I think it is uncontroversial to claim the general consensus among reading researchers is that phonics teaching is a critical component of early reading instruction. I have been reading a paper by Jeffrey Bowers and I think he would agree this is the consensus while disputing the evidence in support of it.
Bowers’ argument is detailed and, at times, arcane. I am not a reading researcher. Nevertheless, I will need to dig into some of the weeds to try to both understand and evaluate Bowers’ argument. This overlong blogpost will therefore not be for everyone.
Where are we coming from?
I am a researcher working in the field of cognitive load theory. I am also a teacher, a parent and a blogger with a lot of experience of ideological resistance to phonics teaching and some experience of how reading is taught in the wild. All of these incline me towards the systematic teaching of phonics. I am aware that Bowers’ paper will be used by phonics sceptics to bolster their argument and that predisposes me to find fault in it. Bear that in mind.
Bowers is a professor of psychology from the university of Bristol in the UK. He has written about neuroscience and its potential to be applied to education. He also has an interest in a method of reading instruction known as ‘structured word inquiry‘ which is promoted by his brother, Pete Bowers. This is not a secret and Jeffrey Bowers has been quite upfront about this link. I think it is fair to claim that Bowers’ contention is the evidence that phonics is superior to other forms of reading instruction disappears under close examination and we should therefore look to see if other methods, such as structured word inquiry, are a better bet. I am happy to be corrected on that.
What is phonics?
To determine whether phonics teaching is effective, it is necessary to understand what we mean by this. Unfortunately, this sends us into one of those rather tedious discussions of definitions that I generally try to avoid.
In the Bowers paper, he identifies three broad approaches: no phonics, unsystematic phonics and systematic phonics. A critical point of the paper is that, in his view, there is no evidence for the superiority of systematic phonics over unsystematic phonics and default classroom teaching as well as approaches such as ‘whole language’ can be characterised as involving unsystematic phonics.
Based upon my experience and a reading of the paper, I think we need to be more explicit than this. To my mind, phonics is a body of knowledge about the relationships between letters or groups of letters (graphemes) and the sounds they represent (phonemes). In the literature these are known as grapheme-phoneme-correspondences or GPCs. For instance, the grapheme ‘ch’ can be used to represent a number of different sounds such as in the words, ‘cheese,’ ‘chivalry’ and ‘chiropractor’.
Phonics teaching therefore becomes the teaching of these GPCs. Systematic phonics teaching is therefore a planned and sequenced approach to teaching these GPCs that follows some kind of logical development.
Some like to point out that, due to the way that many different languages have influenced English, there are a wide range of GPCs which are often overlapping or redundant. In other words, English has a ‘complex orthography’. However, far from pointing to the futility of teaching GPCs, this leads to two conclusions. Firstly, if a reader can narrow down the sound in a word to one of three then he or she can try out all three and see which fits a word known from oral vocabulary. So that’s still helpful. Secondly, a sophisticated approach to phonics may also teach the general rules that govern when and where different graphemes correspond to particular phonemes by, for instance, considering the source language or morphology. Morphology is the study of morphemes, the smallest units of meaning within a word such as ‘ing’ or ‘ed’, and it can be particularly useful when selecting which graphemes to use when spelling words.
Structured word inquiry apparently focuses on teaching morphology from the start of reading instruction.
A key issue in this discussion is the nature of unsystematic phonics instruction. For example, imagine a teacher who asked students first to predict a word from context or maybe guess it from a picture cue. As a last resort, the teacher might ask the student to consider the first letter of the word and what sound this may represent. Is this unsystematic phonics? Teaching GPCs this way would obviously be a very long process because, as a method of last resort, the rate at which students will encounter GPCs will be low. It is also likely that many GPCs will be omitted, either because the are part of sight words or because they don’t tend to occur at the start of words (e.g. ‘ck’) or the position of a particular grapheme in a word affects the related phoneme. In this instance, can we claim that phonics is being taught unsystematically? I would suggest a better description would be that a partial coverage of phonics is being taught unsystematically.
[Incidentally, the fact that the position of GPCs in a word effects the sounds they represent is a reason why the whole language trope that you could spell ‘fish’ as ‘ghoti’ is false. The ‘gh’ grapheme would never represent the ‘f’ sound in ‘fish’ when placed at the start of a word.]
From the start
For Bowers, part of the issue with the scientific consensus on phonics is its focus on systematically teaching phonics (which I interpret to mean teaching GPCs) ‘from the start’:
“There is a widespread consensus in the research community that early reading instruction in English should emphasize systematic phonics. That is, initial reading instruction should explicitly and systematically teach letter (grapheme) to sound (phoneme) correspondences. This contrasts with the main alternative method called whole language in which children are encouraged to focus on the meanings of words embedded in meaningful text, and where letter-sound correspondences are only taught incidentally when needed (Moats 2000).”
Despite the fact that Bowers can supply ‘countless quotes’ agreeing with this consensus position, he finds no evidence to support it. This is an odd position which I am going to critique with what initially may appear to be an unfair argument based upon structured word inquiry, but that I hope will illustrate a key issue.
