Cause for Concern

‘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

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46 Responses to Cause for Concern

  1. This so clearly expresses what I feel but have trouble articulating. The dynamics of the classroom, of the teacher/child interaction are subtle beyond easy definition. And yet it is in such classrooms that attempts are made to conduct objective research into methods of teaching. Where else could it be done? That’s fine as long as no-one pretends that the results which emerge can ever be more than strongly, perhaps even strikingly, indicative and so must surely remain open to the comments and experiences of other practitioners and theorists.


  2. Ian Lynch says:

    There is a problem with assuming that because science does not know some things anything is suspect. Take Newton’s law of gravitation. Objects attract each other. The law works well in astronomical measurements. Ah but you say, Einstein proved Newton wrong with the theory of general relativity. Now it’s true that general relativity is based on a different perception of the way things work and Newton’s laws start to become very unreliable in some extreme condition but it doesn’t mean Newton’s law of gravitation is wrong in the sense suddenly its useless. It works pretty well in most cases in the mainstream. Now it might be that phonics is the Newton’s Law equivalent for reading and that there is a yet to be discovered refinement to it but the chances are it will be a refinement rather than something which makes anything determined about phonics redundant. The empirical data is all that really matters. What does a properly conducted scientific test demonstrate? If we have a group of children representative of the whole population of children (about 400 will do for 95% accuracy) and another group and we give one group tuition on phonics and the others just the normal stuff they do in school we can be pretty sure that if the first group does significantly better than the control group than there is a good case for making that compulsory. But there also needs to be some caution. Firstly are there any individuals in the first group that actually did worse than they would have done? That is difficult to know but we are only talking averages so it is conceivable that some do very well and some don’t with the group doing very well compensating for those that don’t. The distribution will tell us something of this. However if it is smaller than 5% we’d need a much bigger sample that 400. The second problem is that the phonics group need to think they are just doing normal work otherwise we don’t know they are not performing better because they are a special group. Even harder is to ensure that their teachers just think this is normal work so they don’t transmit to the group the feeling that they are somehow special. This is called “double blind” experimenting. You can see than most education research is a way less rigorous often because of the practicalities involved.

    Having said all that, if the experimental methods for SP have been conducted with something like the above rigour and I haven’t the time to check but I’m quite willing to believe they were, then it does make sense to make SP compulsory but only if it is as close to the experimental condition as possible. We have no way of knowing if the experimental condition is only approximate that it will work the same.

    My caution beyond this is that if there is a mindset that SP is a magic bullet and “should work with anyone except a cretin” what happens if it doesn’t work well with someone who is actually quite bright? Its all very well saying oh it mush have been badly implemented but human nature says the teacher is not going to blame themselves. What will possibly/likely happen is the student will get labelled as a cretin because only cretins can’t learn with SP.

    So I’m not against making SP compulsory if the science stands up. But it needs proper training for all teachers to a) ensure it is implemented properly and b) to ensure that in rare cases where someone does not respond as expected we look into why and don’t simply assume that it is that the child is an idiot.

    That’s it really. I also think that labelling people and forcing them to do something without giving them proper training is not the best way to get converts to a cause. In short its inept management. It seems to indicate a marked lack of learning about what motivates people and that is a bit of a concern in an education environment.


    • John says:

      The problem is that the vast majority of the ‘science’ does not stand up. Educational research is inadequate for the most part in truly determining whether one method works better than another. Double blind experiments are virtually non existent. Much of it is correlational with no confounds considered. I mean, this is an educational system that advocates such drivel as learning styles and NLP, both of which have ZERO good quality research to back them. I believe in sp to a large degree but I also see children spend years with good teachers and good TAs doing interventions based purely on sp, yet they still can’t read by year 6. It is quite clear to me it is not the answer for all children.


      • Ian Lynch says:

        John, I agree. No argument. And @Eddie I can’t fault any of your 6 point summary, The reason I wrote the piece on paying teachers 100K was more to make people stop and think a bit.


  3. Ooh. This might take some time. You have a lot here. I’ll try and give my comments in the order you wrote above.

    I don’t think any thinking person would think we have ‘the’ answer to teaching children to read. I am in favour of methods that are in some way analytical and have a good evidence base. They also have to make sense to me. One of the dangers all humans have is that of confirmation bias. The strong tendency of us to evaluate evidence that agrees with our current belief set much more positively and less critically that evidence that disagrees with our current belief set. This is why, given the same evidence, people may well come to opposite conclusions.

