Sunday, 2 August 2015

Santa Claus, Homeopathy, and Phonics: Where's the link?

Most of us can remember when we found out that Father Christmas, the Easter Bunny, and/or the Tooth Fairy were not real entities. For me, the disappointment of discovering that my parents were Santa was off-set by the relief that my attempts to deal with the illogical premise of his work-schedule were now reconciled. I must have been a budding empiricist even as a seven year old. Letting go of illogical but cherished belief-systems is an important rite of passage in childhood. It hurts a little, but it leads to greater maturity and depth of understanding about oneself and the complex world in which we live. Sometimes we have to let go of cherished beliefs as adults too.

I often think that for primary teachers whose pre-service education has been dominated by Whole Language-based ideology and pedagogy, exposure to the scientific evidence on what works (and who gets left behind) with respect to reading instruction must feel somewhat akin to losing a belief-system like the idea that a fat jolly bloke in a red suit flies around the world bringing presents to all of the children of the world (well, to those of a particular belief-system, and even then, not in an equitable fashion....let's not try to untangle those loose ends today).

There's a number of challenges in having discussions about evidence-based practice with teachers, and none of these reflect on teachers, per se. They do, however, reflect on teacher training.

  1. While systematic synthetic phonics instruction is strongly favoured by the cognitive psychology literature as a basis for early reading instruction, some children, notably those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, derive particular benefit from such approaches. Teachers who work in communities characterised by high levels of economic, social and human capital will likely find that many (but by no means all) children will make the transition to literacy almost irrespective of the instructional focus, because their classrooms have more "high readiness" than "low readiness" children with respect to learning to read. This is somewhat akin to the fact that doctors who work in such areas may see lower rates of illnesses in children that are due to air-borne pathogens, because such illnesses are more common where living conditions are over-crowded. Our everyday experiences are a powerful driver of what we see as "normal" and "abnormal".
  2. If teachers accept, in spite of their pre-service education, that Whole Language based approaches such as expecting children to memorise lists of commonly occurring words, and the use of three-cueing strategies are not optimal, what do they do then? Become overnight experts on delivering systematic synthetic phonics instruction? Not easy.
  3. Teachers are typically not taught the skills of reading and critically appraising scientific research. The power of anecdote and personal experience prevails when such a skill vacuum exists.
  4. Teachers have been sold a crock in so-called "Balanced Literacy". This is a slick attempt by some teacher educators to pay lip-service (no pun intended) to phonics-based early instruction, through pitches such as "Oh it's OK. We've moved on from the reading wars now. Now we teach Balanced Literacy, so phonics is in the mix". 
In the mix?

Let's consider the so-called "Five Big Ideas" in literacy education (phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, comprehension, and reading fluency). How much emphasis on the first two is enough? And when should phonemic awareness and phonics be introduced and called upon in the learning process? You might think you'd find some answers in the Australian document entitled "The Place of Phonics in Learning to Read and Write" by Emmitt et al. (2013). Instead, this document takes a perversely undermining position with respect to the importance of phonics instruction. The purpose of this blogpost is not to deconstruct the work of Emmitt et al., but rather to use it as an example of a modern guide for teachers that promotes what I've come to think of as homeopathic doses of phonemic awareness and phonics instruction. Sure, they're in the mix, but in doses that prevent systematic skill acquisition by early learners. Effective phonics instruction requires specialist knowledge of the structure of the English language, and this unfortunately has been shown to be significantly lacking in the teacher workforce - again, no fault of teachers, and something I will come back to in a future blogpost. 

In the meantime though, we need to think long and hard about what it means for children to be receiving patchy and often weak instruction in phonics. Phonics is not a stand alone. It's necessary but not sufficient in order to get beginning readers off the blocks and into the transformational world of deriving meaning from written text. But it needs to be taught well if early inequities in reading readiness are to be removed in the critical first three years of school.

I do wonder though, how we can move from our current impasse. Four decades of Whole Language dominated teacher education and classroom practice stands between today's children and exposure to evidence-based reading instruction. Maybe I need to believe in one of these:


(C) Pamela Snow 2015


  1. All so true Pam! I think that one if the biggest issues with the current dominant "balanced literacy" approach is the utilisation of predictive/repetitive/phonically uncontrolled readers for beginners to practice their burgeoning decoding skills. Of course, they don't tend to practice their decoding skills when they are encouraged to guess from the context or picture etc. I don't understand why all early years classrooms don't use decodable readers but they seem to be used with strugglers in some of these schools? But then I am comparatively new to this game and I know I should consider what the dominant paradigm was back when the sets of readers were chosen and purchased. And don't get me started on the teaching of high-frequency words!! Great blog though.

    1. This is somewhat akin to the fact that doctors who work in such areas may see lower rates of illnesses in children that are due to air-borne pathogens, homeopathy

  2. Thanks for your comment Juliet. You are quite right about the lack of logic in using predictable texts for instruction and then decodable ones for remediation. Why are decodable texts an option of last resort? I don't think the dominant paradigm has changed all that much in recent years - just old wine being poured into new bottles unfortunately.

  3. (Q) How can we move from our current impasse?

    (A) Follow the Grand Educational Experiment currently in progress where the Experimental Group are the primary school children in England, where the Treatment of "systematic phonics" has been statutorily mandated and the Comparison Groups are children in other English-speaking countries. A well-defined Alphabetic Code (Phonics) Screening Check constitutes the Dependent Variable.

    The Natural Experiment provides a model for how to scientifically untangle many of the complex matters of instruction and schooling, but few people have the awareness ("Educational Awareness," anyone?) of what is transpiring.

    To date, only data at the National and Local Educational Authority treatment level have been analyzed. As of 2014, 88% of Year 2 students in England "passed" the Screening Check. The wide variability in LEA performance indicates that how "phonics teaching" is interpreted at the school and classroom level is determinative, but "more analysis is needed." The fact that more than 600 schools had "virtually all" children "passing" in Year 1 suggests that further improvement is feasible.

    There may well be other ways to scientifically address the "reading problem," but this "evidence" is at hand, unobtrusive, and entails trivial marginal cost.

  4. I agree Dick, the longitudinal data on the UK Phonics Check is going to be fascinating. The tricky piece is going to be working out the "ingredients" behind any changes that occur - given that the UK government has mandated the check, rather than the details of instructional approach (as I understand it), though they have provided a website with materials and information for teachers:
    Time will tell!
    Such an approach is most unlikley to occur in Australia, at least not on a national level, as education is largely the responsibility of the states. That said, the federal government has stepped in this week and announced some controversial changes - see These will be hotly contested by teacher educators in particular.

  5. I'm an SLP working in schools in Canada. I wonder if you could comment about Fountas and Pinell reading levels and Guided Reading. This is the program used in many of my schools. I think this program suffers from many of the criticisms given to Reading Recovery. However, while Reading Recovery's efficacy (or lack thereof) has been researched, I have not been able to find good research about Guided Reading's efficacy. Instead, most studies I have found only include 'no treatment' as a control group. Do you know of any high quality studies investigating Guided Reading? Additionally, could you please point me to studies showing the value of predictable versus decodable text? It makes sense that decodable books would be superior to predictable books, but I have only found one study that directly compared these two book types.

    Thanks for your excellent blog!

  6. Thanks for your query and apologies for my tardy reply - I don't seem to receive notifications when there's a comment and sometime miss them. You may find some comments and references and F&P/guided reading etc on Alison Clarke's excellent website and blog: