Around the turn of the century, a U.S. panel reported on the evidence about how best to teach children to read. They were crystal clear; a systematic phonics programme was best. This was seen by many as the definitive end of the ‘reading wars’ that pitted whole-language advocates against promoters of a phonics-based approach. Whole-language was a theory of learning to read that emphasised whole words, ‘real’ books and students ‘constructing’ their own meaning. As such, it aligned with ‘constructivist’ views of teaching that remain fashionable in schools of education.
However, like Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history,’ hopes for an end to the debate on reading represented a false dawn. Whole-language advocates rebadged their approach as ‘balanced literacy,’ implying that phonics was now a part of it, but only one component part. Many people have come to accept their rhetoric that spending 5 hours per day doing nothing but decoding and perhaps a little maths would be harmful to primary school children; perhaps the greatest straw-man argument in education. The idea that phonics proponents have no interest in comprehension and only care about training children to ‘bark at print’ has held enormous rhetorical power, despite the fact that many phonics experts would subscribe to the ‘simple view of reading’ where decoding and comprehension go hand-in-hand to understand a text. What they reject are alternative ways to try to decode words such as rote memorizing lists of whole words – ‘sight words’ – or guessing what a word might be from a picture or perhaps from the first sound in the word. They would claim that this is a lost opportunity to practice phonetic decoding and represents a danger to students who rely on these methods when later, more complex texts simply cannot be decoded in this way. This is consistent with the science which finds little support for ‘multi-cuing’ strategies.
I have mentioned anecdotally that I suspect that there is still a great deal of learning of sight words and instruction in multi-cuing going on in schools. Despite the supposed ‘balanced’ approach to literacy, I also think insufficient phonics instruction takes place and, when it does, it’s a little haphazard. These views reflects my own experience and the experiences of those with whom I’ve been in contact over social media in a range of countries, as well as the sorts of arguments that you seeing playing-out amongst teachers and in the media. There are plenty of academics out there involved in training teachers who remain deeply sceptical about phonics. Others tip their hats to phonics but emphasise that it is not sufficient or mount ad hominem attacks on people with phonics programmes to sell. They often highlight the differences between students and suggest varied instruction to cater for these difference whereas evidence suggests that successful approaches tend to work across the range of students.
However, I have been challenged by Linda Graham to provide stronger evidence for my position. Short of going out into the wild and surveying hundreds of schools, it is hard to tell exactly what the situation is. Even if we were to conduct such a study, there would likely be an experimenter effect where teachers would present the strategies that they thought we were looking for – a key problem with lesson observation. It is an easier proposition if you already accept the efficacy of phonics approaches – surely we would not be seeing a decline in reading scores. However, to a phonics sceptic this is begging the question.
When I asked my contacts about this, my attention was drawn to the 2005 Australian government inquiry into the teaching of reading. The comments made are pertinent to teacher training but I would suggest that we can certainly draw inferences about the likely impact on school instruction. To quote from the executive summary:
“The evidence is clear, whether from research, good practice observed in schools, advice from submissions to the Inquiry, consultations, or from Committee members’ own individual experiences, that direct systematic instruction in phonics during the early years of schooling is an essential foundation for teaching children to read. Findings from the research evidence indicate that all students learn best when teachers adopt an integrated approach to reading that explicitly teaches phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and comprehension. This approach, coupled with effective support from the child’s home, is critical to success…
Much curriculum design, content, teaching and teacher preparation seems to be based, at least implicitly, on an educational philosophy of constructivism (an established theory of knowing and learning rather than a theory of teaching). Yet the Inquiry found there is a serious lack of supporting evidence for its effectiveness in teaching children to read. Further, too often emphasis is given to the nature of the child’s environment or background rather than on how a teacher should teach, resulting in insufficient attention being given to both ‘what’ and ‘how’ teachers should teach children to read and write. Whereas the ‘starting’ levels of children from less advantaged backgrounds is lower than those from more advantaged backgrounds, findings from a large body of evidence-based research consistently indicate that quality teaching has significant positive effects on students’ achievement progress regardless of their backgrounds…
The Inquiry found that the preparation of new teachers to teach reading is uneven across universities, and that an evidence-based and integrated approach including instruction in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary knowledge and text comprehension needs to be adopted. The Inquiry also found that systematic support for classroom teachers to build the appropriate skills to teach reading effectively, is clearly inadequate…”
In the body of the report, we can find data to support these conclusions. For instance, they surveyed the 34 higher education institutions that provide teacher training in Australia. Asked about the proportion of Bachelor of Education course credits that were devoted to the teaching of reading, they found that:
“…this share varies considerably across the 34 teacher education institutions, from a low of less than two per cent to a high of over 14 per cent. All but three institutions devoted less than 10 per cent of total credit points to the teaching of reading, and half of all institutions devoted five per cent or less of total credit points to this activity.”
They review various studies and note that:
“Drawing on quantitative data of teachers’ perceptions of the quality of teacher preparation in Australia, Louden et al. (2005b) conclude that, on the whole, beginning primary teachers are not confident about teaching some specific aspects of literacy, namely viewing, spelling, and grammar as well as phonics. Moreover, barely a third of senior staff in schools thought that beginning teachers were prepared to teach literacy. A further report based on the perceptions of some school principals and experienced teachers also concluded that new teachers are graduating without sufficient specific strategies to improve literacy or numeracy standards (Parliament of Victoria Education and Training Committee, 2005).”
They conducted focus groups and found:
“The literacy competence of student teachers was raised as an issue in all focus group discussions. Participants reported that many students lacked the literacy skills required to be effective teachers of reading and needed help to develop their foundational literacy skills. The literacy of student teachers is assessed in some way in most courses, and some participants indicated that the students who do not have appropriate levels are required to undertake specific remedial course work. This approach seems to be ad hoc, with no national approach to determining entry standards in literacy.”
These statements would seem to provide some indirect evidence for my view that insufficient phonics instruction takes place in schools. If trainee teachers have poor literacy skills themselves, lack knowledge of phonics and don’t spend a great deal of time learning about reading then this is an inevitable result. Whatever you think about phonics, you have to acknowledge that a systematic approach to teaching it requires a command of the detail. It is no surprise that teachers would turn to alternative rote-learning and guessing strategies if they lack this knowledge.
Of course, you could argue that things have significantly changed in the ten years since this report was compiled. However, if you were to do this then I think the onus would be on you to supply the evidence of this change.
If things haven’t changed in the last ten years then I think this also raises serious policy issues (to be honest, rereading this report to look for this evidence was quite a shocking experience for me). Instead of a counsel of complacency, education schools need to rethink their programmes. They need to stop criticising phonics experts for their attempts to make a living and perhaps collaborate with them to run substantial courses for their students. This would be my preferred option because I would want university education to remain a critical part of teacher training.
If this doesn’t happen then policymakers have a couple of other alternatives. They could, for instance, expand programmes where teachers train predominantly in schools. This has already been done in the UK but you would have to question whether the schools are any better placed to teach phonics than the universities. Still, the competition might drive up standards. The teacher registration boards also have a potential role to play. If they start requiring a certain level of phonics knowledge in order to register teachers then the universities will soon have to change their ways. Nobody will want a teaching degree that does not enable you to become registered as a teacher at the end of it.