For reasons based on political ideology, many educational academics remain vehemently opposed to synthetic phonics (Wyse. Rose Tinted Spectacles ppt).
Even today they campaign to overturn the 2006 Rose report's conclusions and recommendations (Wyse/Styles.Editorial), and
every course of action taken by every colour of government following the Rose report,
each designed to increase the take-up of teaching synthetic
directly, systematically and as the sole decoding method.
Education consultant, John Bald, quotes Andrew Lambirth, professor of education and author of, 'Literacy on the Left: reform and revolution', as saying that the synthetic phonics method was ''designed to restrict and control children in the interests of the owners of the means of production''.
In their book 'Thinking Reading', James and Dianne
Murphy explain ''The political tenets of whole language were
inextricably grafted into its methodology... emotive arguments
about freedom from authority, autonomy of the individual and
subjective construction of reality'' (p34)
''The idea that different teaching methods are
political is faintly absurd. And yet it is an idea that has
taken quite a hold within education itself'' (Greg
These same academics concede that using synthetic phonics ''can
be extremely effective'' when used for teaching decoding in transparent languages (Wyse/Goswami p693)
but, in their opinion, there is still ''not enough evidence'' that
''discretely taught (i.e. synthetic) phonics is superior to
''contextualised phonics'' for
teaching decoding in English. Despite their strong
ideological preference for contextualised phonics, over
many decades ''they have failed to demonstrate
that their preferred method yields as good or better results
than a synthetic phonics programme. Their method seems to be
to merely attack the Clackmannanshire study and thereby imply that the
approach that they advocate is as good or better, without
collecting any supportive data''(Prof
Johnston & Dr.Watson)
''Those who have an opposing view [of synthetic
phonics] have yet to produce any data showing that their
favoured approach produces greater long-term benefits''
The academics opposed to synthetic phonics cherry-picked two
particular publications, from the extensive range of evidence
that the Rose report team considered, to back their view. They
singled out the American National Reading Panel (NRP) report and
the DCSF commissioned 2006 Torgerson, Brooks and Hall phonics meta-analysis (Wyse/Goswami p693)
because these publications tied in with their ideology, having
as their conclusion that there was no strong evidence, ''that
any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than
The Torgerson et al meta-analysis carried little weight with the Rose report team. The reasons for this are explained in a report by Parliament's Committee on Science & Technology, produced after they had examined the evidence base of the Rose report -see paras.22,23,24:
Professor Diane McGuinness, a cognitive scientist trained in statistical analysis, also examined both publications closely. See
http://dyslexics.org.uk/comment.pdf for her comments on
the 2006 Torgerson et al phonics meta-analysis and her book, 'Early Reading Instruction' Chapter 4, for a comprehensive analysis of the NRP report. For an additional critique of the American NRP report see
As a matter of fact, evidence of the superiority of direct and systematic phonics teaching was already available in the 1960s. In her book Learning to Read: the great debate, Prof. Jeanne Chall noted that, ''The current research also suggests that some advantage may accrue to direct as compared to indirect phonics. It would seem that many of the characteristics of direct phonics, such as teaching letter-sounds directly, separating the letter-sounds from the words, giving practice in blending the sounds, and so forth are more effective than the less direct procedures used in current analytic phonics programmes'' (Chall. Learning to Read: the great debate.1967) "Chall
(1967) found that phonics teaching produced readers who had an
advantage in word recognition and that by the end of second
grade also had higher levels of comprehension and vocabulary"
Jeanne Chall 1921-1999.
