Andrew Davis · Debbie Hepplewhite · Radio 4

Andrew Davis’s damp squib

As expected, yesterday’s interview with Debbie Hepplewhite and Andrew Davis on Radio 4’s PM programme followed the usual course of the debates between phonics advocates and the anti-phonics lobby. As such, it was highly instructive.

Before I could write about the exchange, I had to listen to it again because, as often happens with phonics deniers, I couldn’t remember a single thing of note that Davis had said, so feeble and spiritless was he. Whenever I listen to a phonics denier there is usually a lot of mumbling about rich literary texts and what not but never any evidence. On the other hand, Debbie Hepplewhite was, given the limitations of time, clear, confident and forthright in what she wanted to get across. Her message was simple: the English alphabet code is more complex than other alphabetic languages and it is harder to teach. For this reason alone, it needs to be taught systematically and in a carefully sequenced way.

The problem with Davis’s rhetoric was that it was full of innuendo, which subtly (and not so subtly!) tries to smear phonics advocates by accusing them of three things: that teaching children to decode isn’t teaching reading, by which they mean teaching reading for meaning; that phonics advocates are not interested in providing pupils with a diet of rich and ‘nourishing’ (to use Davis’s word yesterday) literature; and that phonics advocates have a one-size fits all approach. They also in addition occasionally try to claim that the English language isn’t phonic even though the ridiculousness of this claim has been comprehensively demolished by linguists many times.

In regard to the first claim, I’ve never met a phonics advocate who believes that decoding by itself is reading. Of course it isn’t! The reader has at the same time as decoding to be making meaning by understanding what the text is trying to communicate and interpreting it. This is what we all do when we are reading and, as Debbie pointed out, correctly, decoding and understanding, take place simultaneously, rather in the way that when something is read to someone, the person being read to will understand what is being read if they have the necessary background knowledge. It is a synchronous process. Of course, our understanding is dependent on our cultural capital, the store of knowledge we carry around with us. So, in Debbie’s sense, all reading is for meaning!
The second point hardly needs justifying. Phonics advocates want children to be able to decode highly proficiently so that they have access to a wealth of rich literary texts as well as to rich informational texts. That is the raison d’etre of teaching through the medium of a phonics approach.

Debbie answered the third accusation about phonics being a one-size-fits-all superbly. The code, she declared, is the same code for all children. What she didn’t have time to say in such a short interview was that phonics advocates, like everyone else in the business of teaching, recognise that children are different. But then phonics instruction is graded according to need. For the beginning, inexperienced reader text will be simplified and presented as commensurate with what children are being taught. Decodable readers are, or should be, in harmony with phonics instruction. That doesn’t mean that pupils are only going to be engaging solely with decodable readers. Teachers are at the same time going to be reading texts which enrich their  pupils’ vocabularies, enhance their experience of different genres, etc. [Opponents of phonics often travesty decodable readers by caricaturing them as ridiculously inferior in quality to more traditional stories. What they don’t realise is that the purpose of decodable readers in the initial stage of learning to read is to enable fluency but that’s the subject for a separate blog posting.]

However, for children who can already read reasonably well or even very well, phonics provides a clear understanding of how the writing system relates to the sounds of the language. In such cases, tailoring the quality and the quantity of the phonics tuition requires well educated teachers who have a very high level of knowledge of the conceptual understanding, factual knowledge and the skills needed to teach their pupils to become highly proficient readers and spellers.

Despite the fact that Davis came across very ineffectually, every time he and others who are deemed, because of their positions as university lecturers or prominent authors, question the efficacy of good quality phonics instruction, it strengthens the hands of LEA advisers, head teachers and others who do everything in their power to undermine its progress. For that reason, we should always be prepared to challenge the siren song of the opposers of phonics. What’s at stake is the future of our children’s literacy.

5 thoughts on “Andrew Davis’s damp squib

  1. After reading your blog I too found I had to go back and listen again. The first time I listened I was not attuned to comparing the two people involved in terms of their strength of voice or the confidence and level of spirit in their deliveries. Being interested in the debate I was originally listening to hear and compare the arguments presented. And I found I didn't have trouble recalling the arguments presented on both sides. I have heard these arguments rehearsed frequently, as. I it am sure is the case for you.

    Considering you probably know the arguments very well I am surprised that you do not address in your blog the main point that Davis made and which he repeated. This point is about the autonomy of teachers and their role in making professional decisions about their pupils. The professionalism, as he explained, resides in knowledge of various approaches to the teaching of reading, including systematic synthetic phonics, other forms of phonics and other possible tools for teaching. To make my own point here: one questions whether such professionalism can survive the onslaught of pro-SP policies, and wonders at the motivations behind this de-skilling process.

  2. Professionalism is not a synonym for knowledgeable.
    I don't at all share your apparent belief in the professional knowledge of the majority of teachers when it comes to teaching reading.
    In fact, hardly any who attend our courses have the slightest notion of how the sounds of the language are related to the writing system, a sine qua non in this area of the curriculum. But then we've had this discussion before.
    We've trained eleven thousand teachers and have good knowledge of what we're talking about.

  3. No, professionalism is not a synonym for knowledgable, but one expects a good level of knowledge from a professional, alongside professional judgement, ethics and a sense of responsibility. No doubt those who come on your courses feel the need to get up to speed with phonics, and this shows a sense of responsibility. However, I often think teachers feel a lack of confidence in the area of phonics because of a certain amount of mystification that goes on. Do they really "not have the slightest notion of how the sounds if the language are related to the writing system? I wonder if you could describe that.

  4. Thanks for your post. Pleased I came across this blog. I am a huge advocate of teaching phonics – and I'm based in a secondary school… As you rightly point out, nobody is under the assumption that decoding graphemes is enough to become a fluent reader, but it certainly acts as a solid foundation for then looking to build comprehension/inference/ higher order skills on.

    I like to think I'm fighting from the same corner here:

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