreak, for example, repeatedly said that two thirds of children in the pilot scheme for the check had failed, and that the school by law had to tell parents that their child had failed. The truth is that schools are advised to tell parents that their child needs more help with phonics, and to examine their own work to ensure that phonics are properly taught.

Meantime on Radio 4, Dr Mary Bousted, of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, protested that "I've got a PhD in this and should not be patronised in this manner" (by Hackney headteacher, Greg Wallace). The title of her PhD is A socio-political analysis of the personal growth ideology of English teaching. What evidence this provides on how children learn to read I'll let you know after I've read it. Her alternative strategies amount to guessing games, and were smashed by research evidence years before she wrote her thesis - eg Schatz and Baldwin, Context Clues are Unreliable Predictors of Word Meanings, 1986. I'll see if this and the work of others, notably Stanovitch, are cited in her work, but am not holding my breath.

John Humphrys told Dr Bousted that having a PhD did not mean that a person could not be wrong, which leads to the broader question of whether this medieval degree actually meets the needs of modern research. It doesn't - or at least not always. Communication and publication, especially in brain research, are moving so fast that it's hard to keep up. At the other end of the time-scale, most educational issues take more than the standard three years to investigate, so that work is often truncated to get it completed. I've recently seen a doctorate that were based on no more than 10 weeks of direct observation of children. 

PhDs should be treated on their merits, and not with deference, so well done to Mr Humphrys.

The debate continues, and more is needed for the government to win it, as win it must.  First, the political point needs to be made that phonics were also the policy of the previous government, advised by Sir James Rose. The unions have not consulted their members on the issue, at least in any systematic way, and academics are not above giving a partial version of the truth in their discussions of research. The US government’s oft-quoted reading survey, for example, said that phonics were particularly useful to disadvantaged pupils, a point conveniently left out of Professor Dominic Wyse’s account of their work. I am not alone in my concern about ill-informed comments by people with little practical experience of teaching people to read, and this is not confined to Michael Rosen's recent analogy between reading and reversing a car (R4, Reading Between the Lines).

Next, the question of what to do when phonics don't work needs to be answered more convincingly. Any parent who takes a child to the library soon meets irregular words - "Where the Wild Things Are", for example - and no-one wants to protect children from libraries. However, the fact that English is not completely regular does not mean that it is chaotic. The challenge is to provide a fully accurate description that puts awkward features in their place, and allows us to build children's knowledge  and understanding of the regular features that are the basis of the language, and hence of learning to read.

The draft national curriculum says that irregularity - which it euphemistically describes as "unusual grapheme-phoneme correspondences" - should be explained in terms of changes in pronunciation over time This is part of the story. The two other parts are adopting words from other languages, most often French, and the tidying up of spelling by printers in the seventeenth century, made permanent by Dr Johnson's Dictionary. Borrowing and sharing words are easy ideas for children to understand, and Dr Johnson's changes can be explained in terms of dressing up, as they aimed to make English more respectable (posh if that makes more sense to some children) by regularising groups of letters and borrowing spellings from Latin and Greek. Borrowing, sharing, being scrubbed up, changing our mind, even
misbehaving, are all things children understand.

The good news is that there are patterns to all of these things in English words (Where is like there, for example), and that once we have learned and understood the pattern, we can remember and read these words as quickly as those we can sound out.  Wordbuilding is an older and, to me,  better description for the process than those using long Greek words that I have to look up.


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