To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics

Initial Teaching Alphabet ITA chart

Initial Teaching Alphabet ITA chart. Public Domain

Rather a lot of money (23.5 million) has been spent for schools to engage specifically with synthetic phonics teaching and materials, with increasing emphasis in teacher education and Ofsted criteria. There is a sizeable debate around synthetic phonics, and as Andrew Davis said in introducing this topic on Wednesday night, this may have “generated more heat than light”.

I’m not going to rehash that general debate, nor indeed the various methods of teaching reaching that one might use. Instead, I’m just going to provide a slightly touched up version of my notes from tonight’s launch of the Impact report To Read or Not To Read: Decoding Synthetic Phonics, by Andrew Davis. I’d recommend reading that pamphlet too as I’m not going to try and summarise it here. This is mostly from what the panel said (apologies, I can’t attribute individually this time), I’ll try and note my own thoughts as they’re made.

Randomised Controlled Trials – A Solution to a Secondary Problem

Some points were made re: RCTs and training and intervention – question is, if we know that ‘x’ works, would we not want to mandate ‘x’ and test for it?

The response to that is “what does ‘work’ mean?”, particularly in a context where politicians want ‘answers’ not ‘evidence’. If our model is to look for outcomes (a test of….) from inputs (a method for…) then while in some cases RCTs are appropriate (e.g. the botched fish oil ‘experiment’ in which changes were attributed to fish oil when no control had been used) in many cases there are huge issues around what outcomes we’re actually looking for (what is the purpose of education?) and the suitability of methods (what does doing ‘x’ entail that might be problematic, and for whom?) and how they are implemented (context matters, so does the ability to be flexible in the classroom).  No one is doubting that good training should include a) evidence and b) how to critique evidence, but the mandating of not only what to teach, but how to teach (newly acquired by the secretary of state) is dangerous – imagine the analogous situation in the NHS with Jeremy Hunt…

On this topic, Tim Brighouse recommends “evidence based policy, a practical guide to doing it better”…There was an awful one armed researcher joke (“Tim, what I want from you is a one armed researcher”, “eh, what do you mean?”, “well you’re always bringing me research saying, on the one hand…but on the other hand……”)

Issues of Generality

Some interesting issues were raised around the tying of knowledge and phonemes e.g. if we’re committed to phonics across the curriculum, and not exposing pupils to words “beyond” their phonics capability, then we have huge issues with the teaching of concepts in subjects like mathematics (indeed, even just counting!)

In some ways a similar issue is re: non-English speaking, both regarding first and second language English where readers may struggle to interpret nonsense words, impose another language’s phonemes on them, or indeed struggle with learning new languages.

There’s a huge disconnect between home and school reading, with potential for pressure to encourage home reading to become more school like (and less about meaning and enjoyment).

The purpose of mandating

Some interesting issues were raised around the mandating of pedagogic strategies by central government. The claim there was that this is either a very expensive way to get the few who weren’t using phonics (in part) in any case, or a very expensive way to mandate that phonics should be used fast, first, and only (I wonder what comparisons can be made here with the abstinence only sex education funding in the states)

In addition, the (stated) intent was for the “phonics check” to be diagnostic, but it absolutely does not fulfil that function, it gives no diagnostic information, and only offers a pass/fail mark currently set at 32/40. This, in fact, will provide huge pressure for schools to change the way they teach decoding text (which is not the same as reading), which in turn will put pressure on ITE (and as above, homes).

Original ‘research’

There was a lot of discussion of the original research too, which I won’t go in to here, suffice to say that it is being used in a way that is not consistent with its purpose or methods.

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This Post Has 33 Comments

  1. debbiehep says:

    Hi Simon,

    Was anyone invited to the seminar who is known to be very knowledgeable about the issues regarding phonics for reading and spelling instruction to address the issues raised?

    I am heavily involved with the debate – and have been for some years – and I have found, as have others, that no amount of explaining the challenges to the role of systematic synthetic phonics and the relationship between phonics and language comprehension appear to be of interest – explanations and invitations seem to fall on deaf ears.

    I am associated with two phonics programmes which were promoted in the government’s match funded initiative and yet I am never approached by anyone to meet to discuss their worries, nor has anyone wished to attend my training events, nor has anyone responded to my invitations to meet.

    A recent radio interview – BBC Radio 4 PM – between myself and Andrew Davis touched upon an issue or two but only barely considering the amount of time allowed for such an interview.

    I’ll post it in the following comment if you are interested – but its only available for a few more days – access the recording at 43 minutes.


    Debbie Hepplewhite

  2. Simon Knight says:

    Hi Debbie, slightly delayed reply sorry (long meetings…). To answer the question,
    1) I believe efforts were made to invite panellists who disputed the line taken in the IMPACT pamphlet, but unfortunately for whatever reasons those invitations were not taken up,
    2) Just to highlight, I’m answering a sightly different question to “Was anyone invited to the seminar who is known to be very knowledgeable about the issues regarding phonics for reading and spelling instruction to address the issues raised?”.
    That’s because that question implies the panel wasn’t knowledgeable, which just isn’t the case. It absolutely is unfortunate that there wasn’t anyone on the panel who disagreed with the pamphlet (and the panel noted that) but it was still a knowledgeable panel all of whom were happy to advocate phonics to some extent (just not the extent of Govt mandate).

