‘Get the popcorn out, Lyn’s about to make a statement that’s going to annoy some people!’
My job isn’t, in fact, to annoy anyone. Nor is it to poke fun, be disrespectful, or rain on anyone’s parade. My job, as I see it, is to do whatever I possibly can to get the best deal for teachers and students. Sometimes that annoys people. Sometimes it requires me to poke fun at people. See here and here for that kind of thing. Sometimes it requires me to confront people, which feels, to them, like disrespect, but is simply confrontation. Sometimes it requires me to say, ‘Whoah! Slow down!’
I’m happy for people to poke fun, confront and put the brakes on me. It makes me a stronger, better person. It might hurt a bit, but remember: Adult’s feelings are not more valuable than children’s literacy.
It’s time I made my position on something very clear, and that something is the Speech to Print (S2P) movement. That something is not one individual. That something is not one program. That something is a movement that is rapidly dominating the current phonics landscape. And like anything that moves at speed, brakes are also a good idea.
What do I mean by ‘Speech to Print’? The phrase came to prominence when the seminal Speech to Print book by Louisa Moats hit the shelves. One of the key underpinnings of this book is listed as ‘…how print represents speech in English…’.
Not THAT print represents speech in English. HOW. Important distinction right there.
In fact, one of the functions of print is to represent speech in English. Phonics, in all its varieties, shows how this happens. That’s great. That’s what initial literacy teaching should contain, and lots of it, in a good sequence, just like Doug Carnine proposed. But…
…and it’s a big but (with thanks to Ben Goldacre)…
Just because your trainer/principal/manager/best friend said that S2P is the best thing for humanity since the polio vaccine, doesn’t mean it’s true. Any systematic, synthetic phonics program, by definition, is structured, systematic, cumulative, explicit, and the big one: multisensory (are there monosensory programs out there that I don’t know about?). They’re all like that. They’re all informed by research. So?
The truth of the matter is that if you took and applied the UFLI manual or Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons by Siegfried Engelmann, you would get your students reading just as well as you would using a big, expensive S2P program. It doesn’t have to be much more complex than that. It’s just that selling a phonics ‘system/approach/way/lifestyle/orientation/whatever’ can be a licence to print money in education, so out come the business people to bind you to their particular niche. I’m not saying you’re in a cult, but if you call yourself a ‘Brand Name’ practitioner/school/trainer, there’s a bit of a problem. And that problem occurs when your method is touted as the method to end all methods. That problem occurs when the only tool in your toolbox is fairly blunt, and when you’re expressly forbidden to use ‘outside’ tools even though you know you should. That problem occurs when your students get better at reading, but they still can’t write very well, but your training doesn’t tell you why. It happens in the cult of balanced literacy, and it’s beginning to happen with disturbing frequency in S2P circles now too.
Why do people get culty about S2P?
One possible answer is relief. After years of using awful methods and knowing, deep in their hearts, that they weren’t doing the best for their students, along came a much, much better approach. Systematic phonics, even S2P, after all, is a much, much better approach to teaching reading than balanced literacy. It’s positively captivating. So captivating, however, that those who are captivated by it can start to develop a kind of Stockholm Syndrome response. They identify so closely with the brand, that they become blind to its flaws and instead turn in on themselves when the flaws become apparent. See the multiple daily iterations on social media of the S2P cry for help:
‘Why can’t these children make the right spelling choices? It must be something in me/them/the word that makes it this way, as it can’t be X-Brand!’
We know that balanced literacy creates instructional casualties. That’s why we don’t recommend three-cueing and predictable text. However, at my practice, I am seeing instructional casualties of approaches to teaching reading that posit that print is simply speech written down. If you’ve heard me talk in the last couple of years, chances are you may be aware of the excerpt from a report sent to us when referring ‘Emily’. The referring practitioner could get no further with Emily because all the ‘spelling choices’ she had learned were not delivering higher spelling proficiency.
The practitioner’s training consisted of one S2P program, and an inventory of about 200 ‘spellings’ for ‘sounds’. This is what she said:
I’m haunted by the thousands of S2P practitioners around the world throwing up their arms at incorrect ‘spelling choices’, as if that’s all to it. I’m haunted by the repeated telling children to ‘emphasise listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them’. This is fine up to simple CCVC/CVCC words, but you and I know that written English is filled with:
- Homophones: there/they’re/their, your/you’re
- Etymological markers: would/should
- Silent letters (usually etymological markers too): Yes they do exist, unless you can tell me what the <h> spells in honour, or the <b> in crumb or the <p> in pterodactyl, or the <e> in lapse, or the <t> in fasten. What are they all ‘spellings’ for? And please don’t give me that smug “bUt All LeTTErs aRe SiLeNt” line. You can define silent as ‘not representing a phoneme’. You’re aware that words can have more than one meaning, right? Besides, ask any layperson what a silent letter is and I bet they can give you an example. This is a useful, well-understood term. Do you really want to expunge something this useful because someone quipped about it to justify their approach?
- Schwa and reduced vowels: respect, banana, necessary, definitely, and in fact a large majority of polysyllabic words
- Elided (or ‘collapsed’) syllables: camera, restaurant, Wednesday
- Rules (yes, rules!) surrounding possible letter sequences and impossible letter sequences: You can’t have <zbq> consecutively, you can’t use the digraph <ck> word-initially, you can’t use <i,j,q,u,v> word-finally. If you didn’t know the rules, you would be rubbish at Wordle. But you do know the rules because you’re an adult with a lexicon. Why keep it from your students? Some of them need you to help them with these rules because they can’t figure it out themselves. If you’re a fan of systematic teaching, what’s stopping you from teaching the rules systematically so that more kids can build their lexicon?
