‘You must understand, sir, that a person is either with this court or he must be counted against it, there be no road between. This is a sharp time, now, a precise time – we live no longer in the dusky afternoon when evil mixed itself with good and befuddled the world.’ Arthur Miller, The Crucible
I refuse to let anyone label me as ‘anti phonics’ or as a ‘phonics denier’. My goal has always been to share useful methods with teachers. So, for the avoidance of doubt: Phonics is a very effective method for teaching the majority of children to decode written language and all teachers should know how to use it properly. However, I do have concerns and questions about the current policy of mandatory systematic synthetic phonics. I refuse to be silenced in expressing these concerns and questions, no matter how vociferous my critics. Why? Well because ….
‘We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.’ Thomas A. Edison. Scientists are the first to point out that science is very far from infallible, particularly in its study of human beings. Scientific theories constantly change and develop – that is the nature of science. Science can only answer the questions we ask in the first place (and it is fallible human beings asking the questions). The lessons of the past should make us wary at the very least of saying that we have found ‘the one true way’, as the Law of Unintended Consequences amply demonstrates.
‘When I see a slippery slope, my instinct is to build a terrace.’ John McCarthy. When we mandate a specific system for educating children, we stand at the top of a very slippery slope. If ‘the evidence’ showed tomorrow that Direct Instruction, or Group Work, or Peeling Bananas was the most efficient method for learning, should we then say that ‘all teachers must teach in this way’? I suspect some commentators would wish this were so (perhaps on the basis that their favoured methods were mandated). There is, for me, a deep irony in crying ‘Ofsted cannot tell me how to teach’ while also saying ‘You, however, must teach in this way.’
‘Education: the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.’ Mark Twain. Uncertainty fuels possibility. The urge to find out more, to know more, to understand more, is a vital part of what makes us human. The moment we say: ‘I know this for sure’ is the moment we close the doors to other options. If the research we have done proves that one way is the true way, why would we bother to look into the other possibilities? But what if we didn’t do the right research? What if we missed something really crucial? What if there is something even better out there? We should never be afraid of uncertainty, but we should be downright terrified of unquestioning certainty.
‘Even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.’ Mahatma Gandhi. The most ardent advocate of phonics would admit that, for a minority of children, phonics is not the most effective method for learning to read. A child who is born deaf has no sense of the sound of language. The leader of a Hearing Impaired Unit recently described to me (with horror) the process whereby some profoundly deaf children have their mouths manipulated so that they can ‘make the sounds’ (sounds they will never hear). The children with special needs that Cherryl describes here benefit from a mix of approaches. Nancy describes here how her son, who has Down’s Syndrome, has struggled to learn to read through phonics. If we mandate one method above all others, we run the risk that teachers have less idea what to do when the method fails some. Or, that they refuse to believe that it is the method that is the problem.
‘The habits of a vigorous mind are born in contending with difficulties.’ Abigail Adams. Training is not the same as educating. I can paint a picture using a ‘Paint by Numbers’ kit. The kit does most of the work for me. So long as I follow the rules, I will end up with a picture. But this is not the same thing as creating a piece of art. Making mistakes, trying to predict, searching for meaning – these are all vital parts of the learning process. With systematic synthetic phonics, the adult does most of the work. We chop up the language, then train the children to sound out the bits. The children are fairly passive recipients of the system. Where is the cognitive challenge? Do we know what long term impact it might have on the brain when we cut so much of the effort out of the process?
‘To see a man slip on a banana skin is to see a rationally structured system suddenly translated into a whirling machine.’ Marshall McLuhan. Even if we create a perfect system (which, let’s face it, is unlikely) human beings are the potential ‘fault’. We are the weak link that can break the chain. In careful, experienced hands, systematic synthetic phonics is an effective tool. But not all hands are the same. Some teachers and some schools may not use the system that was set out to help them in the way that was intended.
‘There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.’ Mahatma Gandhi. Children come to reading at different times. Or at least they used to. Some children pick it up very quickly, and are readers before they even start school. Other children need longer to become readers. Those children who have very little spoken vocabulary will struggle to find the meaning in written language, because they have not yet acquired those words. If we mandate a ‘one system fits all’ approach, taught at the same rate to everyone, it seems inevitable that some children will struggle to keep up.
‘Just because someone is able to read, does not mean that he or she will choose to do so.’ The National Literacy Trust. I worry that the balance between ‘learning how to read’ and ‘learning why we would want to read’ is tipping. It is vital that children learn to read, but it is vital that they find reading pleasurable too. And the pleasure in reading comes out of rich, challenging, interesting stories, full of meaning.
‘Live in fragments no longer.’ E.M. Forster. For some reason, as I explained here, my brain sees words as whole units. It strikes me as odd that we have no problem accepting letters as symbols – this mark on the page represents this sound. And yet we struggle to believe that the brain can also recognise whole words. I spend my days around words: I see them far more often than I see any of my friends. I can picture whole words in my head – not the letters that make them up, but the words themselves. They form a specific shape in my mind. Now, even if I don’t see my friends for a year or more, I still recognise them immediately. There is no way I would mistake someone who looked similar for one of my friends. This is how words work for me – I recognise them. This is not to say that I believe this is how they work for everyone else, or that children should learn to read in the way that I read. Just: this is how I do it.
‘Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.’ Voltaire