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'

Readings wars redefined

The conventional interpretation of the so-called ‘Reading Wars’ is that it is a dispute about teaching methods. According to this view those who oppose phonics are entirely benign in their intentions, just ill-informed in their view about the best way to teach reading. Seen in this light the critics of phonics are just innocently mistaken.

In my book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading I suggest that perhaps at its heart the ‘reading wars’ are not really an argument about teaching methods at all. In the course of the book I analyse the ‘mixed methods’ around which the critics of phonics piously congregate and show that these methods have been the standard approach to the teaching of reading in this country for at least a hundred years. I also show that over the same period surveys have repeatedly identified that this approach to the teaching of reading results in the exclusion of a large section of the population from functional literacy. This link between the anti-phonics support for ‘mixed methods’ and the evidence about the way in which those methods fail, strikes me as being at least suggestive that there might be more to the reading wars than first appears.

A further indicator is that support for phonics is explicitly associated with the desire to improve standards. Anti-phonics argument often avoids any mention of standards at all or dismisses any concern as part of a rhetoric of imaginary decline. Meanwhile survey after survey continues to show unmistakable evidence to justify concern – the data commonly suggesting a figure of about 15 -20% functionally illiterate. Yet those who argue against phonics appear relatively unconcerned about this state of affairs – and seem determined to protect and maintain an approach to reading that has consistently left so many excluded at the margins.

So perhaps the argument between the advocates of phonics and the supporters of ‘mixed methods’ is not really an argument about teaching approach at all. The dispute is really an argument about reading standards. Some of us believe that those standards can be radically transformed leading to something we could recognise as universal literacy. Some it seems believe that reading standards are not just ‘as they are’ but ‘as they have to be’. These traditionalists believe that improving literacy standards is impossible (some may even believe it is in any case undesirable). The stubborn clinging to guessing from pictures, context and other clues is not just a persistence of teaching habit. It is a persistence of low expectations.

According to a statistical briefing issued by the National Literacy Trust, one in six people in the UK struggles with literacy. Systematic, synthetic phonics is promoted by those who care passionately about that struggle and are determined to put an end to it. Anti-phonics propagandists campaign aggressively against the prospect.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 3 April 2014