    It is and will always be true that science, or anything else, has not yet provided us with the final answer. As a physicist that is part of my DNA. But we do have to have some view on the world and that includes a view on how best to teach children to read. The mixed method advocates fit well with a view that we are all different and we recognise the individuality in children. If we have a belief set that fundamentally puts the individual we-are-all-different at the top of the list then we will see the flexibility argument as winning the debate. If we are all different then we need, as educators. to be using a variety of methods to teach reading. The fundamental problem with this approach for the SSP and LP supporters is that the mixed methods will allow and even encourage guessing at the word on the page. This is seen as damaging to children and their ability to become secure readers. For me, a particular group of children are more significantly damaged by the whole word guess process. These are children whom we would label, I don’t want to label but they are, as disadvantaged. This group may appear to be able to catch reading but will not be secure. Bright kids will, it seems have no real difficulty with reading however they are taught. They have the knowledge background and sound banks stored in their brains from the quality conversations etc they have experienced at home before they start school.

    The evidence suggests that a properly taught phonics programme can lead to at least 95% of children to reading. The best value for other methods seems to be around 80%.

    I have found no evidence that suggests children have been put off reading by any particular method so I don’t see how that can be put forward as a argument about phonics turning children off reading. If it could then there would be evidence of any other method turning children off reading. Not being able to read fluently is likely to be more of a turn off than anything else!

    Reading is not genetically programmed into us, unlike the ability to learn to speak. Reading does have to be taught and reading is very hard to learn.

    It is wrong to place too much emphasis of how we, as reading adults, feel about how we might like to be taught reading or how we think it works from our own experience of reading. You say that your experience is of whole words, a type of synaesthesia. Mine, if I slow down my reading speed, is of parts of the word and the sounds they make. I also read each letter. The brain research and eye movement research supports this view. Most do read each letter, very quickly, so it seems like the word is being read as a whole. What we think is sometime not what happens. Think of how we can be fooled by optical illusions.

    I think that is it.




  4. jameswilding says:

    A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
    “Rabbit’s clever,” said Pooh thoughtfully.
    “Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit’s clever.”
    “And he has Brain.”
    “Yes,” said Piglet, “Rabbit has Brain.”
    There was a long silence.
    “I suppose,” said Pooh, “that that’s why he never understands anything.”

    And there in lies the rub. The great difficulty we all have in analysing complex systems is that we inevitably are drawn to the intoxicating solution that complex can be made simpler. And (dare I say) that is not possible, by the very nature of what makes systems complex. Read more here on

    I read (so it seems) by seeing the whole page as a gestalt and then picking out the bits that work for me in terms of what I would wish to find on the page. Such a style is sometimes referred to as shallow reading, for as a lead educator in a school, I need to read a lot quickly. Actually, it is a technique I picked up whilst at University, when learning how to learn, but that’s another story. But when I settle down to read “A long walk to freedom”, I do so intent on reading that in a linear way, to enjoy the process and to hope (before reading the close) that that very act has improved me.

    No double blind trial, but the experience of a head of a large independent school whose colleagues went synthetic, because it gave us the magic win-win situation. An keen school eager to do the job well and even more, a supportive set of parents who were either ahead of the game, or backing the school team completely from the side lines. Guess what. We think reading improved a bit, but not necessarily for understanding. What sank through the floor was the matching spelling ability for the cohort. 3 years on – and we are back to the SP + AP + think about reading for purpose + a touch of what Michael Rosen says too.

    Since we seem (just) have to begun the use of scientific method to understand complex systems, we need to permit a few decades of graduates to test their theories out on them before we rush to defend SP. In the meantime, it would be worthwhile to place research from CEM centre, University of Durham and John Hattie’s stuff from down under at the heart of educator practice. Whatever you can say about specific teacher interaction on a day by day basis to ensure each child makes progress, it is also equally apparent that the whole child’s experience over their first 3+ full years of education that make a difference, a time in which (he says carefully) the child doubles in age.

    I am sixty (just), and clearly older and wiser than I was when I was half this age. Unusually, my role has not changed – I lead learning in a school. I think i lead it a lot better now than I did then, and that’s not vanity talking. Education, like any system has grown exponentially more complex over the past 30 years, perhaps 300+ years. As the Bard himself made clear; “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.


