Thursday, February 13, 2014

Prate and Lyle

A few weeks ago when I read Misty Adoniou’s piece in The Conversation, I really thought the depths had been well and truly plumbed. [See blog posting] I was wrong! Susan Godsland has just passed me a link to an execrable piece soon to be published in SchoolLeadership Today.

The article ‘The limits of phonics teaching’ betrays a lack of knowledge about the way in which the writing system is linked to the sounds of the language that is, even by the poorly informed standards of whole language proponents, quite staggeringly awful. The fact that it also comes from someone who is a Welsh teacher trainer from Swansea Metropolitan University and that it is going to go out in TeachingTimes simply compounds the awfulness of this caricature of what phonics teaching is.

Once the nonsensical and snide allusion to ‘commercial’ schemes has been dispensed with, Sue Lyle starts off well enough, informing the reader that a phoneme is the smallest unit of sound and that there are forty-four sounds in English. But that’s about it!

We get the usual stuff: the government, it seems, ‘assumes that simple decoding is all that is required in reading’. Of course, the DfE thinks no such thing. However, this is small beer in comparison with the egregious errors she makes in her attempt to travesty phonics.

There are simply far too many absurd inaccuracies to devote time to scrutinising everything so I’ll give a few samples. Apparently, ‘the alphabetic principle (phonics) doesn’t work for even the simplest CVC words… While it may work for ‘fit’ and ‘sit’, it doesn’t work for ‘fir’ and ‘sir’. And here you can see immediately the inaccuracy into which she has fallen: she considers ‘fir’ to be a CVC word when, in fact, it is a CV word. ‘Fir’ is comprised of two sounds /f/ and /er/. What she’s done is to flip the way the alphabetic system works from a phonics orientation – what the alphabet code was invented for – to a graphemic system, which, if analysed in the way she does (mesmerised by the visual), quickly breaks down into incomprehensible chaos.

This is also why Sue thinks that the letter a in ‘cat’ doesn’t correspond to the letter a in ‘bay’, ‘day’, or ‘hay’ [Sue’s examples]. Because she reads everything graphemically, she doesn’t seem to understand that ay, a two-letter spelling, in each of these words represents the sound /ae/, as in, well, ‘hay’.

Next, she launches an assault on ‘magic ‘e’’, as she calls it. Frankly, I don’t know anyone these days who teaches ‘magic e’ but we’ll let it pass because she goes on to demonstrate that she hasn’t the faintest idea of how the split spelling works or how to segment sounds in words. For her information the sounds in ‘dance’ are /d/ /ar/ /n/ /s/, although in some accents of English, it could easily be /d/ /a/ /n/ /s/. In both versions, the two-letter spelling ce represents the sound /s/. Again, the real problem is her lack of understanding of how the code works.

At this point, I really had to laugh, because she asks the reader if they’re ‘getting confused’. Actually, I wasn’t but I could see how Sue was and how a reader might be if they were similarly misinformed. And I won’t contradict her when a paragraph or so later Sue tells us that ‘it gets worse’. It certainly does because now she informs us that the common combination th is further evidence that ‘letter-sound correspondence simply won’t work’. Is it voiceless /th/ as in ‘thin’, or is it voiced /th/ as in ‘this’, she asks. It appears that Sue can’t understand what a four-year-old child I taught recently understood with ease: that spellings are symbolic representations of sounds and that many spellings can represent more than one sound, as in the case of the spelling th. If a child can understand that a circle can be a ball, a moon, a pizza, etc, etc, they can also understand that th can be /th/ in ‘thin’ or /th/ in ‘that’.

There's much more of this rubbish and I’d go on but I think you probably get the picture. The truth is that because Sue doesn’t understand the nature of the alphabet code and can’t explain it, she thinks phonics doesn’t work. No, Sue! Good quality phonics works very well. It’s you!

The really depressing thing about all of this is that Sue Lyle’s students may well be taken in by all of this twaddle only to find themselves working in a school and wondering why it is they don’t know how to teach reading and spelling to young children. Is it any wonder that the problem of illiteracy in Wales is so serious?


  1. Sue's understanding of the English alphabetic code is particularly dire, but you know that even here in England, the phonics detractors (those who say, 'OK, phonics has its place but it's not reading' type of thing, invariably don't understand the code well enough - and how we teach it through our modern linguistic phonics and synthetic phonics programmes.

    You know full well, John, that the minute we read papers such as the recent Andrew Davis paper that the detractors are criticising something they simply don't know enough about.

    What is particularly shocking is that they don't seem willing to learn about our programmes either.

    Certainly, no-one concerned about their perceived inadequacies of phonics has asked me for a meeting to discuss phonics - or attended my training events. I expect you've found the same John!

    Warm regards as always,


  2. Hi Debbie,
    Yes, Debbie, and what I find particularly galling is when the heads and members of the SMTs who have commissioned trainings don't bother to attend themselves. This renders them highly vulnerable to faddishness and to bringing in new programmes every year before they have allowed old ones time to bed down and for their staffs to learn properly how to teach them.
    We soldier on!
    My best to you.

  3. And how can heads and SM properly monitor and audit phonics provision and practice if they fail to attend the training?

    How can they come to a conclusion as to whether the staff are largely following guidance without the programme-specific knowledge in fact?

    Teachers using too much 'professional discretion' can, as we know, mean they aren't really using the programme as a programme - or taking advice provided through the training.

    In fact, how can SM monitor the actual quality and content of the training event itself if they're not there?

    So - the bottom line is that the presence, or lack thereof, of head teachers suggests how seriously any phonics training and programmes are regarded.

    Sue Lyle's piece shows her up painfully as never having studied modern day phonics.


  4. It's no wonder that synthetic phonics isn't working as well as it should in Britain, when teachers don't even have a basic understanding of how phonics works. Why is that? It is lack of intelligence? I should hardly think so, but when one has devoted time and effort into something it is difficult to let go, even though we know it to be true. Keep up the good work, Debbie and all.

  5. Is it going out in Teaching Times? I emailed her and, as a teacher trainer, recommended she read Diane McGuinness' book - 'Why Children Can't Read'. She replied to say she would. (I also pointed out all the misunderstandings about the alphabet code that you have outlined here.)