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Ideology and Reading

Many educational academics remain vehemently opposed to synthetic phonics. Even today they campaign to overturn the 2006 Rose Report's 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 as the sole decoding strategy.

The Whole Language Backlash:

The 2006 Rose Report specifically recommended the use of synthetic phonics for teaching beginning readers:
''(S)ynthetic phonics is the form of systematic phonic work that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers. Among other strengths, this is because it teaches children directly what they need to know...whereas other approaches, such as 'analytic' phonics, expect children to deduce them'' (Rose Report. para 47)
‘'Having considered a wide range of evidence the review concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach’' (Rose Report. para 51)

After the Rose Report's publication, Dominic Wyse (a professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education no less) wrote that those opposed to synthetic phonics should ''Work politically and professionally to change this direction in policy'' (Wyse. Rose Tinted Spectacles ppt. underline in original)

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)

''If you have built a career and reputation around downplaying the role of phonics in early reading and advising teachers to teach three-cuing strategies then it is far easier to defeat your opponents by dubbing them conservative than by deploying research evidence''
(Greg Ashman. https://gregashman.wordpress.com/2019/06/20/political-behaviour/)

The educational academics opposed to synthetic phonics, concede that phonics ''can be extremely effective'' when used as the sole method for decoding words in transparent languages (Wyse/Goswami p693) but, in their view, there is still ''not enough evidence'' that teaching phonics ''discretely'' and as the sole decoding strategy (synthetic phonics) is superior to ''contextualised phonics'' for decoding words in English texts.

For a description of contextualised phonics teaching see 'The Early Literacy Handbook: Making sense of language and literacy with children birth to seven - a practical guide to the context approach' 2012. by Wyse and Parker. Ch.12. Teaching letters and phonemes.

''However, while important, authentic literature and rich contexts are not a suitable replacement for explicit teaching of phonics decoding skills'' (Ofsted 'Education inspection framework: overview of research' p20 Jan. 2019)

Despite their decades of promotion of whole language or, more recently, contextualised or analytic phonics, the educational academics, ''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)

Synthetic, Analytic, or Rime and Analogy Phonics?:  

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 England's DCSF commissioned, but not peer-reviewed, 2006 Torgerson,**Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis (Wyse/Goswami p693) because both 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''

''The term “synthetic phonics” lacks what, in scientific terminology, is known as an “operational definition.” (Prof.Diane McGuinness)

The Torgerson et al meta-analysis (https://bit.ly/2w1Y14F), although commissioned by the government, 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.

**In 2017, in a chapter for Margaret Clark's book Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning, Prof. Brooks appeared to draw back from the conclusion of the Torgerson, Brooks and Hall phonics research report: ''I was convinced then [2005], and still am, that theory suggests that synthetic phonics is more coherent than analytic phonics as a strategy for young learners working out unfamiliar printed words” (Prof. Brooks quote in Chew https://multilit.com/wp-content/uploads/NOMANIS06-NOV18-JC.pdf)

''(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.

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 Clackmannanshire research which found synthetic phonics to be more effective.  

Recent studies, ''have shown conclusively that children do not use rhyming endings to decode words; hardly ever decode by analogy to other words; and that ability to dissect words into onsets and rimes has no impact whatsoever on learning to read and spell'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p148)

Dr.Macmillan also 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'

All phonics instruction is not the same:
Analytic phonics, ‘'developed out of the inherent flaws of whole word...’'

The Clackmannanshire Research:

As part of their mission to overturn the synthetic phonics initiative, the 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) .