  5. Ian Lynch says:

    Interesting that speed reading with something like Rapid Reader means absorbing words a lot faster than anyone could physically speak them. So what is happening there in the brain? Maybe it is decoding the words letter by letter or phoneme by phoneme and recording the results but so fast we are not aware of it. Or maybe its translating a pattern of words, even sequences of words very quickly and associating it with a meaning we have associated with that pattern so often its almost instant. Persistence of vision is about 1/25th of a second so reading anything above 25 words per second should be impossible if it means decoding individual words one at a time. That’s 750 words per minute. Speed reading eg Rapid Reader claims 1600 words per minute and that is projecting the words one at a time like film frames. Seems to defy basic laws of physics! Persistence of vision should make the words blur into each other. The world record for speed reading is 7500 words per minute with 67% comprehension. So surely something must be happening at these speeds beyond just rapid phonic decoding. We’d have to snap shot 300 words in that 1/25th of a second opportunity, and file away the meaning ready for the next snapshot. I’m no expert on this, just asking some basic questions. It seems to me that the effectiveness of learning to read will depend on the stage of reading you are at. Surely a complete beginner might be best learning to build up words progressively and start on a diet of simple short words. That is not in any way out of step with how young children have been taught for years. Then its more getting practice feeding in unfamiliar words in small quantities and decoding those using the rules and in some cases memories of the sound. A word might be visually unfamiliar but if you have heard it you can guess it from those clues and the phonic info. Then you get fluent enough to be unaware of any decoding at all an new words are rare.

    I suppose what I’m getting at is perhaps the methods need targeting on the stage of reading. If the reader is a beginner the phonic method will be a good starting point but if the reader is already able to read and decode text they will be best practising with gradually more difficult words. The figures of 80% and 95% seem to bear out that it is a significant minority rather than every child for whom the technique makes a difference. But in the spirit of Voltaire, I’m more asking some questions than pretending I have a definitive answer.


  6. suecowley says:

    A huge thank you to everyone who has left comments here, I have read them all with a great deal of interest. They have added to the thinking I have already done on this topic and have also given me more questions to ponder, which is wonderful.


  7. And that’s the point. That we think, and take on board the living experiences of people who work day by day in this area, and that we eschew recourse to dismissive terms like ‘denier’ and (I have actually seen this) ‘anti-phon’.


  8. Eddie Carron says:

    One billion plus Chinese read by recognising the shape of whole words – that is a fact which can be subjected to the most stringent forms of scientific examination, I don’t know how many Egyptians could read hieroglyphics but they certainly did not rely of GPCs. Neuroscience teaches us that even if our brains were completely illogically organised (and the opposite is the case) reading by serially decoding graphemes, apart from the fact that it would be unrealistically slow, would be incredibly inefficient and slow.
    Persisting exclusively with the same ritual phonics teaching strategy must eventually boost phonics skills but is surely more likely to discourage than encourage the love of reading which defines the literate individual.


  9. Ian Lynch says:

    Chinese is a good example. (Wish I’d thought of it 🙂 ) I am really beginning to think that the problem here is more about interpretation of the science than the science itself. From the fundamental arguments here it seems to me difficult to support some over-riding mantra that we phonically decode every word we use no matter what the context. However that is not to say that for someone starting out reading that is not a good and perhaps even the best strategy until they demonstrate that can breeze through more and more stuff without it. I’m tempted to say common sense here but we all know common sense is not that common 🙂 I also accept that some things that seem common sense are actually wrong. To move the debate on, I’t propose finding a diagnostic method for optimising reading progress for children depending on the stage they are at. Maybe this work has been done already. Something like if you get to a reading age of 8 you should get plenty of practice with Age 7 material without the phonic support and do some work on reading age 9 with. Obviously that might be a load of dingos kidneys but it has a little logic in trying it out. Unfortunately I have far too many other things to do so if it hasn’t been tried someone else is going to have to do it 🙂


  10. It is an illustrative irony that this post on reading has prompted several thoughtful, interesting responses about the process of reading when its major theme (as signalled by the introductory quotation) addresses the relationship between (here) educational theories and the mandatory application of one preferred, selected theory invested with governmental power.

    It is my observation that there are (understandably) many in the field of education deeply, readily and rightly engrossed by such research. Its application in our schools, however, has implications way beyond the academic and is the proper concern of every citizen.

    In itself research strives, rightly, to be objectivc and neutral. History and literature are, however, replete with examples of what happens when one theory is elevated through ideological and (usually) political partiality, less on its merits than on its convenience in justifying, with rigorous, simplistic force, the exercise of power.

    I shall not labour the point. The most deep-seated issue facing education today is not how children learn to read; it’s not “Learning v Skills”; neither is it school discipline. These are perennially important matters we are both encouraged and tempted by inclination to dwell on. Meanwhile, again ironically, such pure educational research is rendered effectively irrelevant if the people acquiesce in the partial dogma of policies that seek to impose, restrict, limit and control in precisely that arena of a nation’s life where surely the dogmatic has no rightful place: compulsory schooling.


