And then, I received this rebuttal of David Hornsby's claims. You can only imagine how long it must have taken to write this rebuttal - such is the passion, outrage and concern that teachers are being provided with such misinformation that potentially prevents the nation's children from being well-taught in foundation literacy knowledge and skills:
A rebuttal of David Hornsby’s ‘The Role of Phonics in Learning to be Literate: Sydney Symposium 10 February 2018
Here I address the ideas and outline errors David Hornsby makes in his Sydney Symposium lecture.
1. ‘Meaning’ as ultimate goal
Hornsby’s premise is that, ‘The basic message from the Australian Curriculum is ‘combining’ of context, semantics, grammar and phonic knowledge when working in some sort of literate practise. But, “I don’t see anywhere, I don’t see anywhere in our new curriculum that we can teach phonics in isolation or that we can abandon meaning. The whole of the Australian Curriculum is meaning-based.”’ [1:17]
Hornsby’s major focus is that reading is all about meaning. As an analogy, he probably sees the car as all about the driving too. Fair enough, but, as we all know, both words and cars are made up of parts. Sometimes the bonnet has to be opened and the engine examined; sometimes the word has to be picked apart. Not all car owners are expert mechanics and know what’s going on in there; not all readers are competent at comprehending the orthographic squiggles on the page. Not all car motorists are F1 drivers; not all readers feel confident battling through the traffic on the worded-page. Yes, both the motorist and the reader want to get to their desired destination and understand and appreciate their journey, but their lack of skills will certainly determine the speed and enjoyment of their trip. To finally arrive at ‘Meaning’ can be a difficult expedition.
As will be become obvious, Hornsby’s premise misses the foundational aspect. For beginning readers the phonic part is tantamount and for many it requires specific teaching and learning. Yes, meaning is of course ultimately the goal of reading, but this can also apply to an analogous meal too: each ingredient is important, added when necessary, and without the careful combination of each then the meal will be a mess.
Let’s explore Hornsby’s arguments.
2. decode/recode –
The word ‘recode’ is one that teachers seemingly are unfamiliar with. Since Hornsby has to dutifully inform his enthusiastic crowd of this word and its meaning, please pardon my initial unfamiliarity. Even a search through the Australian Curriculum when ‘recode’ was entered came up with 0 results. From the AC’s POV, it mustn’t hold much weight. With regard to his definition of decoding, he is being slightly mischievous. Strictly speaking, the conversion of print to sound (which is then matched with a word in the lexicon to retrieve meaning) is known in academic research as 'phonological recoding'. However, it is much more commonly referred to in reading research literature as 'decoding'.
The following information from Knoepke, et al, in “Phonological recoding, orthographic decoding, and comprehension skills during reading acquisition (2014)” addresses the finer points of phonological recoding/orthographical decoding:
“To become skillful readers, children have to acquire the ability to translate printed words letter by letter into phonemic representations (phonological recoding) and the ability to recognize the written word forms holistically (orthographical decoding). Whereas phonological recoding is the key for learning to read and useful for recognizing unknown or low-frequent words, orthographical decoding is often more efficient and takes less time, thus facilitating reading processes on the sentence and text level.”
“Beginning readers must recode an unknown written word at least once letter by letter before information about its orthographic form can be added to the mental lexicon. As a consequence, phonological recoding is the prerequisite for the development of the orthographical decoding route. Thus, beginning readers should basically rely on the phonological route because almost every word in its written form is new and unknown to them. Only recognizing the same written word over and over again allows the reader to build up a representation of the word form as part of the mental lexicon. These orthographical representations can then be used for word recognition as well, either in a direct way (lexical route according to the DRC model, Coltheart et al. 2001) or in concert with phonological and meaning representations (according to the triangle model, Plaut et al. 1996). Thus, the assumption seems reasonable that word recognition in beginning readers is primarily accomplished via the phonological recoding route and in experienced readers via the orthographical decoding route.”
