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Misty Adoniou writes a damaging anti-phonics article

Posted: Sun Dec 20, 2015 7:26 pm
by Debbie_Hepplewhite
The article below by Misty Adoniou which appeared in 'The Conversation' caused quite some consternation amongst the DDOLL network members when it was published in November 2015. So much so, that Jennifer Buckingham requested a radio interview to address some of the issues raised in the article as Misty arguably undermines the importance of phonics provision in schools.

You can find the link to Jennifer's radio interview at the bottom of this post.

I was not going to address Misty's article personally until I heard from a wonderful lady in Costa Rica who has worked very hard over a number of years to promote 'systematic synthetic phonics' teaching in the British School of Costa Rica which IFERI features as achieving standards in phonics decoding which were higher than the national average achieved in England - which you can read about here (see the bottom paragraph on this page):

See Misty Adoniou's actual article which I have copied and pasted to address point-by-point below. My comments in response are in blue: ... rams-50702
Seven things to consider before you buy into phonics programs

by Misty Adoniou
Senior Lecturer in Language, Literacy and TESL, University of Canberra

Phonics, or teaching reading, writing and spelling through sounds, is often touted as the golden path to reading and writing.
'Phonics' consists of the letter/s-sound correspondences of the alphabetic code (not just 'sounds') and the phonics skills of 'sounding out and blending' (decoding for reading) and 'oral segmenting the sounds from beginning to end of spoken words and allotting letters and letter groups as code for those sounds' (encoding for spelling). It is research that has demonstrated the importance of explicit, systematic phonics teaching for the most effective reading instruction - especially for the English language which has the most complex alphabetic code in the world.
National curricula in England and Australia have been rejigged to increase their focus on phonics, and entrepreneurs and publishers have rushed to fill the space with phonics programs and resources.
The importance of explicit and systematic phonics teaching has been recognised in significant national enquiries in America (2000), Australia (2005) and in England (2003 - 6). There were already very good phonics programmes in those countries and further phonics programmes have been produced on the basis of the research - some of which are no doubt high-quality, maybe some are lesser-so - but the advent of more emphasis on phonics programmes, resources and practices is very important - a 'good thing'.

But before you buy their wares, consider the following.

1. English is not a phonetic language

This may be an inconvenient truth for those promoting phonics programs, but English is not a phonetic language and never has been.

English began about 1500 years ago as a trio of Germanic dialects brought over to the islands we now know as the British Isles. Latin speaking missionaries arrived soon after to convert the pagans to Christianity. They also began to write the local lingo down, using their Latin alphabet.

The Latin alphabet was a good phonetic match for spoken Latin, but it was not a good match for spoken Old English.

There were sounds in Old English that simply didn’t exist in spoken Latin, so there were no Latin letters for them. And there were sounds in Latin that didn’t exist in Old English, which left some Latin letters languishing.

Those letters were repurposed and some new letters were introduced. It was a messy match, and 1500 years of language evolution has only increased the distance between the sounds we make, and the letters we write.

As a result, English is alphabetic, but not phonetic. There is a simple sound letter match in only about 12% of words in English. How much of your literacy programming and budget do you want to allocate to that statistic?
All spoken languages are 'phonetic' in that they consist of sounds. What Misty refers to here is the complex (and fascinating) history of the English language - both the spoken language and the written language has a complex history. This has resulted in a complex alphabetic code - all the more reason for this phonics alphabetic code (the letter/s-sound correspondences) to be taught well and learnt well. The better the learner is taught and understands the complexities of the English alphabetic code, the better the learner can 'decode' new printed words - many of which will not be in the spoken language of the learner. This means that phonics is essential for decoding new words - enabling the learner to derive a pronunciation for those new words - to enable the new words to be added to spoken language.

Misty's reference to the 12% of 'a simple sound letter match' is very misleading because the more letter/s-sound correspondences of the alphabetic code that learners are taught (for example, letter groups which are code for the sounds), along with cumulative, decodable material to practise the phonics skills, the more words become decodable to the learners. This hugely raises the statistics of the percentage of 'decodable' words.

2. Sounds are free

The sounds and letters of the English language are the ultimate open access knowledge. Buying them in a packaged program is just a con.

If you weren’t shown the sound-letter relationships in your teaching degree, shame on your degree, but in any case you can Google them or find them in the preface of a good dictionary.
I agree that 'sounds and letters of the English language' should be 'open access knowledge'. In fact, that is why I provide a variety of free to download English alphabetic code charts, see here:

I also agree with Misty when she writes, 'If you weren't shown the sound-letter relationships in your teaching degree, shame on your degree' - but I'm not convinced that all student-teachers are adequately trained in phonics or provided with exemplar alphabetic codes. If Misty truly understood the importance of phonics for teaching reading and spelling, surely she would not have written this article in the tone in which it presents.

Further, whilst it is not at all hard for parents or teachers to teach learners to apply some alphabetic code knowledge and to 'sound and blend' to discern the target words for reading, nevertheless, it can be a very tall order for busy teachers to provide a rich-enough and sustained body of phonics-based work to support the teaching of reading and spelling to advanced levels in large classes with a wide variety of learners.

3. Knowing your sounds is not the same as reading

I know all my sounds in French. I even sound reasonably convincing - in an Inspector Clouseau kind of way - when I “read” French. But I have no comprehension, so I’m not really reading.

Children who are failing in literacy in upper primary and high school are not failing because they don’t know their sounds. They are failing because they can’t comprehend.

