Clare Tickell · phonics · Reading and spelling · TES

Tickelled pink?

I’ve long thought that, when it comes to the teaching of reading and spelling, the TES simply hasn’t got a clue what it is talking about. Never does it miss the opportunity to denigrate the teaching of phonics, even though the evidence in favour of a phonics approach is overwhelming.
Yesterday (Friday 1 April 2011), for example, it couldn’t wait to emblazon across its front page ‘Phonics knocked off perch by official review’, a claim vigorously and immediately denied by the author of the said review Clare Tickell.
What the TES had lighted upon was the statement, referring to the early years foundation stage profile results, by Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre and a member of the review panel, that ‘linking sounds to letters has gone up, but that has not necessarily been matched by a similar increase in children’s reading’.
Dame Tickell, issued an immediate rebuttal on the Department for Education website, saying: 

‘I have not recommended that phonics should be downgraded. Phonics is one of the most robust and recognised ways of helping children to learn to read and write. My report clearly highlights the importance of children starting school ready and able to learn, and I set out in the reading and writing goals the phonic development children should have reached by the age of five.’

The TES has, ever since I can remember, adopted a brazenly ideological stance against the teaching of phonics and, like a dog returning to its own vomit, it seizes every opening to renounce it. The problem is that it makes no effort to find out what a proper phonics programme looks like or how it is taught. This is not only ignorant journalism, it’s also lazy journalism.

9 thoughts on “Tickelled pink?

  1. I'd agree that much of what passes for journalism in the TES is downright lazy and ignorant – the endless copying and pasting of press releases, for example, with little attempt at discussion. Therefore, it surprises me that you could accuse their journalists of being able to take an ideological stance on anything.

    Phonics, however, is an easy target for TES journalists. Firstly, it is a controversial topic. Secondly, even a TES journalist can see the gaping holes in the argument for synthetic phonics, evidence which is quite staggeringly underwhelming. What is this "overwhelming" evidence you're referring to?

  2. Thanks Mt Cornelius for your comment.
    I do concede that there are problems with the way in which the argument for SP is marshalled.
    To begin with there are a number of shades and varieties of SP.
    Secondly, hardly any of the leading providers are able to offer incontrovertible evidence in their own favour. However, this latter isn't entirely their fault. Amassing evidence is very expensive indeed and requires the kind of resources to which most providers don't have access. Sounds-Write have spent the last eight years garnering hard, quantitative evidence (on 1,607 KS1 children)from schools practising the programme and I can tell you that it isn't a cake-walk.
    Then, there's the government's Letters and Sounds, for which no training is provided, unless you call a morning's ramble through the L&S manual training.
    If phonics is to be given a fair crack of the whip, the government need to ensure that proper training is given to all practitioners with responsibility for teaching reading and spelling. The government should also conduct (blind) trials, using control groups, to determine which phonics programmes work.
    Having said all that, the best summary of the evidence available can be found in: McGuinness, D., (2004), Early Reading Instruction: What Science Really Tells Us about How to Teach Reading, London, MIT Press. In addition, you may want to review the research done by Keith Stanovich et al in: Stanovich, K.E. (2000), Progress in Understanding Reading: Scientific Foundations and New Frontiers. Moreover, the research on the Sounds-Write programme (, compiled by David Philpot, is a pretty good defence in favour of the approach.
    I wouldn't agree, by the way, that being lazy and/or ignorant and being ideologically driven in a particular direction are mutually exclusive.

  3. At least 10% of children can not use phonics.
    Phonics depends on having good listening skills and being able to process the gaps between the sounds which may make up a word.
    Those children who have Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) are not cognitively able to do that. So focing children who have APD to use phonics is disability discrimination.
    According to the UK Medical Research Council 10% of children have some degree of APD.
    If you bother to read the nuerological research over the last decade you will discover the lexical and sublexical processes which are required to perform the task of reading, and that the teaching of phonics only addresses the sublexical processes. So even science does not support phonics to be the only teaching method required to learn to read.
    The whole phonics campaign has been based on the theory that children are all the same, or clones of each other. Which is a complete nonsense, all children are different and some are more different than others.
    We need an Educational Research Council to stop all of this education by self interested lobby groups, and their marketing hype

  4. Thanks Dolfrog for your comment.
    The ten percent figure you quote does not accord at all with any of the data we have gathered over the past eight years on young children being taught to read and spell through the medium of Sounds-Write.
    The truth is that, if there are any children not keeping up with their peers, it seems to be much more to do with those children having relatively low mental ages when they enter YR, or to do with specific speech and language difficulties. However, the number of children experiencing these kinds of problems are far fewer than ten percent. In a Bletchley school we looked at closely, it was exactly one percent (forty-nine out of fifty pupils we monitored over a three-year period). We also find that these children tend to catch up or keep pace if they are given support
    You are obviously very angry about ‘self interested lobby groups’. Is there any such thing as a disinterested lobby group? I wonder whom it is you have in mind. I certainly wouldn’t put Sounds-Write into the category of ‘lobby group’. We’re pretty good at pedagogy but lobbying just isn’t our thing. In case, you’re interested, Sounds-Write is a social entrepreneurial company. In other words, any money that accrues from training is put back into developing materials for the benefit of teaching practitioners. We are also proud of the fact that we have sponsored trainings in Papua New Guinea and Africa, for which we have not gained any pecuniary advantage.
    Following Susan Godsland’s helpful lead (Dorothy Bishop’s blog), it seems that you ought to be going after the audiologists in private practice in the USA and Australia, whom she (Bishop) says, ‘have considerable incentive to diagnose APD, as they can then offer expensive treatments for it’.
    In a reply to a question to her blog posting on this subject, Bishop also remarked that she would ‘be very surprised if you would have found anything consistent in these children’.
    Best wishes,

  5. Thank you, Susan, for the very interesting link, as well as for your ever helpful comments.
    Best regards,

  6. Yes, well you all sound very self satisfied in your own knowledge, pitching insults at each other in intellectual elitist code…………
    Training people here in Spain to negotiate the illogical and impractical mish-mash of English spelling has demonstrated to me the elitist stance of the 'guardians' of the English language. Pure intellectual snobbery it seems to me and on this one point I would agree with George Bernard Shaw. It's like trying to deal with the symptoms of a disease without ever focusing on the cause.

  7. Thank you for your comment, Anon.
    I have no idea why you would accuse Susan Godsland or me of communicating in 'an intellectual elite code'. I can't put words into Susan's mouth but I believe one of our projects is making the language used to teach reading and spelling as transparent as possible. Much less do we 'pitch insults' at people.
    If by implication, you are saying that Spanish is relatively easy to teach (22 to 24 sounds and around 30 odd spellings of the sounds), I couldn't agree more. The English code is complex but it can be taught. In fact, I know a Sounds-Write trained teacher who has produced very good results teaching English to young Spanish children in a small state school in Madrid.
    If there's anything I can do to help, please feel free to email me.
    Best wishes,

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