is systematic synthetic phonics generating neuromyths?

A recent Twitter discussion about systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) was sparked by a note to parents of children in a reception class, advising them what to do if their children got stuck on a word when reading. The first suggestion was “encourage them to sound out unfamiliar words in units of sound (e.g. ch/sh/ai/ea) and to try to blend them”. If that failed “can they use the pictures for any clues?” Two other strategies followed. The ensuing discussion began by questioning the wisdom of using pictures for clues and then went off at many tangents – not uncommon in conversations about SSP.
richard adams reading clues

SSP proponents are, rightly, keen on evidence. The body of evidence supporting SSP is convincing but it’s not the easiest to locate; much of the research predates the internet by decades or is behind a paywall. References are often to books, magazine articles or anecdote; not to be discounted, but not what usually passes for research. As a consequence it’s quite a challenge to build up an overview of the evidence for SSP that’s free of speculation, misunderstandings and theory that’s been superseded. The tangents that came up in this particular discussion are, I suggest, the result of assuming that if something is true for SSP in particular it must also be true for reading, perception, development or biology in general. Here are some of the inferences that came up in the discussion.

You can’t guess a word from a picture
Children’s books are renowned for their illustrations. Good illustrations can support or extend the information in the text, showing readers what a chalet, a mountain stream or a pine tree looks like, for example. Author and artist usually have detailed discussions about illustrations to ensure that the book forms an integrated whole and is not just a text with embellishments.

If the child is learning to read, pictures can serve to focus attention (which could be wandering anywhere) on the content of the text and can have a weak priming effect, increasing the likelihood of the child accessing relevant words. If the picture shows someone climbing a mountain path in the snow, the text is unlikely to contain words about sun, sand and ice-creams.

I understand why SSP proponents object to the child being instructed to guess a particular word by looking at a picture; the guess is likely to be wrong and the child distracted from decoding the word. But some teachers don’t seem to be keen on illustrations per se. As one teacher put it “often superficial time consuming detract from learning”.

Cues are clues are guesswork
The note to parents referred to ‘clues’ in the pictures. One contributor cited a blogpost that claimed “with ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from”. Clues and cues are often used interchangeably in discussions about phonics on social media. That’s understandable; the words have similar meanings and a slip on the keyboard can transform one into the other. But in a discussion about reading methods, the distinction between guessing, clues and cues is an important one.

Guessing involves drawing conclusions in the absence of enough information to give you a good chance of being right; it’s haphazard, speculative. A clue is a piece of information that points you in a particular direction. A cue has a more specific meaning depending on context; e.g. theatrical cues, social cues, sensory cues. In reading research, a cue is a piece of information about something the observer is attending to, or a property of a thing to be attended to. It could be the beginning sound or end letter of a word, or an image representing the word. Cues are directly related to the matter in hand, clues are more indirectly related, guessing is a stab in the dark.

The distinction is important because if teachers are using the terms cue and clue interchangeably and assuming they both involve guessing there’s a risk they’ll mistakenly dismiss references to ‘cues’ in reading research as guessing or clues, which they are not.

Reading isn’t natural
Another distinction that came up in the discussion was the idea of natural vs. non-natural behaviours. One argument for children needing to be actively taught to read rather than picking it up as they go along is that reading, unlike walking and talking, isn’t a ‘natural’ skill. The argument goes that reading is a relatively recent technological development so we couldn’t possibly have evolved mechanisms for reading in the same way as we have evolved mechanisms for walking and talking. One proponent of this idea is Diane McGuinness, an influential figure in the world of synthetic phonics.

The argument rests on three assumptions. The first is that we have evolved specific mechanisms for walking and talking but not for reading. The ideas that evolution has an aim or purpose and that if everybody does something we must have evolved a dedicated mechanism to do it, are strongly contested by those who argue instead that we can do what our anatomy and physiology enable us to do (see arguments over Chomsky’s linguistic theory). But you wouldn’t know about that long-standing controversy from reading McGuinness’s books or comments from SSP proponents.