    Thanks for the link too, if other’s are reading this and it’s still active I’d recommend giving it a listen.

    • debbiehep says:

      Thank you for your reply, Simon.

      You may already have seen this response from Professor Morag Stuart which addresses some aspects of Davis’s paper:

      I am not suggesting by any means that speakers at the seminar are not knowledgeable -but people do have different experiences and perspectives to offer – and some people are particularly experienced in providing responses to worriers, or critics, of the promotion of synthetic phonics – and even what SSP should arguably consist of.

      My observation for many years is that there are rarely occasions of quality face-to-face debate and discussions.

      Usually people with different perspectives, views, experiences and even different knowledge-bases, play out the debate with high-profiled snippets in the media or via the internet.

      This all goes round and round in circles – somewhat unproductively because it does tend to lead to polarised images and positions.

      Kind regards,


  3. jackie says:

    I’m copying Andrew Davis’s recent posting on the ‘Monstrous Regimen of Synthetic phonics’ TES thread here – I don’t think he’d mind. I’ve taken an interest in that thread for a year or so. Jackie

    “Given the time and intelligent energy some posters devote to this thread, I thought they were owed a report of what happened at Wednesday’s launch of “To read or not to read”.

    Despite the fact that various efforts were made to invite SP adherents to join the speaker’s panel for the occasion, no one came.
    Just one member of the audience (out of 80 or so) did raise objections, and was given a fair opportunity to speak. I will take the unusual step of naming her, given that she has posted something about this on the EMC website without contacting me directly. She is a retired academic from the Institute of Education called Morag Stuart.

    She said quite a lot about how the programmes of study from September talk about reading for meaning and comprehension.Yes, they do. (For the millionth time.. neither I nor anyone else said they didn’t.) The target of my publication is the ‘first, fast and only’ requirement when children start school. However, she thinks that on any ‘reasonable interpretation’ the teachers will be able to group the children according to their needs, given the information they will glean from pupils’ profiles relating to the Early Learning Goals of the Early Years Foundation Stage. The implication almost seems to be that teachers could decide not to
    enforce intensive systematic phonics sessions on certain pupils at this stage. Calling all schools… good luck with that.

    If ‘reasonable interpretations’ are really going to be permitted, then this should be made absolutely clear in the programmes of study, preferably by inserting phrases such as ‘Teachers retain the absolute professional right to make decisions about how to teach early reading, including decisions about the extent and timing of lessons involving synthetic phonics.’

    The phonics check, about which my opponent says nothing, should immediately be abandoned. It is extraordinary to say so much about ‘reasonable interpretations’ given the continuation of that check, which as I show in detail in “To read or not to read”, not only fails to test reading, but could encourage intensive training in processes which are not reading proper, training which does not exempt any pupils. Some able readers fail the check more than once.

    As to being asked for evidence of able readers being damaged, that is not entirely unlike being asked for evidence that some children don’t like being shouted at. I was speaking of very obvious possibilities. Incidentally “To read or not to read’ is mostly about conceptual problems concerning Synthetic Phonics and the alleged supporting research in general. It offers thousands of words of analysis and argument. The point about the possibility of damage (unsurprisingly made much of in the media frenzy) is in
    just one paragraph right at the end of the book. Moreover, we still have to wait for the effects of the increased prescription of SP implied by the revised National Curriculum. This is hardly likely to increase the ‘reasonableness’ of interpretations by all schools.

    I am aware of plenty of ‘unfriendly’ comment about “To read or not to read’ out there on the web.
    However, a large number of people have made direct contact with me, ranging from random members of the public to a range of academics working in the fields of AI, dyslexia, and literacy in the broadest sense. All of them were supportive. Some of their messages were long and very detailed. They shared very poignant stories about small children who were seriously damaged by rigid phonics programmes. The damage arose from a variety of causes, but often the children were already gaining much pleasure and joy
    from reading and sharing books. By the time phonics had finished with them some of them were school refusers. A particular problem arose where the children were already established silent readers on starting schools.

    Some schools feel very vulnerable in our high stakes assessment and accountability regime, and are unlikely to implement what Morag Stuart thinks is a reasonable interpretation. (I wouldn’t presume to judge’s the regime that needs to change.) It is very clear that some are implementing rigid and ‘unreasonable’ interpretations, even before the New National Curriculum comes into force. It is to be hoped that we are talking about a minority of schools, but this still affects lots of small children.

    I’d like to make one other suggestion. Please read my publication in full before commenting. Some of it involves detailed intensive argument and analysis. Most who criticise seem only to be aware of that one paragraph near the end – about which, incidentally I have no regrets whatever.

    • debbiehep says:

      This link below of my response to Reedy may or may not be of interest – but it does provide some different perspectives on the Year One Phonics Screening Check which could be considered to be hugely important already in the sense that it has shown that teachers all working hard in their settings are not nearly as effective as one another when it comes to phonics teaching. Further, the reaction to the check played out in the media also demonstrates that the teaching profession as a whole does not share a common understanding of the reading profiles of children, their default skills when reading words, the possible long-term effects of multi-cueing reading strategies and the meaning-based ways of lifting words off the page when this can lead to inaccurate ‘stabs at words’ and not accurate decoding, and the relationship between technical skills and language comprehension:

      Davis’s paper raises many different issues – not necessarily clearly outlined as the paper tends, in my view, to be rather meandering.

