A Simple View of the Phonics Debate

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If you missed last week’s ACE/CIS Phonics Debate, you can still watch it online, and read these interesting blog posts about it:

Prof Pamela Snow’s latest blog post isn’t about the debate, but instead directly addresses the future with an open letter to student teachers.

The debate took me back to my halcyon, pimply youth at Warrnambool High School, where our public speaking teacher, Mrs Melican, used to say, “You don’t win a debate by ignoring the topic and debating something else”.

The Phonics Debate’s topic was “Phonics in context is not enough: synthetic phonics and learning to read”. The theoretical backdrop to this is the robust, evidence-based Simple View of Reading, first proposed by Gough and Tunmer in 1986, showing that reading comprehension is the product of two separate skills: decoding and listening comprehension.

Here’s my favourite analogy for the Simple View of Reading, which comes from Dr Maria Murray of the US Reading League: reading comprehension (RC, apparently AKA in the Ed Biz as “meaning-making”) is the gold in a treasure chest with two separate locks: a decoding lock (D) and a listening comprehension (LC) lock.

If you can’t read words well, you’ll find it hard to open the decoding lock, and get at the gold.

If you can’t understand spoken language well, the listening comprehension lock will be the one that makes it hard for you to get to the gold.

Many kids with Developmental Language Disorders or Intellectual Disabilities struggle with both locks. They need a lot of expert help before they can get to the reading comprehension gold.

The Phonics Debate topic was thus about the best way to teach kids to open the decoding lock.

Talking at cross purposes

Team Affirmative in the debate stuck to the debate topic. They said phonics is necessary but not sufficient for reading. They explained the abundant evidence that (as Prof Anne Castles put it) “the journey to strong links between print and meaning starts by forming strong links between print and sound”.

They discussed research showing that systematic phonics is more effective at teaching decoding skills than incidental phonics in context, especially for children at risk. They explained that children who can decode early read independently more quickly, are more likely to enjoy reading and read more and harder texts, and that this boosts their vocabulary, comprehension and engagement with literature. They talked about classroom experience teaching this way.

Team Negative kept saying things like, “Phonics is not enough to meet the individual needs of each child”, though nobody had said it was. They said meaning comes first, but whether that meant developmentally, educationally or something else, and whether they were talking about spoken or written language, or both, was unclear. They emphasised the importance of talking with preschoolers and reading them stories. They expressed alarm that phonics might rob children of rich and imaginative texts, and subject them to high-stakes testing.

One quoted from Jabberwocky as an example of how words make sense in context, even though “mome raths” actually doesn’t mean anything, and you can’t read it if you can’t decode. She went on: “We feel that’s what children should be able to do, read texts from the very beginning, and the beginning is, as Robyn said, at birth, that have meaning for them because meaning is what makes people want to tell stories, talk to each other, or read”. Please watch the video, perhaps you can make sense of it.

The final Team Negative speaker made me think of the fun games of covert Bullsh!t Bingo we used to play during School Support Centre meetings, as we listened to educrats talk about “spirals of inquiry”, “generating a culture of trust and purpose”, and getting bonus points for the satisfyingly alliterative: “rigorous, rich and relevant” and “lifelong learners”. He claimed English has a phonological consistency of only 12% (false, only 4% of words are truly irregular), and implied that advocates of synthetic phonics are primarily motivated by financial gain.

I waited for Team Negative to address the debate topic, and try to explain how and why embedded, incidental phonics is a better way to teach kids to decode than synthetic phonics. They never did.

Conflating and confusing concepts (bingo!)

It finally occurred to me that perhaps Team Negative simply didn’t understand the topic, because of a lack of understanding of the theory and evidence behind it. Perhaps they were basing their comments on the appallingly evidence-free Multicueing model of reading, which muddles up spoken and written language.

It’s true that talking and listening to preschool children, reading them stories and giving them lots of opportunities to learn language improves their chances of reading for meaning in later life. Nobody disputes this.

Professor Diane McGuinness, author of the excellent and sadly-still-relevant 1997 book “Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It” which raged against the lack of systematic, explicit sound-to-print-based phonics teaching in schools, and who has long been involved in the UK’s Reading Reform Foundation (so she’d def be called a Phonix Phanatic by those inclined to such twittercisms) also wrote:

All the evidence shows that the major predictor of becoming a good reader is the development of good language skills during the early years of life. People can learn to decode at any age, but language skills cannot be taught at any age. They unfold in an intimate verbal dance between a child and his parents, and mom and dad’s input is critical every step of the way. Children who are deprived of normal verbal interaction with a parent or caretaker are seriously compromised in language development, and may never recover if the deprivation is too prolonged. (Growing a Reader from Birth p10)

This is obvious to everyone who understands language development. Preschool and early intervention staff are right across it, and already doing their best to encourage everyone to talk a lot with preschool kids, and read them heaps of stories.

