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).
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.