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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 51 back to contents
We Trusted ... the Experts.Mona Mcnee

When my son could read and spell three-letter words, I was delighted. He was 7 but he has Downs Syndrome. Moving then to an ESN school with specially qualified teachers, I thought he would go from strength to strength. But for two years he sat with Ladybird Book 2. In despair, and knowing I could do no worse, totally unqualified, Tim and I began to work through the phonics ‘Royal Road ’ readers. Eighteen months later Tim could read and I had to tell the teachers. They had not noticed. They tested him and found, yes, he could read – but they showed no interest in how this had happened. How could a totally untrained person succeed when the qualified had utterly failed? Thirty years later, I realise that I had the benefit of not being mistrained.  

But this big question-mark in my mind “What was going on?” led me to thirty years of reading, studying, teaching and, like Sue Lloyd, I have never read or seen anything to make me want to change my simple c-a-t = cat, sounding out and blending. The very people who ought to know best were the ones in key positions, the very people spreading the wrong, harmful ideas. By 1970 the myths based on poor or even anecdotal research were firmly in position, being spread by the battalions running perception management, as opposed to people either on the edge of the establishment or (like me) entirely untrained, unbrainwashed but seeing in their own experience, test results and undamaged common sense the suffering caused by neglect of phonics. But such a big majority (right or wrong) has its own power, and people might well think, “They can’t all be wrong.” But if a million people believe a myth, it is still a myth. And the ‘experts’ were in key positions to fight off challenge. For some time Margaret Meek, one such ‘expert’, was consultant to Yorkshire Television for infant reading. Year after year, teachers assure parents that their child is doing fine, even when (s)he cannot even read three-letter words!  

In 1955 Rudolph Flesch’s book, “Why Johny Can’t Read” was a best-seller for nine months. The teaching establishment just waited it out, carried on regardless, and formed the International Reading Association to defend their stance. In 1981 Flesch wrote “Why Johny STILL Can’t Read” and this is just as true 20 years later.  

In 1972 we moved from Bromley (Kent) to Norfolk and I changed from teaching geography and economics in a secondary school to teaching remedial reading. I now realise that Norfolk had (and probably still has) a very Progressive Local Education Authority and teaching staff. It was a miracle, therefore, that I was appointed at Easter to teach the bottom 20 of a Middle School intake of 120 – the headteacher was nearly at retiring age. At the end of July, I had a hunch that the pupils had learned more in that one term than in the previous two, but a hunch is not good enough. I tested them, compared them with previous results and they had learned about twice as much with me, although my predecessor was (I think) a better teacher of children. I was a better teacher of reading.  

Like Sue Lloyd in neighbouring Suffolk, I began to campaign against look-say and to urge phonics-first, but found that the headteachers of the feeder First Schools were at odds with me – even though they knew that their failures would come to me! Eventually, one Toftwood First School head, who had originally said that she would “never give up look-say”, acknowledged that I had been rescuing pupils from her school and even recommended to a parent (in another school) that she take her child to me!  

I attended meetings of the council Education Committee, handed out leaflets, wrote to the chairwomen (including Gillian Shephard) and got nowhere. Eventually a parent of one of my pupils agitated and achieved a meeting with the Director, Michael Edwards, the English Adviser, Ray Rumsby, and a Tory Councillor. The councillor agreed with what I said. The meeting ended with a vague idea that I might present my ideas to some Norfolk teachers but ….nothing happened. One brave Labour councillor, Leslie Potter, understood what I was saying and questioned the annual reading results. But, although he was right, the Conservatives mocked his grasp of arithmetic!  

When Sir Keith Joseph visited Norwich, I stood on the steps of County Hall wearing my “Ban look-say” shirt, but Mr Edwards practically frog-marched Sir Keith past me, his feet barely touching the ground. No way was Mr Edwards going to let me meet Sir Keith – who was the last Education Secretary to smell a rat. Since then, they have all trusted The Experts.  