      The fact that so many people are so upset by the developments of successive governments promoting systematic synthetic phonics means that there really does need to be quality and respectful conversations around these issues.

      Many people have clearly rallied together with the advent of Davis’s views or worries been expressed in a ‘publication’.

      But in all the many conversations via the internet that I have read or contributed to, I have never noticed people saying, “Oh, I see what you mean” or “Yes, I can understand that point of view…” – they do tend to be dreadfully polarised with no-one feeling enlightened – all of which is very sad and negative.

      Worryingly, people who tend to argue out the debate frequently, in my view, seem to disregard the nature and content of actual recognised phonics programmes – and the wealth of opportunity they provide for language, vocabulary enrichment, grammar, language comprehension, spelling – and so on.

      I am glad of blogs, such as Simon’s in this case, to be able to share some conversations at least.

  4. jackie says:

    I’m not a teacher.. only a physicist with plenty of relations in teaching. I follow discussions of ‘bad science’ on the web.
    As I understand it, the targets in the sights of Davis and others are not commercial phonics programmes but rather government prescription about what’s meant to happen in Reception and Year 1. I understand that the New National Curriculum will beef up this prescription from September, with the serious risk, as Davis suggests above, of ‘unreasonable interpretation’ of government requirements, especially while the ‘check’ continues.

    I followed the link Debbie H supplied above, where she says at one point, defending the check:-
    “Children encounter a high percentage of new words in their literature which are not in 
    their oral vocabularies and therefore they are the equivalent of pseudo words.”

    In my view, Davis clearly refutes this claim p 27-8 of “To read or not to read”.

  5. msz says:

    The problem with inviting people to join a speakers panel at an event during term time means many were engaged in their day jobs of actually teaching children to read jackie

  6. debbiehep says:

    Hi Jackie,

    You said:

    ‘I followed the link Debbie H supplied above, where she says at one point, defending the check:-
    “Children encounter a high percentage of new words in their literature which are not in
    their oral vocabularies and therefore they are the equivalent of pseudo words.”

    In my view, Davis clearly refutes this claim p 27-8 of “To read or not to read”.’

    Many new words are learnt in literature which are not in readers’ daily spoken language.

    The less articulate children/people are, the higher percentage of new words are encountered in literature.

    It is important that readers can at least lift new words off the page and come up with at least an approximate pronunciation rather than no pronunciation or a very flawed pronunciation (that is, a wild guess).

    I don’t see how one can refute the fact that our vocabulary is increased by our decoding of new words in literature, and deducing the meaning as far as possible from the content of sentences or text, that we did not know in the first place.

  7. jackie says:

    As a scientist, I am finding it difficult to understand what you think you are doing in your latest response. You apparently don’t adhere to the most basic standards of reasoning.

    I made it perfectly clear what I was claiming that Davis had refuted. It was your claim that when children encounter new words on the page that are not in their spoken vocabulary, this was equivalent to their encounters with pseudo words. That tightly focused claim is the one I think Davis refutes comprehensively in the relevant part of his pamphlet.

    In your reply, you talk about the possibility of ‘refuting’ something else. Now you don’t have to talk about what I was talking about, but please don’t pretend that you are.
    I’ve noticed this trait in contributions you’ve made elsewhere.
    I’m sorry to be so blunt, but you have only yourself to blame. I do believe that you have children’s interests at heart, but they will be furthered if you stop trying to score points and start to think better.

    • debbiehep says:

      Hi Jackie,

      I am not trying to score points, that is merely your view and you are mistaken.

      Children reading nonsense words when they are actually TOLD that they are nonsense words, would not need to try to make sense of the words to lift them off the page – so this is not an issue. Any references to children trying to make sense of nonsense words to help them come up with a pronunciation is therefore irrelevant in the case of the screening check.

      If children are trying to lift words off the page in the context of literature which are real words but unknown to the children, then my point is that they may as well be ‘nonsense’ because the children are not aided by any existing personal word-knowledge.

      So, children need to be able to decode any words – be they real or nonsense – be they already known to the children in their oral vocabularies, or unknown to the child.

      Davis says no page 27 with reference to the phonics screening check, “There is a good sense in which is does not contain ANY words” [my caps, David italicises].

      Sorry, Jackie, any rational person would describe the 40 words in the check as ‘words’ – and I suggest that most adults have a clear idea of what is meant by ‘real words’ and ‘nonsense words’.

      There is no need, arguably, for Davis to be so complicated regarding an analysis of what is a word or what isn’t a word.

      There are spoken words (spoken out loud or in thought) and there are representations of spoken words – that is printed words. Then there are printed words which can be translated into spoken words. Then there are printed nonsense words which can be translated into sounds as a blended ‘unit’ which can be understood by most rational people as a ‘nonsense’ word whether in print or spoken.

      So, whereas Davis says on page 27 “It is misleading to describe the test as containing twenty words and twenty ‘non-words’…”, I simply don’t agree. Most, if not all, people would understand this description of the check quite easily.

      Davis goes on to say with reference to the process of the sounding out and blending nonsense words, “However, surely this is emphatically NOT reading!” [my CAPS, Davis italicises].

