Responding to the Buckingham (2020) article entitled: “Systematic phonics instruction belongs in evidence-based reading programs: A response to Bowers”
Buckingham (2020) published an article challenging the Bowers (2020) claim that there is little or no evidence in support of systematic phonics. But despite a long list of falsehoods (please see note at the end of this blogpost) and mischaracterizations in the Buckingham article, and despite publishing this work without asking Bowers to review it, the journal The Educational and Developmental Psychologist has rejected a response from Bowers and Bowers (2021) and refused to issue a correction to straightforward and significant errors.
We have now published our response in PsyArxiv (go to: https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/f5qyu) and added this blogpost to encourage discussion. To simply ignore the challenge and continue to publish the claim that the evidence for systematic phonics is strong is poor academic practice. And if there are no good responses to the list of errors and mischaracterizations summarized in Table 1 of Bowers and Bowers (2021), there is a serious problem with Buckingham’s article.
There is also no excuse for continuing to mischaracterize an alternative approach to phonics we have been advocating, namely, Structured Word Inquiry (SWI). It is one thing to disagree with the approach, it is quite another to get basic facts wrong, such as Buckingham’s claim that SWI does not teach grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs). In a future blogpost we will focus on how politics and ideology have compromised the science of reading instruction. But for now, let us highlight one small example of this – the refusal of the The Educational and Developmental Psychologist to correct this false claim regarding SWI.
After the paper was rejected J. Bowers wrote the following letter to the action editor:
Dear **, yes I plan to self-publish the complete article, but I expect only a small percentage of your readers will come across it. It is not just question of being disappointed, it is that don’t understand the procedure nor the decision. You published a paper by Buckingham critiquing my work that was full of falsehoods and highly misleading statements without asking me to review it. In a revision, I summarized many examples of these falsehoods and misleading statements in a new Table 1, and neither of the reviewers nor you have challenged any these points. In addition, 1 of the 2 reviewers appears to have recommended publishing a response, and nevertheless you have rejected manuscript. In the same special issue, there was another seriously flawed article by Stainthorp supporting phonics (as I detailed in a previous letter to you, the main claims of this paper are straightforwardly contradicted by Bowers, 2000 [should have written Bowers, 2020], but the paper did not cite this work), and subsequently, another pro-phonics paper by Siegel that included 24 self-citations out of a total of 28 references. This all seems to support my concern that politics biasing the science of reading.
I would be happy to publish a “letter to editor” style response, but given the challenges with this, would you consider publishing a simple correction with a citation to my self-published version of the paper (I’m planning on putting up the paper in PsyArxiv)? There are multiple falsehoods, but the most egregious is Buckingham’s claim that SWI does not teach GPCs:
“Students are encouraged to ‘spell words out’ using letter names rather than sound them out using GPCs. This contradicts any claim that SWI teaches GPCs, given that GPCs by definition involve the speech sounds associated with the letters, not their names. (p. 109)”
As noted in our rejected paper, we have emphasized repeatedly GPCs are an essential aspect of SWI. For example, in Bowers and Bowers (2017) we wrote:
“SWI emphasizes that English spellings are organized around the interrelation of morphology, etymology, and phonology and that it is not possible to accurately characterize grapheme–phoneme correspondences in isolation of these other sublexical constraints (p. 124) … “We have no doubt that learning grapheme–phoneme correspondences is essential” (p. 133).
And in Bowers and Bowers (2018b) we wrote:
“To avoid any confusion, it is important to emphasize that the explicit instruction of orthographic phonology — how grapheme-phoneme correspondences work—is a core feature of SWI. However, unlike phonics, SWI considers grapheme-phonemes within the context of morphology and etymology.” (pp. 409-410)
We have also made this point multiple times directly to Buckingham in personal communications, for example in twitter exchanges:
SWI teaches GPCs from the start. In the context of morphemes. It teaches GPCs, morphemes, vocabulary together. More data needed to support hypothesis, but the evidence for teaching GPC by themselves is not strong.
SWI proposes a better way to teach GPCs, so makes sense from start. Not defined by when it starts, but how it teaches literacy, namely a common set of tools to teach the interactions between morphology, etymology, and phonology for reading, spelling, & vocabulary.
I would be pleased if you would consider publishing a correction to this one specific point (this false claim makes it even harder to get researchers to consider SWI as an alternative to phonics — the main goal of publishing my critique of phonics in the first place) along with a reference to our self-published PsyArix paper. Thanks so much for getting back,
In response we received the following:
We have completed a review of your request and I appreciate your patience.
In line with journal policy all submitted articles must go through a peer-review process and on this basis the article by Jennifer Buckingham was approved for publication. In addition, and consistent with acceptable practice, Editors have the final say in rejecting manuscripts that are not judged to meet the remit of the journal and to determine content. On behalf of the Publisher and Editor, the editorial decision to not accept your manuscript has been reviewed and upheld. The alleged falsehoods recorded in Table 1 have also been reviewed by the Editor, Special Issue Editors, and Publisher. As Editor, and based on the review of the above parties, I see no basis to seek a retraction or correction of any of the content in the published article or publish additional work on the topic and consider this to be the end of the matter.
The conclusion that there is “no basis to seek a retraction or correction of any of the content in the published article” is unambiguously false as documented above, and indeed, a simple Google search for “structured word inquiry” identifies many illustrations of SWI providing explicit instruction of GPCs. You could not ask for a more straightforward demonstration that Buckingham was wrong about a key feature of SWI. Note, this is not a mistake on a trivial point, it is a falsehood that will discourage researchers from taking this alternative approach seriously. And this is just one of many straightforward and significant mistakes we identified.
Of course, everyone in academia faces challenges when trying to publish, and if this was just an isolated example, it would not matter much. But our experience trying to publish this response has been more or less typical. That is, the reviewers were strongly committed to phonics, the reviews were full of errors and ignored the key issues we raised (in this case summarized in Table 1), and the action editor was not willing to engage with the science when confronted with the straightforward errors of the reviewers (there have been a few honorable exceptions to this). For more examples of the politics of reading instruction making it difficult to publish work critical of phonics, see the final section of a previous blogpost you can find here: https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/buckingham/. And this has led to a situation in which most researchers studying literacy instruction believe that the science of reading strongly supports systematic phonics, when in fact, there is almost no evidence at all. If this seems like an absurd claim, it should be straightforward for someone to identify flaws in our arguments. Please post your responses below.
Note: Dr. Buckingham has contacted me by email claiming that “I have made some serious allegations that are defamatory and untrue”. She notes that I used the word “falsehood” six times, and that according to the Cambridge, Oxford, and Collins dictionaries, the term means “a lie, or a deliberate act of deception”. She has asked me to take down the blog, or alternatively, amend the defamatory statements.
I am happy to note that I was not suggesting that Buckingham was lying. I was using the primary definition found in the Oxford dictionary: “the state of being untrue” (see: https://www.lexico.com/definition/falsehood). This is not in any way a retraction as indeed Buckingham has made multiple false statements. Buckingham has indicated that she is not willing to engage with my claims at this stage, so hopefully someone else will address the list of points we raised in Table 1 of Bowers and Bowers (2021).
Bowers, J.S. (2020). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review, 32, 681–705. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y
Bowers and Bowers (2021). The science of reading provides little or no support for the widespread claim that systematic phonics should be part of initial reading instruction: A response to Buckingham. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/f5qyu
Buckingham, J. (2020). Systematic phonics instruction belongs in evidence-based reading programs: A response to Bowers. The Educational and Developmental Psychologist, 37(2), 105-113. https://doi.org/10.1017/edp.2020.12