The Phonics Blog

A commentary on issues and topics relating to the teaching of literacy. By the author of 'Phonics and the Resistance to Reading'

Clinging to the wreckage

In 1992 the National Foundation for Educational Research reported on the results of its investigation into What Teachers in Training Are Taught about Reading. The report particularly drew attention to the anti-phonics bias it had detected in its survey. For example, as part of their research the team analysed booklists provided to students by their institutions. Analysis of these lists showed that amongst the most commonly recommended texts there were “no books dealing in any detail with the complex relationships between the writing system (the orthography) and the sound system (the phonology) of English”.

Amongst other findings the report revealed that in 15% of the institutions, courses on early reading included no mention of phonics at all. In the remainder phonics was taught only as part of a repertoire of mixed methods including look and say and ‘language experience’. “The general impression,” the report noted, was that “eclecticism rules”.

Shortly after the publication of the Rose Review in 2006, I joined several meetings which brought together large numbers of tutors and lecturers responsible for training teachers in the teaching of reading. Given the background of ITT resistance to phonics I wasn't surprised that I found many of those tutors and lecturers bewildered, resentful and fiercely resistant to change. In conversation with individuals it appeared to me that many might be incapable of changing their views because they did not have the constitutional resources to make the intellectual journey. Embracing the mixed cueing ideology had required from them no habit of (or aptitude for) rigorous mental effort. An approach to the teaching of reading that was largely content-free meant that there had been little need to absorb the implications let alone the detail of the vast body of research and no time required to understand our sound-spelling system. The ascent to the position of ‘reading expert’ had been, for some of them, virtually effortless. Nothing much to remember, little to understand – just a talent for vapid generalities and an ability to extemporise around the ideology of word-guessing. The same ideology that the late Professor Ken Rowe neatly characterised as “postmodernist claptrap about how children learn to read”.

Hardly surprising that when in 2010 Tom Burkhard used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the lists of recommended reading provided to teacher trainees by 46 initial teacher training institutions he found the same bias towards mixed methods. For example, only four of the institutions which provided booklists recommended Marilyn Jager Adams’ Beginning to Read.

In at least one case institutional resistance to phonics was so ingrained that it threatened to become self-destructive. A little over five years ago, a high-placed source within the Teacher Development Agency revealed to me that one institution had had to be threatened with the loss of its accreditation to train teachers unless it dropped its resistance to providing a proper training in phonics.

Given this background it is little wonder that surveys by the National Foundation for Educational Research have in the last few years repeatedly shown that primary schools are packed with teachers who, in the face of all research, cling to the same mixed methods – the approach that Professor Michael Pressley described as a “disastrous strategy”. With the consequence that even when initial teaching training does properly prepare students to teach reading, all that is undone when the students are on school placement and working alongside teachers who are still defiantly rooted in the dark ages.

It may seem unsurprising therefore that the culture of mixed methods – the reliance on the strategy of word-guessing – is so deeply embedded and perpetuates itself ad infinitum. But actually, its stubborn persistence is down to more than just a matter of professional tradition or entrenched habit.

One of the biggest obstacles to change is that teachers feel unmotivated to consider alternative approaches because they see no reason to make any significant change. In particular, they see no need for change because they work in a school culture in which standards are seen as being ‘good enough’. There is no professional incentive to reform the teaching of reading when teachers take for granted that around one child in five will never achieve reading success.

In my book, Phonics and the Resistance to Reading, I described the range of ways in which schools explain away reading failure using a typology of so-called ‘barriers to learning’ – characteristically blaming the children rather than looking for the weaknesses in the school’s teaching. Ironically these same teachers frequently complain that they themselves are victims in a ‘culture of blame’.

Teachers are only able to persist in this self-deluding deception by closing their eyes to the real victims of the incompetent teaching of reading. Low levels of literacy have lifelong consequences. As I pointed out in my book, “Poor reading at school is a strong predictor of social exclusion as an adult.” The consequences of bad teaching in schools today will persist throughout the lifetimes of so many of those unlucky enough to have been taught by the teachers who, in the face of all the evidence, still cling to word-guessing as their professional stock-in-trade.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 5 December 2016