      Fine – it’s ‘decoding’.

      It’s been made very clear since Rose recommended the Simple View of Reading that there are two main processes to being a reader in the full sense – word recognition and language comprehension.

      Decoding nonsense words is only about word recognition – not language comprehension – but this should be well known by the teaching profession.

      The use of nonsense words levels the playing field somewhat for children who are not so articulate, or for whom English is a weak or new language – and to ensure that children are competent at applying alphabetic code and blending – very important knowledge and skills for lifelong reading.

      All readers need to be able to lift words off the page readily – known, unknown, real or in some way ‘nonsense’.

  8. jackie says:

    Thanks very much for your detailed reply.

    I can find no reference in Davis to pupil attempts to make sense of nonsense words, so I didn’t understand why you mentioned that.

    You talk about situations where children encounter real words in context that are unknown to the children (viz they don’t recognise the text, and where, even if they blended the letters in such a way as to make a sound that could feature in a real word, that word is not in their spoken/listening vocabulary.) You say that these words may as well be ‘nonsense’. Davis says that wouldn’t be reading. I would have thought that the children might be able to work out the meaning of the word concerned if it’s in a sentence, even if they didn’t know how that word should be said.
    Talk of how ‘any rational person’ would describe what’s in the check doesn’t really engage with the argument.

    You say Davis should not make the word issue so complicated.
    Perhaps you are open to the accusation that you are oversimplifying the notion of a ‘word’. Neither you nor Davis are responsible for what words are. They are what they are.

    You talk about ‘not agreeing’ with Davis when he says “It is misleading to describe the test as containing twenty words and twenty ‘non-words’, adding that most people would understand the description. This simply sidesteps the argument in Davis that this is not an appropriate description. I’d love to feel confident enough to say ‘I just don’t agree’ when I disliked the conclusion of an argument – rather than actually dealing with it!

    As for the ‘Simple view of reading’, again, you just don’t engage with the argument that conceptually speaking, word recognition and language comprehension cannot be thought of as separate strands as SVR seems to imply.

    Teachers could use ‘nonsense words’ as and when they thought it appropriate – they could explain it to their pupils in terms that would suit their particular stage. You don’t seem to trust teachers to do that and so go on supporting the check.

    OK – I’m stealing Davis’s thinking here, and may not be doing it justice. I’ve done my best.

    • debbiehep says:

      Hi Jackie,

      It is perfectly legitimate to say that one does not agree with the logic or arguments in someone’s paper – and I believe I have by saying that the Davis over-complicates the issue of ‘what is a word’. I attempted this by referring to the spoken word said aloud or as a thought (that is, silently in one’s head) and that a word can be expressed in writing as print. That the word can be real in terms of words we use in speech or ‘nonsense’ in that it is a unit of print which can be translated into a unit of sound but which makes no sense to us in terms of our communication – our oral vocabulary.

      So, that was my way of dealing with Davis’s over-complicated notion that the words listed in the screening check ARE words that anyone would normally ‘understand’ as words – and that the vast majority of people have no difficulty understanding the notion of ‘non-words’ – in fact, it doesn’t take that much to explain it to children either – so why the complication?

      Re the Simple View of Reading – the diagram does an extremely good job of helping us to unpick the need to teach children how to be able to ‘lift words off the page’ (word recognition) but that this is only one aspect of reading because the other main aspect is that they should be able to understand the words lifted off the page (language comprehension).

      You may not like that way of looking at reading – but I do so as do many others, of course I am going to call upon it as the currently accepted model for understanding the reading processes with reference to questions about whether words are words or not and what do we generally understand ‘commonly’ with regard to ‘words’.

      As for trusting teachers, this is simply not a matter of trusting teachers.

      My experience and observation of teachers is that they do not share a common understanding of the teaching of reading, nor do they even have the same understanding of what ‘phonics’ can look like by way of provision – because they have different experiences, points of view, different training or no training, and so on.

      The very fact we had so many teachers who complained about some of their ‘more able readers’ not reaching the 32 out of 40 benchmark in the check is evidence of this situation.

      If you read my response to Reedy, you will have noted my comment that any ‘able reader’ should be able to read such simple words (albeit non-words) as ‘varp’, ‘gleg’ or whatever. Why wouldn’t they?

      You will also have noted my comment that it inaccurate readers could be a sign of readers with a reading profile who tend to take a ‘quick stab’ when reading words and/or who are heavily dependent on multi-cueing such as guessing words from pictures, first letters or ‘which make sense’ and so on.

      The question has to be raised as to why such apparently ‘able readers’ are so weak and inaccurate readers when it comes to reading words in a list rather than in a sentence.

      It is simply not good enough to expect that children only need to be able readers when they are reading words in a sentence or text rather than in a word list. That certainly does not make sense.

      Teachers’ responses to the Year One Phonics Screening Check – and the responses of so many other people – actually just highlight that we do not have a body of people who all understand the reading processes in the same way – or how to teach reading in the same way – or the relationship – the dance- between phonics and language comprehension.

      You may well be sympathetic with the issues that Davis raises -as are many other people it seems – but, sadly, this goes to show what a parlous state we are in with so many differences of understanding about reading instruction and reading profiles and processes.