The second assumption is that children learn to walk and talk without much effort or input from others. One teacher called the natural/non-natural distinction “pretty damn obvious”. But sometimes the pretty damn obvious isn’t quite so obvious when you look at what’s actually going on. By the time they start school, the average child will have rehearsed walking and talking for thousands of hours. And most toddlers experience a considerable input from others when developing their walking and talking skills even if they don’t have what one contributor referred to as a “WEIRDo Western mother”. Children who’ve experienced extreme neglect (such as those raised in the notorious Romanian orphanages) tend to show significant developmental delays.

The third assumption is that learning to use technological developments requires direct instruction. Whether it does or not depends on the complexity of the task. Pointy sticks and heavy stones are technologies used in foraging and hunting, but most small children can figure out for themselves how to use them – as do chimps and crows. Is the use of sticks and stones by crows, chimps or hunter-gatherers natural or non-natural? A bicycle is a man-made technology more complex than sticks and stones, but most people are able to figure out how to ride a bike simply by watching others do it, even if a bit of practice is needed before they can do it themselves. Is learning to ride a bike with a bit of support from your mum or dad natural or non-natural?

Reading English is a more complex task than riding a bike because of the number of letter-sound correspondences. You’d need a fair amount of watching and listening to written language being read aloud to be able to read for yourself. And you’d need considerable instruction and practice before being able to fly a fighter jet because the technology is massively more complex than that involved in bicycles and alphabetic scripts.

One teacher asked “are you really going to go for the continuum fallacy here?” No idea why he considers a continuum a fallacy. In the natural/non-natural distinction used by SSP proponents there are three continua involved;

• the complexity of the task
• the length of rehearsal time required to master the task, and
• the extent of input from others that’s required.

Some children learn to read simply by being read to, reading for themselves and asking for help with words they don’t recognise. But because reading is a complex task, for most children learning to read by immersion like that would take thousands of hours of rehearsal. It makes far more sense to cut to the chase and use explicit instruction. In principle, learning to fly a fighter jet would be possible through trial-and-error, but it would be a stupidly costly approach to training pilots.

Technology is non-biological
I was told by several teachers that reading, riding a bike and flying an aircraft weren’t biological functions. I fail to see how they can’t be, since all involve human beings using their brain and body. It then occurred to me that the teachers are equating ‘biological’ with ‘natural’ or with the human body alone. In other words, if you acquire a skill that involves only body parts (e.g. walking or talking) it’s biological. If it involves anything other than a body part it’s not biological. Not sure where that leaves hunting with wooden spears, making baskets or weaving woolen fabric using a wooden loom and shuttle.

Teaching and learning are interchangeable
Another tangent was whether or not learning is involved in sleeping, eating and drinking. I contended that it is; newborns do not sleep, eat or drink in the same way as most of them will be sleeping, eating or drinking nine months later. One teacher kept telling me they don’t need to be taught to do those things. I can see why teachers often conflate teaching and learning, but they are not two sides of the same coin. You can teach children things but they might fail to learn them. And children can learn things that nobody has taught them. It’s debatable whether or not parents shaping a baby’s sleeping routine, spoon feeding them or giving them a sippy cup instead of a bottle count as teaching, but it’s pretty clear there’s a lot of learning going on.

What’s true for most is true for all
I was also told by one teacher that all babies crawl (an assertion he later modified) and by a school governor that they can all suckle (an assertion that wasn’t modified). Sweeping generalisations like this coming from people working in education is worrying. Children vary. They vary a lot. Even if only 0.1% of children do or don’t do something, that would involve 8 000 children in English schools. Some and most are not all or none and teachers of all people should be aware of that.

