Thursday, December 01, 2005

Someone Needs a Sound Flogging

And that someone is Dr Bethan Marshall, quondam "Senior Lecturer in English Education" at King's College, London.

Before I set out the details of this case, I might add that your clairvoyant - almost mystical - Pedant-General worked himself into a frenzy just yesterday on this very topic. I suggested that it might be a good idea to...
Ask every single teacher, LEA administrator, teacher training college troll and DfES troll one question:

"Do you now or have you ever AT ANY STAGE since you were out of nappies agreed with or advocated anything other than the Synthetic Phonics method for teaching children to read?"

Any one that answers "yes" to be relieved of whatever position of responsibility into which they may have connived themselves, then rounded up and put in a field where all pupils leaving primary school without the ability to read should, accompanied by their parents, beat them with big sticks.
So to the Today programme at 0810 this morning and the publication of Jim Rose's report on the use of phonics for teaching to read. (Listen again here) First up, we had a little explanation of the difference between Synthetic and Analytic Phonics, nicely done by Aunty's reporter.

In a nutshell, when trying to read the word "street", analytic phonics would break this into a beginning - "str" - and an ending - "eet". Synthetic Phonics first teaches children the 44 distinct sounds of each letter of the alphabet plus key combinations of letters. These can then be used to render "street" as "s", "t", "r", "ee", "t".

So far so good. Let's see what issues are raised by this relatively non-contentious discussion of the topic:

Question 1: How does analytic phonics teach a child the beginning "str" without an understanding of the sounds of the individual letters? i.e. How does analytic phonics work if you have not already covered synthetic phonics?

Question 2: Given the inevitable answer to question 1, what is the purpose of analytic phonics at all?

The BBC (aren't they nice?) has an excellent little page on their website if you want to read more. It contains this quote:
"[Synthetic Phonics] also helps children to break down unknown words, experts say."
I bet "experts" would say that. Indeed, we can now ask some more questions:

Question 3: How on earth would you expect a five year old to read a word he had not seen before unless he can identify and sound out the individual letters?


Questions 4, 5 & 6: Errrrmmmm, we use an alphabetic (as opposed to symbolic) language. Isn't this the whole point? Why - for goodness sake this is incredible now that one thinks about it - on earth do we ditch the whole advantage of an alphabetic system to try and teach children as though our language were symbolic? Are these people mad? (actually - don't answer that. Particularly if you have children of primary school age)

Fast forward to 0850 and we get the accused on the blower to discuss this tricky topic.
Jim Naughtie: "Do you think that the Govt has got it right to make Synthetic Phonics central to the teaching of reading?"

The Accused (Dr Bethan Marshall): "No I don't. I think that what they have listened to is a very very powerful lobby group with enormous commercial interests that are set to make enormous amounts of money out of schools having to change their reading schemes."
She then goes on to say that a survey by the National Reading Panel the US shows "absolutely no difference in success rates between synthetic and analytic phonics."

The press release for this survey is here. It dates from April 13th 2000. The first paragraph of findings might - just, at a pinch - support her claim.

The panel's review focused on the following areas: alphabetics (phonemic awareness and phonics instruction), reading fluency, reading comprehension, teacher education, and computer technology.

Phonemic awareness is knowledge that spoken words are made up of tiny segments of sound, referred to as phonemes. For example, the words "go" and "she" each consist of two phonemes. Phonemic awareness is often confused with phonics, which refers to the process of linking these sounds to the symbols that stand for them, the letters of the alphabet. ...

The panel found that the research conducted to date strongly supports the concept that explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes significantly improves children's reading and spelling abilities. The evidence for this is so clear cut that this method should be an important component of classroom reading instruction.

This would appear to support some analytic phonics. The problem is that the VERY NEXT PARAGRAPH blows her out of the water:
"The panel also concluded that the research literature provides solid evidence that phonics instruction produces significant benefits for children from kindergarten through 6th grade and for children having difficulties learning to read. The greatest improvements in reading were seen from systematic phonics instruction. This type of phonics instruction consists of teaching a planned sequence of phonics elements, rather than highlighting elements as they happen to appear in a text. Here again, the evidence was so strong that the panel concluded that systematic phonics instruction is appropriate for routine classroom instruction.

