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'


It’s nearly twenty years since Dr Joyce Morris coined the term ‘phonicsphobia’ to characterise the irrational, emotional recoil from the idea of teaching phonics.

In the time that has passed, despite all the attempts to improve the understanding of phonics (not to mention despite all the money that has been spent), the condition of ‘phonicsphobia’ seems, if anything, more infectious than ever. It’s certainly more evident. Any survey of anti-phonics argument on the internet will take you on a gloomy inspection tour of ‘phonicsphobia’ suffering - a sort of virtual outpatients department where every symptom of ‘phonicsphobia’, every tic and spasm, is explicitly on view.

In a book out next year I argue that ‘phonicsphobia’ is actually a manifestation of a much darker and deeper problem than just a reaction against teaching phonics. But that idea needs to wait for another time. For now I want to stay at the surface level of ‘phonicsphobia’ and, in a lighter vein than my recent postings here, suggest that its aetiology is murkily rooted in a range of initial conditions and that ‘phonics-phobia’ has at least five types.

Type 1: The Anarchists

In this type of ‘phonicsphobia’ the hostility emerges from a reaction against what is perceived as ‘authority. For these sufferers, phonics is a ‘top-down imposition’ that they therefore feel compelled to reject as an insult to their professional freedom.

I am pleased to know that the American Psychiatric Association (APA) has a name for this condition: ‘Oppositional Defiant Disorder’. I know this because the APA (as you have just seen a byword for plain speaking) have included it in their Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a hefty volume that I can heartily recommend as an ideal read for those moments that lend themselves to deep and reflective study – waiting for the kettle to boil, that sort of thing.

Type 2: “If it’s Right it’s Wrong”

This version of ‘phonicsphobia’ is driven by a reaction against anything that is seen as coming from the political right. No matter that many of the most passionate advocates of phonics are very far from being on the right and that the Rose Review was initiated and endorsed under a Labour government. For these critics it is enough that phonics is a policy of the current government and particularly seen to be emerging from the Conservative majority within it.

Type 3: The “Dedicated Followers of Fashion”

These ‘phonics-phobics’ are emotionally conditioned to be permanently ‘on trend’. They have heard someone say (mistakenly as it happens) that phonics is a ‘return to traditional methods’ and that is all they need to know to be sure that they are against it.

Type 4: The Ghotis

Bernard Shaw famously joked that the English alphabetic system is so completely random that the word ‘fish’ could legitimately be spelled ‘ghoti’. A few moments of explanation is usually enough to explode this piece of mischief. But there is a group of ‘phonics-phobics’ who will always be unreachable by these explanations. These ‘ghotis’ are irrationally and irreversibly committed to the belief that our sound-spelling system is unstable, unpredictable and unteachable. No amount of explanation or demonstration will shift them from this position. If I hear just one more of these still stubbornly banging on about cough, tough, though and through, I may well throw something at them - probably my well-thumbed copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Type 5: “I love you, I hate you”

Perhaps this is the largest group of 'phonics-phobics'. They contrive to contort themselves so as to embrace phonics and simultaneously push it away.

They usually start with an assurance that they are not anti-phonics but then proceed to hedge around this starting point with so many qualifications and reservations as to effectively nullify their initial endorsement. They support phonics ‘but it doesn’t work for all children’. Phonics is all right but not if it is ‘intensive’ (for ‘intensive’ read ‘systematic’). Phonics is useful ‘but it doesn’t work for most words’. Phonics has a place but it excludes the development of comprehension and reading enjoyment. And so on…

Postscript: Well, all right, in this analysis of five types of ‘phonics-phobia’ my tongue has sometimes been close to my cheek. But still I think there is something in it. Those of us who argue the case for phonics inevitably depend on rational persuasion. But we might as well accept that for some on the other side it’s not a matter of reason at all but an issue of emotional attachment. Too deep for words.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 21 October 2012