- Rules (yes, as I keep saying, rules!) surrounding the effect letters can have on one another in certain sequences: was (contrast it with has – that’s right, you know the rule even if you don’t use the term), ice(it’s not pronounced ‘icky’ because you know the rules even if you’re trained to consider rules a swearword)
- Accent variation: How you say words may be different from how your students say words – the sounds in words are the least stable, predictable thing about them. Heck you even say words differently from yourself in different contexts. Think about coarticulation (e.g. the <t> in the word ‘cat’ is said differently from the <t> in the phrase ‘cat-call’). You say ‘because’ one way in isolation but I bet you it changes when you say it in a sentence, hence the erroneous spelling in younger students (‘cuz/cos/bcos’ etc.). Spelling is stable. Morphemes are stable. Pronunciation is not stable, so basing your teaching on how you think you say words in your head is pretty limited.
- Letter names: Then there’s the strawman about teaching alphabet letters. Typical S2P training goes something like this:
TRAINER: Teach the sounds, not the names of letters. If you teach the letter names for a word like map, the children will pronounce it ‘em-ay-pee’, which is not a word in English as far as I know haha! (insert patronising chuckle)
No. If you teach letter names and then instruct the child to blend those names to form a word, you’ll get something like ‘em-ay-pee’, but who does that? Seriously. No one does that. Stop making things up.
Of course you teach sound to symbol correspondences, but this dogma comes unstuck very quickly if you don’t also make children aware of letter names. Tell me about ‘sounding out’ one, eye, was, there/they’re/there, Wednesday, restaurant, honest, lamb, queue… the list is vast. What do you suggest here? ‘Heart word memorisation?’ The names of letters are critical metalanguage. If you teach them in a way that confuses children, that’s on you. Students deserve to know the whole story, not the one crafted to suit a company’s ‘phonics charts’ and sets of decodable readers.
How will 'listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them' help with any of the above?
It won’t. You know it won’t. And yet schools and districts and practitioners are pouring money and energy and time into buying training that tells you to ignore the above because ‘print is just speech written down’!
No. It isn’t. Speech and print are different beasts. If you teach them as one and the same with a giant ‘code’ chart and a bunch of ‘extended/complex code’ after that, and don’t consider the above, people like me have to go into schools to fix it. People like Emily have to go to private tutoring to fix it if their parents can afford it, and if their parents can’t afford it, they suffer all the consequences of not being able to write well, whatever they may be.
S2P cannot, will not, even explain to a child the rules behind letter sequences. It’s just random ‘choices’ or ‘spellings for X sound’. And if you are a practitioner and you find yourself explaining the rules behind letter sequences, then you are not a S2P practitioner. You are using a supplement because S2P needs supplementing.
It’s like feeding people a diet of eggs exclusively. Eggs are very nutritious, and if you were only feeding them sugar beforehand, then you’re doing much better. But a lot of them are still going to get scurvy.
A lot of your students are still only going to be able to spell phonetically if you feed them the untruth that spelling is just speech written down or that every letter sequence is ‘code’ for a spoken sound.
We've come so far! We need to keep going!
There has been much effort over the past two decades to reinstate phonics as a viable, efficient way of helping children acquire literacy. Its good name is important. It’s been very hard to get teachers, whose training is progressive/constructivist in most cases, to embrace systematic, teacher-led approaches. It is therefore important that alternatives to whole language and balanced literacy be as high quality as possible. Speech to print is low quality for the reasons I outlined above. Just as whole language is built on the ‘learning to read is a social/natural process’ faulty premise, speech to print is based on the faulty premise that ‘print is simply speech written down’. Faulty premises lead to faulty practice. Faulty practice, or malpractice as it’s known in medical circles, leads to casualties.
So if your instruction is chiefly concerned with:
- listening to each word and the sounds in each word prior to writing them as the major strategy after the basic GPCs are learned,
- asking questions like ‘what are the sounds in this word?’, or
- ‘how do you code this word?’, or
- ‘how many syllables in this word?’,
- having charts of 150-200 ‘spellings’ for ‘sounds’ that children have to somehow memorise,
you will leave some children behind.
All this, of course, is just my opinion. There is scant research to conclude the outright leader between S2P, or P2S, or MSL, or OG or any other phonics method that is systematic and synthetic, and I’m certainly not recommending one above the other. But right now, S2P is being hailed as some kind of ‘gold standard’ when it’s not.
Remember where I get my opinion from: casualties. Not from being personally wrapped up in admiration for someone or something. Not from mistaking my identity for my profession. Not from judging my self-worth on the basis of my beliefs. Not from an obligation to an employer. I get my opinion from seeing the results of low quality ideas in children who deserve a better deal. I get it from working with frustrated teachers who, despite the promise of systemic change, are still working with blunt tools.
S2P has gigantic tracts of wrong that create instructional casualties, and judging by the cult-like behaviour of plenty of its adherents, its massive popularity, and the steadfastness of its chief proponents in maintaining their stranglehold on the market, I’m not wrong to be concerned.
‘Know better…do better’ doesn’t mean ‘climb out of the BL frying pan and defend the S2P fire’, it means ‘keep learning’.
The second part of this article will contain some solutions to the S2P problem and some suggestions as to how things could be done better.
However, there’s an awful lot of piracy going on in education at the moment, so I’m a little wary of publishing too much. I’m seeing free resources that people willingly share, as well as illustrations, slides and book excerpts without permission/attribution cropping up in the work of a few new ‘edupreneurs’. If you have to steal content, you obviously don’t know your subject. If you see something that looks like piracy (of anyone’s content, not just mine), drop me a confidential line. All proven reports will be rewarded with a free, signed copy of one of my books and your identity as a whistleblower will be kept under wraps.