The Whole Language Backlash:
Many education academics remain vehemently opposed to the direct and discrete teaching of phonics and its use as the sole mechanism for decoding print. Even today they campaign to overturn the 2006 Rose review’s recommendations (Wyse & Styles. Editorial) and every course of action taken by every colour of government following the Rose review, each designed to increase the take-up of high quality phonics work for teaching word decoding and spelling.
Dominic Wyse (a professor of Early Childhood and Primary Education no less) wrote that those opposed to the implementation of synthetic phonics should, ”Work politically and professionally to change this direction in policy.” (Wyse. Rose Tinted Spectacles ppt. emphasis in original)
Emeritus professor of education and phonics sceptic Henrietta Dombey described the 2006 Rose review as ‘amateurish’ and said that it took, ”the profession along a dangerous path, not supported by sound research evidence, into some dangerous territory.” (Wyse & Styles. Editorial) She failed to back her criticism with evidence.
Prof. Morag Stuart: Government imposition of synthetic phonics is “damaging able readers” really?
Imposing synthetic phonics is ”almost a form of abuse” and “damaging able readers” declared education academic Andrew Davis, yet he provided no evidence to support his claim.
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 education academics opposed to the statutory introduction of synthetic phonics to England’s schools, acknowledge that ”teaching reading by synthetic phonics can be extremely effective” (Wyse & Goswami p693) when countries have transparent alphabetic codes. However, in their opinion, there is still, ”not enough evidence” that providing direct phonics instruction in discrete lessons, using phoneme and graphemes from the start (synthetic phonics), is superior to, ”instruction at levels other than the phoneme” (whole words, syllables, rimes), with all reading instruction ”contextualised” (Wyse & Goswami p701), when it is the opaque English alphabetic code being taught.
”Phonics has been used on both sides of the debate for over one hundred years, often as an incidental technique to analyse an unknown word after identification by a teacher. It is the exclusive, systematic teaching of the English alphabetic code – Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) – as the only technique for initial instruction for decoding of words that is so intensely disputed.”
(italics added. Timothy Mills p84)
”Phonics taught in context, by definition, cannot be systematic, as there is little or no opportunity to control the nature or sequence of the mappings being taught.”
(Prof. Anne Castles)
For a description of the contextualised reading approach see The Early Literacy Handbook: Making sense of language and literacy with children birth to seven – a practical guide to the context approach. Ch.12. ‘Teaching letters and phonemes’ 2012. Wyse & Parker.
”However, while important, authentic literature and rich contexts are not a suitable replacement for explicit teaching of phonics decoding skills.”
(Ofsted ‘Education inspection framework: an overview of research’ p20 Jan. 2019)
The ‘balanced’ word reading approach (NLS. Searchlights) was used in schools for nearly a decade, but the academics opposed to synthetic phonics have still to this day, ”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.” (Johnston & 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.”
The Torgerson, Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis:
The education academics opposed to synthetic phonics, cherry-picked two particular publications, from the extensive range of evidence that the Rose review 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.”
**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 meta-analysis:
”I was convinced then , 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 quoted in Chew https://multilit.com/wp-content/uploads/NOMANIS06-NOV18-JC.pdf)
The Torgerson et al meta-analysis (https://bit.ly/2w1Y14F), although commissioned by the government, carried little weight with the Rose review 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 review -see paras.22,23,24:
Professor Diane McGuinness, a cognitive scientist trained in statistical analysis, also examined both publications closely. See https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/comment.pdf for her comments on the Torgerson et al (2006) and the NRP (2000) meta-analyses.
Prof. Johnston: An examination of the 2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis: Summary.
”(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.”
Synthetic, Analytic or Rime-Analogy Phonics Approach?
Prof. Shanahan was a member of the NRP’s ‘Alphabetics’ sub-group. In 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 (2000) came to the conclusion that ”synthetic and analytic phonics are equally good.” He made no mention of the later (2004) Clackmannanshire research which found UK-style synthetic phonics to be more effective.
‘A 2020 Perspective on Research Findings on Alphabetics (PA & Phonics): Implications for Instruction’ Prof. Susan Brady
”Phonics instruction is most effective with a synthetic method. The implications of research on phonics are ever more compelling. The studies that have been done with careful comparisons of analytic versus synthetic methods have shown strong advantages of synthetic approaches.”
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 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’
”While both synthetic and analytic phonics can be considered systematic to some extent, learning phonics at the phoneme level is more systematic and efficient than onset-rime families… The vast majority of rimes can be read using their component grapheme-phoneme correspondences… Knowledge of phonemes is also a stronger predictor of reading acquisition than knowledge of rimes.”
(Dr. Jennifer Buckingham 2020)
All phonics instruction is not the same:
Analytic phonics, ‘’developed out of the inherent flaws of whole word…’’
The Clackmannanshire Research:
The Clackmannanshire research played a large part in persuading the DfE to introduce systematic synthetic phonics teaching:
”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)
Prof. Daniel Muijs thoroughly examined the research on teaching reading, including the Clackmannanshire study, when he was head of research at Ofsted. As a result, he supports teachers using synthetic phonics, not analytic phonics.
”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)
Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills in initial readers.
Johnston & Watson (2004)
Long-term effects of synthetic v analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 yr. old boys and girls: ”Overall, the group taught by synthetic phonics had better word reading, spelling, and reading comprehension.”