Peter Bowers is keen to stress that structured word inquiry also teaches GPCs ‘from the start’ and he has produced a video to demonstrate this. Why is structured word inquiry, favoured by both Bowers brothers, teaching GPCs from the start given Bowers’ claim about the evidence in support of this? Well, as ever, the debate seems to depend on putting an awful lot of weight on the difference between ‘systematic’ and ‘unsystematic’.
Indeed, the Peter Bowers video does hint at an unstructured way of teaching GPCs, but I am dubious that this can be described as ‘from the start’.
The example he gives is the sentence, “Mom says she wants a cat.” Apparently, the child can read all the words apart from ‘cat’. How can this be, if this is teaching reading ‘from the start’? Either the child has already been taught all of the relevant GPCs or they have memorised sight words (my eldest daughter was given a set of ‘golden words’ to work on memorising each night) or they are perhaps using a predictable book where every page is a variant on, “Mom says she wants a…”. If the child has learnt sight words then I would challenge whether GPCs are being taught ‘from the start’. If the child is responding to a predictable book then I would challenge whether they can actually ‘read’ the words ‘Mom says she wants a’. What exactly is in dispute here? That there is no reason to teach GPCs in a logical order? What is the reason not to?
The logic of systematically teaching GPCs – planning which ones to teach and in which order – is that you can start with the ones that give you the biggest bang for your buck and get the child reading meaningfully as quickly as possible. Which leads to the next point.
Reading for meaning
Bowers perpetuates the idea that alternatives to systematic phonics are ‘meaning-based’ as if phonics somehow is not and instead children are learning how to read aloud statements of the first and second laws of thermodynamics without any idea of what they mean.
Many phonics advocates subscribe to the ‘simple view of reading‘. Again, we could debate definitions, but briefly stated, this contends that reading ability depends on two factors, oral comprehension and decoding. Oral comprehension is our ability to comprehend spoken text. Decoding is the ability to turn squiggles on the page into something equivalent to spoken text (I have been slightly ambiguous here because there are debates about exactly how this happens). If you can decode the words on a page, you could read them out aloud accurately, if required, although you may not necessarily know what they mean. Overall reading comprehension is therefore the product of these two abilities. If you have zero decoding ability or zero oral comprehension, you are not going anywhere (more on this later).
Early phonics teaching does not have to focus on teaching the meaning of words because most of the words used will be deliberately chosen to be within the child’s oral comprehension ability. Instead, children need to gain decoding ability in order to unlock these words. Few early readers will need to have the meaning of, “Pip snapped a stick,” explained to them. Maybe some will have very low oral comprehension or might not have come across a word like ‘snapped’. Maybe some won’t realise that the unfamiliar word ‘Pip’ is a name. But, by and large, instruction in meaning is unnecessary. This does not suggest that meaning is unimportant. It is a critical consideration – zero oral comprehension means zero reading comprehension.
On a personal level, I would add that, in my experience, the ‘aha’ moment that goes with unlocking meaning from text in this way is highly motivating for young children.
Bowers surveys the meta-analyses of reading research relied upon by various government panels and researchers to support their claim that systematic phonics is effective. After reanalysing them, he takes the view that although there is evidence that phonics is better than no phonics, there is no evidence that systematic phonics is superior to unsystematic phonics. He also claims that the effects of phonics interventions wash-out over time.
I have some sympathy for Bowers’ complaints about the various meta-analyses. Both the meta-analyses, and Bowers’ critique, rely on comparing effect sizes for different experimental versus control groups, but I am not convinced that an effect size is as stable a metric as many assume. Yes, at least in this case they all relate to the same thing – reading instruction – and not a whole menagerie of different outcomes as in, for example, the Education Endowment Foundation’s meta-meta-analysis of ‘metacognition and self-regulated learning‘, but they still apply to interventions of different durations, sometimes with whole cohorts and sometimes as interventions with specific cohorts, sometimes as initial instruction and sometimes as later catch-up interventions, sometime with non-native speakers and so on.
As the actual studies are embedded in individual papers which are then nested in the Bowers paper, I cannot easily see what the ‘unsystematic phonics’ control conditions are. This is critical to the argument because I doubt they resemble whole language instruction, as Bowers claims. I am sure whole language can be taught with great attention to GPCs and perhaps this is even the intention, but the rhetoric about ‘barking at print’ and so on tends to point in the other direction.
For instance, Brian Cambourne is a notable Australian proponent of whole language instruction and he advocates teaching GPCs only through writing. Is this what we mean by unsystematic phonics? It certainly seems far less focused on GPCs than, say, the structured word inquiry approach. Moreover, Cambourne incorrectly claims that phonics advocates believe ‘reading is decoding’ – phonics advocates do not believe this if they adopt the simple view of reading – and describes this as ‘read-i-cide’. It is clear what message teachers are supposed to take from this.
