Changing times for phonics but what about classroom behaviour?

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One frustrating feature of the ongoing phonics debate is how occluded it has become. Everyone seems to have their own definition of what ‘phonics’ means. For instance, to some, there is a key difference between systematic synthetic phonics and systematic phonics, as if we could systematically teach all of the grapheme-phoneme correspondences without ever making words out of them. These arguments make the debate almost impenetrable to the uninitiated and, knowingly or not, that seems to serve a purpose.

For instance, a smearing-out of the meaning of ‘phonics’ enables people to claim that all teachers are doing phonics already, even if what they are actually doing is an occasional bit of onset and rime while still focusing on discredited multi-cuing or ‘searchlight‘ strategies. “Teachers are already doing phonics,” is a familiar refrain in Australia whenever a new newspaper article or report appears:

And did you notice something odd about last week’s phonics debate? Ostensibly, it was meant to be an argument between those who think ‘phonics in context’ is enough and those who think phonics needs to be systematically planned and taught. And yet the side that was supposed to be arguing that phonics in context is enough, hardly mentioned phonics at all. Instead, they came out with a recognisably ‘whole language‘ argument.

What’s going on? In think this is an indication that phonics advocates are winning. Few contemporary academics are comfortable in coming out and simply stating, “I don’t believe in systematically teaching grapheme-phoneme relationships,” because they know that the evidence weighs so heavily against this position. Instead, they attempt to absorb phonics into their own position and therefore remove the grounds for debate.

Contrast phonics sceptics, if you will, with those who are sceptical of robust, evidence-informed approaches to classroom management. The latter group are not so shy, wearing it as a badge of honour.

I started thinking about this after being interviewed last night for Craig Barton’s podcast. He asked me about an issue I touch on in my new book: How can new teachers figure out whether a school will support them with behaviour?

Compared with figuring out a school leader’s take on phonics, establishing their view on behaviour is easy. People who have the worst views about behaviour management are usually quite proud of them. They will tell you that only monsters want to ‘control’ students. They will explain that students will behave if you present them with a well-planned, engaging lesson, with the implication being that if any students misbehave then you did not present them with a well-planned, engaging lesson. They will brag about their own misbehaviour at school and they way that it was a just act of rebellion against boring lessons or teachers who did not understand their genius. They will dismiss questions about a whole-school behaviour policy.

This is exactly where whole language was in its heyday. At that time, phonics advocates were dismissed on similar, moralising grounds. They were written-off as the kind of heartless beasts who just wanted students to ‘bark at print’.

Times change.


10 thoughts on “Changing times for phonics but what about classroom behaviour?

  1. Perhaps class control lags behind in Australia, but Terry Haydn’s 10 point scale has been making the rounds in England since 2007. He described a Level 3 classroom:

    “You dread the thought of the lesson. There will be major disruption; many pupils will pay little or no heed to your presence in the room. Even pupils who want to work will have difficulty doing so. Swearwords may go unchecked, pupils will walk round the room at will. You find yourself reluctant to deal with transgressions because you have lost confidence. When you write on the board, objects will be thrown around the room. You can’t wait for the lesson to end and be out of the room.”

    Bear in mind, there are two lower levels on his scale:

    One of my friends who has done a lot of supply in the North of England encountered a school matching this description 7 or 8 years ago–and there’s no doubt that behaviour described at the top of Haydyn’s scale is still a distant dream in the majority of our schools. And serious attempts to take control of behaviour can meet with a Twitter-storm, as Katherine Birbalsingh and Barry Smith found out the hard way. Yet at the same time, they’re winning converts–Ofsted has revealed that pupils are enthusiastic about these supposedly draconian regimes.

    Although we’re still suffering from the legacy of the cane and the ruler, the profession is slowly beginning to understand that good discipline does not have to be harsh and repressive, and that children readily identify with adults who know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to do it.

  2. Is your point here, that trs take a position on practice and that often they hold conflicting view simultaneously? And that these are most apparent in their Reading practice and Classroom Management?
    Is your point about how we teach reading? Is it about the lack of cohesiveness in argument? I use your blogs regularly as tr discussion – Cannot find the thread in this one Greg.

    1. Hi Allison
      I don’t think people holding conflicting views simultaneously was the point but I do think that is a huge problem with teachers and school leaders (“we need to focus more on the four Cs, we also need to return to basics” as I have heard more than once from school leaders)
      I think the point is that as someone starts losing a debate on evidence they adopt points from their opposition as their own or deny a debate eg “no one thinks knowledge isn’t important” when they had literally said 2 days ago that facts are googleable. They then usually move onto a strawman of what the opposition was saying as if they haven’t changed their position. While annoying it does show that their position has moved to accommodate the new evidence.
      With behaviour management, however, anti-discipline proponents do not generally do this. When shown evidence against their position the response is usually more along the lines of “sure you can have an orderly classroom – if you want to stifle student creativity!, if you want to hurt kids from disadvantaged backgrounds/mental health issues etc. ” I daresay there isn’t the type of evidence that will move their position yet or a big enough chorus even though I suspect most teachers are again in the middle.
      Teachers (and others) talking up their own school misbehaviour is one of my pet peeves though especially when it was nothing more than a few isolated incidences and nothing like what ‘pointy end’ students cause. Usually it is a ‘I was cool’ statement or a ‘I can relate to you’ *fistbump*

  3. Yes, times have changed but people’s thinking had yet to change. My question still remains: Why are many children still leaving schools as illiterates in schools that teach phonics?

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