I joined the Waveney Valley Dyslexia Association and benefited from the work of Dr David Harland, but in the end Lady Sandra Addington (a committee member) insisted that, since help in the end had to come from the LEA, we must not upset them, and I found I was wasting my time. I helped one or two families in the King’s Lynn area, but when they invited Jean Augur to speak, with Gillian Shephard to be present, LADDA (the Lynn and District Dyslexia Association) would not allow me to attend the meeting! Later I spoke to Jean Augur on her own. In her book, “This doesn’t make cens senc…” Mrs Augur wrote (in italics) that if all the schools would teach infants the way dyslexics need, dyslexics would learn along with the rest, and nobody would suffer, but since its inception the BDA (British Dyslexia Association) has kept the spotlight on remedial teaching AFTER failure has set in, and by now there is a big invested interest in continuing failure. Sad but true.  

When Sir Peter Newsam was Director of the Institute of Education, London University, through his good offices I was invited (twice) to talk to the full intake of future primary teachers. At the end of the second talk, the first question asked was, “How can we follow your advice when it is the opposite of all we hear here?” The teaching they do get, with low expectations, can be seen in Professor Jeni Riley’s books. The Institute has also given houseroom to Mrs Margaret Meek (now retired) who wrote in “How texts teach what readers learn” (1998), “Any significant reading research I have done rests on my having treated anecdotes as evidence”. In learning to read, you can prove ANYthing by anecdotes – some children learn whatever we do. Margaret Meek must have observed fluent readers and applied what she saw to beginners. She first asked her students what they would need to start beginning readers, and the students offered all the right items – learn the alphabet, sounds, how to blend. She then asked the student to read a difficult piece, pointing out how their previous knowledge helped them – and then applied that to beginners. Judith Graham writes, “The rest of the one-year course would be spent persuading students that the model of reading that we had jointly constructed – one whereby we read by entering into a dialogue with an author – was a model that beginning readers need to operate also. People find this hard to believe.” No wonder! She spent “the rest of the year” blanking out their common sense.  

The non-phonics (Whole Language) approach is presented in “New Readings” as “exemplars of responsible and creative thinking and teaching. Their origins lie in careful research….What all teachers implicitly know, and what classroom observations make plain, is that children initiate the learning that their teachers are most concerned they should do.” Why then millions of failures? Joyce Morris described Whole Language enthusiasts as “phonicsphobics”, but campaigns by people like her, Daniels and Diack, and me, are described as “irresponsible attacks on teachers’ professional skills.” With the total lack of challenge to the wrong ideas, and lack of calls for proper tests to justify the new procedures, the word ‘professional’ in the matter of teaching reading has become a sick joke.  

But Meek was not the first. The idea of ‘reading’ words from their outline, and not from a succession of letters and blending the sounds, started in America with Huey in 1908 and led to “Dick and Jane”. The UK version was Professor (Sir) Fred Schonell’s “The Psychology and Teaching of Reading” which was the students’ ‘bible’ for 30 years 1945 – 1975. He never said that phonics did not work! But he said “phonics was deadly drill, dull as dishwater”, and no student would want to be that dull! If you look at the word-shapes he offers, no way can you read the words from them. Try it!  

Schonell’s whole theory is disproved in ten seconds, yet somehow he conned the profession into accepting the dangerous nonsense. Testing over the years showed appalling failure rates. I reckon that Britain’s national average in reading after one, two or three years at school is at least a year below potential, and has been for 30 or 40 years, but the ‘professionals’ carried on regardless.  

The Warnock Report led teachers to accept a 20% failure rate as normal and to be expected. From 1970 Frank Smith ( Canada) urged “Use your eyes as little as possible” and if a pupil read “horse” for the text-word ‘pony’, that was just fine. Professor Kenneth Goodman ( Arizona ) made it even worse with his definition, “Reading is a psycholinguist guessing game". For 25 years, Betty Root directed the Reading Reading Centre, and failed to alert the thousands of teachers who visited it to the flaws in the received wisdom on teaching reading. Now retired, she has put together a little 99p book sold by TESCO entitled “Phonics”. On page 3 you will find, “big  sad  clean  dry  dirty”. Along with “box”, she presents “cow”, where the ‘o’ does not sound as in ‘box’.  

