Time To Read (An Update): Aliens & Witches

This is an update of my last blog post Time To Read Some Nonsense.

For those of you who didn’t read it, here is a brief synopsis:
A personal parental perspective on the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) implemented by the government, in relation to my son’s reading difficulties (undiagnosed dyslexia).

As someone new to blogging and social media (namely Twitter), I have found my experiences of both enlightening; the responses to my blog and tweets have highlighted the truth…and the trolls.

image kindly supplied by
Aaron atwww.bindlegrim.com

Firstly, the exposed truth: the data is skewed.

Anyone who cares to take even a brief look at the DfE published graph will see a glaringly obvious spike in the results which is replicated across the two years of screening. To be specific, there is an obvious anomaly at exactly 32 (the pass mark) with the number of pupils jumping from approximately 10,000 to 40,000. Rather than elaborate further on this I have provided the evidence, and a very well written blog on the matter by Professor Dorothy Bishop. Suffice to say that the results of the screening are unreliable. Since academics leaked this news to the press there have been various follow up reports in the media (see related links below), and a wholly inadequate response by the DfE.

Next the media coverage, which as most of us are aware whatever the political position, sits somewhere between fact and fiction. Interestingly, in this case (aside from the fact that the media were originally quoting inaccurate statistics) the semantics used in the reporting were perhaps unwittingly also highly charged. The government would have us consider the phonics screening process as a ‘check’. The media, and given the situation documented above the vast majority of teachers engaged in the system, do not differentiate this from a ‘test’. There is also the miscomprehension by Education minister Elizabeth Truss that children at six are not aware of their academic ranking in the classroom unless this is discussed with them explicitly by an adult. Parental experience informs me that with or without any standardised ‘check’ by the end of first grade, children are well aware of their own abilities in relation to those of their classroom peers! For a key education minister to think otherwise is misguided and, however you ‘frame’ the process, teachers are teaching and responding to the Phonics Screening Check (PSC) as if it were a test. Furthermore teachers don’t need to be explicit for the classroom climate to be picked up by children. Children are absorbent in this regard.

Then, there is complete fantasy. Quite surprisingly to me advocates of Synthetic Phonics (SP) have adopted a pseudo identity collectively referred to as the phonics coven (or the fonix coven). This may seem somewhat fantastical, but across Twitter purist SP teachers are disseminating opinionated but unowned viewpoints, with some even adopting images of green witches stirring cauldrons! This is surely bad judgment and cannot do their argument or credibility any justice. As a parent it makes me feel very uncomfortable.

In my opinion their anonymity protects a flawed argument and a position of arrogance and ignorance. In principle I have nothing against the teaching of phonics, and I can appreciate its importance. SP simply refers to the method of decoding, which translated is pronunciation. That is all. Current theory maintains that deficits in this lower order function blocks higher order cognitive function. As I have an academic background in neuroscience this is really indisputable. However, whilst thorough phonologic teaching is necessary, explicit is not equal to exclusive. For struggling readers, given that reading ability can be distinct from intellectual ability, exclusive SP teaching must contribute to making reading even more tiresome and uninspiring. Expressive language must also be an essential factor in experiencing joy in the reading experience.

All the following quotes are lifted entirely from responses from Twitter.

As an argument towards resistance, I have been given from a highly regarded professor:

“some teachers just don’t like phonics!”

I suggest it is not that they don’t like phonics, it is that they recognize the exclusive teaching of SP is not a one size fits all scenario.

Here follows some of the things I have been tweeted by SP teachers and my response. Their comments are in bold:

“Phonics screening is valid and useful.”

Well, it is only valid if results can be verified as accurate (which at present they can’t), and useful if there is adequate provision to action specific individualised funded interventions for those struggling (which there is not). By this I mean that if a previously undetected child is discovered through the PSC to have decoding difficulties, the answer is really not as simple as “just apply more phonics.” Surely the cause of the difficulty should be determined? Causes can range from the quality of teaching, not enough support at home, delayed progress due to English as a Second Language (ESL) and/or Specific Learning Difficulties (SpLD) ranging from Speech and Language Impairment (SLI), auditory processing issues, dyslexia and numerous comorbid variations. These factors require different approaches and interventions.

As a rationale I have even read that decoding ‘alien’ words are necessary to enjoy texts such as Carroll & Dahl. Surely, words “we haven’t met yet” are many when you are only six! Nonsense can be introduced in context in a variety of stimulating texts without making nonsense up for its own sake! “DfE are demeaning integrity of teachers. Trust between teacher and pupil is lost by passing ‘nonsense’ as education.” @jellyandbean1.

“Word decoding automatically leads to meaning when the meaning of the words is adequately established in memory.”

The literature underpins that linguistic meaning is distinct from comprehension. Comprehension of an idea is different to understanding specific individual vocabulary!

“Good readers may slip through the net without the P check.”

This I understand to mean that strugglers can adopt strategies to mask their difficulties. I acknowledge that many undiagnosed dyslexics fall into this category.

Yet, ultimately I am left with this unanswered question, after a full academic year of teaching the same class of children, how much does a teacher really need the phonics check to discern who is struggling with decoding?

One SP teacher tweeted

“the tiny fraction that don’t progress…most likely would have been on your radar long before then.”

My personal experience is supported by the literature that early signs can be detected in nursery and reception. Therefore, aren’t those experiencing problems already obvious? If not, there must be something going wrong within the classroom system long before the phonics ‘check’ is given, such as:

“In a busy classroom a teacher may not realise the extent to which a child is struggling to decode without P check.”

Shouldn’t we be addressing that underlying issue?The bottom line is that the level of intensity or standard of any taught intervention is not being monitored. Really, what is the point of a test (oops, sorry a “check”) without a recommended differentiated/individualised intervention? For readers who are struggling, the phonics screening alone does not differentiate those who may have dyslexia from those who may have auditory processing issues, speech/language impairment or common comorbid difficulties? One SP teacher tweeted me “Struggling readers simply need more practice and it can be delivered by anyone who understands phonics.”

The literature states:

“A comprehensive evaluation is necessary to determine the appropriate diagnosis for children who present with reading weaknesses.”

This is particularly topical given the government restructure of special education needs (SEN) policy places provision on shifting sand.My son goes to a school rated as outstanding by Ofsted, he gets support at home, and from a specialist tutor outside of school once a week, yet he is still a struggling reader. So, he is not simply lacking in practice. Does he just need more intensive SP? I believe the correct approach to be a multi-faceted sensorial strategy that keeps him engaged with the process of reading and addresses the underlying issue of improving his poor working memory rather than undermining his intellect & self- esteem with just more exclusive SP delivered in the same way.

The documentary film ‘The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia’ launched Dyslexia Awareness Week. It highlights:

“Because Dyslexia is a spectrum disorder, not the same tools work the best for every child the same way.” Andrew Friedman.

Scarily, seemingly not for the SP witches of the wor(l)d!

I intend to refrain from writing further on this topic whilst I focus on fighting the good fight for the appropriate targeted help for my son, so I shall leave you with some real words of warning, particularly as Halloween is approaching:
If you can’t see the wood for the trees, be very careful out there! “Alien words” and “phonic witches” are lurking in the dark!

Related links:

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