“I learnt to read by standing in custard”

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Earlier, I read an articulate and reasoned piece in The Conversation by Lorraine Hammond of Edith Cowan University. In the article, she argues for the introduction of an Australian phonics check, setting out some of the supporting evidence.

I should have known better, but I found myself looking at the comments. I was reminded that people tend to argue against synthetic phonics from an ideological stance rather than a scientific one. And I was reminded of some of the arguments that are made to support this view.

I think some people struggle with the nuance of the phonics debate. For instance, there are different kinds of phonics teaching. Analytic phonics is less effective that synthetic phonics as Pamela Snow explains in her excellent recent post on phonics fallacies. Therefore, simply doing a bit of phonics is insufficient. 

The other complication is that you certainly can learn to read via whole language approaches. The main problem with these methods is that fewer children will manage to learn to read in this way. The large volume of research from different English speaking countries demonstrates this quite clearly. Conversely, there is no evidence that any students are harmed by learning through phonics. In fact, it may well help them with things like spelling.

So simply claiming that you, or someone you know, learnt to read without phonics proves nothing. Plenty of people do. It’s just that these alternative methods leave lots of reading casualties in their wake.

Similarly, arguments about just how regular the English language is also miss the mark. It’s certainly an interesting topic of conversation, but if English were so irregular that phonics didn’t work then… er… phonics wouldn’t work. Yet we have lots of evidence that it does work and better than the alternatives.

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4 Comments on ““I learnt to read by standing in custard””

  1. Stan says:

    Perhaps you can do a blog post on Dunning-Kruger: The single most important thing bloggers and commenters need to know.

  2. Mike says:

    My concerns about the new phonics check are not ideological or scientific, but practical. Everyone apart from education professors knows that synthetic phonics is the most appropriate method to teach reading effectively. But if the panicky approach of schools and teachers to NAPLAN is any guide, utilising synthetic phonics in a contextual way could end up being shelved (at least for a period prior to the “check”) in the interest of familiarising kids with dif, yob, wem and hud. For six-year-old kids, this could be very disorienting, to say the least.

    The “but they already teach it” argument, used by many of those opposed to the check, is (in my view) half-true. From anecdotal evidence and my own experience, I’ve come to believe that kindy teachers tend to teach phonics quite well, but that there’s an assumption in Year 1 and beyond that “they already know how to read”, and so there’s not much reinforcement.


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