  11. I do of course mean “Knowledge v Skills” – one’s marbles tend to wander at my age!


  12. Hi Sue,
    Love the comment trail.
    There’s a whole lot of thinking going on!
    When a teacher and a head, we always worked on three levels of reading, fluent, teaching and frustration, trying to avoid the latter. Based on a colour coded scheme (Cliff Moon) and regularly hearing readers, supported by an active home reading scheme, the children read the teaching level book with an adult, while being able to choose widely from all colours below to allow for fluency and enjoyment. They did a lot of reading and enjoyed it.
    Children were taught, tested and had phonics reinforced. Even when asking for spellings, they had to come with an attempt In that way the teacher could immediately see if there was an issue and did some remedial teaching to need.
    There was a lot of book talk, in pairs, groups and whole class. Literacy had a high profile and a high value, across all curriculum areas. Reading was reading, writing was writing in whatever the subject, and as for discussion, it was the bread and butter of the classroom. Articulation of ideas is essential, again in all subjects.
    All in all we are talking of language learning, not the single issues that seem to bug people. They all feed into one thing in the end, to develop a highly literate society.
    If we haven’t a system that meets the needs of all learners, then we have a problem.
    best wishes,


  13. Eddie Carron says:

    To Ian Lynch who said “However that is not to say that for someone starting out reading that(phonics) is not a good and perhaps even the best strategy until they demonstrate that can breeze through more and more stuff without it. ”
    It is the best strategy – that is beyond dispute – certainly I have never seen a more successful strategy proposed by anyone but that is not the problem. The problem is children who are not all the same. It is not enough to acknowledge children’s differences; we must also respond to these differences instead of trying to squeeze them all into the same box just because a high vocal group of pseudo-intellectuals are vying to be allowed to abase themselves before the queen.
    GCHQ where some of brightest and best work have had to set up special classes to deal with the damage done to these children by the kind of dogma which has come to dictate the initial teaching of reading.
    Common sense dictates and decades of KS 2 results confirm that a single exclusive strategy for teaching children is inappropriate for the approximately 100,000 children who quite unnecessarily leave school every year unable to read and write with confidence.


  14. Ian Lynch says:

    Hi Eddie, I agree entirely. Some children will not even need the phonic stage – I didn’t I could read reasonably well before going to school and just read gradually more difficult texts and it didn’t seem any problem. So really I doubt it would have been any advantage for me (and I’m sure I’m not unique) My sons are a different kettle of fish, and their mum had big problems and her father. Is it more likely that they all happened to be taught badly in different generations or that there is a genetic link? Latter seems more likely to me as a scientist, especially since people in the same classes learnt to read and didn’t end up doing as well academically or in employment. And with my eldest I did a lot of phonics with him and he had special needs support with reading at primary. Verbally though he could explain newtons laws with simple illustrations when he was 9 or 10. OK, its only 3 data points but if I found one instance I could show didn’t conform to general relativity it would be enough to bring the theory down. It would not mean GR was useless, just not the whole story which is what I think is likely the case with this. This is why I suggested further up we find a method for assessing which methods optimise learning to read for particular individuals. Part of the problem is a mass education system that instils a culture that is more about systems than the individuals in them.


  15. Eddie Carron says:

    Your statement is particularly true ” Part of the problem is a mass education system that instils a culture that is more about systems than the individuals in them.” and about 20% of children pay a heavy price to the dogma peddlers for their ignorance. About 10,000 children arrive at school every year already able to read without having a single lesson in phonics and everyone is desperate to ignore this phenomenon if it does not suit their particular prejudice. The mechanism by which these children acquire reading skills is self-evident and clearly independent of any ritual phonics exercises.
    I asked one highly vocal intellectual giant how she rationalised how a billion Chinese could read without phonics and she replied “Well. We’re not Chinese!” With logic like that influencing the way reading is taught, the reason why we always occupy such a lowly position on international literacy league table becomes easy to understand.


  16. Ian Lynch says:

    Well to an extent I think the problem is polarised confrontational argument. It tends to push the camps away from each other rather than finding the common agreement. If we said systematic use of phonics targeting the weakest 25% of readers gets all but 5% reading eventually, when not taking such a systematic approach leaves 20% not reading, few people would say let’s not do that then. At least target this method on this group until they are confident to read without it (or get to a RA of N years or whatever).

    Btw, I made some errors with the arithmetic on my speeding reading calcs 😉 Should be 5 words in 1/25s not 300. And 1 word in 1/25s for rapid reader which seems to reinforce the idea that this would be the limit because of persistence of vision. Even so I can’t see how you could sensibly decode the phonemes for 5 words in 1/25s when no-one could deliver a sound that was ineligible as a word at that speed. Ok, the same part of the brain might highlight V much more quickly in an NMR machine but how do we know that isn’t the echo of the mind recognising the word? If Chinese had the same effect it would prove that the assumption that this was phonic decoding was in fact wrong. I wonder if anyone has ever done that experiment?


  17. suecowley says:

    Thanks again to everyone for the continuing thread of comments, a massive pile of food for thought.