Three of the four strategies of the National Literacy Strategy, 1998, are guessing:- from the picture, context or initial letter. Far from being a useful ‘strategy’, guessing is very dangerous, a bad habit, and some children simply cannot begin to learn to read until they STOP guessing. Even the phonics in the NLS is disorganised and very slow. Each year the wrong advice is repeated as government churns out programme after programme: PiPs, ELS, ALS, FLS – just more of the same – because it comes from the same ‘experts’.  

When the National Literacy Strategy first came out, every teacher, headteacher, English adviser, lecturer, LEA official, the BDA, UKRA, NATE ought to have rejected it with bitter laughter and disgust, but this did not happen. Instead the LEAs appointed an officer to ensure that the NLS was being used in schools. I told John Stannard, even before it was printed, that it would not work, but he took no notice. Now, five years later, Ofsted reports that the NLS has failed to deliver the ‘dramatic improvements’ expected, and which is indeed possible, and being achieved by teachers using Jolly Phonics properly, or the Clackmannan way, or the St Michael’s, Stoke Gifford way, or the American Phono-Graphix way, or my way. I have tried to tell Gordon Brown that he could save £billions by withdrawing the government advice and lettings schools use commercial schemes like Jolly Phonics in the way the authors advise. But my letter was passed on to….The DfES. I tried to tell Margaret Hodge – the same. I tried to write to Charles Clarke (and Estelle Morris before him) by writing to Clarke’s Norwich constituency office, but always the letter ended up on one single desk in the DfES. The whole system is geared to one single school of thought, working on the basis that they cannot be wrong. The system is tightly sewn up at every level, every nook and cranny, to fend off all the warnings or suggestions. You can’t tell ‘em; they won’t listen.  

I have tried both the local and national Ombudsman, but they say their brief does not cover how children are taught to read.  

We all need to know what has gone on for over half a century. Parents, teachers themselves whose training has let them down so badly, governors, councillors, MPs, employers, taxpayers, even victims of crime; half the children in juvenile court are ‘dyslexic’. Parents can see the misery of lost confidence, frustration, humiliation, that ends up with truancy, and children enduring 12 years of school-prison only to leave at the end virtually unemployable. The National Governors’ Council invited me to join their website. I did, and in no time someone complained and I was ‘struck off’.  

After 20 years of being fended off when I offered to help in Norfolk, moving to the north-west for family reasons I specifically chose Knowsley as being the bottom of the league tables. I KNEW I could help. Naively, I thought somebody there would be looking for ways to improve. Not so. I met just the same brick wall as in Norfolk. I wrote to the chairman of the education committee, Councillor Nolan, who replied that he lacked the expertise and the training to take up the matter of teaching method – and in the last 8 years he is determined to remain in blissful ignorance. I had a meeting with the then Director, Peter Wylie, and the then English adviser, Ann Tregenza. But Ms Tregenza ‘believes in’ Whole Language, and condoned the neglect of phonics while she worked there. Both Mr Wylie and Ms Tregenza have now left. Three local councillors approached Peter Wylie, but told me “he would not budge an inch.”  

I have approached half a dozen Knowsley schools offering to discuss with them the teaching of phonics and get no welcome. Just one school listened. In my first visit, I offered to teach “the two worst readers in the school” and two names were given in seconds! I got them going then they left to go elsewhere. However, I sat in with Year 1 for a full year and at the year-end the results were so good that the BBC made a film “Just One Chance” (1998) – but this generated not one single enquiry from any teacher! It was the same as Radio 4 “Odds Against” half-hour back in 1989. This lack of professional curiosity worries me. During one outburst of the reading war, Sue Palmer ran a campaign called “Balance”, so that if phonics came back, we would still keep the guessing, sight words etc. The Bullock Report 1974-5 was very influential, but it, too, insisted on “There is no one way to teach reading”. In all its 600 pages, the best bit is the 4-page Note of Dissent by Stuart Frome, “You can’t fool all the people all the time.”  

