Review: Decoding Synthetic Phonics

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IMPACT No. 20 Philosophical Perspectives on Education Policy - To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics. Andrew Davis. Oxford, Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Pp. 38. Free.

In this short, provocative book, part of the IMPACT series, Andrew Davis puts forward two ideas. Firstly, that teaching cannot meaningfully be described as a type of activity done using "methods" or "strategies" that are transferrable. His second claim, for which he has been widely attacked, is that identifying letter sounds is not reading, and that the mandatory teaching of it is questionable if not outright objectionable. In criticising him, most have focused on the latter. To regard the first claim as dispensable, however, is to miss the point.

To understand what I took to be the foundation of his argument it is helpful to refer to a comparison used by Davis himself. He compares the reaction between chemicals in a conical flask to the reaction of a group of young people in a classroom to a given "method". Davis believes that attempts to produce sure-fire teaching methods rely on a picture of what learners are as such, which is like for like correlated to chemicals in a medical trial. This is the claim he is suspicious of, to the extent that he claims that protagonists in the so-called "Reading Wars" are spending their time trading "what they see as academic research papers" (Davis, 2013, p. 18) but which are no such thing. Just because something looks like science, doesn't make it science. Much of the book focuses on raising doubts about such a treatment of teaching, using the striking philosophical method of a second-by-second analysis of the mental content of the experience of reading.

Davis’ attack on what he sees as the pseudo-concept of "specifiable effective teaching methods" (ibid. p.33) stems from a concern about how it is deployed. That is to say, because he rejects any analogy to drug trials as fantasy, he claims that the relatively benign cargo cult behaviour of playing at science with what only looks like academic writing becomes hostile to teachers and learners at the exact point it begins to affect policy through Synthetic Phonics and the like.

This is his compelling solution to the question of why with "millions" of words written on the topic of Synthetic Phonics no consensus has yet been reached about its “effectiveness”. Some might point to climate change deniers in response to this, claiming that an absence of consensus could simply indicate the presence of a stubborn minority. There does after all remain a small core of scientists who reject the consensus on manmade climate change. This is not an avenue he explores; perhaps to his cost as "denialist" is a term that has been used by some to label him, and anyone else who questions Synthetic Phonics.

That the monumentally hostile response, by media new and old, focused solely on the second part of Davis’ argument is intriguing. The kindest spin I can put on it is that many simply could not follow the first part of the argument: the lack of widespread understanding of what philosophical research is as such would then be to blame.

A more cynical interpretation would point to the investment being made in this area at the level of policy, not to mention the careers being carved out in the field of Education Research. It is an area of strong consensus with, for example, both the Secretary of State for Education and his Shadow speaking on the topic at a forthcoming ResearchEd conference. For some, ignoring Davis’ substantive argument against marketable, replicable methods and instead focusing on the old standby of "traditional versus progressive" to counter it could serve a more strategic purpose. Selective deafness has its uses: the fact that Davis explicitly identifies letter to sound recognition as something he believes teachers can usefully focus on in their classes was ignored consistently in the responses I saw. He was instead characterised as a "phonics denialist". The simplest way to answer a difficult question is always to answer another one.

This book will undoubtedly be of interest to a very wide audience. It has provocatively attacked an idea that is absolutely at the top of the DfE agenda: namely, pharmaceutical-style Randomised Control Trials as a means of research into repeatable teaching methods.

By denying that this is a meaningful idea per se Davis has achieved two things. Firstly, he has fired a salvo in the "Reading Wars" that is difficult to ignore or dismiss. Secondly, he has kicked a hornet's nest of vested interest and fashionable opinion at a time when its precepts seem most axiomatic. In doing so, he has provided a shot in the arm for practitioners and policy makers for which they are unlikely to thank him, at least in the short term.

Correspondence: London Nautical School, 61 Stamford St, Blackfriars, London SE1 9NA


IMPACT No. 20 is available to download free from Wiley Online Library.

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