It is fourteen years since Mona McNee established the Reading Reform Foundation in the UK and wrote the very first newsletter. This is the 50th newsletter. Despite every effort it has taken a very long time to reach the point of Professor David Hopkins convening a seminar on behalf of the government (17 March 2003) “to look at recent research evidence and programmes about phonics, and how these could inform the future development of the NLS”. I dare not envisage the outcome, because I simply cannot understand the mindset and behaviour of so many people in educational and political authority past and present. This could be a momentous occasion, but will the DfES really bite the bullet?
Keith Stanovich puts his finger on one of the greatest problems in the reading debate. I have chosen several extracts, with Stanovich’s permission, from an old article ‘Romance and reality’ (p.6). My purpose for this is multi-fold. The extracts are interesting in their own right, but serve to point out that people are unduly fickle about research results either ‘liking’ or ‘not liking’ them. It seems to me that people frequently choose to ignore or dismiss research that does not coincide with their philosophies or beliefs. Is this what happened when the original National Literacy Strategy framework was drawn up? Stanovich describes how our teaching practices ought to be informed by science which would then give teachers freedom from the ‘authority syndrome’ (p.9). Why have the National Literacy Strategy programmes not been scientifically tested? Were the authors keen to perpetuate their own ideas and pedagogic preferences instead? Why does the NLS promote reading instruction methods which are anti the existing research?
The selection of old and new research in the RRF newsletters serves to demonstrate that some people have long understood the need to learn the alphabetic code to automaticity, the need to sound out and blend (synthesise) for the efficient decoding of text, the dangers of learning words as whole shapes to accrue an initial sight vocabulary, and the dangers of guessing words from pictures, context clues and initial letters. This is not new information and the research literature is out there in abundance. In any event, many of us have made identical observations when hearing children read and when teaching children to read even BEFORE learning of the research. In the light of ordinary teaching experiences, in the light of the research literature, in the light of HMIs’ call for phonics teaching for many years and in the light of the excellent results of more recent synthetic phonics research and practice in the UK, why have the National Literacy Strategy managers promoted a mix of whole language reading instruction methods with a smattering of phonics thrown in – the very formula discredited by so much research and so many people. Who is responsible for this and why has there been no formal inquiry since?
Many international researchers and scientists have even gone to the lengths of signing joint statements such is their collective concern about the perpetuation of anti-research whole language practices; for example, as encapsulated by the Reading Recovery programme (p.16, RRF Newsletter no.49). I include an example (p.10) which describes how ineffective teaching stems from ‘defective teacher-training’. It is arguably mistraining by the teacher-trainers which misleads teachers in their understanding of how best to teach reading. Students are taught that there is ‘no one way’ to learn to read as the rationale behind giving them a range of reading strategies. Charles Richardson describes the dangers of this rationale in his article (p.12) as he notes the differences between subjective and objective readers. Which type of reader would parents choose for their children to become if they understood the differences? Ruth Miskin’s nonsense word test (p.17) can be used to assess whether the reader is looking at words ‘as wholes’ or decoding accurately and phonically all-through-the-word. It is quick, easy to use and very revealing. Teachers to this day are not made aware of what results are possible with the best systematic synthetic phonics teaching. And they are unaware of the dangers of a lack of explicit phonics, the dangers of learning words as whole shapes and the dangers of guessing words from clues. Most teachers have trusted what they have been told, including the discredited reading instruction advice of the National Literacy Strategy. It is time people were less trusting and required evidence to support government and LEA generated initiatives.
Ofsted’s latest report on the four years of the National Literacy Strategy (p.19) makes it perfectly clear that failure rates are still too high, particularly the boys (p.23) and yet Ofsted deliberately avoids any mention of ‘synthetic phonics’ describing this title as ‘jargon’. The RRF has informed the Department for Education and Skills over and again that synthetic phonics teaching results in no gender gap, but this has been totally and inexplicably ignored. Bonnie Macmillan’s article (p.23) explains why the gender gap is prevalent in England – note that Bonnie wrote her article six years ago. Dare we calculate just how many boys have been needlessly failed by the reading instruction approach of untested theories over the years - and right now?
As the RRF produces this 50th newsletter, shall we see a breakthrough following the phonics seminar after years of astonishing delusion and closed minds. Will science, classroom evidence, common sense and accountability prevail at long, long last?