As I have not accessed all of the original papers behind these meta-analyses, I cannot accurately assess Bowers’ claims about them. He may be right. However, as I read his paper, there does seem to be an element of convenience about what he chooses to exclude as he reanalyses the data. Sometimes a large effect size is excluded. At other times, there is a lengthy description of the relative outcomes for different groups of students such as non-native English speakers and so on.
What we have to bear in mind is that this is all post-hoc. Bowers already knows all of the findings and is reanalysing them with a specific hypothesis in mind. That is something very different to starting out from scratch and conducting a study or a new meta-analysis. This is why we have seen a wider trend towards preregistered trials with pre-defined outcome measures.
For those of us who cannot analyse the data ourselves, we are left with weighing the conclusions of all of the teams of researchers who conducted these original analyses prospectively against the post-hoc reanalysis of Bowers. Even if we accept his reinterpretation as correct, we are accepting that phonics is superior to no phonics and are left with this claim that unsystematic phonics – whatever that is – is as good as systematic phonics. It is as if research has discovered that kids with desks in their rooms do better on exams than those without, but there is no statistically significant difference between those who have messy or tidy desks.
Bowers also makes claims that the effects of phonics wash out over time. This is hardly surprising and is a result of basic logic. Presumably, post intervention, most kids will go back to getting the default reading instruction diet. Clearly, the effect of X versus Y is always going to be greater than the effect of XYYYYY versus YYYYYY or XZZZZZ versus YZZZZZ. Think of The Princess and The Pea.
Public Policy in England
Finally, Bowers examines public policy in England. Phonics was mandated in 2007 following the 2006 Rose report and a phonics check was introduced in 2012 to ensure all schools were following this mandate. Surely, Bowers suggests, we should see a signature of that in subsequent standardised reading tests?
No, I am not convinced that we should. Standardised reading tests assess reading comprehension. This is the product of oral comprehension and decoding. Phonics only acts on decoding. If we do not also improve students’ oral comprehension – their knowledge ‘of words and the world‘, as E. D. Hirsch puts it – we should not necessarily see an improvement in reading comprehension (which is why advocate for a knowledge-rich curriculum).
Bowers makes a number of similar arguments and so I shall focus on just two because I think they illustrate the no-win position that he places phonics in.
The Key Stage Two standardised assessments changed in 2016 in order to make them more rigorous. The first cohort of students who completed the phonics check in 2012 would have sat these assessments in 2017. Bowers points to similar scores in the 2016 and 2017 and 2018 assessments and suggests this is evidence that phonics had no effect.
However, phonics has been mandated in England since 2007. Yes, 2012 added another accountability layer but it was well heralded and so a gradual move towards more phonics teaching seems more likely than a sudden step-change in 2012. Anecdotally, I understand that some schools reacted to the check by asking students to memorise nonsense words and that some schools are still, in 2020, using the three-cuing system criticised by Sir Jim Rose in 2006. So I find it hard to assume we went from zero to systematic phonics in 2012. I am also unsure as to how the UK government standardise the new Key Stage Two assessment and whether it would accurately pick up improvements in reading.
A related question then arises about the effect of mandation in 2007. Following Bowers’ previous logic, this should have affected performance on the old version of the Key Stage Two assessments. The first cohort sitting these assessment would have been in 2012 and the scores do indeed increase. However, this reversal of the previous finding is also dismissed by Bowers because maths and science scores rose at the same time and so this could be grade inflation.
This is, of course, all plausible, particularly to someone who is not expecting to see massive effects on standardised assessments, but it does again seem like we are starting with the conclusion and working back from there. Flat results provide evidence for the hypothesis but rising results also provide evidence for the hypothesis.
Where to from here?
I would like the the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to set-up a three-armed trial of a high quality systematic phonics programme, such as Sounds-Write, versus the best available unsystematic (or even ‘analytic’) phonics programme and a business-as-usual control. Structured word inquiry may be able to fulfil the role of the unsystematic phonics programme, although, given the discussion above, I am unsure if it is ready for teaching beginning reading. Such a trial may then allow us to pick some of this apart.
As for Bowers’ argument, it is hard to judge. What he desperately needs is something prospective i.e. to make a prediction before a study has been conducted and see that prediction supported by the subsequent evidence. Given the interest in structured word inquiry, there is obviously an advantage for Bowers if something like the EEF study I propose above could be run that involved structured word inquiry.
Those with the means may want to dig back through the papers that sit behind the meta-analyses that Bowers critiques. Setting aside the various technical criticisms Bowers makes, the crucial issue would be to determine the exact nature of these unsystematic phonics programmes that Bowers’ suggests are as effective as systematic phonics under his analysis. Even if Bowers’ analysis does not hold and the more conventional view prevails, it would still be a useful exercise.
In the meantime, I see no reason to ditch systematic phonics. Even if Bower’s turns out to be correct in all of his critique, phonics clearly works and I don’t think anyone in this debate is arguing that making it systematic is a cause of harm or that there are advantages to being unsystematic. If nothing else, a systematic approach makes sense from a planning perspective. It also aligns well with other sources of evidence from cognitive science.