Dismissal of research leaves us stuck in the reading wars

Misinformed criticisms of our work show reconciliation of the reading wars is still some way off, write Alice Bradbury and Dominic Wyse, but we remain committed to it

Misinformed criticisms of our work show reconciliation of the reading wars is still some way off, write Alice Bradbury and Dominic Wyse, but we remain committed to it

28 Feb 2022, 5:00

Our ‘landmark study’ on the teaching of phonics and reading, along with its accompanying open letter to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, attracted a range of press coverage, including in Schools Week.

To briefly summarise one of our main arguments, we think that the teaching of reading in England has become unbalanced and hence is not as effective as it should be. We also discuss how England’s national curriculum programmes for teaching reading are significantly different to successful English-dominant regions such as Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. We cite evidence from a survey of teachers that suggests that a ‘phonics first and foremost’ approach has become dominant in early years and key stage one classrooms in England and question whether this aligns with the existing research evidence.

The overwhelming response to this work has been positive, with hundreds of comments online and personal correspondence from academics, teachers, parents and grandparents keen to discuss the use of phonics and their own experiences of teaching children to read. In fact, since publication we have received further evidence of how much phonics can dominate – with children spending hours a day on phonics alone and separate phonics lessons distinct from other aspects of literacy.

There have also been some academic discussions about research methods and approaches to reviewing existing research, which we will respond to through events and further articles. In the meantime, our intention to provoke discussion about the way in which we teach reading has certainly been fulfilled.

A very unfortunate aspect of this ensuing debate, however, is that a small number of loud voices have disrupted the more productive discussion about research evidence and its use in policy and practice. Some of these comments have been dismissive and offensive, with some criticising us personally rather than dealing with the arguments presented in our paper.

Some of these comments have been dismissive and offensive

Critics have also been allowed to publish entirely untrue statements. For example, Nick Gibb’s Daily Telegraph piece states that we argue for a ‘whole language’ approach to replace phonics. This is factually incorrect. Instead, we specifically call for “a new more careful consideration of the strengths and weaknesses of whole language as an orientation to teaching reading”. Gibb also fails to accurately report our main finding that, on the basis of a range of robust evidence, a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.

Similarly, Tarjinder Gill in these pages argued that “they allow their attachment to whole language instruction to narrow the scope of their research”, and that our conclusions were “foregone”. Gill’s comments that we lack the ability to conduct a critical examination of policy and that we are out of touch and out of date are outrageous and unwarranted personal attacks. For several decades, initially as teachers and then as researchers, our work has focused on teaching, literacy and educational policy. We urge readers to read our paper and not to rely on these second-hand accounts which mischaracterise our arguments.

Ironically, the criticism that our conclusions were foregone appears to be the problem with many of the phonics advocates’ responses to the debate. Instead of engaging seriously with our arguments, they opt to describe us as ‘extremist pedagogues’ or ‘progressives’.

Unfortunately, the DfE appears to have been influenced by some of those same loud voices. In his response to our open letter, minister for schools Robin Walker cites ‘concerns’ raised by “commentators, including teachers and academics” as a reason not to engage with the evidence-based arguments of our paper or the open letter. Disappointingly, the response goes on merely to describe what the government is doing, cherry-picking some evidence that supports the department’s policy.

We remain committed to reconciliation in the ‘reading wars’. Perhaps building a consensus could begin with these ideas in relation to policy and practice in England:

  • phonics teaching is one important part of teaching reading;
  • undue emphasis on phonics, isolated from teaching whole texts, is unlikely to be the optimal way to help children learn to read;
  • more emphasis on reading comprehension is needed.

We all agree that children’s life chances are at stake if our teaching of reading is not the best it can be. Rather than a justification for launching attacks on education research and researchers – or indeed on practitioners and policy makers – this really ought to be cause for collaboration.

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    • We have to be careful how we define ‘illiterate’. It is true that we all want more children to succeed in their education, particularly those who struggle with literacy. Our view is that a more evidence-based approach to the national curriculum programmes of study for reading, including a more balanced approach that emphasises comprehension teaching earlier is likely be more effective.

    • Contextualised systematic phonics teaching, probably for no more than one school year, and less for some children, is an important part of learning to read. However, as we argue it is too easy for phonics to become inappropriately dominant in policy and practice.

  1. Elizabeth Nonweiler

    Bradbury and Wyse write, “we think that the teaching of reading in England has become unbalanced” and “a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful”.

    But the terms “unbalanced” and “balanced” are ambiguous. The government’s approach to the teaching of reading could be described as “balanced”.

    I suggest readers who genuinely want to understand the government’s position read
    “The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy”. Both language comprehension and word reading are described as essential to learning to read. However, in the early stages the emphasis is on teaching them separately. How can a child comprehend a text with words they cannot read? And how can language comprehension be well-developed with the simple books beginners can read? At this stage, language comprehension is best developed through conversation and listening to an adult read, while word reading is best taught through phonics. That is not to say that reading comprehension is ignored in the early stages, only that it is not the emphasis.

    When children can read words accurately and easily, the emphasis changes to reading comprehension.

    • In our paper we show clear evidence of what we mean by unbalanced. One way we show this is through the history of changes in education policy in England.

      “The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy” does not sufficiently reflect the research evidence on effective teaching of reading and writing. It is unduly selective in its citations of research.

      Reading comprehension like any aspect of reading is learned developmentally. So let’s take a 3-year-old. They are very unlikely to be able to decode unknown words. However when someone reads them an engaging picture book that child is comprehending. They read the pictures, they notice some text features, they engage in conversation with the adult about the meanings of the text. Now take a 5-year-old child. Quite a lot of these children will already be able to decode and comprehend. Why would they need more phonics for reading? For those children who are not yet decoding yes they need phonics but we argue that if that phonics teaching is closely connected to whole texts in every lesson they are more likely to develop their reading quicker. However, as we also point out, more research is needed in England, particularly at larger scale to further test these hypotheses.

  2. Tony Murray

    As a teacher, head teacher, County Advisor and OFSTED inspector for 40 years I am dismayed at how politically lead our curriculum has become in primary schools.
    I am and have always been mindful of teaching children a broad balance curriculum, with moderation in all things and an open mind to refinement and change.
    What we have in recent years is a narrowing of the curriculum, taking away the richness it offers children of all potentials.

    Unfortunately, the teaching of reading in our country is fashionable, and at present teachers in primary schools are not listening to by politicians who are keen to enforce their mantra.
    The teaching of phonics to primary age children is important, but the enforced “phonics first and foremost” approach in early years and key stage one is unbalanced and damaging to children’s educational development.

    Our Present Secretary of State for education should listen to the voice of teachers more because this issue is not going to go away.

    • I agree that there has been an inappropriate level of Ministerial involvement in the development of the national curriculum and now involvement in the teaching methods that teachers are ‘required’ to use. This is why we call for a review of England’s national curriculum. What is needed is evolution not revolution. So let’s keep bits that are strongly evidence-based and let’s change the bits that don’t fit the evidence, including aspects such as synthetic phonics and grammar teaching that appear to be ideologically driven and/or reflect the views of single politicians rather than a carefully worked consensus.