King Solomon’s judgement

As a child I was bemused by the apparent wisdom of King Solomon. You may be familiar with the story. Two mothers from the same household came to the king both claiming that a baby was theirs and that the other mother’s baby had been accidentally smothered. Solomon called for a sword and proposed to cut the baby in half to resolve the conflict over whose baby it was. At this point the real mother agreed to relinquish the baby, preferring it to live, even if it was no longer her own. So far, so sensible. It was the other woman’s attitude that never made sense to me. Her jealousy meant she preferred to prevent the other mother keeping the child, even if that led to the death of the baby and so she agreed to Solomon’s proposal.  But how could anyone agree to the destruction of something as precious as a baby? Surely the woman must have been aware that such a disregard for the child’s well being would give her away?

A recent twitter discussion made me reappraise my childhood dismissal of Solomon’s judgement. If you are not regularly on ‘teacher twitter’ you may not be aware that no holiday is complete without a phonics spat. The phonics screening check was the topic of discussion. This check in year one is strongly supported by advocates of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and condemned by opponents as pointless and harmful. I think the reason discussions become so heated is because everyone involved really cares about getting the teaching of reading right. What is most interesting is that both sides claim to really value giving children a knowledge of phonics and decoding (sounding out) as a means to decode words, whether as the exclusive strategy or one of a number of possible approaches. So phonics decoding is my metaphorical baby, both sides claiming to love it but how will they respond to Solomon’s test of their commitment?

On twitter recently someone who claims to support phonics complained about the need to ‘learn’ the practice non words set home. (In the check children are told these are made up words and they are used to check a child really can ‘sound out’ and hasn’t just memorised enough words in the check as wholes. Non words have been a standard part of tests conducted for many years by educational psychologists to detect reading problems in children.) I had never before heard of children being asked to learn non words as wholes. It is pointless because the non words used change each year. It also displays an ignorance of how you might improve children’s performance in the check. You can get better by practicing ‘sounding out’ words with growing confidence. I tweeted back that:

“Learning non words will not help you pass the phonics check at all. Total waste of time.”

To which she replied:

“I know that – it’s using whole word techniques for decoding but the system is rotten.”

One reply to the original tweeter said that:

“it’s bad practice but high stakes-ness means inevitable.”

I cannot begin to comprehend how anyone that believes it is useful for children to be able to decode text by ‘sounding out’ could describe this approach as just ‘bad practice’ and then in the next line suggest it is the pressure of having a check which is the problem, not incompetence.

1. Why is there desperation to get enough kids passing the check? Over 600 schools had 95% or more children pass the check, including schools with pupils drawn from areas with high levels of deprivation/ high FSM.

2. If so few of the children in your class are likely to pass that you opt for desperate measures the children must be relying on ‘other methods’ such as guessing from first letters, pictures or context and not even likely to resort to ‘sounding out’ when other methods fail. In other words they have not been taught to use phonics as even a regular, let alone primary or exclusive, method to decode words. It is actually statutory for phonic decoding to be THE method used for decoding.

3. Anyone that thinks learning non words will help must be ignorant of why it is a waste of time which shows ignorance of even basic understanding of phonics teaching. Lots of schools don’t prioritise ‘sounding out’ when their children read books and so their pupils use guessing strategies. Most at least of these schools realise that lots of sounding out practice is the way forward in the run up to the check.

Rather than condemning the check for adding pressure anyone that wants children to use decoding (even as one strategy among others) would surely be relieved that the check has highlighted any failure to teach confident phonic decoding or even appreciate it is the solution to passing the check.

I have used these tweets as examples but the attitudes they show are very common. If you in any way value the teaching of phonics such practices would horrify you and you could not possibly be satisfied with your own children being taught using any methods that mean they cannot use phonic decoding with confidence to read. It seems that here we have another version of king Solomon’s test. If anyone promotes reading strategies that, by their nature, mean children are unlikely to develop confident phonic decoding skills, they simply are NOT supporters of phonic decoding.

I have often wondered how teachers can so openly show that they do not teach in ways that will lead to children confidently decoding with phonics and yet still claim to value it. I think Solomon was onto something. Perhaps people really do hide their lack of real concern for things they claim to value in plain sight. Really that lack of value is shown by all schools that encourage ‘mixed methods’. To learn and confidently use phonic decoding requires systematic practice which is not provided by the books used in most schools. We all know perfectly well that the majority of children faced with the option of guessing with books specifically written to encourage this, or a slightly more laborious approach of sounding out will opt for the former. To decode with phonics eyes must scan left to right through each whole word. With ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from. The two approaches are not even compatible. Children that are thrown by the words in the check will also be unable to use phonic decoding to read unfamiliar words in their reading books. You cannot get young children (or anyone) to use two different strategies as habit, simultaneously. Generally either they guess from cues or they read through the word. If they are in the habit of reading by guessing (mixed methods), they will have very limited practice of sounding out and are significantly less likely to do so confidently when reading books.

