Frank Monaghan · Gordon Askew · The Future of Phonics in Education conference

Second half: the dog whistle politics of the anti-phonics lobby

The closing keynote talk at Thursday’s conference, ‘EAL: testing the limits of phonics’, given by Frank Monaghan, was nothing more nor less than a crude caricature of phonics. As a matter of fact, he never attempted to engage with the principles behind phonics teaching. Rather he posed as the scourge of educational psychologists, of the inspectorate and of the government under the guise of friendly Frank, champion of the classroom teacher. And it was with a laugh and a joke and a smile that he poured scorn on anyone advocating phonics as a central plank in the teaching of reading to children.

Of course, he wasn’t saying that he disapproved of all phonics teaching entirely. To be so extreme would be a step too far in front of this audience. It has a place, he conceded, though not for him. He didn’t learn like that! He didn’t say how he learnt but Frank Smith’s name came up and Frank Smith was man who was of the opinion that learning to read is like learning to speak: we all do it naturally. The fact that there was and is a massive amount of evidence to the contrary never troubled him.
In case you are unfamiliar with the work of Frank Smith, this is the kind of thing he made his name on: ‘Learning is continuous, spontaneous, and effortless, requiring no particular attention, conscious motivation, or specific reinforcement.’ (Smith, F., Learning to Read: The Never-Ending Debate). Have you ever heard of any learning that is as Frank Smith claims? I suppose this might be true if you’re talking about sucking your thumb, but for learning the piano, learning a second language, how to drive a car, learning to read, learning is nothing like what Smith claims it is. In one of his other books, The Psychology of Reading, he treated us to the observation that ‘Reading without guessing is not reading at all’.

Now, had I been listening to all of this on my own, I would have chortled to myself a bit and busied myself with something else. I guess the thing that began to irritate me enough to want to reply and challenge some of Monaghan’s diatribe was that he managed so successfully to capture the interest of at least some of the audience. Naturally, anyone who has not got very good subject knowledge indeed is always prone to being bent by the first counterblast that appears and Monaghan is a persuasive speaker.

So how did he do it? Well, he began by ingratiating himself with the audience by making jokes about Michael Gove. There’s no direct link to phonics there but the association is left floating in the air, the suggestion that I don’t like Gove and I’m guessing you don’t … and I don’t like phonics either.

Next, you try to undermine and confuse people whose knowledge of some of the complexities of phonics isn’t quite as extensive as it might be. It wasn’t as crude as the notoriously inane ‘ghoti’ example but, in this case, he raised the issue of a boy reading the word ‘started’ and drew attention to the fact that letter e sounds like an /i/. This, of course, a schwa problem but Frank didn’t explain how and why schwas occur in words, though I know he knows, or what teachers can do to help pupils read and spell those words correctly, which I suspect he doesn’t.  As the schwa is the most common vowel sound in the language, the example was completely disingenuous.

This was followed by the implication that phonics advocates teach Received Pronunciation, when, as he put it, ‘even the Queen stopped using it thirty years ago’. How some people laughed! Poor Frank has been away from the classroom for so long that he doesn’t realise that most good quality phonics programmes recommend teaching to the accent of the children they are teaching. So, if someone in Lancashire says /s/ /t/ /er/ /z/ instead of /s/ /t/ air/ /z/, we put the spelling in the /er/ categories.

Another tactic used to cast doubt on phonics teaching was to refer to people, in this case Stephen L. Strauss, who are simply out-and-out phonics deniers. In a paper entitled ‘The logographic nature of English alphabetics and the fallacy of direct intensive phonics instruction’, Strauss maintains that ‘the English phonics system operates at a level of complexity that essentially defies teachability’.

Finally, in a move that would have done justice to Michael Rosen, Frank enjoined teachers to be subversive and to resist the authoritarian dictates of the agents of government, Ofsted inspectors, as, he claimed, they always have. Actually, many teachers probably will resist the government’s efforts to get them to implement phonics teaching – but not for the reasons Frank thinks. The reason phonics teaching may not be implemented successfully for many years yet is that, in the main, teachers don’t understand how the writing system was designed to represent the sounds of the language, which was precisely the point from which Gordon Askew began.

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