  18. Eddie Carron says:

    I lived in China (Hong Kong~) for three years – my daughter in law was a teacher there until recent
    ly. The average Chinese person recognises abut 5000 characters. That does not mean that they can only read 5000 words,. Characters are frequently concatenated to create new words eg the characters for ‘car’ and ‘room’ are joined to create the word ‘garage’ They can in effect read just as many7 words as we can. There are however limitations in any ideographic orthography which they recognise and many attempts are made to introduce a phonetic component. The Japanese have had added a phonetic component for many years.

    Spelling is the best example of the snonsnese of the serial decoding idea of reading. No-one is a good speller because they have learned all the spelling rules. Good spellers know when a word ‘looks’ right and that is a function of a well established sight vocabulary. In order words, a recognition of the correct shape of a word. Sight vocabulary is a personal, internalised database which potentially contains thousands of high frequency words, every possible syllable and letter-sound correspondence. It is consistently reinforced and refreshed in all engaged reading experience.

    Perhaps the most critical challenge to the idea of reading as serial decoding is the evidence from neuroscience which suggests that serial decoding is crassly inefficient and slow. A good insight into this although it is not concerned with reading directly is the intriguing lecturewhich deals with the speed of visual information processing at a non-expert level at


  19. Ian Lynch says:

    Interesting video. Also seems to support the analysis on speed reading since the brain would not be fast enough to serially process 5 words phonically in 1/25th of a second.


    • Eddie Carron says:

      I think its amazing – I’ve watched it four times!
      The idea of testing to establish the lower 25% and dealing with them differently in a non-starter and in any event is entirely unnecessary. I carried out a research project two years ago involving 31 year 1 children in 6 schools, all predicted by their own teachers to fail to achieve Level 1 at Key Stage 2. All completed a one term non-phonics course with one exception, all achieved Level 1.
      If you take a look at the short video on my site, one of the girls at the end arrived in secondary school with a 4 year deficit in reading. She completed their non-phonics Speeder Reader courses in one term in Year 7. She has just achieved the top grade in English and is headed to St Andrews to study politics. The link is

      However irregular our orthography (and it is very irregular) it is a phonetic orthography and teaching the letter-sound correspondences is common sense. It is not common sense however to insist that ritual phonics teaching should be the exclusive strategy used in schools when children’s differences dictate otherwise. One of things about modern cities that I find repellent is that they are all becoming the same and I regard diversity as the key aspect of a healthy society. I visited Tokyo last year for the first time for many years and was appalled by the sameness of it all. We must learn that ‘average’ is a useful mathematical concept – it is not a useful human concept – you can have average hat sizes but not average people.
      Apologies for typos. I have vision issues which hopefully will be resolved after an operation on the 16th.


  20. suecowley says:

    That video is truly fascinating and I think there are some important ideas in there for me about how I ‘see’ words. Again thank you so much to everyone for the input and comments.


  21. Neil says:

    This is a really fascinating discussion. I can’t remember phonics being used at school when I learned to read. I can remember thinking that the books we had in school were dull, which didn’t really help move me through ‘the levels’. I’m now in the position where every night my daughter (year R) brings home two books to read to us (an editor and a primary school teacher). We always ask her to attempt words she is unfamiliar with, and I always watch to see how she is doing this. It is a fascinating process, and one thing I’ve noticed is just how often, even in year R books with few words, the phonetic pronunciation of a word is not the actual pronunciation, which for me (and this may be too simplistic an interpretation) shows how important it is for a variety of teaching methods for ‘reading’ competence to be used for all children – the mixture tailored for each child depending on their needs. With the English language though, the importance placed on the systematic synthetic phonics by the government is, of course, over-stated – how easy it would be for them if there were one ‘magic’ system that can be tested easily (year 1 phonics test… or the reading test as ministers still insist on calling it?).


  22. katieaplin says:

    I am a PGCE student and have enjoyed reading your blog and everyone’s comments. I have just noted things as they have been mulling over in my mind and you have captured some of this spirit in your blog – so apologies if my comments jump around.
    Are ‘government recommended’ phonic schemes turning children off learning to read? Are their prescriptive nature boring children? “I hate phonics” has been something i have heard from as early as 4/5yr old children.
    Where has the love of reading gone?
    All good teachers know that working with a scheme it is frequently necessary to steer away – to mix it up – to stave off boredom/predictability is not always a good thing?
    If children are not enthused or engaged, not ‘progressing’ with where you are in the scheme go back to a storybook! (and not a scheme agreed one!)
    I have seen how many children do not retain the knowledge gained within these sessions. Does phonic teaching need to be less discrete, as part of a recurring emphasis on reading, writing and talking (words surround us) We need reading for all parts of our life – reading signs in a role play area for example. Should phonics be more than ‘that thing we do for 30mins ish three times a week.’ Teachers should be freed from the restrictions of ‘schemes’- being able to teach children in different ways knowing what teachers know best – children are unique – and they need a multilayered curriculum which captives their imaginations and their desire to learn, and desire to read.