For children with learning disabilities and children who are low achievers, systematic phonics instruction, combined with synthetic phonics instruction produced the greatest gains. Synthetic phonics instruction consists of teaching students to explicitly convert letters into phonemes and then blend the phonemes to form words. Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving the reading skills of children from low socioeconomic levels. Across all grade levels, systematic synthetic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. [my emphasis]"

Synthetic Phonics doesn't improve success rates? Not from my reading of this survey.
Whatever. I'm sure this is a minor point.

JM: Why use a study from the States when we have a more recent study here that shows the opposite?

BM: No it doesn't show the opposite. The Clackmannanshire study was an extremely small study and used schemes such as the Oxford Reading Tree which relies very heavily on analytic phonics rather than synthetic phonics, so it was a very blurry study and a VERY VERY small one."
Errr... My eldest is being taught entirely using Synthetic Phonics (and he is at a private school. How odd...). He is also using the Oxford Reading Tree.

There is then some largely uninteresting discussion about the motivations of the various lobby groups etc.

JM then brings in Nick Gibb, the Shadow Education Minister for Young People.
NG: The Reading Reform Foundation are a group of teachers who have been volunteering to campaign for phonics in their own time because they know that it works.

JM: Just to be clear: they do not have a financial interest in this.

NG: Not the Reading Reform Foundation. There are those like Ruth Miskin and Chris Jolly who do.
"A powerful lobby group with enormous financial interest"? Shove off. NG continues:
The Clackmannanshire study wasn't a small study. It followed 300 children, divided into 3 groups. One had pure synthetic phonics, one had analytic phonics and the third used a combination of methods and the results were staggering. [His emphasis] In fact they were so staggering that they had to move the other 200 children onto the synthetic phonics programme [My emphasis] and they had a reading age 3 years ahead of their chronological age by the time they were 11.

JM: I haven't read the study in detail, but the interesting thing about it is that it did follow them over a long period.

NG: Yes, it was a longitudinal study. Children were followed over seven years. It was very powerful. When you look around the country at the schools that have used phonics, such as St Michael's in Stoke Gifford, they went from 78% of children achieving level 4 in English at age 11 to 95%. These are staggering results [His emphasis] and often in the most deprived parts of Britain.

The Accused is then allowed back in and mutters some piffle about real comprehension versus "sounding the word out". She also moans that the Clackmannanshire study had only 300 pupils versus 5000 used in the US study.

NG responds superbly:
"The US study doesn't say what you say it does. ... Of course you have to have comprehension and all those other things, but it is easier to comprehend a word if you can actually decode it."
He then summarises the enormous body of reports and reviews that have come out in favour of synthetic phonics before the Accused sums up with this:
"If you come across children that do not respond to this method and you [as a teacher] have no other strategies in order to encourage them to help them to read then you will disadvantage as many children as you advantage."
So let's summarise Dr Marshall's arguments against a "first, fast and only" use of synthetic phonics:

BM View:Rebuttal
"government has been knobbled by a powerful lobby with huge financial interests at stake"This is her first objection. It is an ad hominem attack. Read from that what you will.

In any case teachers volunteering doesn't sound like a "powerful lobby group" to me, particularly when they are proposing to drop a system that has completely failed a generation of state school pupils.
National Reading Panel study in the US shows absolutely no difference in success rates between synthetic and analytic phonics."From the press release to the report itself:

"Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving the reading skills of children from low socioeconomic levels. Across all grade levels, systematic synthetic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell."
On the Clackmannanshire Study: "[the study used] the Oxford Reading Tree which relies very heavily on analytic phonics rather than synthetic phonics, so it was a very blurry study and a VERY VERY small one "The Oxford Reading Tree scheme is not tied to analytic phonics at all. Ergo, this blurry accusation is wide of the mark (if not a desperate cling to dogma).

300 children in a well designed study (i.e. including a control group) followed for SEVEN YEARS is small? Compared to the US Study which although bigger (5000 pupils), did not follow those pupils for long: the study ran for less than 2 years. [Study announced on March 28, 1998 here, and results announced April 13, 2000. Not much time for studying in between... ]

More importantly, said study does not support her refusal to accept synthetic phonics anyway, so its longevity isn't really an issue.
"Synthetic phonics only teaches you to sound the word out. It does not improve comprehension "HOW THE F*&!@*% DOES SHE THINK A CHILD CAN UNDERSTAND A WORD IF THE CHILD CANNOT ACTUALLY READ IT?


