The footage above is from last night’s phonics debate in Sydney. Every primary teacher should view this and it is worthwhile if you teach secondary.
The proposition for debate was: Phonics in context is not enough. On the affirmative side where Anne Castles, a reading scientist, Jennifer Buckingham of the CIS thinktank and head of its FIVE from FIVE literacy project, and Troy Verey, a public school teacher from New South Wales.
Castles, Buckingham and Verey leaned heavily on scientifically based reading research. Verey contextualised this by discussing his experience teaching in London and NSW. He spoke of how little he had learnt about reading through his training and he specifically mentioned the importance of learning about the five keys to reading, the same five that Buckingham’s programme focuses on: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension.
These are consistent with The Simple View of Reading, a theory that posits that reading consists of two intertwined components: decoding and comprehension. You need to be able to map the squiggles on the page to a word, but you then need to know what that word means in the given context.
Buckingham highlighted this point when she discussed the word ‘wind’. Yes, its meaning and pronunciation depend on context, but if you can decode it with phonics then you can narrow it down to one of two options. Without phonics, ‘it could be anything’.
The overriding point was that phonics needs to be taught systematically, from simple letter-sound correspondences to more complex ones, rather than being left to chance. If we expect children to infer these relationships for themselves then many will not, including a disproportionate number of the most vulnerable students.
On the negative side of the debate were Robyn Ewing, a professor of education, Kathy Rushton, an education lecturer and Mark Diamond, a school principal.
Their approach to the debate was initially baffling because they seemed to be arguing against the idea of teaching phonics and nothing else. This is despite the fact that the affirmative speakers all stressed the importance of reading stories with children and building comprehension in tandem with teaching phonics.
Rather than focusing on scientific research, the negative speakers focused on the idea that meaning is important. Again, this does not seem to be a point that anyone disagrees with. As I have noted, The Simple View of Reading suggests comprehension – meaning – is one of two critical components.
Ewing spoke at some length about the need to speak to babies so that they develop language skills. The implied connection was that this kind of immersion is also useful for teaching reading. However, there is no good reason to believe that learning to speak and learning to read are the same. Although reading clearly builds upon speaking, reading has only been around for a few thousand years, with mass literacy only about 150 years old. In contrast, speaking has been around for many tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of years and so has potentially been acted on by evolution.
Part of this argument, taken up by the other negative speakers, seemed to be that reading performance was largely determined by home life. Home life is undoubtedly a massive factor, but as educators, there is little we can do about it. We can, however, affect what happens in the classroom.
There were also a couple of puzzling research claims made by the negative speakers. Ewing claimed that British research has shown that the phonics check in England has not been a good thing for young children and has not necessarily improved their reading. I would like to know the source for this because evidence from PIRLS, although very preliminary and correlational, suggests reading has improved since the introduction of the check. Diamond referred to a claim that he attributed to Misty Adoniou that ‘English has a phonological consistency of only 12%’. I would like to see the source.
However, the most extraordinary part of the debate was the following section:
Mark Diamond: Show me the money. Those who have a vested interest in commercial products for sale versus those who pursue complex understanding… Deepening pockets versus deepening understanding.
Audience: [Inaudible heckles]
Diamond: This is a scholarly debate.
It’s pretty breathtaking to accuse the other side of the debate, none of whom appear to have any commercial investment in phonics programmes, of being venal, and then call for a scholarly debate. But this was not the only odd juxtaposition. Diamond also accused Verey of relying on a small amount of evidence from Verey’s school – Verey did not do this because he mainly drew on the wider evidence outlined by Castles and Buckingham – before constantly referencing his own school as evidence supporting a ‘balanced’ approach.
The reason I devoted a chapter of my new book to phonics, even though the book is aimed at all new teachers whether they teach early reading or not, is that the phonics debate captures, in microcosm, the education debate more widely. It pits science against semi-mystical invocations of ‘authenticity’ and ‘meaning making’.
We will know that we have finally become a profession when debates like this no longer represent genuine differences in the methods we use.