Observe their attempts to read, write and spell and one thing is very clear - they know their sounds, and they over rely on them. Give them a phonics program and you are giving them more of what isn’t working for them.
This is a broad, sweeping statement based on what? Learners cannot 'over rely' on their letter/s-sound correspondences. Phonics application for reading or spelling new, longer and more challenging words are life-long requisites - in fact, Misty suggests they are all over relying on their phonics knowledge. This is simply not true and how can she possibly know what is going on in English lessons across the world?

Teachers do need to know, however, whether they need to address their pupils' language comprehension or their technical alphabetic code knowledge and blending skill and word recognition, or both, and this can be shown helpfully using the Simple View of Reading diagram - a model for reading which was recommended by Sir Jim Rose in his Final Report for the independent review of reading in England in 2006. I provide a version of the diagram for the Simple View of Reading which helps to identify learners' reading profiles in broad terms and which can be useful for teachers and parents: ... _model.pdf

In effect, 'reading' in the full sense consists of the technical ability to lift the words off the page and the language comprehension to understand the words that have been lifted. So the two main processes for being a reader are based on:

1) What ARE the words?
2) What do the words MEAN?

4. Politicians are not educators

The push for phonics in England and Australia was spearheaded very conspicuously, almost personally, by the respective former Education Ministers Gove and Pyne. Politicians may have many skills… but they are not educators, and they are not educational researchers.

Educational reforms should not be shaped by personal predilections or political agendas.
When you consider the importance of literacy for all, then it is arguably entirely right that politicians - whom we elect to represent our interests - should take an interest in the research on reading - and investigate why it is that there is so much weak literacy in English-speaking countries. Some politicians in particular have risen to the challenge of genuine investigations into the body of research and have then addressed this in association with political colleagues and educators. All credit to those politicians. I can vouch that in England this has been entirely a cross-party issue, and several consecutive governments have risen to the challenge of investigating the research, and leading-edge practice in schools, to promote evidence-informed practice - which has resulted in promoting the need for systematic synthetic phonics!

5. Programs get it wrong

The narrow focus on sounds and letter patterns in phonics programs obscures more useful information for learning to read, write and spell. On occasion the material presented is just plain wrong.

A popular phonics workbook offers the following explanation for the word “technician”.

“Technician is a technical word. Although it is pronounced ‘shun’ at the end, it belongs to the word family ending in ‘cian’”
Teaching “cian” as a word family is linguistically inaccurate, and fails to teach how the word “technician” actually works.

“ian” is the suffix we attach to base words ending in “ic”, to turn them into the person who does the base word. So “technic” becomes “technician”, “magic” becomes “magician”, “electric” becomes “electrician” etc.

This knowledge develops spelling, builds vocabulary and increases reading comprehension. Being told that “cian” makes the “shun” sound does none of this.
Phonics programmes may well get some things wrong or present them in different ways from Misty's preferred ways, but once again this is such a general sweeping statement as to be valueless. Of course teachers must evaluate the phonics programmes they are considering using and then make informed choices.
6. Colouring-in is not literacy

Sticking balls of crepe paper on the letter “j” is not a good use of literacy learning time. Neither is colouring in all the pictures on the worksheet that start with “b”, particularly if you thought that picture of the beads was a necklace. And is that a jar or a bottle?

Busy work does not teach children to read and write.
There can be an issue of 'busy work' and 'time-fillers' in phonics programmes and activities, but once again, this is for parents and teachers to evaluate and decide. This is for the supporting adult to understand (it may be a matter for professional information and training) and it may also depend on the age of the learners. What might be OK for a three year old is not necessarily suitable for an older learner. Sometimes, however, drawing and colouring-in can provide a mnemonic or 'aid to memory' or 'engagement' factor. Sir Jim Rose warned about 'extraneous activities' in his Final Report and teachers do need to be made fully aware of this issue. The point here is 'what is fit-for-purpose' within phonics programmes - not that phonics programmes are not valuable.

Misty's point 6. is not proof that phonics programmes generally are not important or effective.
7. There are no easy routes to literacy

Learning to read, write and spell is complex. The brain is not hardwired for literacy in the way it is hardwired for speech.

Each individual brain has to learn to read and write, and because our brains, our genes and our environments are all different, the pathways to literacy that our brains construct will be different.

If a single program could respond to this diversity then we would have solved the literacy problem a few hundred years ago when printed texts for the masses first took off.

Of course there are accounts of students whose progress was turned around by a phonics program - the comments section of this post will no doubt have some of those testimonials - but there are many more who languish in those programs.

Phonics programs can be helpful for students with very particular learning needs, but solutions to pointy end problems are not helpful for all learners.

The alternative?

Consider what the problem is that you are trying to solve before you commit to buying a phonics program.

If the problem is your students write phonetically, and cannot read phonically irregular words, then more phonics is not the solution.

If the problems are reading comprehension and quality of writing, then invest in your library and your staff. Buy quality literature and spend money on professional learning.
Who has said that 'a single programme' can provide all the solutions to achieving literacy (although, if Misty did but know it, there are some excellent phonics programmes that may well indeed teach all the learners to read, spell and write very well)? What is so sad, even damaging, about this piece is the tone of negativity towards phonics programmes and yet the body of research on reading instruction is very clearly pointing to the need for explicit, systematic phonics programmes - regardless of the learners' individuality and special needs.

Sir Jim Rose in his Final Report pointed out that regardless of the individuality of the learner, it is the SAME alphabetic code knowledge and phonics skills that ALL children need.

It is notable that throughout Misty's entire piece, she does not provide an iota of research evidence.

See the second post here for a link to Jennifer Buckingham's radio interview to address Misty's misinformation: ... ?f=3&t=496