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Ideology and Reading

Many educational academics remain vehemently opposed to synthetic phonics (Wyse. Rose Tinted Spectacles ppt). Even today they campaign to overturn the 2006 Rose report's conclusions and recommendations (Wyse/Styles.Editorial), and every course of action taken by every colour of government following the Rose report, each designed to increase the take-up of teaching synthetic phonics directly, systematically and as the sole decoding method.

Education consultant John Bald quotes Andrew Lambirth, professor of education and author of, 'Literacy on the Left: reform and revolution', as saying that the synthetic phonics method was ''designed to restrict and control children in the interests of the owners of the means of production''.

In their book 'Thinking Reading', James and Dianne Murphy describe how ''The political tenets of whole language were inextricably grafted into its methodology... emotive arguments about freedom from authority, autonomy of the individual and subjective construction of reality'' (p34)

''The idea that different teaching methods are political is faintly absurd. And yet it is an idea that has taken quite a hold within education itself'' (Greg Ashman)

These same academics concede that using synthetic phonics ''can be extremely effective'' when used for teaching decoding in transparent languages (Wyse/Goswami p693) but, in their opinion, there is still ''not enough evidence'' that  directly and discretely taught synthetic phonics is superior to ''contextualised phonics'' for teaching decoding in English. Despite their strong ideological preference for using contextualised phonics, over many decades ''they have failed to demonstrate that their preferred method yields as good or better results than a synthetic phonics programme. Their method seems to be to merely attack the Clackmannanshire study and thereby imply that the approach that they advocate is as good or better, without collecting any supportive data'' (Prof Johnston & Dr.Watson)

''Those who have an opposing view [of synthetic phonics] have yet to produce any data showing that their favoured approach produces greater long-term benefits'' (Prof. Rhona Johnston)

The academics opposed to synthetic phonics cherry-picked two particular publications, from the extensive range of evidence that the Rose report team considered, to back their view. They singled out the American National Reading Panel (NRP) report and the DCSF commissioned 2006 Torgerson, Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis (Wyse/Goswami p693) because these publications tied in with their ideology, having as their conclusion that there was no strong evidence, ''that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than another''

For the Clackmannanshire researchers' description of the differences between the analytic and synthetic phonics used in their studies, *important for operational definition purposes* -see
The Torgerson et al meta-analysis carried little weight with the Rose report team. The reasons for this are explained in a report by Parliament's all-party Committee on Science & Technology, produced after they had examined the evidence base of the Rose report -see paras.22,23,24:

Professor Diane McGuinness, a cognitive scientist trained in statistical analysis, also examined both publications closely. See http://dyslexics.org.uk/comment.pdf for her comments on the Torgerson et al (2006) and the NRP (2000) phonics meta-analyses.

''(T)here are enormous difficulties with meta-analysis research. Without great care researchers can combine apples and oranges, in which the variables are too dissimilar to be combined'' (Prof.Diane McGuinness)
For an additional critique of the American NRP report, written by Prof. Kenneth Anderson (2000), see
''(O)ne phonics method endorsed by the [NRP] report—is teaching “analogies” or “word families” or, more technically, “rimes''- see Prof. Shanahan's 2018 blog post below where he equates rime and analogy phonics with  analytic phonics.

As part of their mission to overturn the synthetic phonics initiative, the same educational academics attempted to subvert the Clackmannanshire research because, unlike the 2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis and NRP report, it concluded that, ''(S)ynthetic phonics was a more effective approach to teaching reading, spelling and phonemic awareness than analytic phonics'' (Johnston and Watson, 2004 p351) . This study played a large part in persuading the then DCSF to introduce synthetic phonics as the primary method to teach decoding:
''Johnston and Watson (2004) carried out two experiments, one controlled trial and one randomised controlled trial (the gold standard of scientific research) to understand the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment. The research is known as the ‘Clackmannanshire study’. Clackmannanshire is a very deprived area of Scotland. Many of the pupils came from extremely deprived homes and/or had significant educational difficulties – and yet pupils tracked from pre-school to age 11 achieved results in reading and spelling far beyond that expected for their age'' (italics added. DfE. evidence paper p3)

'Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills in initial readers'.
Prof. Rhona Johnston & Dr. Joyce Watson (2004)
''It was concluded that synthetic phonics was more effective than analytic phonics''

''More recently, a teaching method called systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) has garnered strong evidence in its favour'' (Dr. Jennifer Buckingham. ResearchED)

The academics, ideologically opposed to synthetic phonics, disseminated myths and misinformation about the Clackmannanshire research -see the RRF newsletter article, 'Fact and Fiction about the Clackmannanshire study', which also includes comment on the Torgerson et al meta-analysis:

Prof.Johnston: An examination of the 2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis: Summary.