A core factor in children learning to read is the complexity of the task. If the task is a complex one, like reading, most children are likely to learn more quickly and effectively if you teach them explicitly. You can’t infer from that that all children are the same, they all learn in the same way or that teaching and learning are two sides of the same coin. Nor can you infer from a tenuous argument used to justify the use of SSP that distinctions between natural and non-natural or biological and technological are clear, obvious, valid or helpful. The evidence that supports SSP is the evidence that supports SSP. It doesn’t provide a general theory for language, education or human development.

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the history of reading methods revisited (5)

My response to some of Maggie’s most recent points:

Frank Smith

Maggie: Indeed, he [Smith] was echoing much earlier theorists, such as Huey, in this belief and, of course, by the time he was writing many readers may have been using such strategies because of being taught by Word methods (I’m sticking to my hypothesis!). I can’t find that he has any evidence for his assertion and, as I pointed out, Stanovich and West disproved his theory.

Me: The first five chapters of Snowling & Hume’s book The Science of Reading are devoted to reviews of work on word recognition processes in reading. Most of the research looks at the ways in which adult, expert readers read. What emerges from these five chapters is that:

• expert readers do not use one single method for reading words; they tend to use rapid whole-word recognition for familiar words and slower, stepwise decoding for unfamiliar words;
• the speed with which they respond to target words increases in response to different types of priming;
• the jury is still out on how reading mechanisms actually work.

It was the fact that expert readers use two strategies that resulted in a plethora of ‘dual route’ models of reading; the first was proposed in the 1920s, but studies of brain-damaged patients had noted this in the 19th century. This is exactly what West and Stanovich found. What they ‘disproved’ was that the use of contextual information by children increased with age and reading ability.

There was a great deal of work on priming effects in reading during the 1970s, so although Smith might have been wrong, he wasn’t just ‘echoing earlier theorists’. He had a PhD in psycholinguistics/cognitive psychology from Harvard, so would have been very familiar with the direction of travel in contemporary reading research.

Your hypothesis that expert readers were using mixed methods because that’s how they’d been taught to read, might be right. But a more likely explanation is that recognition of complex sensory stimuli (e.g. words) becomes automated and fast if they are encountered frequently, but requires step-by-step analysis if they’re not. That’s how human brains deal with complex sensory stimuli.

There is no question that expert readers use more than one strategy when reading. The question is whether explicitly learning those strategies is the best way for children to learn to read.

the rejection of the alphabetic principle


Me: Maggie says my statement that the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics had been abandoned because they hadn’t been effective for all children ‘makes no sense at all’. If I’m wrong, why were these methods abandoned?



Maggie: I still don’t think it makes any sense. For a start, you give no time scale. When did this abandonment take place? And you are conflating Alphabetic with Analytic which I don’t think is correct (see my earlier comment).

Me: They were abandoned gradually. My PGCE reading tutor, who trained in the 1930s, was keen on analytic phonics but not on ‘flashcards’. I remember spending hours preparing phonics reading activities. Several teachers of her generation that I’ve spoken to, took a similar view. They didn’t advocate using analytic phonics ‘systematically, first and only’, but as a support strategy if children were struggling to decode a word. Clearly, the teachers I’ve encountered don’t form a representative sample, but some of them were using analytic phonics until they retired and at least one teacher training college in the UK was teaching students to use it until at least the late 1970s. And this definitely wasn’t ‘alphabetic’, it was phonetic. According to my reading tutor, the alphabetic method was widely perceived as flawed by the 1930s. The consensus amongst these teachers was:

• children use a range of strategies when learning to read
• whatever method of teaching reading is used, some children will learn with little effort and others will struggle
• no one method of teaching reading will be effective for all children, but some methods are more effective than others (which is why they still used analytic phonics).

I’m not saying they are right, but that’s what they thought.

Maggie: Another point is that you are crediting educationists and teachers with a degree of rationality which I don’t think is justified. The widespread acceptance of the Word method, which had no evidence to back it but strong appeals to ‘emotion’ with the language of its denigration of Phonic methods, is a case in point. Boring, laborious, ‘drill & kill’, barren, mechanical, uncomprehending, the list is long (and very familiar). It is a technique promoted today as ‘framing’ (though I might acquit its original users of deliberate use of it). Very easy to be persuaded by the language without really considering the validity of the method it purports to describe.

