Yesterday, the Guardian, to its shame, in my opinion, chose once again to give space to Andrew Davis for yet another opportunity to launch a diatribe against the teaching of synthetic phonics.
Why do I say ‘to its shame’? Because, at bottom, Davis, an academic philosopher, doesn’t know what he’s talking about and anyone with the barest knowledge of phonics teaching ought to know that Davis’s charges against phonics teaching are either disingenuous or so riddled with errors that the piece should never have been published. The article ‘argues’ that synthetic phonics isn’t the way to teach children to read.
To begin with, as I’ve indicated, Andrew Davis is a philosopher. Nowhere does he claim to be an expert on linguistics or on phonetics and phonology. So, it rather beggars belief when he begins his diatribe against phonics by claiming that a ‘phoneme’ is not a sound. What does the writer of dozens of books (The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, for example) on all aspects of the English language have to say on this? David Crystal points out that the distinctive sounds in our language, by which we are able to differentiate one word from another – for example ‘tip’ from ‘hip’ or ‘sip’ –, are called phonemes. No less an authority than Peter Roach (English Phonetics and Phonology, CUP) says that, ‘in any language we can identify a small number of regularly used sounds (vowels and consonants) that we call phonemes’; and he goes on to differentiate ‘pin’ and ‘pen’ in which the vowel sounds are identified as different phonemes.
Davis’s next move is to state that, when following a phonics approach ‘[s]tudents aren’t meant to get help from clues such as context, meaning or illustration’. This sounds as if synthetic phonics practitioners refuse to talk about context, whereas what Davis means – I think – is that pupils aren’t meant to get clues when they are doing the phonics check. In a test of decoding ability, it shouldn’t seem unreasonable that pupils aren’t given help. After all, testing is a way of finding out something you want to know: in this case, whether the pupil in question can read the words on the page without having recourse to such contextual clues as syntax, illustrations and global meaning (i.e. of the kind a sentence or larger text would provide).
So, why does the government believe it to be so important for pupils to be able to decode accurately without using any other contextual features? The answer is quite simple: fluent, accurate readers, in other words readers who can decode or turn the symbols on the page into sounds, which they are then able to blend into words, are able to expend more energy and attention on higher order skills, such as comprehension, inference and so on, than readers who struggle to decode. Indeed, lack of automaticity and speed at the level of word-recognition level makes reading for meaning difficult. What happens then is that, in the words of Keith Stanovich, ‘unrewarding reading experiences multiply, and practice is avoided or merely tolerated without real cognitive involvement. The downward spiral continues – and has further consequences’ (Progress in Understanding Reading, 2000).
In what follows in the Guardian article, Davis discloses his total and quite egregious lack of understanding of even the most basic grasp of the area into which he has blundered. No wonder he is confused about phonemes and sounds: he claims that the ‘term “phoneme” doesn’t mean “sound”; it actually refers to sets of sounds in speech that distinguish one word from another’. While it is true that words are differentiated by sound or sounds one from another, Davis is utterly confused. He seems to believe that the word ‘cat’ is a sound, whereas anyone with the most rudimentary knowledge of phonics knows that the word ‘cat’ is comprised of three sounds /k/, /æ/ and /t/.
In actual fact, I harbour the strong suspicion that Davis is playing the philosopher’s game: does he really believe the things he claims? Or, are these ‘moves’ he makes to undermine the confidence in phonics of those whose knowledge is shaky: in other words, a deliberate obfuscation of the issues in order to throw sand into people’s eyes.
So, let’s take his next ‘move’, which is to assert, correctly, that a northerner is likely to say the word ‘fast’ as /f/ /æ/ /s/ /t/ and a southerner is likely to say /f/ /a:/ /s/ /t/. For him, this is another reason for claiming that synthetic phonics doesn’t work. Again, the real problem is that Andrew doesn’t understand conceptually how the code works in relation to the sounds of the language. The spelling |a| can be /æ/ in words like ‘cat’ but it can also be /a:/ in words like ‘father’. Is this a difficult concept to understand? If you’re not sure, draw a circle and try asking a four-year-old what it is. They might say a zero, a moon, a sun, a ball, any number of things that are round. In other words, they understand that symbols can represent different things. So, coming back to Davis’s example, if a ‘southern child’ were to read ‘fast’ as /f/ /æ/ /s/ /t/, the teacher would simply point to the spelling |a| and say, “This can be /æ/ but in this word, it’s /a:/, Say /a:/ here.” And, bingo! If the child is old enough to understand, the teacher could expand the explanation by talking about different accents.