The year the National Literacy Strategy came in, I taught the reception class its Literacy Hour from September to Easter (when I had to stop through an injury). Nevertheless, at year-end not a single child had a reading age below chronological age and the average was a good nine months ahead in reading. But such is the clout of the NLS that, unless I was actually doing the teaching, the school changed back to the NLS, and results dropped back to the usual failure rate. This was in a school that had seen my way work twice! Why does the LEA not want such good results in all its schools? Why does it take pride in being excellent “considering” the socio-economic environment?  

We now have a new Director, Steve Munby. He says that he will support any work I do, but I have to approach individual schools. He will not invite teachers to a seminar to work with me. But when I write to, say, Halsnead, all the teachers have had the usual mistraining, they got the same message from Ann Tregenza, then the same message from the National Literacy Strategy, from the UK Reading Association, from the National Association for Teachers of English, and when they kept to the NLS, Ofsted praised them to the skies; “Excellent, no improvements to offer, no areas of weakness” – yet the school had 83 children with special needs, 21% of its roll! I offered help, but did not even get a reply. Yet Ofsted had said, “Excellent – compared to similar schools”. My aim was to be ‘excellent compared to ANY school” – right up to Richmond on Thames.  

The DfES convened a phonics seminar in March 2003 and the chairman, Professor David Hopkins of Nottingham University, “sees no grounds for radical changes to the strategy”. Damian Green (then Shadow Education Secretary) rightly suggests that the government throw the NLS away and start again! By closing down the Literacy Centre and vast pruning of the staff at the DfES, the government could save £billions and we would have a better education.  

This problem is impairing education throughout the English-speaking world except (until recently) South Africa. In Australia Chris Nugent, Byron Harrison, Valerie Yule, Brian Byrne and a Queensland group fight for phonics-first. In New Zealand, Tom Nicholson, James Chapman, William Tumner and others strive for phonics, but valid reports are ‘dismissed’ by the politicians. In Canada, the Organisation for Quality Education, Stanovich, and people in British Columbia and elsewhere battle against Whole Language. In America, Barbara Foorman (Texas), Barbara Bateman (Oregon), John Stone (Tennessee), Ann Mactier (Nebraska), Charles Richardson (Long Island), Patrick Groff (California), the McGuinnesses (Florida) and many others are working to bring back good phonics, and meeting the same brick wall.  

We cannot afford more decades of ineffective schools. What do we do when the experts are wrong, badly wrong, and united, on such a simple matter? Why do secondary schools not complain about their illiterate intake? Student teachers are badly let down right from the start. Why do teachers (the first victims) not sue their trainers for giving them such a bum steer in teaching reading? Considering the cost we pay year after year, in both money and human misery, there simply HAS TO BE a way to blow the whistle, in a TV Watchdog programme, or a sustained campaign from reputable journalists, to show how badly wrong the fashionable, “modern”, “creative” ideas have been in teaching reading, and how a return to the simple, cheap, long-proved phonics and common sense would provide the essential foundation for all academic learning.  

Teaching reading by phonics first, fast and foremost is “The rising tide that lifts all ships” and nothing else will do the job.


Editor’s comment: No-one can deny that Mona McNee is a remarkable lady, dedicated to turning the tide of how reading gets taught in our schools. No doubt many people featuring in Mona’s journey haven’t quite known what to make of a lady with such passion and conviction, but many more have understood what she was saying. Many have had their children’s reading abilities radically improved by Mona teaching or tutoring them with her evidence-based knowledge and skills.  

Mona edited the first 44 RRF newsletters and when I took over as editor, I was privileged to inherit a wealth of historic literature, enabling me to build on Mona’s accumulated knowledge of the history of reading instruction, and a bank of contacts across the English-speaking world as mentioned in her article above. I cannot thank Mona enough for her support and the information and contacts she has afforded me which have helped me enormously in the understanding of the reading debate and in my editorship of the RRF newsletter.  

Both Mona and I have our critics. We have outspoken ways and sometimes our passion, founded in sheer concern for the children whom we view as needlessly betrayed, gets the better of us both. ‘ Needless’, because it does not have to be this way, ‘betrayed’ because the right  information is out there.  

However, whatever our style in attempting to spread information and implement change, only one fundamental question needs to be asked and answered: Are we, and so many others, expressing fact or opinion?




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