Synthetic phonics (SP) proponents make some bold claims about the impact SP has on children’s ability to decode text. Sceptics often point out that decoding isn’t reading – comprehension is essential as well. SP proponents retort that of course decoding isn’t all there is to reading, but if a child can’t decode, comprehension will be impossible. You can’t argue with that, and there’s good evidence for the efficacy of SP in facilitating decoding. But what impact has it had on reading? I feel as if I’ve missed something obvious here (maybe I have) but as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, the answer is that we don’t know.
Despite complaints about literacy from politicians, employers and the public focussing on the reading ability of school leavers, the focus of the English education system has been on early literacy and on decoding. I can understand why; not being able to decode can have major repercussions for individual children and for schools. But decoding and adult functional literacy seem to be linked only by an assumption that the primary cause of functional illiteracy is the inability to decode. This assumption doesn’t appear to be supported by the data. I should emphasise that I’ve never come across anyone who has claimed explicitly that SP will make a significant dent in functional illiteracy. But SP proponents often tut-tut about functional literacy levels and when Diane McGuinness discusses it in Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It, she makes the implication quite clear.
Armed with a first degree from Birkbeck College, a PhD from University College London and now Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, McGuinness’ work has focussed on reading instruction. She’s a tireless advocate for SP and is widely cited by SP supporters. Her books are informative and readable, if rather idiosyncratic, and Why Children Can’t Read is no exception. In it, she explains how writing systems developed, takes us on a tour of reading research, points us to effective remedial programmes and tops it all off with detailed instructions for teachers and parents who want to use her approach to teaching decoding. But before moving on to what she says about functional literacy, it’s worth considering what she has to say about science.
“This is doing science.”
Her chapter ‘Science to the rescue’ consists largely of a summary of research into reading difficulties. However, McGuinness opens with a section called ‘What science is and isn’t’ in which she has a go at Ken Goodman. It’s not her criticism of Goodman’s work that bothers me, but the criteria she uses to do so. After listing various kinds of research carried out by journalists, academics doing literature reviews or observing children in classrooms, she says; “None of these activities qualify as scientific research. Science can only work when things can be measured and recorded in numbers” (p.127). This is an extraordinary claim. In one sentence, McGuinness dismisses operationalizing constructs, developing hypotheses, and qualitative research methods (that don’t measure things or put numbers on them) as not being scientific.
She uses this sweeping claim to discredit Goodman, who, as she points out elsewhere, wasn’t a ‘psycholinguist’ (p.55). (As I mentioned previously, McGuinness also ridicules quotes from Frank Smith – who was a ‘psycholinguist’ – but doesn’t mention him by name in the text; that’s tucked away in her Notes section.) She rightly points out that using the words ‘research’ and ‘scientific’ doesn’t make what Goodman is saying, science. And she rightly wonders about his references to his beliefs. But she then goes on to question the phonetics and linguistics on which Goodman bases his model;
“There is no ‘science’ of how sounds and letters work together in an alphabet. This is strictly an issue of categorisation and mapping relationships… Goodman proceeds to discuss rudimentary phonetics and linguistics, leading the reader to believe that they are sciences. They are not. They are descriptive disciplines and depend upon other phoneticians and linguists agreeing with you. …Classifying things is not science. It is the first step to begin to do science.” (p.128)
McGuinness has a very narrow view of science. She reduces it to quantitative research methods and misunderstands the role of classification in scientific inquiry. Biology took an enormous leap forward when Linnaeus developed a classification system that worked for all living organisms. Similarly, Mendeleev’s periodic table enabled chemists to predict the properties of as yet undiscovered elements. Linguists’ categorisation of speech sounds is, ironically, what McGuinness used to develop her approach to reading instruction. What all these classification systems have in common is not just their reliability (level of agreement between the people doing the classification) but their validity (based on the physical structure of organisms, atoms and speech sounds).
