The Phonics debate
Rudolf Flesch, in Why Johnny can't read looked at the evidence comparing whole word teaching methods compared to phonic methods and was staggered by the results.
Do Phonics work?
Mr. Flesch referred to research in North Carolina in the late 1930s by Mr. Donald C Agnew. Agnew was completing his PhD and undertook research across all the schools in the town of Raleigh North Carolina to once and for all identify if whole word reading was the superior method. His research was based on examining the reading ability of all the third graders in Raleigh. Before doing that he issued an elaborate questionnaire to all the third grade teachers to determine the degree to which each teacher uses phonics in his teaching. After working out the statistical relationship between the children’s test scores and the amount of phonics, he was disappointed at the differences in the scores. On re-evaluating the data he realized that all the Raleigh teachers were only minimal users of phonics, being predominantly word method people. In fact the school supervisor generally frowned on phonic teaching. However, over in Durham in North Carolina, the supervisor was a phonics man. Mr. Agnew then proceeded to re-administer the same tests to the students and teachers of Durham, whose teachers had all been teaching more phonics. The outcome of the tests showed Durham children scored higher in every one of the tests except type b where the scores were even.
Children's Scores In:
|Name of Test||Raleigh (Word Method)||Durham (Phonics)|
|Gates type A||4.03||4.08|
|Gates type B||4.18||4.18|
|Gates type C||4.11||4.61|
|Gates type D||4.15||4.38|
Isn’t this conclusive proof that phonics is the superior method? Flesch definitely thinks so, but the person who carried out the tests Agnew gave only limited support to phonics. “If the basic purpose in the teaching of primary reading is the establishment of skills measured in this study (word recognition, word pronunciation, accuracy, identification of a large vocabulary), the investigation would support a large amount of phonics training. If on the other hand, the purposes of teaching primary reading are concerned with joy of reading, social experience, the pursuit of interest etc., the investigation offers no data as to the usefulness of phonic training.”
What is happening in the UK today?
In the intervening decades since Agnew, academics and teachers have argued ceaselessly over the best way to teach reading: In the UK Jim Rose was given just eight months to provide the Government with the answer. The former chief primary HMI and director of inspections at OFSTED is heading the independent review of government advice on the teaching of reading, including the role of synthetic phonics, in primary schools.
In June 2005 the TES reported that Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, asked for an interim report by November 2005, and final recommendations by January 2006. She wants him to examine reading development from birth to 11, and look at the best support for children with reading difficulties. He will examine both academic research and classroom practice. Ministers have already highlighted their interest in synthetic phonics programmes - highly systematic approaches that teach reception pupils to build sounds into words. But on the vexed question of phonics, Mr Rose has an open mind. "Whatever it is that makes it more do-able by teachers is what we want," he said. He is also keen to ensure that all groups of children are equally well-served. He will for instance, look at what can be done so that boys' writing skills in Key Stage 2 catch up with girls', or how to raise the literacy of poorer pupils.
The row today is not over phonics vs. real books or whole word teaching, but which type of phonics reading is best. The primary national strategy says phonics is essential but not sufficient. Its Playing with Sounds materials offer structured phonics teaching through play and games. However, inspectors have found many teachers are still not teaching phonics well enough. MP Barry Sheerman, former chairman of the education select committee, whose report sparked the review, said it did not go far enough: a review of existing research was insufficient, because definitive evidence was not there. "The synthetic phonics movement is evangelical and wants phonics, total phonics and nothing but phonics," Mr Sheerman said. "We didn't go along with that, but if the research from Clackmannanshire is right it could be very interesting."
Peter Wilby writes: "I do not envy Jim Rose in his task on trying to decide whether synthetic phonics is indeed a magic bullet. I am with the late Lord Bullock, who, as Sir Alan Bullock, chaired an official committee on reading in the 1970s. His report - which took two years to produce, whereas poor Mr Rose only has a few months - noted that claims for a succession of panaceas that would "make everything right" has continued for four centuries and "this was reflected in much of the correspondence we received". (So he got the green-ink letters, too.) He gave his conclusion in blunt Yorkshireman's language: "There is no one method, medium, approach, device or philosophy that holds the key... to learning to read... Simple endorsements of one or another nostrum, are no service to the teaching of reading."