The government-funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was set up to collect and create hard evidence. A school governor said that she was ''frequently directed to the EEF as the "last-word" on education research''
In 2016 the EEF produced guidance for 'Improving Literacy in Key Stage One' https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/public/files/Publications/Campaigns/Literacy/KS1_Literacy_Guidance.pdf
p15. ''Only a few studies have compared synthetic and analytic phonics, and there is not yet enough evidence to make a confident recommendation to use one approach rather than the other'' The only reference given for the second half this statement is the 2006 Torgerson et al phonics meta-analysis.

Similarly, in a recent paper (2018 'Ending the Reading Wars: Reading acquisition from novice to expert' http://journals.sagepub.com/eprint/VxwbDqUtcnb9bBjxtuGZ/full), pro-phonics academics Profs. Castles, Rastle and Nation came to the view (p13) that there was insufficient evidence as yet to determine whether the synthetic phonics approach was superior to the analytic phonics approach, citing the NRP and Torgerson et al (2006) meta-analyses.
Prof. Rhona Johnston responded to the Castles et al paper with the following article:
Examining the evidence on the effectiveness of synthetic phonics teaching: the Ehri et al (2001) and C.Torgerson et al (2006) meta-analyses.
''It cannot be concluded that these two meta-analyses showed evidence against the superiority of the synthetic over the analytic phonics method.''

Prof.Shanahan was a member of the NRP's 'alphabetics' sub-group. Recently (July 2018) he wrote a blog post with the title 'Synthetic or systematic phonics? What does research really say?'
Shanahan wrote ''(A)nalytic approaches focus attention on larger spelling generalizations (like rimes: ab, ad, ag, ack, am, an) and word analogies''. He went on to say that the NRP came to the conclusion that ''synthetic and analytic phonics are equally good''. He made no mention of the later (2004) Clackmannanshire research which found synthetic phonics to be more effective. 

''There is also evidence that synthetic phonics instruction is particularly effective. In a widely cited study in Scotland, Johnston & Watson (2004) compared the reading skills of children taught using synthetic phonics with those of a group taught using analytic phonics, and found the former to be more effective.
A subsequent study of 10-year-olds whose early literacy programmes had involved either analytic or synthetic phonics methods found that the pupils taught using synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and
reading comprehension (Johnston et al., 2012)'' (Prof. Daniel Muijs. Ofsted Head of Research)

In January 2018, another phonics meta-analysis was produced by Torgerson, Brooks, Gascoine and Higgins. It included the 2016 Machin et al. study which Brooks cited as showing that synthetic phonics produced an across-the-board improvement at 5 and 7 but ''strong initial effects tended to fade out on average''.
Jenny Chew pointed out that ''The children in that study, however, had been taught by the Early Reading Development Pilot approach (ERDP), which fell far short of good synthetic phonics'' Chew wrote an article about the problems with the ERDP, back in 2006.

Also, see Chapter 9 in Wiley Handbook of Developmental Psychology in Practice: Implementation and Impact.
'The trials & tribulations of changing how reading is taught in schools: synthetic phonics & the educational backlash' Profs.Rhona Johnston & Joyce Watson.
This book chapter is available for preview on Google Books
Dr.Macmillan reviewed the rhyme/rime and analogy phonics research. She showed that not one of the three major research claims 1) rhyme awareness is related to reading ability, 2) rhyme awareness affects reading achievement, and 3) rhyme awareness leads to the development of phoneme awareness, was sufficiently supported.
'Rhyme and reading: A critical review of the research methodology'

Jenny Chew scrutinised the following books, both edited by Margaret Clark, for accuracy.
'Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017.
'Teaching Initial Literacy: Policies, Evidence and Ideology' 2018.

'Spelfabet' reviews Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017

Old Andrew' explores phonics denialism -also see parts 2 and 3

As a matter of fact, evidence of the superiority of direct and systematic synthetic phonics teaching was already available in the 1960s. In her book Learning to Read: the great debate, Prof. Jeanne Chall noted that, ''The current research also suggests that some advantage may accrue to direct as compared to indirect phonics. It would seem that many of the characteristics of direct phonics, such as teaching letter-sounds directly, separating the letter-sounds from the words, giving practice in blending the sounds, and so forth are more effective than the less direct procedures used in current analytic phonics programmes'' (Chall. Learning to Read: the great debate.1967)

Jeanne Chall 1921-1999.

Postscript: Marilyn Jager Adams wrote the foreword for the last book (The Academic Achievement Challenge) written by the late Jeanne Chall, Professor of Education at Harvard University, outstanding academic researcher and a staunch advocate for synthetic phonics. Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, ''Many years later, when I was given the task of reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues''. Adams continues, ''as the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners increased so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of those who had conducted it.'' (Chall p.vi)