Me: I think you are not crediting them with enough rationality. The ‘drill and kill’ they were referring to was an approach many teachers resorted to in the early days of state education. Those teachers were often untrained, had to teach large numbers of children of different ages, had few books, were on performance related pay, used corporal punishment and had been taught themselves through rote learning entire lessons. Complaints about children being able to recite but having no understanding were commonplace in those early days. What has happened over time is that denigrating rote learning everything (justified in my view) has morphed into denigrating rote learning anything (not justified).

Prior to the 1980s, teachers in the UK were left to their own devices about how they did things, and some at least, took a keen interest in developing their own methods; they didn’t all slavishly follow fashion by any means. I agree that the ‘Word’ method might have been framed emotively, but it’s not true to say there was no evidence to back it.

The evidence was in the form of adult reading strategies. If you’re a teacher who’s seen ‘drill and kill’ not working for all children, then alphabetic and analytic phonics not working for all children, and someone comes along and tells you that scientific research has shown that adults use a range of strategies when reading (and you check out the research and find that indeed it has shown just that) so it would make sense to teach children to use a range of strategies to learn to read, what would you, as a rational person, do?

I think you are seeing claims that adults use a range of reading strategies through the spectacles of the ‘teaching reading’ literature, not through the spectacles of the ‘reading mechanisms’ literature. The body of evidence that supports the idea that adults use a range of strategies in reading is vast. And every teacher will have witnessed children attacking words using a range of strategies. Putting the two ideas together is not unreasonable. It just happens to be wrong, but it wasn’t clear that it was wrong for a very long time.

Maggie: I would also suggest that the discourse of ‘science’, ‘research’, ‘progressive’ would be enough to convince many without them delving too deeply into the evidence. Brain Gym, anybody?

Me: You’re quite right. The point I’m making is that there was robust evidence to support the Word method. But it was robust in respect of people who had learned to read, not those who hadn’t. The way the brain functions after learning something (in adults) doesn’t reflect the way it learns it (in children). But that was by no means clear in the 1970s. There is still a dispute going on about this amongst cognitive scientists.

using a range of cues


Me: The cues I listed are those identified in skilled adult readers in studies carried out predominantly in the post-war period. Maggie’s hypothesis is that the range of cues is an outcome of the way the participants in experiments (often college students) had been taught to read. It’s an interesting hypothesis; it would be great to test it.

Maggie: I stand by it! I have worked with too many children who read exactly as taught by the Searchlights!
I thought I would revisit these ‘cues’ which are supposed to have offered sufficient exposure to auditory and visual patterns to develop automated, fast recognition. They are ‘recognising words by their shape, using key letters, grammar, context and pictures, recognising words by their shape’.

Confounded at once by the fact that many words have the same shape: sack, sick, sock, suck, lack, lick, luck, lock, pock, pick, puck, pack,

using key letters, Would those be the ones that differentiate each word in the above word list?

grammar, Well, I can see how you might ‘predict’ a particular grammatical word form, noun, verb, adjective etc. but the specific word? By what repeated pattern would you develop automatic recognition of it?

context I think the same might apply as for grammar. You need a mechanism for recognising the actual word.

pictures, Hm. Very useful for words like oxygen, air, the, gritty, bang, etc.

Me: Again, you are confusing the strategies adults use when reading with the most effective way of teaching children to read. They are two different things. Your examples illustrate very clearly why using multiple cues isn’t a good way of teaching reading. But those inconsistencies don’t stop adults using these cues in their reading. If you don’t have a copy of Snowling and Hume’s book, get one and read it.

