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

RRF Newsletter 57 back to contents
You can't fool all....Mona McNee

Mona McNee, the first editor of the RRF Newsletter, gives a personal view of some milestones in educational developments in general and in the teaching of reading in particular. Developments which she regards as good are printed in boxes.

The story so far

1762: J.-J. Rousseau’s essay, “Emile”, advocated that children should be allowed to develop naturally. Rousseau fathered five children, then left their rearing to a local home for foundlings. How did he gain such stature? His writings had enormous influence.

1826: The ‘meaning method’ was introduced in the USA and UK

1875: Col. Parker introduced reading for meaning, the meaning method, to Quincy schools, Mass. The failure was evident, and the ‘meaning method’ was identified as ineffective, but Boston schools were persuaded to try it. After a fair pilot, and the resulting failure, the burghers of Boston threw it out. Parker nevertheless continued to promote it elsewhere.

1908: Edmund Burke Huey published The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading (Macmillan Press). This continued the move away from phonics.

1930: A look-say reading scheme, “Dick and Jane” (Scott Foresman), swept across America.

1931: The Hadow Report stated, ‘The curriculum is to be thought of in terms of activity and experience rather than of knowledge to be acquired and facts to be stored. This really said that schools should stop teaching. There was no challenge to this madness. This change is now almost complete.

1945: Professor Fred Schonell’s The Psychology and Teaching of Reading was published, and became and remained the Bible for student teachers in UK for decades. He never said phonics did not work, just that it was old-fashioned ‘deadly drill’, and that instead of sounding out a sequence of sounds from a sequence of letters, we read from ‘visual pattern’ – the outline shape of a whole word. He said that instead of paying attention to a sequence of letters, we pay more attention to the first letter, and he promoted the idea that we would read more easily words that were interesting to us.

1955: Rudolf Flesch’s book Why Johnny Can’t Read was published, causing a furore. It was a polemic against look-say, and a best-seller for nine months in America.

1956: The International Council for the Improvement of Reading Instruction (ICIRI) merged with the National Association for Remedial Teaching to form the International Reading Association.

1958: The Reading Reform Foundation (USA) was set up. Its sole aim was ‘To restore intensive phonics to the teaching of reading throughout the nation’.

1964: The Ladybird Keywords look-say reading scheme (‘Peter and Jane’) swept through British primary schools, an economic profit-maker but an educational disaster.

1967: Learning to Read: The Great Debate was published. This was a book by Jeanne Chall of Harvard University, who argued in favour of phonics-first.

1967: The report of the National Reading Panel (USA) found in favour of phonics teaching.

1971: Dennis Hogenson (Minneapolis) wrote ‘We have paid far too little attention to the eventual social consequences of this deeply humiliating experience’ (i.e. reading failure).

1981: Frank Smith promoted the idea that ‘You learn to read by reading’.

1981: Rudolph Flesch’s book Why Johnny Still Can’t Read was published.

1982: The Complete Handbook of Reading Disorders was published. This was by Dr Hilde Mosse, who was for many years a New York physician specialising in child psychiatry. She ‘strongly recommended a multi-sensory, intensive phonetic approach’ to reading.

1970s to 1990s in the USA: Kenneth Goodman, a professor at the University of Arizona, promoted the theory of Whole Language, that when reading we do not just use printed letters, but also the surrounding text, pictures if any, and our previous literary and life experience. He was really talking about comprehension, and although this was irrelevant for beginners sounding out three letters to make a CVC word such as ‘cat’, it matched the Hadow idea of experience rather than facts and knowledge, and somehow he gained immense credibility, although his attitude did not help beginners. Fashion then prevailed over fact or common sense.

1970s to 1990s in the UK: Teacher-training institutions enthusiastically welcomed the ideas of Smith and Goodman and the closely related ideas of Liz Waterland, whose ‘apprenticeship approach’ (see her 1985 book Read with Me) was heavily promoted in initial teacher-training courses. Margaret Meek (Institute of Education, London University) would ask students starting their PGCE course to say what mattered in learning to read, and each year they came up with the right items – letters, sounds. She then asked them to read a difficult paragraph by Faulkner, and used that to convince them we read from the general sense (see the chapter ‘Teachers learning about literacy’ by Judith Graham in New Readings: Contributions to an Understanding of Literacy, A. and C. Black, 1992). She wrote that ‘Any significant research I have done rests on my having treated anecdotes as evidence’ (How Texts Teach what Readers Learn, 1988).

But throughout these decades, Dr Joyce Morris urged phonics.

1989: The UK Chapter of the RRF was set up.

1990: Step by Step, by Mona McNee, was published.

1993: The National Right to Read Foundation was set up in the USA

1994: I moved to Knowsley hoping to improve reading. It was and is bottom of the league tables. I hoped to change this, but I have been largely ignored.

1996, 1999: Books by Jeni Riley (Institute of Education, London University) were published: The Teaching of Reading: The Development of Literacy in the Early Years of School and Teaching Reading at Key Stage 1 and Before. I talked to Dr Riley’s students once at the Institute, and the first question raised was, ‘How can we follow your advice when it runs counter to all we hear here?’ In her 1996 book The Teaching of Reading Jeni Riley gives results from supposedly good teachers, results which are pathetic. Her expectations were of reading performance far below potential.

1997: Bonnie Macmillan’s Why Schoolchildren Can’t Read was published by the Institute of Economic Affairs.

1997: Why Our Children Can’t Read, by Diane McGuinness, was published in the USA. The British edition was published the following year.

1998: The first report was published of the successful use of phonics in Clackmannanshire, Scotland.

1998: The National Literacy Strategy was adopted in UK primary schools (though not in Scotland), with supplements thereafter.

2000: The report of the National Reading Panel was published in the USA                  .

2002: A New Zealand government report on teaching adults was ‘dismissed’ by politicians.

2003: Five-year follow-up findings from Clackmannanshire were reported at the seminar on phonics organised by the Department for Education and Skills.

2005 (December): The Interim Report of Jim Rose’s team was published.

2005 (December): The Nelson Report was published in Australia.

2005: Backlash – the Literacy Educators’ Coalition (Australia) was formed by people involved with teaching reading.

2006: This backlash extended, and all the Australian teachers’ unions signalled that they would oppose a back-to-basics literacy push if it involves the return of ‘school curriculums to the 1950s’, as was reported in The Australian of 1 February 2006. Throughout the English-speaking world, we find the protection of long-standing mediocre education by people such as teacher trainers, Local Education Authority advisers and head teachers, and by organisations such as the United Kingdom Literacy Association, the National Association for the Teaching of English in the UK and their equivalents elsewhere.

2006: In 11 years I have found NO professional curiosity at all within Knowsley LEA. The same had been true in my previous 20 years in Norfolk. Instead, the establishment has continued to accept, spread and support unchallenged the flawed, harmful ideas enshrined in the National Literacy Strategy and its supplements.

For more detail, read The Hidden Story by Geraldine Rodgers.

Editor’s note: Since writing this article, Mona McNee has received an invitation to speak on ‘synthetic phonics’ at a meeting being organised on 10 May 2006 by the Liverpool Dyslexia Association.




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