Myths and deception: ‘synphonpreneurs’ are pushing synthetic phonics in schools
by Dr Paul Gardner
The Federal Minister for Education, Dan Tehan, has made the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) available across Australia.
The longevity of phonics teaching, and its universal acceptance amongst educators, has been turned into controversy by ‘agent provocateurs’, who claim the opposite to be true.
https://educationhq.com/news/myths-and- ... um=twitter
My comments in red below:
The PSC, which is already mandatory in South Australia, has been imported from England, where it was implemented in 2012. The test is only mandatory in England, and has not been adopted by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have their own education systems.
The Check consists of 40 individual words, half of which are nonsense words. Year 1 students must read 32 of the words correctly in order to pass the test, which the UK Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, claims to be an effective means of assessing students’ reading potential.
He also claims it has been instrumental in driving up standards of reading in English schools. It is surprising, therefore, that the devolved governments of the UK have not also implemented the PSC.
It is surprising, disappointing, and arguably unaccountable that the other countries ('devolved governments') in the United Kingdom have not implemented the Year One phonics screening check which has been statutory in England since 2012 - showing an improving result from 32% reaching or exceeding the benchmark of 32 out of 40 words in the phonics check read correctly and plausibly in the 2011 pilot study rising to 82% as a national average in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Not satisfied with the 82% national average figure, the Department for Education has provided various phonics initiatives including the establishment of 34 'English Hubs' to work with regional partner schools in early language, literature and phonics provision. Some schools in England routinely achieve figures of 90+% children reaching or exceeding the 32 out of 40 benchmark in the Y1 phonics check. So in England we aspire higher still until virtually all children are enabled to be competent decoders and good early readers.
Perhaps the most important factor of the adoption of an objective and national phonics check (same check for all at the same time of year) is the information it can provide teachers in terms of their teaching effectiveness. I'm no longer a practising teacher but without doubt I would want to know whether my phonics provision was as effective as the very best provision of other teachers. When I was a practising teacher, my pupils' reading results from statutory testing at the end of Year 2 in England showed that they were the highest by far in my local authority - and this was prior to me becoming a phonics specialist and programme author. I attributed these results to my phonics teaching with no multi-cueing reading strategies (contrary to the multi-cueing 'searchlights' reading strategies guidance of the National Literacy Strategy at that time). Hence I went on to challenge the NLS 'searchlights' on my own behalf as a practising teacher and through the auspices of the UK Reading Reform Foundation. For a while I became the editor of the (then) hard copy RRF newsletter which provides historic evidence of the challenges I, and others, made to the searchlights multi-cueing guidance leading to subsequent political and independent national inquiries in England's context:
See the 'UK' inquiries here:
According to research undertaken by academics in England, both the Minister’s claims are contested by teachers, parents and literacy experts. The contradiction between systematic research, and the Minister’s opinion, indicates a serious schism in the English education system. So, why does Minister Tehan think the PSC will work in Australia, and does he not risk causing a similar conflict here?
This is a big, sweeping statement by Gardner and it needs unpicking. 'According to research undertaken by academics in England' - which research is this? There is indeed ongoing and actually disheartening resistance to phonics provision and the Y1 phonics check in England but this resistance is often uninformed, biased, and inaccurate. There are numerous threads via the forum of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction but here is a flavour of the phonics phobia of various academic detractors:
I suggest that Minister Tehan introducing a phonics screening check (PSC) in Australia is the act of a responsible politician and educationalist. It looks like he understands its importance and potential for raising awareness of, and the need to ensure, effective phonics provision throughout Australia.
Yes, there is not only a 'risk of similar conflict' (in Australia as in England) but this conflict is already playing out big-time in Australia. Again, we evidence this via the forum of the International Foundation through many of the threads (see also the 'General' forum):
The conflict, and any further conflict which may arise as a consequence of a national PSC in Australia, simply has to be played out because teachers' professional knowledge and understanding, and the literacy levels of the children themselves, are at stake here. Indeed in Australia, there are some very knowledgeable people pioneering for the PSC and for quality of 'systematic synthetic phonics' provision via several organisations founded to champion the cause of children with dyslexic tendencies and the learning needs of all children. They are aware of the need for prevention and not just 'intervention'.