“To conclude, our results consistently demonstrate the significant role that both phonological recoding and orthographical decoding skills play in successful reading comprehension throughout the elementary school years”
So, is Hornsby hijacking words and terms that have specific meanings in the scientific research literature and redefining them to suit his purposes? Yes.
In a nutshell, Hornsby's key deficit in understanding is that he wants to skip the phonology aspect of reading. He thinks that because expert readers seemingly go straight from print to meaning, that novice readers do the same. This is a fundamental error. This fundamental error is being passed on to today’s teachers
Hornsby initially focusses on that the student isn’t reading for meaning when they read the letters g-a-m-p. That’s OK in this situation. In this circumstance the student is being asked to read a string of letters to see whether or not they can understand the individual sounds and THEN put them into an appropriate combination.
Hornsby asks, “What my question is to people who believe in the use of nonsense words, if you want to use ‘gamp’, why wouldn’t you use ‘camp’, or ‘damp’ or ‘lamp’, for goodness’ sake?” [3:40]
The reason is threefold:
Firstly, the example (from MultiLit) is measuring a student’s ability to decode (in this case) individual phonemes and assess that student’s strengths and weaknesses. This is used diagnostically to show strategies that are used when a reader sees a word for the first time: how accurate are their word-attack skills?; do they guess from the first sound?; use letter names rather than the phonemes?; mix-up letter names and phonemes?; or does the student systematically sound the word out and blend it together? According to research (Ravthon, N., 2004) “… pseudoword decoding is the best single predictor of word identification for poor and normal readers” and is the “… most reliable indicator of reading disabilities”. By using pseudowords a lot is gleaned in discovering the child’s mastery of the alphabetic principle as well as their ability to blend sounds into a unit of language.
Secondly, the reason to use pseudowords/nonsense words is that the child may recognise a certain word and repeat it accurately yet is unable to use those similar letters/sounds in a different word. Thus, known-word knowledge is not being assessed but their capacity to utilise similar letter combinations. Again, using pseudowords is a powerful tool for assessment.
And thirdly, what if the student is presented with the word ‘c-a-m-p’ and does not know it? They have never had exposure to that word or concept. To them c-a-m-p is a pseudoword.
Does that mean that the word is unusable since, for the student, no meaning is available?
Pseudowords are used as an analytical tool. Students need to work on the skills necessary for quick and accurate decoding of unknown words (alphabetic principle, letter-sound correspondence, blending, etc.) and this can be readily discovered from using this assessment tool. Remember, every word a child meets for the first time is initially a non-word.
When students read the Harry Potter series for the first time, they are confronted with words such as basilisk, dementor, expecto patronum, hinkpunk, and Hufflepuff (to name but a few) that were either coined by the author or co-opted into her universe. This also applies to readers of Star Wars, Star Trek and numerous other fantasy and sci-fi worlds. Each word is unknown at first sight. Each needs decoding. Decoding of the letter-sound correspondence is the initial task. None of these words are imbued with meaning. Meaning comes later.
As a thought experiment, the following words are provided to a student: draff; famulus; afreet; bumbo, skelf, hwyl
Firstly, these ‘nonsense’ words are decodable. So, initially the student would show their level of understanding of the alphabetic code. They would show their skill in blending these letters together. They would show their current level of confidence and fluency as well. An assessment of certain specific skill-sets could be made.
‘But they have no meaning!’ would be the cry from the battlements. ‘They shouldn’t be used!’
The pseudowords I chose were actually real words. There was meaning attached to each, just that the reader may not have known it. As a young reader meeting new words constantly, ‘meaning’ of known concepts comes after successful decoding. They will, of course, meet many words that they as yet do not know the meaning thereof, so pseudo-like words are met daily. Without initially trying to use decoding skills, the reader won’t be able to even attempt correct pronunciation(s) let alone meaning. ‘Meaning’ is the ultimate goal, but the journey starts with phonemic awareness and decoding. That you don’t know the meaning doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use your letter-sound correspondence knowledge to actively work out a word. How many times has a student asked a parent or teacher, “What’s a ______?” having utilised their decoding skills? Provide the child with the skills to attempt the unknown.
