Dr Mary Bousted · Greg Wallace · teaching phonics

Bousted? A busted flush!

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.

11 thoughts on “Bousted? A busted flush!

  1. An interesting interpretation of the discussion.

    Here is a transcript of part of it.

    Greg Wallace:
    'What we are thing to do with phonics is to teach children how do decode the word. She's right about one thing, english is a complex language, therefore we need to do loads and loads of phonic teaching at a, er, high level and be really really clear about what we're doing. She's right about one thing, the word said when you are in year one, that would be an irregular word and we wouldn't try and teach, use phonics, to teach it."

    From this I would say that Wallace agrees with Bousted on two points – that english is a complex language and that 'said' is an irregular word (maybe half agrees on this point, because of the caveat 'when you are in year one').

  2. Apologies, the quote should start 'What we are trying to do with phonics is to teach children how to decode the word.' An inadvertent demonstration that other strategies are needed when reading. Strategies that Greg Wallace learnt when talking with Mary Bousted, 'I don't know what the other strategies are. What, what, what, is she referring to?'

  3. Personally, I think that talking about words as being 'regular' or 'irregular' is nonsense and gives ammunition to anti-phonics ideologues like Michael Rosen.
    What is the problem with 'said'? The sound 'e' in the word 'said' is spelt with ai rather than, say, e or ea. Big deal! All sounds in English have multiple spellings. If we ground our teaching in the sounds of the language and teach learners that there is more than one way to spell those sounds, the sound-spelling system is eminently teachable.

  4. This piece is championing Greg Wallace and berating Mary Bousted, whilst they are agreeing on the same point. (GW: "She's right about one thing, the word said when you are in year one, that would be an irregular word and we wouldn't try and teach, use phonics, to teach 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.'

    Wallace said in the radio discussion 'I've been using this system for 10 years.' The author is also therefore questioning the expertise of Greg Wallace.

    The author also writes 'She also made the absurd claim that 'English is not a phonetically regular language'.'

    I take this to mean that the same graphemes do not always represent the same phoneme. John writes 'All sounds in English have multiple spellings'. Rather than being an absurd claim, it is an irrefutable truth.

    Having established that english is not phonetically regular, it follows that all english words must be phonetically irregular. But some grapheme/phoneme correspondences are more common (more regular) than others (irregular). This then, would call into dispute that 'phonics' is, as Wallace claimed, 'The only 100% successful way to read a word', in that a choice of which correspondence to use has to be made. He gave the example by sounding out 'round', using the more common (regular) ou/ow correspondence. Making this choice to read the word cousin, refutes the claim that it is 100% successful, as the correct choice, like in spelling, is not always made.

  5. My argument on this is clear in my posting on the debate, and I stand by it. "Said" is an irregular word, in that the vowel digraph (when in Rome…) ai represents a sound more commonly represented by an e, as in "bed", rather than its normal sound, as in paid, maid, laid, braid, etc.

    This is a clear example of a change in pronunciation over time, and a shortcut. The draft NC says that this phemonemon should be explained to children, and I agree.

    My more general point, and a key point, is that we need to prepare children for the times when letters don't give them all of the information they need to read a word, so that they do not expect that they always will.

    It is a gross exaggeration and sheer folly for Mary Bousted to say that English does not correspond to phonetic principles. It is equally true that it does not do so with perfect consistency. I have been making the case for phonics as a means of teaching reading since the seventies, have written two books on the subject based on direct experience, often with the most difficult cases, and have, like many others, had my share of abuse from various guessing game advocates.

    I do not think, though, that we can win the argument with the general public by going against common sense. Now I think about it, said and against share the same pattern, same shortcut. I have shown how to tackle irregularity, and this is better than trying to deny it.

  6. Hi John and thanks for your posting.
    While I admire many of the things you argue on your blog – especially your championing of foreign languages – I disagree with you on this question of 'regular'/'irregular'.
    While it is true to say that the spelling ai more uusually represents the sound 'ae' as in 'maid', it can also represent the sound 'e' as in 'said' or in 'again'.
    This is no different from the understanding that the letter o can be 'o' on 'hot', 'oe' in 'go', 'oo' in 'do', or 'u' in 'mother'. This aspect of phonics is NOT difficult to teach if taught by teachers who understand the way in which the writing system relates to the sounds of the language – i.e. in this particular instance, most spellings represent more than one sound.
    If you read the work of Diane McGuinness (Teaching Beginning Reading, for example), you will see that, by teaching from sound to print, she brings a logic and coherence to the teaching of reading which is not evident in phonics approaches that teach from print to sound.
    Unfortunately and sadly, the general public are ignorant in the matter of the teaching of reading and spelling in English. That doesn't mean we should not attempt to explicate the process properly. I see the term 'irregular' as being a label rather than a logical explanation.
    As Humphrys pointed out to Mary Bousted, because she has a PhD doesn't mean that she isn't wrong on this issue. With respect to you, neither does it mean that because you have written two books on the subject, you are right. I, too, have been working in this field since the 1970s and what changed my view of how phonics should be taught was working for the British Council teaching EFL and reading works (by Peter Daniels, diane McGuinness, et al) on the world's writing systems. This change in view has been subsequently confirmed by the success we've had in training nearly nine thousand teachers in UK over the past ten years.
    By the way, if you'd like to have a look at the data we've collected on the 1607 pupils taught using our programme (Sounds-Write) throughout KS1, you'll find it here: http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/docs/sounds_write_research_report_2009.pdf

  7. I have of course read the work of Diana McGuinness and interviewed her for The Guardian when her first book came out. I did not accept that most of the research she quoted actually made the case for phonics very well. As you'll know from my writing over the years, I believe that the Clackmannanshire work does this, and for me conclusively.