In order to answer both parts of the question, it is necessary to unpack some of the thinking that underpins the PSC. Phonics involves teaching children letter sound relationships to help them to decode words. This is a universally accepted practice amongst teachers and literacy experts in both England and Australia.
Phonics is embedded in the Australian National Curriculum and has been a common method of teaching early reading in schools for decades. The longevity of phonics teaching, and its universal acceptance amongst educators, has been turned into controversy by ‘agent provocateurs’, who claim the opposite to be true.
'Phonics' may well be provided in every school in England and Australia, but this is such a shallow statement from Gardner which is possibly deliberately simplistic or naively so. At a basic level in terms of 'phonics' provision, there is the issue of the quality and nature of that phonics provision. Anyone in a position of teaching or teacher-training should understand that there are many different forms of phonics provision - not least being whether the introduction to phonics is 'systematic' or 'incidental' or 'embedded' (with children's literature) - then there is the issue of whether it is 'synthetic' (all-through-the-word blending for reading and segmenting for spelling from the outset mainly at 'phoneme' level), or 'analytic' (piecemeal analysis of printed words often after an introduction to a bank of common 'sight words', with phonics introduced for the first letter-sound, then last letter-sound, then middle letter-sound), or 'onset and rime' which involves words single syllable words with the same endings (mat, pat, sat, fat, hat) and a snapping in two of the words (m-at, p-at, s-at) plus introducing the notion of consonant clusters as units of sound (br, st, spl, -st, -lk, -nd). With regard to 'quality' of provision, even if all teachers taught the same form of phonics provision, it is a reality that not all teachers will teach equally as well or effectively. It is a fundamentally important aspect of professional development that we monitor teaching effectiveness in something so important as foundational literacy. This is life-chance stuff for so many of our children and cannot be left to chance.
No, the main issue, or worry, is the inclusion of 'multi-cueing word-guessing strategies' such as: 'Guess the word from the picture' (picture cue); 'Go on and read the sentence and guess the word that makes sense' (context cue); 'Guess the word from its first letter/s'. These multi-cueing word-guessing strategies are discredited in the body of research findings - and yet one rarely reads the critics of phonics and the phonics check referring to them specifically. They seem to avoid mentioning them as has Gardner in his piece.
This is not a small thing to conveniently leave out of the argument. The multi-cueing word-guessing strategies are also involved with the design of reading books for children to read more or less 'independently' as their beginner reading books provided via school. When children are asked or expected to read beginner reading books with words that include letters and letter groups (the alphabetic code) that children have not yet been taught, they inevitably have to 'guess' to get through these books. Many children simply can't guess well enough, or guess incorrectly, or even guess very well - but this will not serve them with regard to the development of their 'reading profile'. All readers - whether children or adult - need to be accurate 'decoders'. That is, they need to be competent and automatic to lift the words off the page. Readers who depend on a 'range of reading strategies' that amount to multi-cueing word-guessing as I have listed above are typically weaker and inaccurate readers. They often guess wrongly. They may become reluctant readers because they struggle to read accurately and it is challenging to get through reading material as they get older and printed words may become longer, more technically challenging to decode - and beyond the spoken language of the reader.
This is not splitting hairs. This is not causing deliberate controversy. This is nothing to do with promoting and selling phonics programmes and specifically designed decodable reading material for beginners and strugglers to earn a living or get rich. To suggest this is the case is nothing short of ridiculous.