FYI: draff - dregs or refuse; famulus - a magician’s assistant; afreet - a powerful jinn in Arabian and Muslim culture; bumbo - a drink of rum, sugar, water and nutmeg; ‘skelf - a splinter of wood’ in Scottish; and hwyl - ‘goodbye’ in Welsh
As Hornsby states, “Let’s actually clear this up once and for all.” [3:35] I agree.
PS A gamp is ‘an umbrella, especially a large unwieldy one.’
4. ‘”I want to prove to you that phonics alone is often not enough to decode” [4:33]
Hornsby sets up a deceptive stance where he suggests that phonics should never be a standalone. No one in the phonics-advocacy community suggest it should be a phonics-alone approach. He posits this in his opening statements. What is advocated is more and better coverage of phonemic awareness and phonics in early literacy, and also in interventions for students who are struggling to read and spell words accurately. Phonemic awareness, vocabulary, comprehension and fluency are all important.
Having said that, approximately fifty percent of English words can be spelled accurately by sound–symbol correspondence alone, and another thirty six percent can be spelled accurately except for one speech sound. Only four percent are truly irregular. Phonics certainly has a dominant role to play.
Then, Hornsby provides to his audience a few heteronyms [lead, tear, permit] yet states, “You are allowed only one correct answer!” [5:00]
Hornsby’s biased argument is evident: one must rely on his initial limited use of the term ‘decoding’. The audience is then limited to one choice. This activity is NAPLANesque in the “one correct answer”, he states, but it is obvious that it is not real-world based. He informs the audience that if a student cannot decode the meaning of the words presented, since they are not contextually presented, then the meaning will not be gathered from reading. Reliance for understanding would have to arise from elsewhere or not at all.
He makes a ludicrous statement when, through audience-involvement, the word ‘lead’ read out. The audience member says “lead” (as in lead singer) and then the audience is asked to, “Tell her what it should be!” and they say “lead” (as in lead pencil).
Hornsby states, “No one in the room can read that word, and neither can I because I don’t know what it means.”[5:40] Amazingly, everybody in the audience read that word and was able to do so in two different ways. That they could read the word showed the exact antithesis of his statement! He then asserts that because “… he has the meaning he can make the phonics work.” Without the phonics the sound/letter strings would have meant nothing. With letter-sound correspondence knowledge you can read it and provide two different words. Specific meaning for that word in situ comes later, but the audience proved that the word could be read in more than one way.
As he later states, “If the phonics can work in more than one way”[6:44] then it is imperative upon us as teachers to ensure that the students realise and are taught that graphemes/phonograms can be, and are, utilised in multiple ways.
Hornsby then states: “What’s the point, what’s the point in having graphophonic knowledge if we can’t use it if meaning and/or structure are missing?” [6:25] The point is we can use it and we do with the skill of knowing that some words have the same spelling but different meanings and pronunciations. If you did not know, there are approximately only seventy heteronyms in the English language. That’s not many. Context is important, but being able to decode these words is the initial need.
5. ‘We can’t decode nonsense words’
Hornsby focuses upon 3 pseudowords taken, as he states, from the UK Phonics Test [plood, pove, nowl][7:24]. He highlights to the audience, with one finger held high, that, “the tests allow only one correct answer” [7:50]. He then goes on to state that, “If you don’t guess the correct one, then tough …” His slide shows the three sounds of /oo/, three of the sounds of /o/ especially with a –ve ending, and the two sounds associated with /ow/.
He inadvertently shows to the audience that graphophonic knowledge applied to even pseudowords has an incredible teaching capacity! He shares with the audience his knowledge of phonograms, his knowledge of ‘silent final e’ and ‘v at the end of a base word’, and he shares with the audience his ability to use these in different ways in words. Imagine if he taught students or teachers such concepts and how to master them!
Now, to the absolute mistruth that he previously declared shows just how desperate he is to ensure his audience takes away absolute propaganda. As noted, he categorically stated there to be only one correct answer in the Phonics Test.