    I understand the basis of your disagreement, but the issue to me is clear – if you can't rely on what the letters tell you when you meet a word, you can't be sure you can read it with phonics. To say that words such as said or come are regular, when the vowels do not represent the sound they usually do, is to me and to most people to go against the evidence. I quite agree that all of the elements need to be taught, but would not pretend that turning a letter on its head to indicate a different sound can be called regular.

    I don't know who you are, of course, but I have been engaged in this argument for something like 25 years with other proponents of phonics. The root of the problem is that information contained in letters in English words needs to be interpreted – we need to know what a letter is indicating in each word. I know that my explanation makes good sense to the children I teach and to their parents. I know it fits the facts of the language, and that it has a clear analytic basis, which works for spelling as well as for reading. It is also simpler.

    Mary Bousted's PhD, I've now discovered, has nothing to do with reading at all – it's entirely based in secondary schools, and reading is not mentioned. My books are full of successful case studies, and I'm not going to have them treated in the same breath – have you read them? Another of my recent critics had not. And I have read Mary Bousted's PhD, which is available via the British Library.

    I'll now look up the research you mention.

  8. Hi John,
    Thanks for your reply.
    I was much tickled by your running down of Bousted's PhD. I'm not surprised that it contains virtually nothing about phonics teaching. That came through very clearly in her interview on Radio 4 on Monday. On the basis of our disagreement: you say that 'if you can't rely on what the letters tell you when you meet a word, you can't be sure you can read it with phonics'. This would be true if that were the case.
    However, I don't believe it is. Once young children are got over the hump of having to negotiate the issue of adjacent consonants, the task ahead is to teach one sound, multiple spellings and one spelling, multiple sounds. In my opinion, this is most effectively taught by predicating the teaching of the sounds of the language. The sounds of the language are finite (44 or so, according to accent). They remain constant. Consequently, they provide us with a foundation or basis for the code, the spellings being the code.
    This enables us to anchor our teaching in the sounds of the language, which makes perfect psychological sense to (even) young children: these squiggles on the page we call spellings stand for the sounds in our speech.
    Ken Albrow's The English Writing System (1972), a functional lingustics analysis adopts the same approach and anticipates the work of linguistic phonics programmes such as ours by thirty years or more.
    Our experience is that such an approach can be taught from simple to more complex over the time span covered by Key Stage 1 for most pupils, although a small percentage would continue to need more practice over time.
    As all words are comprised of sounds and all sounds have been assigned spellings in all English words, it would seem to make sense to say that, as long as the spelling system isn't uneconomical, it must be possible to learn.
    I have to confess that I haven't yet read either of your books, an omission I hope to rectify very soon, as I have just ordered one of them from Amazon.
    Best wishes,

  9. (Sounds-Write) throughout KS1, you'll find it here: http://www.sounds-write.co.uk/docs/sounds_write_research_report_2009.pdf

    This is a valuable piece of research, and I'm grateful for the direction. I've never seen evidence of a normal distribution applying in children's reading, and know of no reason why we should expect it to – some statisticians have an almost religious confidence in it. Perhaps two points on method – one is that the Burt test is very limited and dated, and that the Salford is a simple alternative. The other is that long term follow up is important, as in Clackmannanshire, and I hope you'll be able to track these pupils to Year 6 at least.

    There are several phonic approaches to reading that produce very good results, and I'm not criticising any of them. The people I've worked with have usually been identified as having problems that other approaches have not worked with, including several of the best known (and best) phonic schemes. Most have had difficulties that have involved both wordbuilding/blending and serious problems whenever the process is not straightforward. My approach tackles these problems very consistently, but I can't see a way of making any direct comparison with an method such as yours, or indeed any of the other major schemes. There is more than one way to tackle this, and my preference for mine is that it is a lot simpler than the alternative.

  10. Hi John,
    It took us nearly nine years to collect all of this data from the schools running our programme. We did it all ourselves and it cost huge amounts of David Philpot's time. [David was an ed psych in Wigan for thirty years before retiring a few years ago. He was also a mathematician, which happened to be very useful in this endeavour!] He retired from Sounds-Write about eighteen months ago and we no longer have the staffing power to continue collecting data like this. It is, as I'm sure you appreciate, very time consuming and very expensive to do this kind of thing, which makes us rather irritated that the government doesn't commission independent studies of the various approaches.
    You're right about the Burt, though reading tests are more time-consuming to administer than spelling tests. We went for the (Dennis) Young's Parallel Spelling Test, which has the advantage of offering choices so that the test can be used up to four times without ever having to use the same word twice. We also firmly believe that spelling is a much more reliable indicator of how literate children are than reading tests. The Young's does also begin with words containing transparent spellings, rather than throwing the whole code at the child from the start – something many writers of test materials seem blissfully unaware of!
    On the broader theme, although Sounds-Write is an intevention programme, we are much more interested in it as a beginning reading programme, for obvious reasons. If you are curious to know more, I would be happy to share our approach with you. If you write to me at john@sounds-write.co.uk, we can keep in touch.
    Best wishes,

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