      It is actually not a very good idea that we ‘trust’ teachers, no matter who they are, what they understand, who they teach, just because they are ‘teachers’. That is to suggest that all teachers are equally well-trained, or equally talented and knowledgeable – which is unrealistic and overly optimistic.

      If this was the case, it suggests that we would never need aspects of education such as training, inspection, or examinations, or anything.

      The Year One Phonics Screening Check has raised awareness that children ‘read’ differently, that teachers teach differently, that they have different views and training – and that teachers can teach their hearts out but not necessarily as effectively as one another.

      When I was teaching as a mainstream primary teacher, I was teaching infants about ‘fair testing’ – the need for objectivity.

      I find it extraordinary that so many cannot see any value in the attempt of some objectivity by the introduction of the same phonics check across England.

      Why was I teaching infants about ‘fair testing’ when even our teaching union leaders protest with processes of as much objectivity as can be reasonably expected introduced to something so important as teaching our children to read?

      I don’t advocate practice or much practice with nonsense words – and I think it is not advisable in that people may make up nonsense words with ‘illegal spellings’ (word patterns that one would not normally see in real words). There is a place for them in objective testing, however.

      If a reading instruction programme was content-rich and rigorous enough, there would be no need for any nonsense words because of this issue of real words being unknown to young readers – and therefore requiring readers to apply good alphabetic code knowledge and blending skill.

      Warm regards,


  9. Necromancy says:

    I am interested that Debbie seems to imply that teachers whose pupils fail the phonics check are less effective teachers of reading than teachers whose pupils pass. In effect, it seems teachers should look at other schools and judge themselves as failing if their results in this check are less impressive. Apparently this is an objective measure. (It certainly gets rid of any pretence that the check is just diagnostic, unless we include diagnostic of teaching ability).

    This raises three questions.

    First, it seems to be based on the idea that children arrive in school all the same in terms of their readiness and inclination to decode words; that they are empty vessels into which the expert teacher pours the right materials and skills resulting in decoding skill to the required level. (We are told that the required level is age-appropriate, but as reading is not developmental this seems to beg questions about how age-appropriateness is judged.) but children do not come to school all the same. They arrive with loads of stuff, some facilitating learning, some amounting to a barrier to learning. It is not a case of simply pouring in the SP programme and hey presto. Assuming that teachers whose pupils do not pass the check are ineffective ignores the fact that there is a learning as well as a teaching dimension to the relationship between pupil and teacher, and every child will bring their own individuality to the learning process.

    Second, the assumption that the teacher is pouring in the right stuff if they teach according to the programme needs examining. Is there data to support this in the evidence from the phonics check? We need to compare schools which did well with schools which did not so well in terms of programme used, socio-economic circumstances, fidelity to the programme, and teacher commitment to SP (or something else). Only if we have this data can we start to say with any certainty whether the programmes and their methods pour in the right stuff. Perhaps Debbie has some data on this.

    Third, we need to know if decoding ability, to the level required, is the right thing to pour in. The assumption is that teachers whose pupils pass the check are more effective than teachers whose pupils do not. However, as we are all aware this is not a reading check, it is a decoding check. Do we want teachers who are able to teach children to decode, or teachers who are able to teach children to read? Of course, we want children to learn to read. So we need more data, comparing schools which do well and schools which do not do so well with the phonics check and their comparative success in teaching pupils to read. Perhaps Debbie has some data on this.

    I suspect that Debbie will respond by saying that the case for SP is proven, so we already know that teachers who use SP are more effective than those who do not. However, we have a unique situation here. We have a situation in which teachers are under pressure to deliver results, possibly despite what they feel is supportive of children’s reading. The results do not contribute to a research project but to their future as teachers and their school’s reputation. It is an experiment on a national scale which includes incentives for teachers to manipulate the results by teaching a specific element of the curriculum for success. Of course, if the results improve it will be seen as a vindication for SP. And if the results do not improve – what will it be seen as then? Probably as proof that teachers are not ‘getting with the programme’.

    • debbiehep says:

      It’s very simple. I think it is the right thing to do to teach children to be able to readily lift words off the page if we are expecting them to receive ‘reading books’ which suggests are ‘their’ books to ‘read at home’ independently.

      It was the norm (and still is in some schools, perhaps many) to send children home with reading books that they cannot read without guessing their way through the books. Some children seem to manage this fine – perhaps we did – but an awful lot of children don’t manage this well and it sets them up to feel like ‘failures’ – very often they go on to be the ‘special needs’ children.

      All of this fuss is simply that – fuss.

      We need teachers and assistants, and parents even, who can teach the alphabetic code well – who teach handwriting well – who teach the phonics skills of blending and segmenting well – and of course provide masses of language and literature activities in addition.

      I’m not teaching now other than lesson modelling as part of my phonics work.

      But I can tell you emphatically that I would have wanted to know whether other teachers were teaching their children to decode much better than I was teaching my pupils. And then I would have wanted to know how I could raise my game for the sake of the children themselves.

      If other teachers do not want to know this – they have no professional curiosity or worry – then that is their concern – but they are accountable for teaching children to decode well in addition to developing their language comprehension – which is made clear by the Simple View of Reading.

      Do you want children to be able to decode accurately?

      Or are you happy with children who have to guess their way through the books?

      Perhaps they are the ones who stall out beyond infants – but the infant teachers don’t even realise.