From the Phonics Screening Check 2017 Scoring Guidance - Pronunciation of Real Words and Pseudo-Words: “Some of the graphemes used in the check represent a number of different phonemes. When decoding a real word in the check, the pupil has to select the correct phoneme for the word, for example the ‘ow’ in ‘blow’ should not be pronounced as the ‘ow’ in ‘cow’. However, when decoding a pseudo-word, all plausible alternative pronunciations are acceptable.” Furthermore, “Some of the pseudo-words in the screening check contain vowel digraphs that end with ‘r’, such as ‘ur’. In a small number of regional dialects, the ‘r’ in words with these vowel digraphs is voiced and pupils who speak with these dialects will be known to their teachers. For these pupils, pseudo-words with a vowel digraph ending in ‘r’, such as ‘murbs’, may be pronounced as /mɜːrbs/ instead of /mɜːbs/. These pronunciations are acceptable alternatives in the relevant pseudo-words.”
This information is taken from the 2017 Phonics Screening Check. This information was also in the 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012 Scoring Guidance information package. His lecture was from 2018.
Also, I have tried to find the words ‘plood, pove and nowl’ in any of the UK Phonics Tests from 2012 to 2017. I cannot find them. Where exactly did Hornsby get these words? I know. They’re located in ‘Dyslexia, Speech and Language: A Practitioner's Handbook’, edited by Snowling and Stackhouse. The words are used for error analysis. It seems as though I have also analysed Hornsby’s error-count and it’s quite high!
Hornsby states that the Phonics Test is, “… an appalling test of phonics knowledge, it’s also immoral.” I’d suggest ethically and honestly communicating with teachers is also what a principled educator would do.
6. ‘We cannot teach phonics as if there is a one-to-one relationship between sounds and letters’
Hornsby has the audience undertake a task that focusses on affixes on the word sign: signal, signature, assign and design. He notes that, “The ‘g’ in that word has absolutely no phonological function” [9:49].
Unfortunately, Hornsby does not recognise (or chooses not to tell his audience) that the phonogram 'gn' is code for the sound /n/ at the beginning and end of a base word. In the words sign, assign and design the 'gn' is code for the sound /n/ at the end of the base word. He could have also added other prefixes and compound words such as countersign, overdesign, reconsign, outdesign, reassign, consign and resign, are all from the base word ‘sign’. As noted, the morpheme that is consistent in all of his five words is ‘sign’. Hornsby then states, “It is the meaning that determines how we spell it, how we sound it out, and everything else we do.”[10:35] Regrettably, Hornsby could have shown his audience how to split ‘signal’ and ‘signature’ into their syllabified parts (sig - nal, sig - na - ture) and show them that the 'g' does now have a phonological function as code for the sound /g/. What a wasted moment!
He then focuses on the two sounds of ‘s’ - /s/ & /z/. He informs the audience that, “The spelling hasn’t changed. It’s more tied to meaning!” Well, no, it’s tied to easier pronunciation. Try ‘de|sign’ then try ‘de|zign’. The English world has a preference because of its ease of saying, such as desire and designate. If it is more “tied to meaning”, then we would say the /s/ sound because we would be focussing on ‘sign’.
He states, “We cannot teach phonics as if there isn’t a one-to-one relationship between letters and sounds.” Hallelujah! He’s got something correct! Some sounds may have up to four letters assigned, some phonograms have up to six sounds assigned. But unfortunately, once again, he could have used this moment to explicitly show the important role of phonograms, such as 'gn', and individual graphemes that are code for more than one sound, like 's', but he didn’t.
By the way, when s-i-g-n was displayed, I was confused. It is a word but since it was not contextually presented I did not understand its meaning and, of course, no one in the room could have read that word either because no one knows what it specifically means. Is it about a token, an object, an action, an event, a pattern, a conventional or arbitrary mark, a figure, a symbol, a motion, a gesture, a notice, a trace, a vestige, a musical notation, a part of sign language, an omen or a portent, an objective indication of disease, one from the zodiac, or something mathematical? Whoa. Even with all the combined graphophonic knowledge in the audience, since meaning and/or structure were missing, no one could possibly read it …