In which the reader swirls among controversy, and listens to a dogmatic Secretary of State, and royalty, before considering the phonics / visual question and reaching peace.
This chapter will chew over the Great Controversy which still engulfs the world of literacy. This controversy is between those who claim that we learn to read through sound and that written language is a system representing sounds, and those who claim literacy is about meanings and that written language is primarily a visual system representing meaning. I will examine this fundamental issue with two aims in mind: first, deploying cognitive psychology to critique the idea that literacy is primarily based on sound, and second, to critique the debate itself.
You may find me relentlessly sceptical. It is on principle. I hope that you will agree with me that scepticism is a respectable attitude to take to any argument made from any research paradigm, indeed that to abandon scepticism would be absolutely improper. (Antonyms of sceptical, after all, include credulous, gullible, naïve, green and soft!). In better words than mine: ‘Keep your eyes open and your old-fashioned but trustworthy mind a ceaselessly turning mill of questions ground with the stones of scepticism’ (Lucy Mangan in the Guardian Weekend 31/3/7). Scepticism, though, especially if it is expressed with any passion, appears iconoclastic, if not almost ferociously revolutionary. If I may borrow a metaphor from the peerless J.K. Galbraith, however: If the rotten door by which a person enters a room crashes off its hinges, that person gains a reputation for violence which may be completely unjustified – something should be attributed to the state of the door.
As usual, before we go any further our terms should be properly defined. This chapter will be about the place of phonics in literacy teaching and its limitations therein. But what will I mean by ‘phonics’?
What I will not mean is the alphabetic principle – the principle that text represents language and that language is, for most of us most of the time, spoken language so that one aspect of learning literacy is grasping the principle that there are certain correspondences between letters and letter patterns and the sounds of our language. These grapheme-phoneme correspondences may be rather intermittent and unreliable in many languages (but perhaps especially English) but they do exist. Letters, and patterns of letters, represent language and so, in part and imperfectly, they also represent the sounds of language. Of course they do. But to recognise that is not at all the same thing as saying that text is sound written down. Clearly, and as we shall shortly see, it is not. The idea that writing is a representation primarily of sound is simply wrong and its corollary, that literacy is primarily to be approached by ‘sounding out’, is why the ongoing refutation of hard core, hard sell phonics expressed here and elsewhere is necessary.
By ‘phonics” then, I mean teaching that text is sound written down and that reading is therefore something we do, and must learn to do, by ‘sounding out’. Phonic methods are based on these assumptions, often very rigidly. Such methods lend themselves wonderfully well to ‘scheme’ teaching and even actually scripted lessons. Phonics is often endorsed as required methodology following corporate lobbying by producers of very lucrative schemes (for example the No Child Left Behind ACT / DIBELS debacle in the USA and the synthetic phonics debate in the UK). Wherever large profits are being made, or could be made, our sceptic’s antennae should twitch especially vigorously.
I begin this chapter with a rather light-hearted look at the ‘reading wars’, then consider the cognitive psychology of reading and the probable pathways involved in the understanding of spoken and written language. At this point we will have our feet in solid scientific and logical boots and can hope to stay upright while negotiating the slippery rocks around phonological awareness, the sacred literacy cow of our day. (Such cows come, but they go again.) I admit this is a dense chapter, but the issues are complex, and the literature in which they are discussed is often similarly dense, sometimes a great deal more so. An open-minded and appropriately sceptical examination of this issue is important, especially at a time when some proponents in the UK of a single teaching method (synthetic phonics) are insisting that their method must be the only one deployed - that all other method must be outlawed - and this proposal is being seriously considered at the highest levels as I write. The standard of debate is low, occasionally abysmal. We must here give it sceptical, honest thought.