Maggie: In view of Stanovich & West’s findings I would be interested to see any studies which show that skilled adult readers did use the ‘cues’ you listed. (as above)

Me: There’s a vast literature on this. Summarised very well in Snowling and Hume, which is why I’ve recommended it. Incidentally, a ‘cue’ isn’t a term invented by proponents of the Word method, it’s a perfectly respectable word denoting a signal detected in incoming information; it can affect subsequent information.

Me: In chapter 2 of Stanovich’s book, West and Stanovich report fluent readers’ performance being facilitated by two automated processes; sentence context (essentially semantic priming) and word recognition.

Maggie: I appreciate that but this is described as a feature of fluent, skilled reading. To assume that beginning readers do this spontaneously might be to fall into the same trap as ‘assuming that children could learn by mimicking the behaviour of experts’

Me: In your original post, you said “Stanovich and West showed, in the 70s that these were strategies used by unskilled readers and that skilled readers used decoding strategies for word recognition (this is an extreme simplification of the research Stanovich outlines in ‘Progress in Understanding Reading’) and this has been the conclusion of cognitive scientists over the subsequent decades the validity of these strategies is seriously challenged.”

I think you’ve misunderstood what Stanovich and West (and other cognitive scientists) have shown. The literature shows, pretty conclusively, that fluent readers use word recognition first and decoding if word recognition fails. Sentence context isn’t used as a conscious strategy, it’s subconscious, because the content of the sentence increases access to words are semantically related. It’s not safe to assume that because experts do something, novices learn by copying them. Nor is it safe to assume that experts use the same strategies they did when learning as novices.

Me: According to chapter 3, fluent readers use phonological recoding if automated word recognition fails.



Maggie: Isn’t that the whole point. Fluent readers didn’t use context, or other ‘cues’, to identify unfamiliar words, they used phonological recoding.

Me: No. The point is that they used it if automated word recognition failed.

Maggie: It is also moot that they use context to predict upcoming words (although I do understand about priming effects). There is also the possibility that rapid, automatic and unconscious decoding is the mechanism of automatic word recognition (Dehaene). Possibly with context confirming that the word is correct? A reading sequence of ‘predicting’, then, presumably, checking for correctness of form and meaning (how? by decoding and blending?) seems like a strange use of processing when decoding gets the form of the word correctly straight away and immediately activates meaning.

Me: It’s possible that rapid, automatic and unconscious decoding is the mechanism of automatic word recognition but work on masking and priming suggests that readers are picking up the visual features of letters and words as well as their auditory features and semantic features. In other words, there are things going on in addition to decoding.

Whether readers use context to predict upcoming words depends on what you mean by ‘predict’. Priming results in some words being more likely than others to occur in a sentence; this isn’t a conscious process of ‘prediction’ but it is a subconscious process of narrowing down the possibilities for what comes next. But in some sentences you could consciously predict what comes next with a high degree of accuracy.

the history of reading methods revisited (4)

And here’s Maggie’s response to my comments, which are in italics.

On reflection, I think I could have signposted the key points I wanted to make more clearly in my post. My reasoning went like this;
1. Until the post-war period reading methods in the UK were dominated by alphabetic/phonics approaches.
2. Despite this, a significant proportion of children didn’t learn to read properly.
3. Current concerns about literacy levels don’t have a clear benchmark – what literacy levels do we expect and why?
4. Although literacy levels have fallen in recent years, the contribution of ‘mixed methods’ to this fall is unclear; other factors are involved.
A few comments on Maggie’s post:
Huey and reading methods
My observation about the use of alphabetic and analytic phonics approaches in the early days of state education in England is based on a fair number of accounts I’ve either heard or read from people who were taught to read in the late 19th/early 20th century. Without exception, they have reported;
• learning the alphabet
• learning letter-sound correspondences
• sounding out unfamiliar words letter-sound by letter-sound

This accords with the account I proposed, that phonics methods persisted in the UK for the early decades of 20th C. I’d also note, as I have on the RRF board, that my account was something of a gallop through the topic. It was bound to be broad brushed rather than detailed. Of course a variety of practices will have obtained at any period (as they do now) but I was trying to indicate what appeared to be the ‘dominant’ practice at any one time.

