If you tuned in to the Radio 4 Today programme this morning, you would have heard Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, debating the relevance of phonics in teaching children to read with Greg Wallace, executive principal of the Best Start Federation of primary schools in Hackney.
After being informed by Mr Wallace that she was confused about phonics teaching ‘at a number of levels’, [she was, by the way], a nettled Dr Bousted was at some pains to inform the Radio 4 audience that she had ‘a PhD in the subject’. However, looking at her bio, there is nothing to suggest that she has any experience whatever of teaching reading to young children entering school for the first time. In fact, from the start, her ignorance was made transparent by her declaration that the English language ‘doesn’t correspond’ to phonics teaching. For example, she claims that, “children in Year 1 will not be able to read a book with the word ‘said’ in it”.
‘Said’, according the way she views phonics, is an ‘irregular’ word. If this is an example of the level of her expertise, then God help us all. She also made the absurd claim that the ‘English is not a phonetically regular language’. Unfortunately, Mary doesn’t understand the logic of the English writing system: all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings. No exceptions! Like many people she has no idea how the system works.
Here’s how it works, Mary:
Sounds can be spelled using one-, two-, three-, or four-letter spellings;
All the sounds in the language can be spelled with more than one spelling;
Many spellings represent more than one sound.
Our alphabet system is, as Mr Wallace acknowledged in the programme, complex. However, just because it is complex doesn’t mean it can’t be taught very successfully indeed. As with any multi-skilled activity, it can be taught if the teacher is an expert in the subject and if the children learning the activity are given plenty of practice.
So, here again we have an example of yet another union leader coming on to a radio or television programme to offer their thoughts on the government’s decision to give the teaching of reading (and spelling) a consistent direction when they haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.
I’m convinced, as I’ve argued before on this blog, that people like this, union leaders, head teachers, lots of university lecturers , many of whom have never in their lives had any experience of actually teaching children to read, assume that they are authorities on the subject. Because they have in the past developed an area of expertise in a subject, they then feel qualified to pontificate on any subject. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, the more power and authority people have, the more their trust in their own intuition tends to increase. Sadly intuitive judgements are very often completely misguided.
Nothing that Mary Bousted asserted is supported by the research on teaching children to read. As Mr Wallace made clear, the purpose of phonics is to enable children to decode words they are reading. This applies to any word in the language, whether the word be ‘said’ or ‘benightedness’, and what she clearly doesn’t understand is that if you can’t read a word successfully, you can’t understand what it means.
Late news: I’ve just discovered from John Bald here that Dr Mary Bousted’s PhD was titled A socio-political analysis of the personal growth ideology of English teaching. Draw your own conclusions about how relevant this was to the teaching of synthetic phonics.