Once kids start school, however, they also have to be taught how to sound out words so they can read and write stories and other things themselves, and this is school teachers’ responsibility. It needs to happen even if children’s parents are illiterate, there are few or no books at home, they are in foster care, homeless or otherwise disadvantaged and at risk.

What teachers can control is how and what they teach, and it must be based on current, evidence-based models of reading. Teaching children to decode is usually a more straightforward task than improving children’s poor listening comprehension. However, once children with language delays and disorders can decode print, they can study language in a visual, static form, which can assist their listening comprehension, along with language therapy.

Teaching school beginners the alphabet and a few digraphs, lists of high-frequency words, repetitive texts, and some incidental storytime phonics is not enough for many children, but too often parents and others tell me it’s still what’s happening in schools. If our literacy education system’s leaders are mostly cut from the same cloth as Team Negative, it’s not hard to see why.

Free online learning about the Simple View of Reading

The US Reading League has an 18-minute video about the Simple View of Reading here, and there’s lots more detail in many textbooks, including this free online one, plus this longer and more detailed seminar.


7 responses to “A Simple View of the Phonics Debate”

  1. Many thanks, Alison. A great post as always, and now added to the thread featuring the phonics debate at the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction forum – although you already have included the great responses that the phonics debate generated in your own contribution!


  2. Kathleen Parer says:

    For the first time ever, my children’s primary school is discussing a whole of school spelling approach including synthetic phonics. (A bit late for my son who is in grade 6. His struggles with spelling undermine his writing and confidence in himself as a learner but luckily he comes from a middle class home so we are able to get him expert help.) What interested me though, was that the spelling strategy was going to include ‘multiple ways of learning’ and ‘synthetic phonics would be available to children who need it’ implying that this approach was a last resort for kids who can’t learn any other way, rather than a first approach everyone would benefit from. The way you describe in your last paragraph is exactly how my children were taught to read at the inner city Melbourne primary school!

    • alison says:

      Hi Kathleen, So great to hear your children’s school is starting to organise its thinking about spelling, sorry it’s a bit late for your son. I think the tide will turn when teachers are taught about evidence-based models of reading and the linguistics which make sense of our spelling system. Many if not most graduate without having learnt what the sounds of our language are, let alone how each is spelt, let alone how word-building works in English. How that is fair to teachers let alone students is quite beyond me. Perhaps a few graduates need to get lawyers to ask their universities for their money back for failing to teach them fundamental knowledge without which they can’t succeed with all children.

  3. Sarah Allen says:

    Thanks Alison for your clear thinking analysis.

    One thought I had about the debate is that Team Negative assumes that students being taught systematic synthetic phonics are only exposed to decodable readers.

    Incorrect. Hopefully novice readers are using decodable readers to PRACTICE decoding/reading the sounds they have been explicitly taught. Decodable readers can be enjoyable too, especially if students get a confidence boost from being ABLE to read the book.

    All students benefit from experienced readers reading rich texts TO them. This is FAIR.
    I think it is UNFAIR to ask novice readers to read complex (or simple) rich texts with spelling patterns they have not learned.

    Students at Bentleigh West Primary School take home 2x decodable readers for practice and a library book for parents to read to them.
    Parents are coached on how to support their child with the decodable reader, and how to read the rich text library book to the child while and exploring words and drawing out meaning with their child.
    – Parents are updated in class newsletters about which sounds and spelling patterns are being explicitly taught in class that week. This approach fosters consistency and values the parents role as part of their child’s education.

    • alison says:

      Sarah, I don’t know why anyone would think that introducing phonics means abandoning reading stories to children, but I agree, that does seem to be one of the strange things Team Negative imply. Perhaps all schools should have an explicit “I read to you, you read to me” approach where they specifically tell parents which books are for reading aloud to kids and which are for the child to read to them. I agree that asking kids to read books containing sound-letter relationships they haven’t been taught is very unfair to them, and encourages memorising and guessing, the strategies of weak readers.

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