I’m well aware that that the first-hand accounts I’ve come across don’t form a representative sample, but from what Maggie has distilled from Huey, the accounts don’t appear to be far off the mark for what was happening generally. I concede that sounding out unfamiliar words doesn’t qualify as ‘analytic phonics’, but it’s analytic something – analytic letter-sound correspondence, perhaps?

Modern definitions of ‘analytic’ phonics make it clear that children are taught whole words initially and the words are then ‘analysed for their phonic structure. This may not necessarily be at the level of the phoneme; analytic phonics may also include analysis at the syllable level and at ‘onset/rime’ level (the familiar ‘word families’). This practice would seem to be more allied to the Word method (recall that Huey said that phonics could be taught once children had learned to read) than to the ‘Alphabetic’ method. Though, to be honest, it is very difficult to work out from contemporary primers and accounts of instructing/learning reading just how the Alphabetic method was taught. When accounts speak of ‘learning letters’ are letter names being taught or sound values? When they talk of ‘spelling’ words are they referring to actually writing words or to saying letter names followed by the whole word (see ai tee . cat) or to orally sounding out and blending? Certainly reading primers such as ‘Reading Without Tears’ first published 183?* are arranged in much the same way as a modern ‘decodable’ book.

However, if the Phonic method which Huey describes is anything like the method Rebecca Pollard outlines (‘Manual of Synthetic Reading and Spelling’(1897)) it is closely akin to the supposedly ‘new’ SP method in that it taught letter/sound correspondences, decoding and blending, from simple to complex, as did the method outlined by Nellie Dale (‘On the Teaching of English Reading’. 1898).

Montessori
I cited Montessori as an example of the Europe-wide challenge posed by children who struggled at school; I wasn’t referring to her approach to teaching reading specifically. In her book she frequently mentions Itard and Séguin who worked with hearing-impaired children. She applies a number of their techniques, but doesn’t appear to agree with them about everything – she questions Séguin’s approach to writing, for example.

In which case I misunderstood your reason for citing her. I thought it was specifically in relation to teaching reading. Her sections on teaching reading and writing are very interesting. What is striking is that she believed in the ‘developmental’ model, agreeing with Huey’s contention that children should not be taught to read before they were at least 6. She describes how she tried very hard to resist younger children’s appeals to be taught to read and write but found that after motor skills training with letter shapes some of them were self teaching anyway and delighted with their achievements!

Frank Smith
I haven’t read Smith, but the fact that skilled readers use context and prediction to read the words on the page wasn’t his ‘proposal’. By the 1970s it was a well-documented feature of contextual priming in skilled readers, i.e. skilled adult readers with large spoken vocabularies. From what Maggie has said, the error Smith appears to have made is to assume that children could learn by mimicking the behaviour of experts – a mistake that litters the history of pedagogy.

Indeed, he was echoing much earlier theorists, such as Huey, in this belief and, of course, by the time he was writing many readers may have been using such strategies because of being taught by Word methods (I’m sticking to my hypothesis!). I can’t find that he has any evidence for his assertion and, as I pointed out, Stanovich and West disproved his theory.

Hinshelwood and Orton
Hinshelwood was a British ophthalmologist interested in reading difficulties caused by brain damage. Orton was American, but was a doctor also interested in brain damage and its effect on reading. I can’t see how the work of either of them would have been affected by the use of Whole Word reading methods in US schools, although their work has frequently been referred to as an explanation for reading difficulties.

Orton’s interest famously ultimately extended beyond brain damaged subjects to the study of non-brain damaged subjects with ‘dyslexia’. At the time he was working Word methods were predominant in US schools and he implicated these methods as contributing to his subject’s problems. The Orton-Gillingham structured, systematic phonics programme was developed for helping these dyslexics. It appears to have been innovatory for its period and, believe it or not, from online contacts with US practitioners I understand that because it is SSP it is still fairly contentious in the US today! They express the same frustrations as do SP proponents. If only children were taught the OG way there wouldn’t be so much reading failure in the US!

