For advocates of phonics, it can be especially galling to see reputable newspapers and magazines giving space to the claims of the Whole Language lobby, whilst denying advocates of phonics a right to an adequate reply. The question is: what to do about it?
In 'The truth will out', published in the New Scientist (15/05/2010), Michael Shermer has a number of suggestions:
First, let denialists be heard! Consider their arguments and, as he maintains, 'if they have anything of substance to say, then the truth will out'. However, having had the debate, and many phonics advocates feel that the debate has been conducted ad nauseam over the past forty years, what happens when healthy 'scepticism morphs into denialism'?
Shermer gives the example of the Holocaust: in the case of the Holocaust deniers, having engaged them 'in debate and outlined in exhaustive detail the evidence for the Nazi genocide' to no avail, he simply threw up his hands 'and moved on to other challenges'. Many scientists have done the same in the context of the global warming debate.
However, Shermer is also quick to point out that 'throwing up your hands' and walking away 'is not always an option'. And that is pretty much where we are with the Whole Language lobby. Their shifting of the debate towards a much broader perspective on what is constituted by the term 'literacy' is seen as an attempt always to avoid the huge amount of scientific evidence in favour of teaching the alphabetic principle. As Stanovich (2000), puts it: 'A beginning reader must at some point discover the alphabetic principle: that units of print map onto sound.'
In this kind of scenario, Shermer is adamant: 'Those who are in possession of the facts have a duty to stand up to the deniers with a full-throated debunking repeated often and everywhere until they too go the way of the dinosaurs.'
So far, so good! What we should not do, though, is try to suppress debate. Shermer argues that because we can never be certain of knowing the 'absolute truth', we should always be prepared to think about where we might need to alter our ideas. In fact, within phonics, there is a continuous and vigorous debate about whether the code should be taught from print to sound or from sound to print and, indeed, whether the orientation makes any difference. [I think it does and I'm an advocate of the latter.]
No matter what, we should never resort to censorship. Shermer reminds us that exercising tolerance towards those in a minority means that you stand a better chance of being heard when you are in the 'sceptical minority'.
The best way to rebut the arguments of Whole Language advocates is to confront them with evidence. Sounds-Write has, since its inception, been collecting evidence of its success as a programme for teaching young children to read and spell. You can read the report-back to the schools participating in our data collection here