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’.