I am not familiar with Hinshelwood but it’s clear that I shall have to look him up!

the rejection of the alphabetic principle
Maggie says my statement that the alphabetic principle and analytic phonics had been abandoned because they hadn’t been effective for all children ‘makes no sense at all’. If I’m wrong, why were these methods abandoned?

I still don’t think it makes any sense. For a start, you give no time scale. When did this abandonment take place? And you are conflating Alphabetic with Analytic which I don’t think is correct (see my earlier comment).

Another point is that you are crediting educationists and teachers with a degree of rationality which I don’t think is justified. The widespread acceptance of the Word method, which had no evidence to back it but strong appeals to ‘emotion’ with the language of its denigration of Phonic methods, is a case in point. Boring, laborious, ‘drill & kill’, barren, mechanical, uncomprehending, the list is long (and very familiar). It is a technique promoted today as ‘framing’ (though I might acquit its original users of deliberate use of it). Very easy to be persuaded by the language without really considering the validity of the method it purports to describe.

And, of course, there was the lure of modernity. Word methods were advocated by modern educationists as part of progressive educational methods (but let’s not get into an argument about ‘progressive  ). I don’t know how much teachers believed that there was some sort of research base for progressive methods but as Huey sets some store by research (pages and pages on eye movements, for example) and does have an evidence base for some of what he says I would suggest that it would be taken on trust that it was all evidence based. I would also suggest that the discourse of ‘science’, ‘research’, ‘progressive’ would be enough to convince many without them delving too deeply into the evidence. Brain Gym, anybody?

In addition, though my suggestion that ‘official’ advice was followed has been questioned, it might be noted that in respect of the post WW2 UK both the government committee of 1947 and the Bullock Report (1975) both firmly endorsed a mixed methods approach which started from Whole Word and taught phonics if necessary.

It is also interesting that Bullock notes that increasing numbers of children, particularly ‘working class’ children, were entering Junior school (Y2) unable to read. Might one ascribe this to developmentalist theory?

using a range of cues
The cues I listed are those identified in skilled adult readers in studies carried out predominantly in the post-war period. Maggie’s hypothesis is that the range of cues is an outcome of the way the participants in experiments (often college students) had been taught to read. It’s an interesting hypothesis; it would be great to test it.

I stand by it! I have worked with too many children who read exactly as taught by the Searchlights!

I thought I would revisit these ‘cues’ which are supposed to have offered sufficient exposure to auditory and visual patterns to develop automated, fast recognition. They are ‘recognising words by their shape, using key letters, grammar, context and pictures,’

recognising words by their shape, Confounded at once by the fact that many words have the same shape: sack, sick, sock, suck, lack, lick, luck, lock, pock, pick, puck, pack,

using key letters, Would those be the ones that differentiate each word in the above word list?

grammar, Well, I can see how you might ‘predict’ a particular grammatical word form, noun, verb, adjective etc. but the specific word? By what repeated pattern would you develop automatic recognition of it?

context I think the same might apply as for grammar. You need a mechanism for recognising the actual word.

pictures, Hm. Very useful for words like oxygen, air, the, gritty, bang, etc.

An alternative hypothesis is that the strategies used by skilled adult readers are an outcome of how brains work. Prior information primes neural networks and thus reduces response time, and frequent exposure to auditory and visual patterns such as spoken and written words results in automated, fast recognition.