Gardner uses the emotive language of 'synphonpreneurs' and 'agent provocateurs'. I think anyone who has followed the historic and current reading debate as evidenced by the forum of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction, the UK Reading Reform Foundation - and other the sites of other organisations and blogs featuring the reading debate - will understand the inadequacy and inaccuracy of Gardner's suggestions/claims. See:
Synthetic phonics involves teaching early readers sounds, called phonemes, and their corresponding graphemes (letters). Once the child has learned the letter sound correspondences, they then synthesise or blend the sounds to read the word.
In many words that have a consonant, vowel, consonant, pattern (CVC) - such as: cat, dog, hot - this can be a relatively simple process. And for phonetic languages where there is a one-to-one correspondence between each alphabetic letter and the sound that maps onto the letter, synthetic phonics is an effective means of teaching decoding, but English is not a phonetic language, and many single letters can have multiple sounds.
This can be demonstrated by identifying how many sounds are represented by the initial grapheme of the alphabet. The short vowel sound in ‘cat’, is not replicated in ‘was’, about, or ask. In fact, there are nine variations for the letter ‘A’ alone.
Equally, single sounds can be represented by several graphemes, for example: gh, ph, f, ff. English also has unsounded letters in some words, such as 'doubt', 'yacht', and 'ghastly', and it is not possible to correctly read ‘bow’, or ‘read’, unless the word is in context.
Whilst synthetic phonics is a useful strategy to teach early reading, it must be complemented by other strategies; a fact teachers and teacher educators have known for decades.
Gardner appears to be very limited in his understanding of the English language. He states 'English is not a phonetic language' which is not correct. English is phonetic but the spelling system or the 'English alphabetic code' is very complex because of the history of its development. English has what is referred to as a 'complex' or 'opaque' or 'extended' alphabetic code which does go beyond one sound to one letter corresponding. Some languages in Europe have much simpler alphabetic code including far fewer identifiable 'phonemes' and far fewer 'spelling alternatives' that are code for the 'phonemes'. This can be demonstrated by comparing an example of an alphabetic code for the English language and the Spanish language, see:
https://alphabeticcodecharts.com/One_si ... ymbols.pdf
https://alphabeticcodecharts.com/3_CaD_ ... _Chart.pdf
Indeed as someone who has become a specialist in phonics provision in the English language, I think it is very important to provide examples of Alphabetic Code Charts 'free' as to me this is the starting point of understanding why teaching reading and spelling in the English language is not straight-forward (but the language is 'phonetic') and all stakeholders (teachers, learners, learners' parents, teacher-trainers etc) may find it useful and supportive to understand the complexities of English spelling, see here for a wide range of free Alphabetic Code Charts for different users - (perhaps Gardner would benefit?):
The exact pronunciation of some words does indeed require 'context' for words such as 'bow' and 'read' as Gardner states, but this is part and parcel of phonics reading and spelling instruction (or should be) - not something separate from it. Gardner gives other examples of complexities but they can still be addressed within phonics provision and these complexities are not proof that the English language is not phonetic or that phonics is somehow inadequate or lacking in its provision (although some phonics programmes and provision may well be lacking - that is why evaluation and comparison of phonics programmes and provision is important).
But Gardner provides the word complexities and says '...they must be complemented by other strategies; a fact that teachers and teacher educators have known for decades'. But - what 'other strategies' does Gardner mean?
If they are the multi-cueing word-guessing strategies therein lies the rub as I've indicated above. And 'teachers and teacher educators' do not share a common professional understanding about 'other strategies'. It's simply not good enough to refer to 'other strategies' without saying exactly what is meant.
However, in English schools, teaching early reading by means of synthetic phonics became a statutory requirement in 2010. In the same year, a clause, added to the national teaching standards made teaching by means of synthetic phonics a benchmark to be met by every graduating teacher.
When the English National Curriculum was re-written in 2014, synthetic phonics, as the sole method of teaching early reading, was made statutory. This year, Ofsted has been instructed to regard teacher education courses inadequate if they fail to instruct students that synthetic phonics is the only means of teaching early reading.