      The phonics check is only a big deal of people make it a big deal.

      I am incredulous at the amount of upset that teaching phonics, and checking children’s decoding, should cause.


      • Simon Knight says:

        Debbie, I haven’t felt the need to get involved here as other posters are doing a far better job of eloquently and fully responding than I could. However, I will raise a few points on this most recent post.

        1) “Fuss is simply that – fuss” is entirely uninformative, and belittling.
        2) Re: “teaching their children to decode much better” see Necromancy post.
        3) “Do you want children to be able to decode accurately”. Well, sort of. What I want is for children to be able to read. That is the desired outcome of our activities. You’re injecting a intermediary output – score on something purporting to assess decoding – into the mix, but this is not our core objective.
        4) “The phonics check is only a big deal of people make it a big deal.” truism aside (and ignoring the typo – does that mean you’re encoding is in deficit?), this is patently the case. Successive governments have made it quite clear that they will use such “checks” for accountability purposes. It is not diagnostic. It is a big deal. See also 2.
        5) To repeat, nobody is arguing that phonics should not be taught, or indeed that some classroom checking of children’s decoding capabilities should not be performed. The argument is that first, fast, and only is nonsensical and not support by the evidence.

        Finally, I’ve no idea what you’re lumping “handwriting” into this for, I’d be interested to hear how you relate “good” handwriting and reading.

      • Necromancy says:

        I’m unsure if your post is in answer to mine Debbie. But you mention teachers’ professional curiosity. You seem to be saying that teachers will want to know how other schools get on in the phonics check as a matter of professional responsibility and good practice. This may very well be true. Teachers are notoriously self-critical and hungry for improvement. But will the results from other schools tell them what they need to know for their own professional development? Only if there is an objective measurement of the influence of success in the check on success in reading, which takes into account the circumstances of the pupils, their starting points, the programme used etc. I’m sorry to be repeating myself, but I’m a bit put out because my earlier comments did not in any way suggest that teachers should not be professionally curious. You do not mention if there is data from the results of the check which would be useful in drawing conclusions which are refined enough to be truly useful to teachers.

        Of course, here we run up against one of Davis’s main points. It is a necessary feature of teaching to be constantly curious and analytical in regard to every interaction with a pupil in order to assess and implement for the best and most balanced progress. This is a daily creative process. Can you see that implementing a prescribed programme in order to achieve a high stakes result in a small section of the curriculum might interfere with this process? As Davis describes, it is this very feature of classroom processes that can lead to the conclusion that evidence, testing and research on approaches and practice need to be used with care – now, don’t go saying I said ‘ignored’.

        • debbiehep says:

          Thank you for your further responses.

          The reason that I constantly refer to the Simple View of Reading is to show that of course reading in its entirety is not just about decoding/word recognition – that of course we have to focus on language comprehension and to be a reader in the full sense, both the ability to lift the words off the page and to understand the words that have been lifted, are essential.

          This brings us to the phrase ‘first, fast and only’ which has caused a lot of confusion and upset.

          It suggests to many that teachers should only teach phonics ‘first, fast and only’ when this is not the intent of this phrase.

          It is not my phrase, but it came about because it focuses on the need to be able to lift the words off the page via a decoding route (applying the alphabetic code with the skill of blending) IN PLACE OF ‘reading strategies’ which were being promoted through the ‘Searchlights’ model or the ‘multi-cueing model’ and which largely amounted to training teachers to teach children to get through reading books which were invariably beyond their decoding ability by a range of guessing-words strategies.

          That is, guess from the picture, guess from the context, guess from the first letter (or check the word that you guessed with the first letter or letters), read on and guess the word that makes sense….and so on.

          Research on reading not only concludes that the most effective way to teach reading is to teach the alphabetic code and decoding skills systematically – but also to avoid multi-cueing reading strategies which lead to children making often wild and inaccurate stabs at words -and also which detract from good phonics teaching and learning.

          Thus, it is not just a case of teaching phonics – but avoiding habitual guessing.

          This gets confused in the reading debate with the role that context does have. Of course context is very important and there are words which cannot even be ascertained unless the context is known such as the wind/wind, read/read and so on.

          There is a huge difference, however, between learners using context to ascertain the meaning from learners using context to take a guess at the word. In the wider domain, however, this difference is not always fully understood or appreciated.

          Whilst there are many young learners who would go on to be literate through the multi-cueing guessing strategies route, there are many learners who will not – and who will be disadvantaged as texts become more challenging – and this was the point I was making that it is likely that infant teachers may even be aware of the long-term consequences of weaker phonics teaching and a greater reliance on multi-cueing.

          What is interesting, and very important indeed, is to see from responses to the phonics check at the end of Year One, how many people think it is OK for the ‘able readers’ to make errors in the check ‘because they were trying to make sense of the words’ rather than even consider that it is not OK for ‘able readers’ to read either real words or nonsense words accurately.

          What would be better for long term reading? Automatically accurate decoding or approximate decoding? What kind of reading profile would you prefer your pharmacist or doctor to have?

          In terms of my language of ‘making a fuss’, I felt it was reasonable enough for you to hear my personal response to the Davis paper and to the scenario generally. I apologise if anyone felt this was ‘belittling’ as this was not my intent.

