On ‘phonics denialists’

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, ‘To read or not to read: decoding synthetic phonics’ is available open access here.

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

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