The narrowing of the wealth of knowledge about teaching reading to a single method amounts to a form of epistemological fascism.
Thank goodness that the 'teaching of early reading by means of synthetic phonics became a statutory requirement' in England - and I hope that this may well be the case in other countries where English is taught for foundational reading and spelling. Despite the statutory requirement, there is still plenty of evidence of misunderstanding, mis-training and even subversion in England and so the reading debate continues.
But it is not a case that 'synthetic phonics is the only means of teaching early reading' because the importance of early and rich language development (spoken language) and the importance of introducing children to a rich variety of literature through story-reading and book-sharing to raise the likelihood of a 'love of reading' are also emphasised and included in official guidance for reading instruction.
In addition, however, official guidance makes it clear that teaching or causing by default multi-cueing word-guessing strategies are not acceptable. This is why in England the need for 'cumulative, decodable reading material' is recommended and, in some cases, funded by the Department for Education where need is identified in some schools - for example, through the 'English Hubs' initiative I mentioned above. Here is an example of official guidance in England:
‘... children should not be expected to use strategies such as whole-word recognition and/or cues from context, grammar, or pictures.’
‘... phonic work is seen not as one of a range of optional methods or strategies for teaching reading but as a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works, which all children should be taught.’
The Department for Education and Ofsted (the official inspectorate in England) are not "narrowing of the wealth of knowledge about teaching reading to a single method amounts to a form of epistemological fascism". I suggest the opposite is true. The DfE and Ofsted are taking serious action aspiring for the teaching profession in England to be truly research-informed - in contrast to being informed by teacher-educators with their own interpretation of the findings of research and, in some cases, their own biases and lack of understanding - possibly even lack of experience of teaching with research-informed practices.
It remains possible, perhaps probable, that some teacher-educators will train student-teachers in the notion of 'systematic synthetic phonics' provision but also go on to be subversive to cast doubts in student-teachers' minds about the findings of research and leading-edge classroom practice. The battle clearly is real and continues as Gardner's article itself evidences.
Earlier this year an amendment was made to the national teaching standards, which now includes a clause on the teaching of phonics. The teaching of English in teacher education courses is currently being audited, and Minister Tehan is promoting the phonics screening check. The Australian National Curriculum is also under review. Suddenly education in Australia is beginning to feel a lot like England a decade ago.
Good. So it should be considering worrying levels of literacy in Australia. At least in Australia, many teachers are already adopting a phonics screening check voluntarily as they professionally understand its importance and its advantages. Let's hope an increasing number of teachers just get on with it despite those academics and organisations passing doubt on its significance and importance. They protest too much and their arguments simply don't hold water.
The ‘drivers’ behind the promotion of synthetic phonics in Australia, as in England, include a small band of people that have commercial interests in the whole-scale adoption of synthetic phonics, and an accompanying scheme of leveled, decodable readers.
These ‘synphonpreneurs’ are the proprietors of early reading programs, costing thousands of dollars, who view schools as lucrative marketplaces.
They have adeptly used the media to spread the myth that teachers are failing, and they have inveigled their way into positions of power, alongside Ministers of Education, persuading them that ‘research’ categorically states synthetic phonics is the only way to teach early reading; a claim refuted by reputable studies.
Not all phonics provision and programmes are equally good or supportive of effective teaching and learning. But it is possible to apply criteria to evaluate systematic phonics programmes informed by the research on reading. A 'validation' process has taken place in England on a number of occasions including for the latest English Hubs initiative whereby the Department for Education has been prepared to promote and fund a handful of phonics programmes and series of decodable reading books for beginners.
The 'quality' research-informed phonics programmes and the accompanying guidance are invariably designed by people with a wealth of teaching and teacher-training experience, who are well-read with regard to the picture of international research on reading, and who one could legitimately argue are leading educationalists. They are also people who have gone above and beyond to pioneer the importance of research-informed reading instruction - devoting their lives, actually, for the uptake of quality reading and spelling instruction for the common good.