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’‘
(italics added. Johnston & Watson. Accelerating Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics)
As part of their mission to overturn the synthetic phonics initiative, the education 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 & 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 a comment on the Torgerson et al meta-analysis:
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’
Johnston & Watson.
Equivocation and Undermining Continues:
The state-funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was set up in 2011 to collect and produce hard evidence. A school governor said that she was ”frequently directed to the EEF as the “last-word” on education research”.
Over the past decade, the EEF have used significant amounts of public money to research a number of programmes that purport to improve reading but have very little in common with high quality phonics. They include Rhythm for Reading (rhythm-based exercises -see Room 101) the GraphoGame Rime project (based on Goswami’s rhythm and rhyme theory-see above) and two Reading Recovery derivatives: Catch Up Literacy (see Room 101) and Switch-on Reading (see below).
In 2020, the EEF updated its guidance for ‘Improving Literacy in Key Stage One’
As in the first edition, the EEF say (p21) that ”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 of this statement is the 2006 Torgerson et al phonics meta-analysis -see critiques of the Torgerson et al meta-analysis on this page.
In this 2020 update, the EEF undermines the DfE by recommending the use of Reading Recovery (RR) as a KS1 intervention (p47), despite it being ”a multi-cueing, non-systematic approach” (Sir Jim Rose), with the justification that RR, ”is highlighted by the EIF guidebook [https://guidebook.eif.org.uk/programme/reading-recovery] for the positive impacts found in several high-quality evaluations conducted in America.”
Prof. McGuinness is far from alone in pointing out that, ”Independent research showed that RR had no effect. It is extremely costly to implement, re. teacher training, tutoring time, and materials. Not only this, but RR “research” is notorious for misrepresenting the data.”
For comprehensive info. on Reading Recovery including Prof. James Chapman’s comments and supporting papers refuting all the RR evaluations ”highlighted by the EIF guidebook” – see Room 101
Not content with recommending the Reading Recovery non-systematic, multi-cueing approach for KS1 reading intervention, the EEF steers teachers away from using phonics with older struggling readers: ”For older readers who are still struggling to develop reading skills, phonics approaches may be less successful than other approaches such as Reading comprehension strategies and Meta-cognition and self-regulation. The difference may indicate that children aged 10 or above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a different approach.”
Greg Ashman points out that, ”This seems to assume that older struggling readers have previously been exposed to a high quality systematic phonics program. I don’t think we can assume that at all.”
Reading Recovery’s UK-UCL centre just happens to provide GROW training ”for developing metacognition and self-regulation” for ”students struggling with literacy in KS3” https://www.ucl.ac.uk/reading-recovery-europe/grow-ks3
Greg Ashman asks ”Is ‘metacognition and self-regulation’ an actual thing?”
Highly regarded teacher-blogger ‘Old Andrew’ is also concerned that the EEF gives, ”power and influence to educationalists to promote their pet theories of learning.” In this blog post: https://teachingbattleground.wordpress.com/2020/09/06/teachers-on-the-edge/ he writes, ”The EEF is now a law unto itself in the agendas it promotes…And nobody can work out who, other than the opponents of phonics, wanted the EEF to spend money on the latest iteration of Reading Recovery [Switch-on Reading].”
See Room 101 for ‘Switch-on Reading’ info.
David Didau comments on the EEF: ”It’s worth considering whether decisions about the education of the most disadvantaged is too important to leave to the prejudices of an ideologically driven, unaccountable clearinghouse who decide both what research to fund and what to make available as part of a toolkit.’’
(David Didau. https://learningspy.co.uk/research/evidence-and-disadvantage/)
Ending the Reading Wars?
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, Drs. J. Buckingham, R. Wheldall and Prof. K. Wheldall commented on the ‘Torgerson et al’ and ‘Castles et al’ views on analytic phonics v synthetic phonics:
”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.”
”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.”
Jenny 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:
Myths and Deception, the Australian PSC: a response to Dr Paul Gardner’s article ‘Synphonpreneurs’ are pushing synthetic phonics in schools’
”Dr Gardner apparently accepts the need for ‘phonics’. What he appears to reject however, is the need for the early systematic teaching of synthetic phonics as the only approach to teaching decoding”
A paper Getting it right, published as part of the EY ‘play’ lobbyists’ opposition to the changes to the EYFS, includes the comment that, ”Clark (2013; 2014) offers an evidence-based critique of synthetic phonics’. Yet it is immediately noticeable that these two papers are not evidence-based, nor are they in a peer-reviewed journal.”
(Julian Grenier. Blog 03/21)
”Clark’s research is not systematic or objective. It is a combination of speculation, personal anecdote, and surveys of the views of teachers, parents and children.”
(Dr. J. Buckingham. Putting the record straight about research on reading)
‘Spelfabet’ reviews Clark’s Reading the Evidence: Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning 2017 https://www.spelfabet.com.au/2017/11/alternative-facts-about-phonics/
So hands up, who hates phonics? Some very influential people…
‘Old Andrew’ explores phonics denialism -see also parts 2 and 3
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 to the last book (The Academic Achievement Challenge) written by the late Jeanne Chall, Professor of Education at Harvard University, an 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)
”Gove’s Greatest Contribution”. Timothy Mills.
Phonics advocates have something to sell