False balance at The Conversation

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In September, Misha Ketchell, Editor of The Conversation, published a post in which he outlined the new, tough line that his organisation would take against climate change skeptics:

“Climate change deniers, and those shamelessly peddling pseudoscience and misinformation, are perpetuating ideas that will ultimately destroy the planet. As a publisher, giving them a voice on our site contributes to a stalled public discourse.

That’s why the editorial team in Australia is implementing a zero-tolerance approach to moderating climate change deniers, and sceptics. Not only will we be removing their comments, we’ll be locking their accounts.”

I am not a climate change skeptic but I disagree with this stance. It is one thing for The Conversation to decline to publish articles from climate change deniers, but it is quite another to refuse to accept comments from them and to even lock their accounts, preventing them from commenting on other matters. The stated reason is that authors and other commentators were spending too much time rebutting, “those who are fixated on dodgy ideas in the face of decades of peer-reviewed science,” and who are, “nothing but dangerous.” I can understand the frustration with people who might start redefining terms or selectively quoting data to make their case and the effort this requires to counter. However, this still seems an odd stance for an outlet with a mission to bring academic discourse, with its implied commitment to freedom of expression, to the wider public.

Yet when it comes to the science of reading, The Conversation takes quite a different view. Despite decades of peer-reviewed scientific research, three independent reviews of the research literature conducted for the U.S. government, the U.K. Government and the Australian Government, and continued research demonstrating the effectiveness of a systematic approach to teaching phonics as part of early reading instruction, Ketchell and colleagues introduced false balance by publishing two articles yesterday (here and here), one which argued the scientific case for systematic phonics instruction and the other which argued for the widely discredited ‘whole language’ approach.

You can gain a sense of the difference between the two by mining the references in each article.

Moreover, the whole language article presents whole language as something that it is not widely understood to be and then claims support from the reviews I have linked to above. For instance, a dictionary definition of ‘whole language’ is:

“…a method of teaching reading and writing that emphasizes learning whole words and phrases by encountering them in meaningful contexts rather than by phonics exercises.”

And yet the author of the whole language article, Katina Zammit, claims that whole language involves the explicit teaching of decoding skills. Moreover, Zammit claims it aligns with The U.S. and Australian government reviews. This is not the case. The Australian review states, for example, that:

“The Inquiry found strong evidence that a whole-language approach to the teaching of reading on its own is not in the best interests of children, particularly those experiencing reading difficulties.”

The phrase ‘on its own’ is in there because most understandings of the term ‘whole language’ would exclude the ‘explicit teaching of decoding skills’. Instead, the whole language view is understood to be that children will pick up phonics knowledge implicitly and naturally in the context of reading, in a similar way to how they pick up spoken language. This is the main problem with whole language because research suggests that many children will not pick up these relationships naturally (reading and writing are quite different to speaking and listening because written language is a relatively recent invention and evolution has not had time to work on natural ways for children to acquire it).

An excellent description of whole language instruction is given on pages 199-201 of Preventing Reading Difficulties in Young Children, a consensus study report prepared for the U.S. National Research Council and edited by Catherine E. Snow, M. Susan Burns, and Peg Griffin. They describe whole language as an approach, “in which the emphasis is on connected text, with alphabetic learning assumed to go on implicitly.” This is the opposite of the ‘explicit teaching of decoding skills’. In a vignette, they describe a whole language lesson where the teacher helps children gain phonics knowledge incidentally and implicitly. Consistent with the other national reports I have listed, the authors conclude that whole language is the least effective form of initial reading instruction.

Either Zammit is now claiming that ‘in the 21st century’ whole language means something different to what it used to mean or this is an exercise in smoke and mirrors. Perhaps she has taken the advice of Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass that, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”. Either way, this provides a deeply misleading picture of the state of research in this area.

Not content with bending the meaning of ‘whole language’, Zammit also falsely characterises the alternative to whole language as an approach that focuses on decoding alone. Nobody advocates for such an approach. This is a common straw-man argument erected by opponents of phonics instruction. For instance, the pro-phonics Five from Five project emphasises five keys to reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension. Zammit also reheats the old trope about the way that the pronunciation of ‘wind’ depends on context. Those with phonics knowledge can narrow the pronunciation of ‘wind’ down to two options and then use context to determine which. Those who cannot decode, cannot narrow down the options in this way and so this example actually demonstrates the importance of phonics.

It is time for The Conversation to make its mind up. On the one hand, it bans anyone from even commenting if they are skeptical of climate science. On the other, they put up a misleading article that flies in the face of what we know about reading instruction and suggest it is the equivalent of an article arguing the scientific case.

That’s inconsistent.


8 thoughts on “False balance at The Conversation

  1. Chester Draws says:

    It’s totally consistent.

    It’s merely consistent politically, rather than scientifically. And politics always trump science for rather too many progressives.

    They’ll also be anti-GMO, against sciencists, but argue pro-vaccine against “deniers”.

    What would be weird would be for The Conversartion to step out against the progressive political line. It won’t be happening any time soon.

    • Chester Draws says:

      Jay, I believe the preference runs the other way. Not that it is for whole language, but that it runs against traditional and explicit ways of teaching.

      Progressives believe, for the most part, that learning is natural. That if we present material in the right way, people will learn without carefully laid out rules and direction. Whole language fits this: the kids will work it out for themselves if the material is interesting enough. But there are progressives supporting other “natural” ways of learning.

      Meanwhile phonics instruction is rule based and explicit. The teacher explains carefully the sounds of each letter and then the kids practice. Phonics books focus on a careful progression of language, not exciting stories or interesting pictures. This is deemed “unnatural”.

      • Jay Jam says:

        Thanks very much. So I think you’re saying it’s because phonics is perceived by its critics to be rule based and unnatural whereas whole reading and other student centered methods are not. Interesting. I think you’re right.

  2. Karey says:

    Yes. I checked one of the whole language sources, and the link was story to an article that falsely says “The first flaw in the English phonics solution to declining literacy achievement is that English is not a phonetic language”. This is the nonsense that Rudolph Flesch debunked in his 1981 _Why Johnny can’t Read_: ‘All alphabetic systems are phonetic; the two words mean the same thing. The only trouble is that English is a little more irregular than other languages. How much more has been established by three or four independent researchers. They all came up with the same figure. About 13 per cent of all English words are partly irregular in their spelling. The other 87 per cent follow fixed rules. Even the 13 per cent are not “unphonetic,” […] but usually contain just one irregularly spelled vowel […]’ (p.7).

  3. I am an anthropocentric climate change sceptic – by which I mean I don’t think climate change (which has always happened) is driven by humanity and not also by the earth itself. This means I think we need to adapt, because there is not any way we can affect a complex system of the size of earth.
    I am not a phonics sceptic, however, and I can see inconsistency in the Conversation’s approach if they are being open to free speech (I do not see why my views on climate change and adaptation should not be published by them btw, if they support free flow of ideas). But the example shown suggests that the Conversation chooses its editorial policy based on politics and political correctness, with a left wing bias. So climate change deniers are beyond the pale (right wingers supported by oil companies, for example) but supporters of whole language are entirely inside it, being assumed to be right on and left wing, and only wanting children to enjoy their learning, with preferences for SSP being seen as right wing and dirigiste.
    That this is a weird position for left wingers who, presumably, support educational opportunities for all, including the most disadvantaged, has never been something I understood. To advocate the least effective means of teaching reading so that those with least support don’t progress appears utterly inconsistent.

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