    • Ian Lynch says:

      Hi Katie,

      A lot of things here. I think there is good empirical evidence that a systematic application of phonics helps the sizeable minority that have problems learning to read. Not necessarily removing all problems but certainly making a positive difference. However identifying that experimentally and rolling it out to a mass education system are not the same thing. This is where I tend to part company with the “phonics police” who seem to think that its simply a matter of replicating the experiment everywhere and that’ll be that. Motivation is a key factor, both for the teachers and the children. There is plenty of good evidence that “brute common sense” does not work in social environments. (Fullan for example on educational change). So I think we do need to use systematic approaches to phonics but if they are to be effective in the context of mass education there has to be a proper education programme for teachers and some flexibility to make the learning contexts motivating to the individuals involved.

      The snag is that to be sure an experiment is replicable in the scientific sense, all variables need to be controlled. That is not normally possible in education research, even empirical research. That doesn’t mean it is not sensible to do it, just we have to be cautious about too rigid an interpretation of the results in individual contexts. In physics we have very easy to measure uncertainties in results which can be analysed down to the behaviour of individual sub-atomic particles. In education, while we can see statistical significance in populations, dealing with individual emotions based on different contexts becomes almost impossible to predict. The emotional systems of the teacher and the pupils and their interactions can not be separated from the experiment. Ignoring this is tempting for people that think of learning in terms of acquiring subject knowledge and nothing else. Learning is complex because learned behaviours matter too. Attitudes, emotional responses and motivation are all learned to at least some extent.


  23. Eddie Carron says:

    Love some (most) of the input here but particularly some gems such as “the mandatory application of one preferred, selected theory invested with governmental power.” and History and literature are, however, replete with examples of what happens when one theory is elevated through ideological and (usually) political partiality, less on its merits than on its convenience in justifying, with rigorous, simplistic force, the exercise of power.”

    Ray is also right in reminding us that “Educational research is rendered effectively irrelevant if the people acquiesce in the partial dogma of policies that seek to impose, restrict, limit and control in precisely that arena of a nation’s life where surely the dogmatic has no rightful place: compulsory schooling.

    We see the horrendous effects of fundamentalism of our TV screen every day. To allow and even encourage such thinking in schools is mind-bogglingly stupid.


  24. MaggieD says:

    Ian says: “If we said systematic use of phonics targeting the weakest 25% of readers gets all but 5% reading eventually, when not taking such a systematic approach leaves 20% not reading, few people would say let’s not do that then.”

    Just how do you identify the ‘25%’?
    No-one knows before the children start learning which ones are going to have difficulties. It’s not related to social class, development, phonemic awareness, IQ or anything else. It’s unpredictable in the true sense of the word.
    Just start them all in the way that causes least harm and is effective for the greatest number of children.


    • ian lynch says:

      I think you misunderstand what I was saying so apologies for lack of clarity. I have no problem with using SP as a starting point but what if the child can already read? I could when I started school. What if a child fails to respond? Do we not try anything else? Even if we accept that brain research demonstrates SP is the theoretical optimum (and there does seem to be at least some dispute about this) there are other factors involved such as motivation. What if the child says I hate phonics because I’m no good at it? It might be the best method but if the child doesn’t believe it persevering could well damage their attitude to reading and their own worth. I know this is at least true in a few cases from personal experience. If any teacher can get 100% success with any method then they should use it. If any teacher has a struggling individual they should examine all the circumstances around that individual and try to find a solution even if it means breaking the rules of conventional wisdom.


  25. Eddie Carron says:

    At the end of Year 1, the class teacher knows without the need for another test which children are not responding as quickly as the majority to a conventional phonics approach. Its not rocket science – instead of persisting exclusively with the same strategy that is just not working with these children you do something incredible – you acknowledge that because these children are not learning by the same approach as the majority of their peers and respond to that difference with a different approach.
    We already have atrocious literacy standards nationally – we know how to do that! The fact that we are consistently near the bottom of all literacy league tables should tell us that there is a flaw in the philosophy that suggests that somehow, against all rational thinking, the solution is to be found in dogmatically pursing the same exclsuive strategy that is failing these children.
    There is not just ‘evidence’ that children have differences – there is proof positive that this is the case. It would not simply be miraculous if children with all their acknowledged differences all learning by the same route – it would be bl**dy miraculous.

