Sunday, November 27, 2016

The continuation of the war against phonics by other means

Once again I feel obliged to respond to an article posted by Misty Adoniou in The Conversation and, as I have pointed out previously here and here, Misty is as foggy as her name when it comes to talking about phonics. In order to arrest the decline in reading ability, Australia is currently considering adopting the England’s Phonics Screening Check. Misty's opposition to a screening check is yet another opportunity to exercise her opposition to the rigorous implementation of phonics teaching throughout Australia - a step teachers and children are crying out for.
To begin with, she claims that the impact of phonics on reading outcomes is ‘underwhelming’. According to Misty, the check has been successful in England because the children get better at doing it over the year. Actually, Misty, that is the point! Teachers teach children to segment and blend simple one-to-one sound-spelling correspondences. That is to say, when children see the word ‘mat’, they say, “/M/ /a/ /t/, ‘mat’.” When you are four years old, this is what reading looks and sounds like. It's true that reading is more complicated than that but if you know how to teach phonics, you can teach from simple words like 'cat' to more complex ones like 'catastrophic'.
Misty also objects to the use of nonsense words like ‘zab’. What she doesn’t realise is that teachers need to know if children can segment and blend sounds in words and, when it comes to real words, they can’t always be sure a child hasn’t simply memorised them or guessed. Nonsense words provide a simple way to find out whether the child is reading or guessing.
Secondly, Misty claims that teachers already test for phonics. The sad truth is that most teachers haven’t the first idea how the sounds of English are linked to the spelling system, much less are they taught in their training courses the skills needed for children to become proficient readers.
Her next ploy is to muddy the waters by misleading us into thinking that the English government made phonics a priority with the introduction of the screening check (2011) when, in fact, phonics was given much more emphasis after the publication of the Rose Report in 2006. However, even though governments have favoured phonics, it hasn't meant that schools know how to teach phonics correctly and the evidence suggests that mixed methods still dominate. And, the siren song of the anti-phonics lobby can always be heard in the background attempting to lull the unwary onto the rocks of whole language illiteracy.
Predictably, we then come to that hoary, old chestnut: being able to sound out words doesn’t mean that children can necessarily understand them. Of course it doesn’t! And no phonics advocate would ever claim that it does, but one thing is for sure, Misty, if you can’t read a word, you are never going to be able to understand it!
I won’t even begin to answer the remarks Misty poses about teaching English to speakers of other languages, except to say that it is garbled nonsense. Teachers in UK and elsewhere use phonics to teach such children who speak other languages at home enjoy phenomenal success. Speech therapists and teachers alike constantly attest to the fact that phonics helps children to hear and speak the sounds of the target language.
In the final paragraph of her piece, 'Monkey see, monkey do', we see how the mask finally slips to reveal the contempt Misty has for phonics teaching. What she is implying is that, as a teaching approach, phonics is a less than human - not really something a sentient and creative human would ever engage in. How unfortunate that she doesn't read the work of her Australian peerless peers John Sweller and John Hattie to see how human inventions, such as writing systems, need to be taught systematically and explicitly.
In her opposition to the teaching of phonics, Misty is either grossly ignorant or she is a deliberate deceiver. Nearly five thousand years ago, the Sumerians realised that because of the limitations on human memory, a whole word approach (remembering each word and associating with its meaning) would never work. The decisive step came when they phoneticised writing: invented symbols for the sounds in the language. Although this detached writing systems from meaning, it meant that with the limited number of sounds in a language, if symbols were invented to represent those sounds, you would have a generative system that is capable of representing any new word in the language.
And that is what happened: phonics solved the problem memory overload.

NB Susan Godsland has pointed out to me that though John Hattie is professor of education and director of the Melbourne Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, he is in fact a New Zealander. Thanks for the correction.


Scheduleflow said...

After Prep for 8 'months using whole word and high frequency words, my son had failed to be taught a single word he could read or write, after two weeks of synthetic phonics in October he is now reading and writing simple cvc words by himself, synthetic phonics is transformative for kids with dyslexia. It is their only path to literacy success and joy in reading, to ignore the research and play the ostrich, is to be a goose. The tragedy of it is the kids are the ones who suffer for this lack of evidence based decision making and ignorant advocacy for whole word learning is truly appalling.

John said...

Thank you for your forthright comment, P. I'm so pleased to hear that your boy is now on the right road.
People who deny the central role of phonics is teaching beginning readers to read and write need to be challenged at every step. The damage they cause by their misguided advocacy is only too evident in the long tail of underachievement to be seen in every English-speaking country.
Phonics, taught well by teachers who understand the alphabet code and the skills and concepts needed to teach it, enables all children to learn to read and spell.
Best wishes,
PS By the way, we have a Sounds-Write app (available in ITunes here:,
which has the first three units free and the rest goes for less than a song. It only teaches the basics but then that's often good enough to get a child off to a good start.

Knot Moreknitting said...

Interesting article. Thanks. The key is your last sentence...we NEED to train ALL teachers properly! Then encourage them to share and keep learning from each other HOW to improve their craft!