          However, I personally do not have to refer to research findings – they are out there aplenty. Goodness knows how many hours I have devoted to my personal study and practice, to lobbying government to investigate the research at a time when teachers were being heavily trained in the ‘Searchlights’ strategies which run counter to research – and in various forums, debates and meetings – over the years.

          I now spend time training teachers, providing talks, still visiting forums such as this, and observing teaching and helping teachers as much as I can – when I am invited in to help them – in other words in schools where they have already recognised they could do much better and they do have that professional curiosity and sense of accountability.

          Sometimes, I’m invited in to schools with already outstanding results and when I ask them why they are calling upon my services, they say they recognise they can teach spelling better – and they want to improve their provision even if this does not show up in national testing.

          Anyway, back to my use of language: In terms of use of language – and this entire thread stemming from the Davis paper – check out his use of language. Not that this is meant to be a tit-for-tat comment, but that I notice no-one picks Davis up for some pretty strong, negative and emotive language.

          But by using the term ‘making a fuss’, possibly people who are ardent critics of phonics or the phonics screening check – or the sense that the government has ‘imposed’ phonics on everyone, might just reflect on what they are protesting about.

          If they are truly not opposed to phonics, you actually woudn’t get that impression from the hoo ha made of Davis’s paper.

          Davis himself makes a big fuss about when is a word not a word and that the words in the check might not even be considered ‘words’ by his definition. Hmm….

          Davis goes on about homophones, accents, pronunciation variations, and other complexities of the alphabetic code as if he is almost unaware that all of these complexities are actually addressed in good phonics programmes and practices precisely because they are so challenging for young readers and writers – in fact for many older readers and writers.

          Perhaps he could have written a very positive paper about our complex English code and how interesting or important or invaluable it is that all the complexities he mentions are now addressed explicitly and systematically nowadays.

          And in terms of his notion of ‘government imposition’, perhaps he could have considered the responsibility that an increasing number of politicians have demonstrated by their investigations into the research and leading-edge practice in reading instruction – and that it would have been remiss of government not to have gone to these lengths in a country (indeed, in a language) which results in so much illiteracy or weak literacy.

          And in terms of ‘teacher professionalism’, I suggest that Davis and others might have considered that this issue is so important that it is actually beyond the scope of individual teachers to make their own decisions based on their individual backgrounds (that is, training, personal experiences and personal points of view).

          And in terms of objectivity and national screening, there is nowhere that the government has stated (that I am aware of) that the purpose of the check is to raise awareness of phonics teaching effectiveness across the land – but I wish they had because teachers cannot choose to be weaker phonics teachers because they don’t believe in rigorous, comprehensive phonics teaching – or because ‘their pupils’ have different contexts and different levels of language experience. When we endeavour to look for ‘like schools’, we can note a pattern of teaching effectiveness – and there should arguably be alarm bells when hither to leafy local authorities have lower results than inner city authorities. These are massively important issues to do with our professional development.

          So, the bottom line is that I do perceive people such as Davis as making a fuss about these important issues – and I think it is shocking that Davis’s paper even made national news and that people have rallied around it.

          To me, the news is that it became national news. This demonstrates that in no way do we share a common understanding about reading instruction – and it is important that this is appreciated in the public domain.

          In terms of me mentioning ‘handwriting’, reading, spelling and handwriting are all closely linked for making important links when learning the alphabetic code for both reading and spelling. I think it is remiss that the government’s core criteria does not mention handwriting specifically – and I personally think it is worrying that mini whiteboard work has largely replaced paper and pencil activities for teaching spelling and writing – and that we have an anti-paper culture in at least some schools. A sign of the times no doubt. In terms of phonics, many early years teachers interpret ‘kinaesthetic’ activities as being a plethora of games and activities which are bordering on extraneous and overly time-consuming – rather than as simple and direct handwriting linked to the alphabetic code.



  10. debbiehep says:

    “…and this was the point I was making that it is likely that infant teachers may even be aware of the long-term consequences of weaker phonics teaching and a greater reliance on multi-cueing.”

    Typo – meant that teachers may be Unaware.

    I’m typing so fast – and am so busy – that I’m making lots of little errors in what I type.

    I don’t have time for this on the one hand, but on the other hand I think it is important to keep trying to clarify the issues which cause confusion and upset.

    It’s a dilemma for me – but I do believe in trying to provide good information and to sort out confusions and disagreements.

    I am also realistic enough to know that what I say is likely to fall on deaf ears of people who are writing and supporting papers such as the Davis paper.

    There may be other people, however, who benefit from a different perspective to the same issues.


  11. jackie says:

    You are trying to redefine ‘reading’. Your use of ‘guess’ is emotive, and is part of your unconvincing attempt to distort what reading is. Decoding is often helpful on the way to reading – but it is NOT reading. Working out from context, even from pictures, and from the look of the whole word is also reading.

    Now for the final irony:- the accusation that Davis uses ‘strong, negative and emotive language’, I am just… amazed. I’m not sure that I agree with everything he says, but, together with many I have spoken to about this, I’m wondering whether you’ve read the same book!

