Friday, December 02, 2005


Buh- bah- bahr- barmy: Britain resolves the phonics controversy

Britain's Secretary of Education Ruth Kelly announced yesterday a sea change in British primary education: Next September literacy will be taught using "synthetic phonics" exclusively, beginning from the age of 5. Synthetic phonics is a method by which letter sounds are learned and then words are "sounded out." This building up of words from their component sounds makes the method "synthetic." A contrasting method in which whole words are learned first with their letter sounds learned afterwards is known as "analytic phonics."

This dramatic announcement was occasioned by the release of a report by Jim Rose, the former director of the Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted). The Tories (Conservatives) are popping the champagne, and the teacher's union is up in arms. The Education Secretary was said to be reluctant, but the force of several studies using the techniques of synthetic phonics was too compelling to be denied.

Perhaps the most significant research was a 7-year study of 300 children in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. According to Polly Curtis of The Guardian, that study found the children trained on phonics were up to three years ahead in reading, though there was no improvement in comprehension. Of course this was not a very large study. My own thought is that any child who can read "Clackmannanshire" can probably read just about anything, so I hope they controlled for locale.

As someone far removed from these issues, it amazes me that the best method of teaching children to read has been a decades-long political battle. Yet it has been, and there are some points I would make.

Determining the "best" method to teach reading to children shouldn't be all that difficult. Standard techniques of experimental psychology should yield an answer. My guess is that the real difficulty lies in reaching agreement on the meaning of terms such as "best" and "reading." Are people "reading" if they can sound out "onomatopeia" but don't have a clue to its meaning? Since the whole point of reading is comprehension, there is room for debate, and you should note that the Clackmannanshire study found no improvement in that regard.

That said, both sides have indulged in obscurantism to keep the debate as muddled as possible. To the extent that is true, the obscurantists can't be said to have the interests of the children at heart.

John Clare of The Telegraph, a conservative paper, is one of those popping the champagne—

His [Rose's] prescription ... reverses a 30-year orthodoxy that led in the 1980s to a steady decline in reading standards.

That decline was subsequently masked by the introduction of national tests that vary in standard from one year to another and offer what experts regard as an unreliable measurement of children's ability to decode print.

It enabled the education establishment to continue to insist that a mixture of methods worked best, an entrenched position from which observers believe they will be shifted only with difficulty.

The educational establishment is indeed insisting on a mixture of methods. Rebecca Smithers of The Guardian writes,

But teachers' leaders questioned the government's decision to rely on just one method, which would not necessarily suit all children. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "We want every child to be a proficient reader. But teachers are desperately weary of the reading wars. Phonics has too often been hijacked by politicians as a weapon to beat each other with, rather than being seen as a vital but not exclusive method of teaching reading."

He went on: "I welcome much of Jim Rose's report, including his criticism of the futile debate about methods of teaching phonics. But we all need to recognise that teaching the meaning of words and a love of reading is also vital. The last thing teachers want is a massive upheaval as a result of the promotion of a single fashionable technique. They know that to teach reading effectively there must be a range of strategies to hand. Above all, teachers must be involved in the debate on what works in the teaching of reading."

So who's right? Both sides, depending upon how the problem is defined.

But the teachers are egregiously wrong in one respect. While it is probably true that one teaching method is not best for all children, it is a useless objection, politically speaking, without research to demonstrate this. More importantly, it is useless because without research there is no way to know which children might better benefit from other methods.

A medical comparison comes to mind. Western medicine adds new drugs and vaccines to the available treatments typically based on studies across broad populations. But no claim can be made for most drugs or vaccines that they are best for everyone—only that they are effective for the population as a whole. Until research can differentiate that population into subgroups who can be shown better to benefit from other drugs/vaccines, the doctor is compelled to use the best available method for the group as a whole.

Instead of opposing the exclusive use of phonics without a basis for doing so, the teachers should be demanding research into individual differences as well as into methods that will allow students to convert their improved word recognition into verbal comprehension. Basically, our leaders only want the children to recognize "Stop," "Go" and "Shut up." Phonics should take care of that nicely. It will be up to the teachers to do the rest.

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