The same issue occurs again in Davis’s examples ‘The wind is blowing’ and ‘I can wind the clock’. In a way, this is his ‘ghoti’ moment and, like Shaw’s example, it is entirely disingenuous. The human brain is a remarkable organ; it can perform a large number of tasks at once. As we are decoding the first sentence ‘The wind is blowing’, we are alerted to the oncoming presence of a noun by the definite article. We do not expect the word to be a verb. We are hard-wired for this. Our brains are also capable of processing information in millionths of seconds – so fast it takes place beneath the level of our conscious attention – and our simultaneous processing tells us that it can be ‘wind’ (noun) or ‘wind’ (verb). However, the presence of the definite article leads us to the noun. That’s what happens in the brains of even moderately fluent readers.
Now, supposing a child, who is not such a fluent reader, reads the word ‘wind’ in the first sentence as the verb. As before, the teacher points to the spelling |i| and says, “This can be /ie/. In this word, it is /i/. Say /i/ here” – problem solved!
Next, Davis, apparently not noticing that he is raising a completely different aspect of the way in which the alphabet code works (see his use of the word ‘likewise’), makes this observation: ‘blending the sounds appropriate for “paws” could produce something that also fits “pause”, “pours” and “pores”. So if “paws” is encountered out of context, you cannot identify your sound blend with a real word unless you already recognise the word “paws” as text’. Presumably, Davis is referring to the phonics check, where a child might be expected to read the word ‘paws’; otherwise, the word would be in some sort of context. Quite apart from the fact that Davis is confusing the issue by alluding to the concept that we spell all sounds in the language in more than one way, wouldn’t we expect that a pupil in Y1/Y2 would have been taught and therefore know that the spelling |aw| represents the sound /or/?
In the examples, Davis gives to show how important context is, he’s right. Phonics advocates would have no argument with the suggestion that we need context to decide what a word might be, but then phonics advocates teach children how to decode accurately and to automaticity so that they can pay attention to context. As for his claim that the word ‘paws’ can also be spelled as ‘pause’, ‘pores’, and ‘pours’, if he was a teacher he would know immediately that, as long as the child has the word in their spoken vocabulary, this is never a difficulty. Where it is a difficulty is in knowing which spelling of the /aw/ sound we need to use in any of these heterographs.
Is Davis correct when he says that phonics advocates assert that simply blending sounds is reading? No! He’s not and they don’t! I played blending games with my daughter when she was three years old. Were we reading? No! There wasn’t any written text in sight. But blending sounds together to make recognisable words on the page is called decoding and, of course, it is major part of the process of reading. The other part is understanding the words being decoded and that is comprehension.
When talking about the phonics screening check, Davis is right about one thing: if the word being decoded is a real word, the child is expected to decode it accurately. Thus the word ‘blow’ would be expected to read as /b/ l/ /oe/, rather than /b/ /l/ /ou/ to rhyme with ‘cow’. That is certainly the case, though what he doesn’t say is that, on average, children at age six have vocabularies of many thousands of words. Their spoken vocabularies far exceed what they are able to read. So, it is probably fairly reasonable to expect that they can read the word ‘blow’ correctly. If not, the sensible teacher would investigate the child’s ability to comprehend common words. Even so, if one or two words in the check were misread/mispronounced, they should still fly through it if their decoding skills are up to scratch.
I’ve said it before on this blog and I’ll say it again: phonics is not only fundamental to teaching children to read and spell right from the start, it is also a very powerful strategy in enabling older and all adults to both read and spell very much more complex words. It’s time people like Andrew Davis took the trouble to find out more about modern phonics teaching before they spout off.
Coda: I wrote this post five years ago and I see that, in that time, Andrew Davis has learned nothing. As Anil Seth once remarked in an edition of ‘The Life Scientific’, ‘We should always listen to the questions that philosophers ask but we should rarely listen to their answers’. Quite!