    There is no need to suspend the good phonics teaching that goes on – there is simply a need to augment the syllabus slightly with something which accommodates those for whom ‘shape’ is a more effective identified of words that grapheme content. My personal choice which is the product of years of practical research, would be a perceptual learning strand which definitely works but I am happy to accept any other solution – as long as it is a solution. What I am not happy to accept is the tragic status quo.

    The world is not made of ‘phonics’ and ‘whole word’ people. I have yet to meet any of these much vaunted ‘phonics deniers’ – the bogey men created by fundamentalists who just they are right.


  26. suecowley says:

    Thanks again to everyone who has left comments here. I think by the end of the Reception year most teachers could point out to you who is struggling to grasp reading. If we could get one to one support in place at that point (using methods appropriately differentiated for the child) we would do our children a huge favour.

    Something that is not spoken about a great deal when discussing reading are the behavioural factors – can the child focus, concentrate, listen carefully – which have such an impact on their success in the classroom. Also those children who have a language delay at age five need the kind of intervention that the Early Intervention Grant (which has been cut) used to fund. You can’t learn to read vocabulary that you don’t know (well, you can sound it out, but it won’t have any meaning to you.) If you don’t get one to one support at home from parents or carers, you are also far more likely to fall behind. And of course, Reception classes of 32+ really don’t help (a story I hear more and more from primary teachers these days). It’s a very complex picture that is not helped by the notion that we have to ‘take sides’ on strategies.


  27. Eddie Carron says:

    The solution to our abysmal illiteracy statistics has to have two central qualities – it has to be realistic in financial terms and it has to be practical in the sense that it has to be manageable by a class teacher with around 30 children. If it is misses out on either of these criteria, it will fail.

    Our education system is already one of the most expensive in the world – if memory serves me correctly, the failing of Reading Recovery was the fact that it required one-to-one tuition for all children falling behind in reading. Vast sums of money are being poured into schools in Tower Hamlets and it is producing good results but it is unrealistic to believe that the same level of investment could or should be made in schools generally. Realistically, the problem has to be resolved within existing budgets.

    In practical terms, a solution has to be manageable by a single class teacher and class teachers are well used to the fact that children are very different in terms of their innate intellectual inheritance, listening skills and social background. These are diverse factors that always have been and always will be with us and indeed are part of a diversity that we must celebrate. Dealing with this is part of the Early Years teacher’s skills set and the reason why they are probably the most important of all teachers. Children are infinitely different but practicalities determine that we cannot have an infinite number of teaching approaches. At the moment we have one (SP/LP) which we know serves the vast majority of children well. What we need is the end of the belief in exclusivity of this one approach and the acceptance of the development of a second, realistic, practical strategy to be used alongside existing phonics work which will serve the needs of the consistent 15-20% who do not respond as quickly as the majority to ritual phonics teaching alone – probably because of the innate differences already described as a positive rather than a negative.

    Programmes have been developed with make the delivery of phonics work both practical and realistic. We need to do the same for the others.

    There is no problem with people taking and expressing opposite views as long as they are intelligent enough to accept that teachers too are diverse in terms of the breadth and depth of their experience and will inevitably hold different views – and frequently hold them very passionately. That too is part of the diversity of life that is to be celebrated – not regretted.


  28. Eddie Carron says:

    Your piece certainly is radical and interesting and a damned good read but the two main features of a solution to our poor literacy standards remain for me at least, practicality and realism. I’m sure that as someone who worked within the system at such a senior level you will agree.

    My own radical thing is to operate a small group of ‘Skypers’ – private pupils with literacy skills deficits who I teach remotely for six months each. These are for the most part, dyslexic children or children who have failed to respond to ritual phonics teaching. I ALWAYS succeed with these children because I only accept those whose first few weeks work shows that they will respond positively to the approach I use. I see no point in continuing with pupils for whom the distance learning strategy is unlikely to succeed and would only be a waste of money for their parents.

    As far as the two opposing schools of thought are concerned, if we ignore the views at the extremes, there are fewer differences than might be apparent. The moderate wings are agreed that the status quo is fine for most pupils – just not all pupils – and it only needs these views to come a little closer for a realistic solution to be found. The dogmatic views of extremists are very damaging but they just have to be ignored if progress is to be achieved.

    The national picture is that we have successful strategies for most children and all we need is an equally successful one for the minority. That is my own special interest and practical research is the vehicle I use to express that interest.

    A couple of years ago, I organised a highly successful project with 31 Y2 non or near-non readers which added a perceptual learning component to their syllabus which took between 20 and 25 minutes a day. This did not replace their existing phonics syllabus – it merely added a short component which had no ritual phonics teaching. I hope to repeat this project starting in September this year and to attract a much greater number of children. These children will all be classed by their teachers as non or near-non readers and will represent the proportion of children who achieve at best Level 3 English at Key Stage 2 and ultimately leave school unable to read and write with confidence at age 16. Many are destined to live out their lives on ‘Benefit Street’ and keep up the pressure on out already expensive judicial and social budgets for the rest of their lives. This project will run along side my major research effort which embraces all children with litskills deficits in all primary year groups in an entire local authority.
    To select what are the essential truths in your blog which have captured my interest in this new fascinating and fast-moving life in which ideas are so easily exchanged, it would be these!