Besides, Clackmannanshire showed reading ages of 14 for pupils aged 11. You cannot have a reading age of 14 without comprehension.
"Synthetic phonics is taught mechanistically. There is no joy in reading "HOW THE F*&!@*% DOES SHE THINK A CHILD CAN ENJOY READING IF THE CHILD CANNOT READ?

We know what happens with "discovery learning" and that related fashionable nonsense: you get children who look at pictures.
"If you come across children that do not respond to this method and you [as a teacher] have no other strategies in order to encourage them to help them to read then you will disadvantage as many children as you advantage."You want the US Study? You can have the US Study:

"Moreover, systematic synthetic phonics instruction was significantly more effective in improving the reading skills of children from low socioeconomic levels. Across all grade levels, systematic synthetic phonics instruction improved the ability of good readers to spell. "

So your chosen study reveals that the most disadvantaged children show the greatest benefit from the use of system that you don't like.


And your balance of probabilities?

Condemn every single child in the state system (apart from those schools brave enough to ignore you) to appalling levels of failure


95% of children achieving the required levels of reading and comprehension, with the most disadvantaged children having the most to gain.

Sod off.

Proof that the state run education system is in the hands of unreconstructed wreckers who care more about their dreams of a socially-engineered utopia than for the children in their care is embodied in this woman.

I have VERY strong views on this topic. It is insane that teacher training and policy-making appears still to be in the hands of total morons. The knock-on affects are huge:
Poor teaching and poor teaching methods affect those at the bottom end of the scale the most;
Without the ability to read, children will fall behind very quickly;
A child that falls behind feels excluded, frustrated and bored at school;
Child that are excluded, frustrated and bored misbehave, disrupting others;
Misbehaving children who have fallen behind are ripe for exclusion from school, particularly if they are the bottom of the heap anyway and have little support or encouragement at home;
Children who get expelled are more likely to find other ways of occupying themselves;
Once beyond school age and without the necessary schooling (or attitude or commitment or self-esteem) will find it all but impossible to find (or sustain) decent paid employment;
Those with a bad attitude, who have been variously failed by then rejected by authority, and who have no jobs are not exactly going to stay on the straight and narrow.

We end up picking up the tab.

P-G Prescription: I think Dr Bethan Marshall needs to spend a bit more time in the classroom. In a sink estate. Where none of the children have been taught synthetic phonics. I'm sure her classmates will be only too happy to adminster a synthetic phonic flogging.

UPDATE: A very warm welcome to visitors from the RRF discussion board on this topic. You may wish to have a little look at my next post for a little follow up.


ninme said...

What if you weren't taught with any phonics?

dearieme said...

Um, so now the widdykinkies are to be taught as their grandparents were. Good-oh. But if it was such a good scheme, why do all Englishmen mispronounce Latin? Eh?

Anonymous said...


Mr. Pedant sir!

I do not think that the word nobbled is spelt with a k.

If you had put (sic) after it you could perhaps be exonerated and let off with a mere reprimand.

But I fear you are hoist with your own petard.

Have a nice weekend!

The Pedant-General in Ordinary said...


This is not to say that phonics is the ONLY way to teach someone to read. It is just that it is staggeringly more effective than any other method in the first instance.

A bright pupil taught without phonics will get there in the end, but it is akin to teaching a child calculus before simple arithmetic algrebra, or indeed algebra before they can count or add up.


I must say that I struggle with the "Whenny, Weedy, Weaky" pronunciation. To which school of thought do you belong?

Anon @ 1:56

Dearieme is the resident parasitic pedant. You will have to fight out your requests to hoist me with my petard with him.

In any case, I shall put this down to the fact that it is a quotation from our accused and, given her crime, I feel it unlikely that her spelling is up to much.

Oh and do drop me a note (the pedant general (all one word) at gmail -dot*- com ) and let me know who you are: not very keen on anonymous commenting. Blogger IDs are free you know...

Though I must say that "knobbled" has a certain more painful "knobbly" connotation which adds a certain piquance to the cliché, don't you think?

Toodle Pip!

ninme said...

Err... Okay, what if you weren't taught with any phonics, and you read not just fine, but really rather well, and didn't just get there in the end, but got there with considerable speed and have had no problems since?

I mean, the only thing I can remember from my own learning-to-read that could have conceivably been phonicsish lasted about a week in kindergarten. Which couldn't have made that much of a difference.