The academics 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:

The Clackmannanshire research played a large part in persuading the DfE 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)

Prof. Johnston and Dr. Watson described the differences between the analytic and synthetic phonics used in their Clackmannanshire research:
''As analytic phonics as well as synthetic phonics can involve sounding and blending, how can these two methods be distinguished? According to the National Reading Panel (2000, 2-89), in analytic phonics children analyse letters sounds after the word has been identified, whereas in synthetic phonics the pronunciation of the word is discovered through sounding and blending. Another critical difference is that synthetic phonics teaches children to sound and blend right at the start of reading tuition, after the first few letter sounds have been taught. In analytic phonics children learn words at first largely by sight, having their attention drawn only to the initial letter sounds. Only after all of the letter sounds have been taught in this way is sounding and blending introduced. It can be seen therefore that the phonics approach advocated in the National Literacy Strategy is of the analytic type''
(Johnston&Watson. Accelerating Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics)

In 2004, 6 years after the introduction of the NLS with its ''medley of decoding strategies'', which included analytic and rime and analogy phonics, only 60% of children achieved Level 4 or above in reading in the Key Stage 2 SATs.

Tymms &Merrell (2007) Standards and Quality in English Primary Schools Over Time: the national evidence. ''500m was spent on the National Literacy Strategy with almost no impact on reading levels''

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

Equivocation Continues:

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'
(p.15) ''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), Profs. Castles, Rastle and Nation came to the view (p.13) that there was insufficient evidence as yet to determine whether the synthetic phonics approach was superior to the analytic phonics approach, citing, yet again, the NRP and Torgerson et al (2006) meta-analyses.
Commenting on this paper in her petition to the Scottish Education committee, Anne Glennie pointed out that, ''Analytic phonics is, by its nature, an eclectic approach and therefore cannot be delivered systematically or be part of a programme of work...Synthetic phonics, theoretically speaking, makes more sense –as teachers have more control over the sequence and speed of letter-sound learning, ensuring instruction is optimal and ‘can be matched’ to children's needs. Castles et al make reference to this too: ‘On the face of it, synthetic phonics would seem to have some clear advantages: By introducing grapheme-phoneme correspondences individually, it is possible to control the learning environment more effectively and to ensure that each correspondence is taught explicitly and in an optimal sequence'' (Anne Glennie p50-1 https://www.parliament.scot/S5_Education/Meeting%20Papers/20191030ES_Meeting_papers.pdf )

In a chapter (2019 https://bit.ly/2QkEJRp) discussing systematic and explicit phonics instruction, J.Buckingham, R.Wheldall and K.Wheldall commented on the Torgerson et al and the Castles et al view: ''They are cautious about concluding that synthetic phonics is more effective than other systematic approaches; however, it is not clear that alternatives to synthetic phonics meet the criteria for systematic and explicit teaching. These are the critical characteristics that are overwhelmingly supported in scientific research and expert reviews'' (p.62)
(J.Buckingham, R.Wheldall and K.Wheldall)

Prof. Rhona Johnston also 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.''

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' Prof. Rhona Johnston & Dr. Joyce Watson
This book chapter is available for preview on Google Books

Prof. Daniel Muijs (Ofsted's Head of Research) is more positive about the Clackmannanshire research:
''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)

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

''An Australian study by Christensen and Bowey (https://bit.ly/30xedZM 2005) found significant advantages for systematic synthetic phonics over analytic phonics in reading and spelling for students in their second year of school'' (J.Buckingham, R.Wheldall K.Wheldall)

In January 2018, another phonics meta-analysis was produced by Torgerson, Brooks, Gascoine and Higgins.
It includes 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.

When asked about the phonics meta-analysis above, Prof. Dylan Wiliam tweeted ''They conclude "the evidence is not clear enough to decide which phonics approach is best" and seem to conclude that therefore "anything goes". I would conclude, rather, from the available research, that synthetic phonics should be the foundation of all early reading instruction''

The Backlash Continues: 

Jenny Chew scrutinised chapters in 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

So hands up, who hates phonics? Some very influential people...

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

See http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/main_method_2.htm
for detailed information on contextualised / embedded / incidental / analytic / rime and analogy...phonics.

As a matter of fact, evidence of the superiority of direct and systematic (synthetic) phonics over indirect analytic phonics 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)

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, ''(A)s 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)

Vested Interests?

Phonics advocates have something to sell

Joyce Morris: PhonicsPhobia: fascinating personal history of teaching reading 1940s ->1970s. UK