Why all the opposition to phonics?

I live on the south coast of England, but occasionally visit family in the Midlands. When we go, we almost always use the motorways as the fastest and most efficient way of getting there. There are downsides to this: they’re not especially scenic, don’t have much variety and certainly don’t entertain the children. But on balance, they’re the best option.

You might say that we choose motorways first and foremost.

Other routes are available. People managed perfectly well to reach the Midlands before motorways existed. Certainly other routes could provide a more varied diet of scenery and stop-offs, but overall, motorways do the job of getting us where we need to be so we can focus on our main goal of enjoyment.

This is the thing with efficient routes: they don’t need to be perfect, just predictably more effective than others.

Enter the phonics debate.

I’m not so interested in the research arguments here, but rather the teacher opposition. Not that any teacher opposes phonics in its entirety; rather there seems to be some considerable opposition to the “first and foremost” or prioritisation of phonics teaching. And some confusion about exclusivity and fidelity.

One of the greatest challenges, I think, is that systematic phonics programmes can be… Well, quite dull to teach. The repetitive structure, the very basic units of knowledge, the limited story vocabulary – none of it is as thrilling as reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt with an excitable class of five-year-olds. So as a teacher, if you believe that reading good stories is out of fashion because of phonics, then you’d understandably be frustrated, much like most drivers would rather not spend their whole lives on the motorway and never visit a country park.

Of course, whether teachers enjoy teaching sessions is secondary to whether they’re effective for the children learning. It is though, understandable if teachers fear that the joy will be sapped from the role because phonics is all that’s permitted.

But that’s eminently not what any proponent of phonics or the DfE or Ofsted have ever proposed. The DfE’s reading framework clearly prioritises reading aloud from great literature, sharing stories and developing comprehension. All of these things are needed in addition to phonics, and any suggestion that they’re forced out is a failing of individual schools or teachers.

None of this makes the phonics teaching any more thrilling for the teacher, any more than I might revel in travelling up the M1. But in combination with other engaging activities the motorway still remains the most obvious route.

But other routes are available

I’ve been told this a lot this week: other strategies exist, other strategies work, some children struggle with phonics, children learnt to read “before” phonics etc. (As though phonics were invented in the 1990s as opposed to being are the very heart of how our writing system works).

Well, the A1 exists, but it would take unusual circumstances for me to choose it as my route North. That’s not to say it never happens. From a very small part of the world, the A1 makes sense, but you can guarantee that the vast majority benefit from the motorways. Indeed, highways planners increasingly make the A1 more like a motorway for good reason.

Equally, many people struggle to access a motorway as first, but that doesn’t mean we just say motorways don’t work for them. You can guarantee that even if they start on a bumpy farm track, for most long-distance travelling they’ll still aim for a motorway.

So yes, there are special circumstances where phonics doesn’t lead to reading mastery straight away, but that isn’t good grounds for abandoning it long term. And in a few exceptional cases, phonics teaching might not serve a few individuals, but that’s true of all teaching: we don’t abandon the effective routes for all, but rather provide the additional support for those who need it.

But children learnt to read before phonics.

Well, not in English they didn’t. Our whole writing system is predicated on the principle of written symbols representing sounds. Sure, it’s inefficient with all its duplication and variation, but I don’t see anyone seriously proposing a change to orthography, so it’s what we’re stuck with.

What people usually mean was that children learnt to read before phonics teaching was so heavily pushed, and that is certainly true. But then, people got to Nottingham before the M1 existed: this isn’t a good reason to eschew motorways now.

But Ofsted say you have to use phonics alone

No, they don’t.

No, really, they don’t. There are a couple of really clear statements in the handbook about how judgements are reached, including considering how:

  • staff develop children’s love of reading through reading aloud and telling stories and rhymes
  • stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction are chosen for reading to develop pupils’ vocabulary, language comprehension and love of reading. Pupils are familiar with and enjoy listening to a wide range of stories, poems, rhymes and non-fiction

Comprehension and reading for enjoyment are also central to the National Curriculum, so failure to address those elements would be unlawful for most primary schools.

What people say here is often based on either misunderstanding or – more often – being misinformed.

What is clear is that ofsted do expect a clear structured programme for phonics. Not necessarily a bought-in one, but not a jumble of schemes. That doesn’t mean you can’t use your own resources, or even a combination of resources – but that needs great care. But what does this “fidelity” argument really mean?

Nowhere does anything say you most follow one scheme and do nothing else. But equally, it is clear that we mustn’t muddle things. It’s no good teaching children the Read, Write, Inc sequence of correspondences (that starts with m, a, s, t, d) if you then use a set of early reading books that follow the Letters and Sounds that introduces s, a, t, p first.