In view of Stanovich & West’s findings I would be interested to see any studies which show that skilled adult readers did use the ‘cues’ you listed. (as above)

I know we have had discussions about the term ‘natural’ but ultimately reading is a taught skill. If readers use strategies which can be directly related to the strategies they were taught I cannot see that why they should be ascribed to untaught and unconscious exploitation of the brain’s capabilities. I could only accept this hypothsis in the case of self taught readers. I would be surprised to find the generality of beginning readers developing such strategies spontaneously (i.e. undirected/taught) when presented with text, though some outliers might. What would you do if presented with a page of unfamiliar script, Hebrew, Arabic, Thai, Chinese and told to read it without any help whatsoever? And you are 5ys old.

For example, in chapter 2 of Stanovich’s book, West and Stanovich report fluent readers’ performance being facilitated by two automated processes; sentence context (essentially semantic priming) and word recognition.

I appreciate that but this is described as a feature of fluent, skilled reading. To assume that beginning readers do this spontaneously might be to fall into the same trap as assuming’ that children could learn by mimicking the behaviour of experts’

According to chapter 3, fluent readers use phonological recoding if automated word recognition fails.

Isn’t that the whole point. Fluent readers didn’t use context, or other ‘cues’, to identify unfamiliar words, they used phonological recoding.

It is also moot that they use context to predict upcoming words (although I do understand about priming effects). There is also the possibility that rapid, automatic and unconscious decoding is the mechanism of automatic word recognition (Dehaene). Possibly with context confirming that the word is correct? A reading sequence of ‘predicting’, then, presumably, checking for correctness of form and meaning (how? by decoding and blending?) seems like a strange use of processing when decoding gets the form of the word correctly straight away and immediately activates meaning.

educators’ reasoning
I wasn’t saying that the educators’ assessment of alphabetic/phonics methods was right, just that it was what they claimed. Again, if they didn’t think that, why would alphabetic/phonics methods have been abandoned?

Se above!

falling literacy standards
The data that I suggested weren’t available would enable us to make a valid comparison between the literacy levels of school-leavers (aged 13, say) at the beginning of the 20th century when alphabetic/phonics methods were widely used in the UK, and current levels for young people of the same age. The findings Maggie has cited are interesting, but don’t give us a benchmark for the literacy levels we should expect.

There is some post WW2 data in the Bullock report though it is held to be not totally reliable. However, it finds that ‘reading standards’ rose from 1948 to 1961 but then fell back slightly from 1961 to 1971. Make of that what you will!

national curriculum and standardised testing
The point I was trying to make was not about the impact of the NC and SATs on reading, but that the NC and SATs made poor readers more obvious. In the reading-ready era, some children not reading at 7 would have learned to read by the time they were 11, but that delay wouldn’t have appeared in national statistics.

As, indeed, it appeared to be doing so in Bullock (see above)

reading for enjoyment
Children leaving school without functional literacy is certainly a cause for concern, and I agree that methods of teaching reading must be implicated. But technological changes since 1990 haven’t helped. The world of young people is not as text-based as it used to be, and not as text-based as the adult world. That issue needs to be addressed.

Which, as you might guess, I would partially ascribe to adoption of Whole Word, Whole Language & Mixed Methods. I have watched the ‘simplification’ of text over my lifetime in the cause of ‘including’ the semi-literate.

I think there’s a political element too, in the rejection of ‘elite’ language (aka ‘big words’). I shall have to dig out my copy of ‘The Uses of Literacy’ I think, to see what literacy expectations there were of the 50’s generation. Could be instructive.

What I do find interesting, and perhaps pertinent to the question of ‘dumbing down’ being discussed in other twitter conversations, is that, although we don’t really know what percentage of the population were literate in the latter half of the 19th C and the early 20th C, popular texts and the media appear to have expected a far more complex vocabulary knowledge, and an ability to comprehend far more complex syntax, of those who could read, even of children.. Compare, for example, Beatrix Potter with ORT.

Note:
Huey, Dewie & Louie are the names of Donald Duck’s three nephews
There’s no Louie in this story yet.

Perhaps Walt was taught the rhetorical ‘rule of three’!

It’s sad that we don’t have a Louie (or a Lewie) to complete the triumvirate. They would trip so nicely off the tongue..