    1. The lessons of the past should make us wary at the very least of saying that we have found ‘the one true way’
    2. We should never be afraid of uncertainty, but we should be downright terrified of unquestioning certainty.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. And the pleasure in reading comes out of rich, challenging, interesting stories, full of meaning.
    6. 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.

    There are worth reading again and again in order to keep our feet firmly on the ground. I would hope that many others may take these ideas to heart.

    I think for my part, I have contributed to the debate and to your excellent, thought provoking blog as much as I able and ant further posts would be liable to be repetitive.

    I wish you all well and hope the debate continues – indeed I will continue to visit to see what other great thoughts emerge.


  29. suecowley says:

    Thank you once again to everyone for the continued comments on here. Eddie, I would be very interested to hear more about the approaches you use perhaps via email if that would be possible? The bits of the blog you picked out are indeed the key messages (along with a general resistance to the notion of government mandating methods for teachers, which scares me rigid to be honest.)


  30. Eddie Carron says:

    My email address is
    Just email me any questions you might have Sue – I am always keen to spread my message which is to try perceptual learning when ritual phonics teaching proves to be inadequate.
    Perceptual Learning is explained in a New Scientist article at

    My work is shown in a couple of schools on my site at


  31. Eddie Carron says:

    Sue – just to respond to your last comment “a general resistance to the notion of government mandating methods for teachers, which scares me rigid to be honest.”

    My own pet hate is the idea that you can make children more literate by having them ritually complete phonics exercises long after they have failed to secure even basic literacy – I think this fashionable notion has as much validity as the idea that you can make children good at mathematics by having them ritually recite times tables.
    The idea, in both examples defies logic but logic has no part to play in the kind of fundamental fervour exhibited by some phonics enthusiasts who seem determined to ensure that we stay at the bottom of international literacy league tables.


  32. Helen says:

    but you don’t actually like Phonics. You dont deny them but you blatantly obviously dont like them Sue


    • suecowley says:

      Hmmm … I had another look at this blog post and I honestly can’t see where you got that idea from. I’m not keen on mandatory SSP which is what the post is about, but that’s a whole different thing to phonics (synthetic or analytic). Could you help me identify the specific phrases in the post that give you that impression? I love the way that language makes patterns of sound/letters, ‘tion’ being one of my all time favourites.


  33. Eddie Carron says:

    Sue – when someone tells you what you believe, all they are doing is revealing their own prejudices – not yours . . . . but I’m sure you knew that anyway.
    Phonics are not something to be ‘liked’ or ‘disliked’ they are an undeniable fact of every phonetic orthography. But if you’re not a fundamental adherent to the SP religion, you are an apostate – there are no other possibilities in the narrow perspective of fundamentalism.

    Don’t expect straight answers to straight questions – off with their heads!


    • Ian Lynch says:

      When someone who knows nothing about you starts off with “you will benefit from reading..” when they clearly haven’t read what you have written in any spirit of trying to understand it suspect religion. Or maybe just a good strategy to avoid explaining anything! I think people that are attributing science to these things are actually misrepresenting science because they are failing to take some very important factors into account. The brain is more than just the cognitive centres. Human emotion is powerful and the fact that they think that brute logic and to what to their mind is common sense will convert everyone to their point of view shows they don’t understand the emotional dimension. Calling people names, and bullying with emotive aggression does nothing but alienate them. It’s very unlikely that you will get get “converts” to any cause that way. Ironically these people are very critical of SLT members and indeed any authority – OFSTED etc yet appear to favour quite an authoritarian regime when it comes to children. Then we get how to improve democracy. I’m a real sceptic on things like alternative medicine and can quite happily accept a lot of the things they say about cognition so I should be an easy convert to their cause but I find their delivery naturally draws me into argue with them. To an extent it is an emotional response to attitudes that seem too sure of themselves to be healthy. Seems to me that there is enough stress in education without going out of our way to create more.


  34. Eddie Carron says:

    The sad thing about this is that good phonics teaching is vital. The case for SP is a very strong one which has been seriously damaged by highly destructive rhetoric of zealots which the originators of SP never intended and from which they distance themselves completely. What is needed is a rational individual who is a sincere believer that SP can bring UK literacy standards into line with those of the rest of Europe to make the case on fact rather than trying to force rhetoric down everyone’s throat.


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