And of course it makes sense that the books we give children to read independently are those which contain the sounds the know. Just as any parent would rightly be frustrated if the Y5 teacher sent home algebra homework without ever teaching the skills in maths lessons. That’s not to say that children must read only tedious ditties based on limited letters – far from it. They should have plenty of opportunities for sharing great stories; we just wouldn’t expect them to read them independently.

The issues raised in ofsted reports are not criticising schools for letting children see good books, but those who fail to ensure that they’re not being set up to fail by being asked to read books independently which are beyond their ken – or not giving them any opportunity to read independently at all.

Equally, if schools are properly providing decodable books, then teaching multi-cueing strategies in unnecessary as much as it is unhelpful. After all, my SatNav doesn’t tell me about traffic on the A1 as I fly past Watford Gap services.

But the phonics check

I’m indifferent here. It probably served a purpose in moving schools towards phonics, I suspect it’s outlived its usefulness in guiding behaviour now, other than to have more unhelpful effects (like making people teach alien words). But it’s perfectly possibly to oppose the check without having to abandon the approach to phonics altogether.

So where’s the disagreement?

As far as I can tell, nobody is arguing that we shouldn’t teach phonics.

Nobody is suggesting that phonics isn’t integral to reading.

Nobody has said that children shouldn’t be introduced to great books or poetry.

Nobody has forced schools to buy anything.

Nobody has said that phonics is the golden bullet for all children.

So rather like the motorway to the Midlands, don’t we all agree that first and foremost makes sense?

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8 thoughts on “Why all the opposition to phonics?

  1. shopeatdrinkrepeat 22 January 2022 at 8:56 am Reply

    Absolutely brilliant, Michael – absolutely love your analogy !

  2. Chris 22 January 2022 at 10:40 am Reply

    Great Post. Having taught phonics for many years (recently left teaching) I think another analogy would be a very healthy diet. Makes perfect sense, but not something most people can tolerate for that long a period. The phonics assessment adds alot of pressure, and as a result it attracts more than its fair share of leadership reviews and observations. Being scheme based, most of the feedback received is along the lines of ‘be more energetic’ and ‘why don’t you wear a costume?’ I often thought that clowns might make excellent phonics teachers. Many of the commercial schemes need an update and refresh, but I couldn’t have tolerated planning and preparing phonics without a scheme! Overall, pretty easy to teach and be successful, but not something to be looked forward to on a daily/annual basis.

  3. Mrs Young 23 January 2022 at 2:30 pm Reply

    Thank goodness! I have been thinking this ever since the phonics debate started. I am a primary school teacher of many years experience and since the ‘motorway’ was built and I started to use a comprehensive phonic scheme I have seen a huge improvement in the reading and writing attainment of the majority of children. I agree wholeheartedly with this article.

  4. emileeducation 24 January 2022 at 12:05 am Reply

    Excellent post. Really enjoyed (and agreed with) the main thoughts.

  5. Charline 24 January 2022 at 5:19 am Reply

    I like Phonics and don’t believe it should be eschewed. But there’s such a narrow focus on phonics now, and it’s treated like a subject in itself. To use your analogy, as if the journey on the M1 is the whole trip. I like it as a tool for reading, but there’s this thing of beating it into kids now that I think isn’t healthy. Repetitive drilling on children who aren’t picking up the sounds as well as others. Children who learn words by sight, by shape or whatever, they exist, and they shouldn’t be forced to spend hours being drilled at home and at school to segment and blend.

  6. yarnoverload 26 January 2022 at 4:14 pm Reply

    “Nowhere does anything say you most follow one scheme and do nothing else.”

    Using a phonics programme with fidelity was a recommendation of the Rose Review and is repeated here.
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/choosing-a-phonics-teaching-programme/list-of-phonics-teaching-programmes

    I agree that they don’t say you should do nothing else.

  7. Anna 20 March 2022 at 10:45 pm Reply

    I learned to read in the early 1980s using phonics. So did my brother in the late 1970s and my sisters in the late 1980s. Phonics is not some revolutionary idea. The big difference that I can see from my 5 year old learning to read is the books that are available. While I learned to read with actual stories that kept my interest, even if they repeated the words rather than being only decodable words, my poor daughter is having to endure ridiculous conglomerations of words that don’t make sense and that she finds boring and refuses to read. I’ve reverted to books from the 1980s which involve more repetition but longer more interesting stories. The teacher tells me she needs to learn to decode words. No shit sherlock. But we have a choice of her not reading – shutting her eyes, crying, rolling off the sofa – or of her reading books that hold her interest, build her confidence and help her have that light bulb moment about what reading is all about. The decodable books from school either stress her out (words from the school) because its unrelentingly challenging or they bore her.

    I never got why “phonics” was so controversial because as I said, this was how we were taught in the 1970s and 1980s but the books they use to teach kids is just an absolute eye opener.

  8. […] Why the opposition to phonics? […]

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