Thursday, July 12, 2007

Why phonics are dangerous

My blog on phonics attracted some interest from the Reading Reform Foundation, these people really are the swivel-eyed zealots of the phonics movement. Here’s a sample from their web site of their intemperate, intolerant approach,

“People need to ask themselves whether they would choose PREVENTION over intervention. They need to choose what kind of teaching they would prefer for their boys and whether they want to risk their children becoming dyslexic. Quite simply, if you are a parent, to which type of school would YOU most confidently send YOUR children?”

I don’t know all the details about the initiative in West Dunbartonshire, but maybe it came about in Scotland because local authorities still have a measure of autonomy and aren’t completely subject to ruthless central dictates. When the Scottish Executive cut funding for their programme they carried on anyway. Also in Scotland there is no high-stakes testing, no league tables and no Ofsted.

What was also interesting about West Dunbartonshire was that they’d not only used phonics but involved parents and tried to create a “literacy community”. Crucially they’d also recognised that some children don’t progress by phonics alone and the Toe-by-Toe programme gave intensive support to those older children who had fallen by the wayside.

So what are the dangers of phonics that emanate from the Rose review?

1) If you introduce some children to formal education at too early a stage they aren’t ready for it, this particularly applies to boys. The Rose review proscribes when and how to teach, it doesn’t leave it to the judgement of teachers to decide.

2) English is not a phonetic language, sorry to literally spell it out but how do you cope with those inconsistencies like soft ‘c’ and hard ‘c’; magic ‘e’ at the end; soft ‘g’ and hard ‘g’; silent letters at the beginning and end of words? Then there are all those little words - like, one, once, was, only, the, your, you, she, do, sure, what, who, out, does, come, want, busy, are, two.

3) Why do 20% of children find it difficult to read? Phonics leaves those children to struggle. Reading Recovery is an intensive and expensive programme delivered by trained teachers, peer reviewed international research has shown that it works. Albeit that even then one-fifth with global learning difficulties will also fail here, so again there really is no ‘magic bullet’.

4) Phonics fit well into the ‘back to basics’ agenda, phonics teaches children the mechanics of reading, but it doesn’t create a love of books. As the new Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen commented,

“I also reject the notion that you can teach reading without books: there has been a huge push to create an environment in nursery and reception where books are secondary to the process of reading.

“If you are just given a list of words, then the emotional impact is that reading is dull. For example, we care about the mouse and the Gruffalo when we read The Gruffalo.”

5) The notion that every child who doesn’t reach Level 4 is ‘illiterate’ is really dangerous nonsense. We had one special needs child in our school who came into nursery unable to speak, after making tremendous progress in the Juniors she got a Level 3 in her SATs. Yet she is branded an ‘illiterate’ failure and the school is dragged down in the league tables.

One of the much-quoted experiments in phonics was in Clackmannanshire, a small study of 300 children. Under pressure to introduce this ‘magic bullet’ scheme, Ruth Kelly did put out a circular to councils pointing out that by their own figures comprehension levels for 11 year-olds were no different from other councils. Later, in full retreat from an onslaught from the Daily Mail and the phonics lobby she instituted the Rose review.

Schools under central direction are now crudely introducing phonics but without the other features of West Dunbartonshire like the Toe-by-Toe programme.

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It's not only that many letters and letter combinations are pronounced differently eg ough in cough, bough, though, thorough, rough etc but also that same sounds we make with our mouths can be written differently ow can rhyme with o can rhyme with oa can rhyme with ew ; and same words can be spelled one way but pronounced differently depending on context 'tear' (as in tear my coat and tear rolling down my cheek).

So this is all too complex for phonics. Other methods of teaching are requred to help children cope with these, some contextual, some visual, some 'whole language' ie integrated into reading, listening, talking and writing.

If phonics people are saying that they can solve everyone's reading difficulties, they are fibbing. In truth they support their phonics with subtle usages of look and say. It's on their friezes when, for example, they have a list of 'ou' words pronounced as in 'sound' (RP pronunciation) and a list of them as in 'soup'. The only way in which these can be learnt is by look and say. There are no rational ways to distinguish these pronunciations. Phonics people will say that phonics tells the children that 'ou' produces these two sounds. But that's a fudge. The problem lies in how to determine which of the two is the right one. That can only come through look and say.
Dear Michael Rosen and Mr Read,

Would you like to meet with the Reading Reform Foundation committee to enable the members to explain to you why the synthetic phonics teaching principles are so important in the business of teaching people to decode?

It is very sad that you are using your positions to be abusive about the work of the Reading Reform Foundation committee.

It would be good if you were curious to learn more about the amazing successes of the synthetic phonics teaching principles for beginning reading and remediation.

There are certainly many people who could describe the extraordinary effectiveness from their personal experience.

Yours sincerely,

Debbie Hepplewhite
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