As part of their mission to overturn the synthetic phonics
initiative, the same educational academics attempted to
subvert the Clackmannanshire research because, unlike the
2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis and NRP report,
it concluded that, ''synthetic phonics was a more effective approach to teaching reading, spelling and phonemic awareness than analytic phonics'' (Johnston and Watson, 2004 p351) . This study played a large part in persuading the then DCSF to introduce synthetic phonics as the primary method to teach
''Johnston and Watson (2004) carried out two experiments, one controlled trial and one randomised controlled trial (the gold standard of scientific research) to understand the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment. The research is known as the ‘Clackmannanshire study’. Clackmannanshire is a very deprived area of Scotland. Many of the pupils came from extremely deprived homes and/or had significant educational difficulties – and yet pupils tracked from pre-school to age 11 achieved results in reading and spelling far beyond that expected for their age'' (italics added. DfE. evidence paper p3)
The academics, ideologically opposed to synthetic phonics,
disseminated myths and misinformation about the
Clackmannanshire research -see the RRF newsletter article,
'Fact and Fiction about the Clackmannanshire study', which
also includes comment on the Torgerson et al meta-analysis:
An examination of the 2006 Torgerson et al meta-analysis:
The government-funded Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) was set up to collect
and create hard evidence. A school governor said that she was
''frequently directed to the EEF as the "last-word" on
In 2016 the EEF produced guidance for
'Improving Literacy in Key Stage One'
p15. ''Only a few studies have compared synthetic and analytic
phonics, and there is not yet enough evidence to make a
confident recommendation to use one approach rather than the
other'' The only reference given for the second half this statement is the 2006
Torgerson et al phonics meta-analysis.
Similarly, in a recent paper (2018 'Ending the Reading Wars:
Reading acquisition from novice to expert'
pro-phonics academics Profs. Castles, Rastle and Nation came
to the view (p13) that there was insufficient evidence as yet to determine
whether the synthetic phonics approach was superior to the
analytic phonics approach, citing the meta-analyses of Ehri et
al (NRP. 2001) and Torgerson et al (2006). Prof. Rhona
Johnston responded to that conclusion with the following
Examining the evidence on the effectiveness of synthetic
phonics teaching: the Ehri et al (2001) and C.Torgerson et al
In January 2018, another phonics meta-analysis
was produced by
Torgerson, Brooks, Gascoine and Higgins. It included the 2016
Machin et al. study which Brooks cited as showing that
synthetic phonics produced an across-the-board improvement at
5 and 7, but no ‘average effect’ at 11. Jenny Chew pointed
out that ''The children in that study, however, had been
taught by the Early Reading Development Pilot approach (ERDP), which
fell far short of good synthetic phonics'' Chew wrote an
article about the problems with the ERDP, back in 2006.
Prof. Kevin Wheldall commented ''Lumping a bunch of so
called synthetic phonics programs of various kinds into a
meta-analysis is a decidedly dubious practice'' echoing Diane
McGuinness's comments on the first (2006) Torgerson et al phonics
Also, see Chapter 9 in Wiley Handbook of Developmental
Psychology in Practice: Implementation and Impact.
The trials & tribulations of changing how reading is
taught in schools: synthetic phonics & the educational
backlash. Profs.Rhona Johnston & Joyce Watson.
This book (and chapter) is available for preview on Google
Jenny Chew scrutinised the following books, both edited by
Margaret Clark, for accuracy.
'Reading the Evidence:
Synthetic Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017.
'Teaching Initial Literacy: Policies, Evidence and Ideology'
'Spelfabet' reviews Reading the Evidence: Synthetic
Phonics and Literacy Learning' 2017
'Old Andrew' explores phonics denialism -also see parts 2 and
Marilyn Jager Adams wrote the foreword for the last book (The Academic Achievement Challenge) written by the late Jeanne
Chall, Professor of Education at Harvard University, outstanding academic researcher
and a staunch advocate for synthetic phonics. Marilyn Jager Adams wrote, ''Many years later,
when I was given the task of reviewing the research on phonics, Chall told me
that if I wrote the truth, I would lose old friends and make new enemies. She
warned me that I would never again be fully accepted by my academic colleagues''. Adams continues, ''as
the evidence in favor of systematic, explicit phonics instruction for beginners
increased so too did the vehemence and nastiness of the backlash. The goal became
one of discrediting not just the research, but the integrity and character of
those who had conducted it.'' (Chall p.vi)