    And yes, apparently to your chagrin, Davis seems to have a good deal of support. You should be very wary of dismissing this as simply a result of ‘ignorance’, or even of some kind of political bias. What is getting to you, I suspect, is the argument that you just can’t have the ‘knowledge’ of ‘what works’ in the way you seem to think – leaving aside your somewhat patronising and contemptuous view of teachers. Many of them entirely understand your stance, and believe me, they really don’t appreciate that.

    • debbiehep says:

      Please don’t accuse me of being patronising or contemptuous of teachers – nothing could be further from the truth.

      I don’t know who you are, and you don’t know me.

      If I state a fact that teachers have such a wide range of knowledge, experience and different points of view, then that is a fact and not a personal attack on teachers or the teaching profession.

      My self-chosen role for many years now has been to help and support teachers – of course I accept that they don’t all want help and support, they may well not need it (I don’t assume they do) – nor may they appreciate my gestures, materials or guidance – but that does not mean I have a negative view of teachers – in fact I defend them to the hilt and do my utmost to design resources and guidance which supports them in making management of teaching easier than it might otherwise be.

      It doesn’t matter how much support Davis has – my point there was that it demonstrates that people are coming from very different positions of knowledge or ‘understanding’ – including different people in the teaching profession.

      I have never, ever argued that phonics is all that reading is about – hence my promotion of the Simple View of Reading (again) so I don’t know why this keeps being brought up over and over as if phonics proponents do suggest that is all there is.

      I reiterate that this may well be about the phrase ‘first, fast and only’ which is misconstrued.

      As regarding the multi-cueing reading strategies which I say amounts to promoting guessing inadvisedly, it is not difficult to point to the research and researchers who state this with much more authority than ever I could.

      I point to all this research via my Phonics International message forum on the ‘articles’ forum so do not need to get into the research debate here. There are links to many references via and so I’m not prepared to get into the whole debate of ‘research shows’.

      As for Davis’s choice of language in his paper which is decidedly derogatory and unnecessary, it is very easy to find and arguably not worthy of a serious paper.

  12. jackie says:

    Go on then – let’s have these examples of the language you find ‘derogatory and unnecessary’ – especially examples that refer to you, your use of terms like ‘phoneme’ and the contribution this makes to blurring the difference between blending letter sounds and reading for meaning.

    • debbiehep says:

      Dear Jackie,

      If you don’t find comments like ‘imposition’, ‘form of abuse’, ‘zeal’, ‘zeolous’, ‘religious fundamentalism’, ‘fantasies’ and such like emotive and derogatory, then we have very different views of the English language.



  13. jackie says:

    Thank you for offering alleged examples – that’s really helpful.

    No – these words you offer as examples actually describe what is going on in the attempts to defend the imposition of SP.
    ‘Derogatory’ would refer to the use of language in a negative way when such use was not justified. Davis argues for the conclusion that certain kinds of research into teaching interventions involve fantasies. He argues (in one paragraph at the end of “To read or not to read” that treating children who can already read is “almost a form of abuse”. ‘Imposition’ is just that – insisting that teachers do certain things in certain ways.

    You and your friends manifest fundamentalism in nearly every word you speak.

    • debbiehep says:

      From my perspective, I saw teachers mist rained with the National Literacy Strategy – I investigated the research to find out what the situation was – and then set about questioning the then guidance.

      It was right for the government to be concerned being part and parcel of the then mistraining and following investigations and Rose’s independent national review led to a change of understanding regarding the importance of phonics.

      Phonics is still regarded by some (perhaps many) as an either/or scenario, and misunderstood by many (for example, as to the phrase ‘first, fast and only’) and many teachers still don’t even know about the simple view of reading or the conclusions of research and leading-edge practice.

      I don’t find the language of fundamentalism and zealous acceptable – and I don’t think it is necessary.

      I’ll leave it at that for now.


  14. jackie says:

    If you don’t find the language of ‘fundamentalism’ appropriate, then don’t behave like a fundamentalist. And I have to say, Debbie, that many people find it very disquieting that people like you currently influence government policy on this issue, given your faltering grasp of science, and the extent to which your favoured ‘research’ can possibly match the scientific methods appropriate for physics, chemistry, etc. Is it sheer naivety or perhaps commercial considerations that fuel your ‘zeal’ – an entirely appropriate term in the circumstances?

  15. Necromancy says:

    The simple view of reading, as originally described by Gough and Hoover, 1990, identified decoding and listening comprehension as the factors in reading comprehension. If you read that article it is far from clear that decoding is envisaged to be the phonic decoding currently advocated. So using synthetic phonics as the tool for decoding is not justifiable by the simple view, whether the simple view is adequate to describe reading comprehension or not – which is arguable in itself. Decoding, in Gough’s words “is simply efficient word recognition”. It might be that SP is the best route to word recognition for every child in England, with each child needing to reach a particular standard in this skill by the end of year 1. Or it might not.

  16. james clarke says:

    I have a step grand daughter who guesses – sorry tries to predict from context – words she does not know. She clearly knows simple phonic code but not complex. Trying to teach her the complex code is difficult. Good readers see and read every letter, read accurately every word. Picture clues and context clues are not much good where there are no pictures and useless if there are no context clues eg in recipes, instructions, Wittgenstien!

  17. james clarke says:

    Just looked at blurb for Davis’s pamphlet. No-one is saying that phonics is reading. Knowing the phonic code (simple AND complex) is required in order to read.

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