Sounds about Right



I keep getting drawn into situations where I feel a need to defend my work. That’s what you get when you say things publicly, I guess. I don’t mind at all, because every time I get asked for comment, I get to refine my thinking on my works. But let me clarify a couple of points before you tag me and those who you perceive as my opponents in the same social media post.


  1. If you’re feeling dissonance because what you held true yesterday, due to the works of a different educator, now seems at odds with something I wrote, yet both approaches seem plausible, neither I, nor my “opponent” should be obliged to help you figure that out.


  1. If you’re hoping, by tagging us both, that we’ll have some kind of entertaining debate simply because you tagged us, well, for my part, I’m not interested in that.


  1. If my “opponent” and I say something that appears to be at odds, chances are we both have a pretty good reason to say it and have laid out evidence in a large and continuous body of work. Neither of us would be particularly inclined to reverse the steps that led to our conclusions. Our steps have simply resulted in approaches that differ.


  1. Please bear in mind that in many cases, approaches that have differences are part of a system with many moving parts. It’s the systematic nature of the approach, not the differences within the parts that leads to the successes of those who apply the system.


  1. When you understand 5. above, you will see that authors of systematic synthetic phonics programs and systematic spelling programs have more in common than they do in conflict.


Yes, I’m talking about Spelling for Life and Sounds Write. Spelling for Life is a rule-based approach to spelling. Sounds Write is a systematic synthetic phonics program and one of its core tenets is that rules should not explicitly taught. So what? I mount a very good case for teaching spelling rules. Sounds Write owner John Walker mounts a very good case for not doing so. Teachers either get along fine with one, or the other, or both. What would you like us to do, dismantle our approaches in mutual deference?


That’s not to say I wouldn’t like John what Walker one day to declare, “I was wrong about split digraphs!” Just as, I am sure, he’d love me to declare the same about silent letters. But I’m pretty sure that that ain’t gonna happen. So what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people? The commonality or the conflict?


I’m still going to lay out my evidence for my thinking. I’m still going to push for more focus on explicit handwriting instruction from day one. And boy am I going to train every teacher I get my hands on to love those rules!


But I’m not doing public punch-ups with John Walker. Not when both of us face the dismal reality that teachers all over the world are still led to believe that children learn to read and write naturally, that running records are a valid and reliable assessment, that prompting a child to look away from unfamiliar words is helpful, that memorising a word by its shape is the best use of time and energy, and all manner of pernicious falsehoods about teaching and learning that still dominate the landscape. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.


I’ve said it privately before to John, and now I’m saying it publicly.


For more information on this subject, I refer you to Stephen Dykstra’s talk this year’s Reading League annual conference: How Science Works: Teaching Beyond the Science We Have Without Violating that Science. Join The Reading League and sign up for the conference if you haven’t already. This talk alone is worth the fee.


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11 thoughts on “Sounds about Right”

  1. Avatar

    Thank you for this blog, Lyn! It is an important one because sadly what you describe in this blog is not limited to the conflict others are trying to stir up between you and John Walker. It is happening to others in our field. Your statement, “So what is the greatest good for the greatest number of people? The commonality or the conflict?” is for me a drop the mic statement. We need to ask, What is the motive of those who seek to divide our community? Who benefits? Surely not our teachers who are in our classrooms every day looking to the field to offer consistent guidance aligned with science. Who loses in this scenario? Certainly our teachers do but even more so our kids do. The very ones who we have a moral responsibility to .

  2. Avatar

    Lyn you deserve the highest commendation for your professionalism and courage to address what I feel many professionals are experiencing as a significant discrepancy between theory and practice when it comes to truly being well-equipped to provide intervention for struggling students.
    It is thrilling to see the growth in acceptance of structured synthetic phonics as best practice in which to teach core reading skills such as decoding, mapping speech-to-print and laying an authentic foundation on which to build language and literacy skills – particularly where balanced literacy remains an all-pervasive threat within our national education system to achieving these skills.
    Any program is only as good as the educated professional implementing it. It would be a falsehood to think that a tool can be of any valuable use if it is wielded in the hand of the unwise, ignorant or unknowing. I think there lies a risk in thinking that this one program embodies all that lies within the science of reading (and writing).
    English is a magnificent tapestry of morpho-phonemic splendour, with a rich etymology and observable patterns and intricacies in both it’s spoken and written forms. It diminishes the richness of the language and the intellect of the learner, and is a disservice to struggling students, to omit these from our explicit instruction.
    If nothing else, you have placated my rogue tendencies and consoled my professionalism to practice without fidelity beyond the popular.

  3. Avatar

    I agree that this is a super important blog because you have stated so simply and yet effectively the quest for commonality rather than conflict. I know that’s why I value your work. In fact, I will be using your 8 minute orthographic mapping video in a presentation to my staff next month. I think it’s the best I’ve seen–and you say it all in such a short period of time. That’s the very crucial commonality. Where we differ is in the rule-teaching realm. If I’m not mistaken John Walker, like me, has been heavily influenced by Diane McGuinness and her Phono-Graphix program, but your statement in number 4 shows where we can achieve equal ends with separate systematized approaches because, as you say, “approaches that have differences are part of a system with many moving parts. It’s the systematic nature of the approach, not the differences within the parts that leads to the successes of those who apply the system.”

    And this all reminds me of the recent discussion about advanced phonemic awareness on Tim Shanahan’s blog, where he, David Kilpatrick, Linnea Ehri and Susan Brady all weigh in regarding the ‘many moving parts’. When the parts fall into place, we can change our approaches, yes, but not wring our hands over past choices, just embrace this opportunity to, as you say, refine our thinking.

    Thank you for all of your reasoned wisdom!

    1. Avatar

      Sorry Harriet! Just saw this now! Thank you for your kind and encouraging words.
      To your second paragraph: There are certain elements focused on perpetuating vendettas in the advanced PA realm and I’ll never support or even understand them. David Kilpatrick has always had a calm, rigorous response and has done far more to advocate for high quality instruction in his career than I daresay his naysayers have.

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