McGuinness’s view of science explains why she seems most at home with data that are amenable to measurement, so it was instructive to see how she extracts information from data in her opening chapter ‘Reading report card’. She discusses the results of four large-scale surveys in the 1990s of ‘functional literacy’ (p.10). Two, published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) compared adult and child literacy in the US, and two by the Organisation for European Economic Co-operation (OECD) included the US, Canada and five non-English-speaking countries.
Functional literacy data
Functional literacy was assessed using a 5–level scale. Level 1 ranged from not being able to read at all to a reading task that “required only the minimum level of competence” – for example extracting information from a short newspaper article. Level 5 involved a fact sheet for potential jurors (NCES, 1993, pp.73-84).
In the NCES study, 21% of the US adult population performed at level 1 “indicating that they were functionally illiterate” (McGuinness, p.10) and 47% scored at levels 1 or 2. Despite the fact that level 2 was above the minimum level of competence, McGuinness describes the level 1+2 group as “barely literate”. Something she omits to tell us is what the NCES report has to say about the considerable heterogeneity of the level 1 group. 25% were born abroad. 35% had had fewer than 8 years of schooling. 33% were 65 or older. 26% reported a ‘physical, mental or health condition’ that affected their day-to-day functioning, and 19% a visual impairment that made it difficult for them to read print (NCES, 1993, pp.16-18).
The OECD study showed that functional illiteracy (level 1) varied slightly across English-speaking countries – between 17% and 22%. McGuinness doesn’t tell us what the figures were for the five non-English speaking countries, apart from Sweden with a score of 7.5% at level 1 – half that of the English-speaking countries. The most likely explanation is the relative transparency of the orthographies – Swedish spelling was standardised as recently as 1906. But McGuinness doesn’t mention orthography as a factor in literacy results; instead “Sweden has set the benchmark for what school systems can achieve” (p.11). McGuinness then goes on to compare reading proficiency in different US States.
The Nation’s Report Card
McGuinness describes functional illiteracy levels in English-speaking countries as ‘dismal’, ‘sobering’, ‘shocking’ and ‘a literacy crisis’. She draws attention to the fact that after California mandated the use of the ‘real books’ (whole language) approach to reading instruction in 1987, it came low down the US national league tables for 4th grade reading in 1992, and then tied ‘for a dead last’ with Louisiana in 1994 (p.11). Although California’s score had decreased by only 5 points (from 202 to 197 – the entire range being 182-228) (NCES, 1996 p.47), there was perhaps a stigma attached to being tied ‘dead last with Louisiana’, as phonics was reintroduced into Californian classrooms together with more than a billion dollars for teacher training in 1996, the year before Why Children Can’t Read was first published.
What difference did it make? Not much, it seems. Although California’s 4th grade reading scores had recovered by 1998 (NCES,1999, p.113), and improved further by 2011 (NCES, 2013b), the increase wasn’t statistically significant.
Indeed, whatever method of reading instruction has been used in the US, it doesn’t appear to have had much overall impact on reading standards. At age 17, the proportion of ‘functionally illiterate’ US readers has fluctuated between 14% and 21% – an average of 17% – since 1971 (NCES, 2013b). And in the UK the figure has remained ‘stubbornly’ around 17% since WW2 (Rashid & Brooks, 2010).
Functional illiteracy levels in the English-speaking world are higher than in many non-English-speaking countries, and have remained stable for decades. Functional illiteracy is a long-standing problem and McGuinness, at least, implies that SP can crack it. In the next post I want to look at the evidence for that claim.
McGuinness, D. (1998). Why Children Can’t Read and What We Can Do About It. Penguin.
NCES (1993). Adult Literacy in America. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (1996). NAEP 1994 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (1999). NAEP 1998 Reading Report Card for the Nation and the States. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (2013a). Mega-States: An Analysis of Student Performance in the Five Most Heavily Populated States in the Nation. National Center for Educational Statistics.
NCES (2013b). Trends in Academic Progress. National Center for Educational Statistics.
Rashid, S & Brooks, G (2010). The levels of attainment in literacy and numeracy of 13- to 19-year-olds in England, 1948–2009. National Research and Development Centre for adult literacy and numeracy.