Phonics: Why Muddled Methods Persist

The whole story of progressivism is the story of the victory of ideology over reality. One of the central progressive beliefs, which is accepted a priori, is that learning is a natural process. The metaphor of the flower unfurling is often used, or analogies are made with children learning to walk.

This belief is then applied to reading, and people come to think that children can somehow just ‘pick it up’, as they learn their native tongue, or how to walk. But reading is an entirely artificial process, which we have inherited due to our coming at the end of many centuries of human civilisation. If children are going to acquire it reliably and efficiently, they will have to be drilled. That is, they will have to be initiated into certain skills and required to practice them often enough for them to become automatic. A coherent programme of study will have to be faithfully followed and dutifully carried out by our little neophytes.

This is morally repugnant to progressives, because they have swallowed the Romantic fiction about the sacred purity of the child, from which the adult must learn, not the other way around.

And so, for ideological reasons completely unconnected to educational effectiveness, those committed to child centred approaches will always be fundamentally opposed to the thorough application of phonics. Phonics frankly admits that reading is artificial, and a skill that is best drilled and practised in a traditional way. God forbid that the poor little lambs be subjected to a programme in which they chant in unison, or work silently at repetitive exercises. No! That is fascism! Better that they fail to learn to read at all, or only in a haphazard and inefficient way that allows their teachers to continue to hold their cherished beliefs about the sacredness of independent discovery. Let them muddle along with their own sweet little guesses. The vital thing is to avoid poisoning their minds by, horror of horrors, giving them the answer.

Of course our bleeding heart progressives in the early years are currently being forced by  those nasty fascists in the Conservative Party to appear to use phonics. But an OFSTED survey found that 90% of schools were using mixed methods. This means that many, probably the vast majority, have just bolted on a bit of phonics to satisfy statutory requirements. But while they remain committed to child centred ideology, it is simply impossible for a thorough programme of phonics, based on the instructional principle of mastery rather than coverage, to be implemented.

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11 thoughts on “Phonics: Why Muddled Methods Persist

  1. Couldn’t agree with you more. I’m tired of this constant harping on about it without any evidence. If reading requires guessing it’s not reading. You are teaching them to guess. But as you say that fits in with the philosophy much more. Over and over again you hear the same people arguing for ideas above humans.

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  2. To be fair to teachers, they have had muddled messages about reading instruction methods – and this continues to be the case.

    The whole language Reading Recovery programme was at least in part funded by the very same Government that promoted Systematic Synthetic Phonics (for which the teaching principles do not include the whole language multi-cueing reading strategies) – but by different ‘people’ within the Government. I believe this continued until 2014.

    To date, I am unaware of any literature to demonstrate that Reading Recovery has truly come in line with the Rose Recommendations which, in effect, replaced the ‘searchlight’ multi-cueing reading strategies model with the Simple View of Reading (original concept, Gough and Tunmer 1986). In 2009, the Science and Technology select committee concluded that the Government was wrong to promote Reading Recovery under the ‘Every Child a Reader’ umbrella for early intervention and stated that RR should come in line with Rose as the Government had accepted his recommendations.

    Having approached a Reading Recovery national leader recently regarding the issue of accountability for the claimed change of approach of RR in England, I was told that if there was some literature to describe RR, no-one would need the year-long Master’s course! This sounded like an unacceptable cop-out to me.

    RR is firmly embedded in the Institute of Education – and the main cataloguing system for infant and primary reading scheme books continues to be the Reading Recovery ‘Book Bands’.

    Various local authority advisors, and others with leadership positions, continue to promote RR for the weakest children – the ones who are most likely to be damaged by the multi-cueing reading strategies.

    The Education Endowment Foundation continues to plough money into various research initiatives with Reading Recovery methodology at their core. This suggests we may be going around in circles (going over old ground) when it comes to research projects in England. In contrast, as a SSP programme author associated with two reputable SSP programmes, I have no access to researchers via the EEF according to its criteria. Having been advantaged by the Government ploughing public money into the phonics match-funded initiative from 2011 to 2013, it would seem sensible to research the handful of reputable SSP programmes. I am suggesting a total lack of joining the dots throughout the past decades and currently.

    Nick Gibb has just announced that 95% to 100% of children in 753 schools reached or exceeded the benchmark in the Year One Phonics Screening Check in 2015. The national average is 77% of children. This is a failure rate of 23% of the children. This is not a check of SSP teaching principles as Andrew has made clear, – but of mixed methods. We could change this figure hugely in one year if we had true clarity and consistency in research-informed reading instruction methods – and some long-awaited joined-up action and accountability. We continue to fail a lot of children needlessly – but many teachers just want the high-quality phonics training that they and the children deserve.

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