Monday, June 27, 2016

A word to the Wyse

Today I’m wondering if ‘Stand Up for Education’ has been newly created for people, with the title of professor, to tell jokes about education, or whether they simply use it as a forum for displaying their ignorance about the process of teaching literacy to young children.

The latest post on SUFE is titled, ‘Phonics fanatics: politicians who think they know best’ and it’s been written by Dominic Wyse. Our Dominic has plenty of form when it comes to phonics. Basically, he’s part of a cabal which includes such people as Michael Rosen and Henrietta Dombey, phonics deniers all.
Phonics deniers avoiding angry parents

As with so many of these kinds of arguments, its kernel of distortion and misunderstanding is cloaked inside a patina of fact. Although it's a truism, Wyse informs us that phonics has been used for centuries (actually it’s millennia but never mind) to teach reading and writing in Latin. Of course, in this, he’s right! The Romans used phonic methods to teach children to read and write in Latin. I imagine that teaching basic literacy to young Roman children took about as much time as it takes to teach children to read and write in Spanish, both being almost entirely transparent: each sound in the respective languages being represented by one letter spellings. However, anything more complex than the simplicity of Latin and Spanish seems to send the professor into a tailspin of confusion.

He slips in the tendentious claim that the Chinese writing system is ‘based on pictures’. Why he lights on Chinese is really beyond me because the teaching of phonics really has nothing to do with Chinese or with pictures. In any case, Wyse is flat wrong! As Peter Daniels, an expert on the world’s writing systems, informs us, ‘Pictography is not writing because languages include many things that cannot be represented by pictures... It is thus necessary for a writing system to represent the sounds of language.’* One of the contributors to Daniels and Bright’s The World’s Writing Systems, and an expert of Chinese writing, Victor Mair, tells us that ‘a few philosophers still insist that the Chinese writing system is pictographic and “ideographic”, but their views have been effectively countered by empirical and historical evidence.’ So, not a good start after all, Dominic!

Wyse’s next move is to sow maximum befuddlement in the minds of those who have little specialised knowledge in this area: he plays the Randomised Controlled Test card. And, yes, he’s right: there is no strong RCT evidence that ‘any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than any other’. That is largely because the government is sitting on its hands and seems reluctant to initiate RCTs on a scale that would show beyond doubt whether phonics approaches work. The other problem is getting schools to agree to participate in an RCT – for fairly obvious reasons. For the record, any time an impartial academic wants to set one up, Sounds-Write will be there: any school, any time, any level of SES, any percentage of speakers of other languages.

Wyse next complaint against phonics teaching is that the SATs results haven't improved much over the period 2008 - 2015. It’s true and I know why! It's because a large majority of teachers are still using mixed methods, and because they haven't been trained to teach phonics properly and don't understand the relationship between the writing system in English and the sounds of the language. Some of the blame for this must be attributable to Wyse himself, who loses no opportunity for confusing the issue with disconcerting advice to teachers.

Are we surprised then that teachers' knowledge is so poor in this area? Not a bit! You only have to look at the errors made by Dominic Wyse in the piece to realise that if he, a professor at the prestigious Institute of Education, is so badly misinformed, how can we expect teachers to do better. Not only does he believe that Chinese is a pictographic system (It isn't!), he also believes that English isn't phonetic (It is!)? But aren't all words (no exceptions) comprised of sounds and haven't all sounds been assigned spellings at the point at which they entered the language? In addition, he doesn’t seem to know that the spelling < sh > is a digraph and not, as he indicates in the article a 'consonant blend’. It's in the detail that so much of his ignorance is revealed.

If a professor at the IoE has such a poor knowledge of what phonics is about and how it should be taught, we shouldn't be particularly mystified when teachers don't. That's why we need in this country a series of RCTs to demonstrate for once and for all that high quality phonics teaching all the way through primary school is essential to ensuring that all children are literate before they enter secondary school. If you want to put a stop to the constant sniping from these Wyse guys, you need to listen up, Mr Gibb!