When the evidence for the importance of phonics became too overwhelming to ignore many teachers had a strong ideological commitment to other methods or had always used them. It made sense to tack on some token phonics to your usual whole word approaches. The screening check picks up where this is happening and so I am not surprised it is so vehemently opposed by some who claim support phonics.

Update 5/4/15 Although the material in the original version of this post was all in the public domain I have again edited this post, on request, to protect privacy.


8 thoughts on “King Solomon’s judgement

  1. We know from the NFER May 2014 survey of teachers’ views on phonics and the Year One Phonics Screening Check that multi-cueing reading strategies are alive and kicking in England. I see hardworking teachers everywhere but, sadly, this does not mean that the children themselves get the right kind of practice. For a start, there is far too much emphasis on mini whiteboard work which is about spelling, not blending, and not good for handwriting – and some schools are too concerned about disguising phonics practice with ‘games’ as if it is medicine to be swallowed!

    Here is a graphic I’ve drawn up showing different profiles of schools as an example of how phonics provision can vary from school to school:

  2. The brain is far cleverer than you give it credit for – even simple ones. I needed a variety of ‘decoding skills’ to interpret your tweets – but managed to do so.

  3. I can’t get beyond the feeling that the words were sent home specifically for nonword *practice* of sounding out and blending, but I agree that if they were sent home for learning as sight words the exercise was pointless. Why any teacher would enter into the pointless exercise is baffling – you have to wonder whether pressure was exerted from someone out of touch further up the chain having a careless thought that there might be some value in preparation for the format of the check. I suppose we’ll never know. Decisions in schools can be hurried through and the teacher may secretly regret this one.

    It remains that preparation for the check has to involve decoding of nonwords or very unfamiliar words to truly check that children are sounding out and blending, and it sounds likely that this may happen in this teacher’s classroom – great prep for the check, not such good prep for reading.

    1. As in reading most people encounter unknown words from time to time, however ‘well read’ they are, and 6 year olds have an immediate future ahead of them of encountering a huge number of unknown words, it seems that sounding out and blending is an excellent ‘prep’ for is, after all, a lifelong skill, not something to be abandoned in Y2.

      1. The more efficiently the reader decodes any new words they come across the more fluent and accessible the text. SSP is not actually the most efficient decoding method once the basic codes are known, and skilled readers do not use it in most cases. They use word knowledge known from reading and understanding – morphemic cues, grammar. The faster they leave a laborious, guess-laden SP approach the more they are able to devote energy to understanding and following text.

        Good prep for reading is reading real words in genuine contexts with the support of a well-thought out progression of skills. Understanding as well as decoding are supported.

  4. Solomon transcended the women’s rhetoric and got to the nub of the matter. Both sides of the phonics debate skate over the history of human communication. It’s a long history, but can be summarized very quickly: The link between written and spoken English is the Alphabetic Code. The Code is what enables the phonics debate and your reading this comment . You and I inescapably speak English differently, and differ in innumerable other ways, but the Code makes it possible for us to communicate with common understanding (+/-). That’s a “big deal.”

    To reliably teach children how to read doesn’t require an understanding of all the linguistic complexity of communication, of all the psychological complexity of learning, or all the biological complexity of the human organism. These matters are “nice to know,” but they aren’t necessary. What is necessary is to teach each child how to handle the Alphabetic Code, and that’s where the pedagogical practice gets tangled.

    It happens that the Yr 1 Screening Check is a “good enough” psychometrically sound instrument “fit for purpose” of identifying individuals who need further instruction in how to handle the Code. That’s another “big deal.” The Check is being used in England at the end of Yr 1 and at the end of Yr 2, which is very reasonable, But it is “fit for purpose” anywhere/any time.

    Although the Check is very simple, it’s application is a “disruptive technology” for everyone–ranging from psychometrists to parents–hence the twitter-fighting. The twittering is healthy because it concretizes complicated matters like the homework flagged in the blog.

    Instructionally/pedagogically, the Check is important because further analysis of the results and further “data” as the cadre of children who have taken the Check continue their schooling will eventually transcend the current rhetoric–just like Solomon (+/-).

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