Responding to the Fletcher, Savage and Vaughn (2020) article entitled: “A Commentary on Bowers (2020) and the Role of Phonics Instruction in Reading”
In addition to the Buckingham (2020) response, Fletcher et al. (2020) published an article challenging the Bowers (2020) claim that there is little or no evidence in support of systematic phonics. My response to Fletcher et al. has just been accepted and I’ve linked a pre-print of the response to this blogpost (psyarxiv.com/p24vs). You can find the Bowers and Bowers (2021) response to the Buckingham article here (doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/f5qyu). Also see the P. Bowers (2021) response that goes into more detail concerning one particularly egregious error of Buckingham, namely, the claim that SWI does not teach GPCs (psyarxiv.com/7qpyd/).
What a difference a journal (and an Action Editor) makes. The Buckingham response was published in The Educational and Developmental Psychologist without asking me to review it, the action editor rejected the Bowers and Bowers (2021) response without addressing any of the straightforward errors of the reviewers that we pointed out, refused to issue a correction to the most critical errors, and would not permit us to publish our work on PsyArxiv while the paper was under consideration (see previous blogpost that describes our experience in more detail: jeffbowers.bristol.ac.uk/blog/buckingham-2020/). By contrast, I was asked to review the Fletcher et al. manuscript submitted to Educational Psychology Review (the same journal where my original article appeared), the Action Editor welcomed my response after sending it out for review, and is happy for me to publish my response in PsyArxiv. That is how peer review and action editing should work, and unfortunately, this is rare. It has also led to a more constructive exchange compared to the Bowers and Bowers (2021) response that was largely devoted to correcting a long list of errors in the Buckingham article.
I’ve linked the Bowers (2021) response to the Fletcher et al. article to this blogpost in an attempt to generate more discussion regarding the evidence. Anyone who follows me on twitter (@jeffrey_bowers) knows I’m a bit relentless (but mostly polite) in asking for evidence for phonics and criticizing the bias in the field. I’ve included a few exchanges here in an attempt to prod these and other researchers to justify their claims.
In the following thread Kathy Rastle claims that the evidence for systematic phonics is strong, ridicules many (not me) for criticizing the evidence for phonics, and claims there is no evidence for an alternative approach I have been advocating (SWI).
In fact, there is some evidence for SWI (e.g., Bowers & Bowers, 2021), but I agree that more evidence is needed, and indeed, the goal of the Bowers (2020) critique was to motivate more research into alternative approaches (including more research on SWI). I would be interested to hear whether Rastle still maintains that the evidence for systematic phonics is strong.
And here is a recent response from Timothy Shanahan, one of the members of the National Reading Panel (2000). Strong words, so you might expect Shanahan to feel some obligation to justify these claims. But no response thus far. I would be interested in knowing the basis for these claims.
The person I’ve exchanged the most tweets with is Pamela Snow. I do appreciate that she is willing to engage, but she does not provide evidence for the claims that she makes. For instance, here she states that my critique does not change her view that the evidence for phonic is “dimensional, not binary”. But she fails to provide evidence to justify her view.
I would be interested in what multiple filters and caveats of existing data undermine my critique of SSP.
Perhaps the closest I’ve come to a direct answer to a request for evidence comes from this exchange:
But I’m not sure which specific studies Snow is referring to. It would be great to get a direct answer to the question: What is the best evidence for systematic or explicit phonics?
Mark Seidenberg has argued for the importance of phonics, but rarely responds to queries from me. But here is one case he responded, with a non-sequitur. Thus far he has failed to cite my critique of phonics or considered alternatives like SWI (the “bonkers” whole language approach is not the only alternative to phonics).
Not only do researchers fail to respond to my requests for evidence on twitter (or on my blog thus far), but they also largely ignore my critique in their publications. Some authors think that is fine. For example, consider the following exchange with Greg Ashman and Pamela Snow.
I find this comment strange. A recent systematic review of all the meta-analyses of phonics interventions and a review the reading outcomes in England following over a decade of legally mandated phonics does not meet the “relevance threshold” when claiming the science of reading strongly supports phonics?
And my favourite:
Of course, researchers who “don’t think it’s very good” are free to criticize my work, and indeed, I’m asking people to challenge my arguments in the comment section below. But I disagree that it is just fine to ignore work you don’t think is good and assert that “the scientific process should work it all out”. If an author publishes the claim that the science of reading supports phonics, he or she should challenge my claims (to his credit, Greg Ashman has responded on his blog, but he just introduces more errors and fails to address the problems I have identified), or at least acknowledge that there is an alternative characterization of the evidence that has been published.
I can hear my critics moaning: “Bowers is just complaining about not being cited enough, welcome to the club”. And fair enough if there were other relevant recent peer-reviewed papers challenging the evidence for phonics that were being cited. But there are no such papers.
Is there really a bias against citing work critical of phonics? In my case, there might be a much simpler answer, namely, my critique only came out in January 2020, so there has been little opportunity to cite my work. I would note that my critique has been up on PsyArxiv since 2018 and downloaded almost 2.5K times (psyarxiv.com/xz4yn/), but perhaps given more time, Rastle, Seidenberg, Snow, Shanahan and other proponents of phonics will cite this work when they publish the claim the science of reading strongly supports systematic phonics. But this does not explain why the few other published studies that have challenged the evidence for phonics have largely been ignored in a sea of pro-phonics citations. Consider the Camilli et al. (2006) meta-analysis that not only identified a fundamental limitation of the phonics meta-analysis in the NRP, but also showed that when the data were analyzed in the relevant manner there was no evidence that systematic phonics was more effective than standard alternative methods used in schools (read my paper for more details). The Camilli et al. paper has been cited a total of 68 times in Google Scholar, 8 times since 2019 (twice by me). By contrast, the Ehri et al. (2001) article that describes the phonics section of the NRP has been cited 1152 times, 178 times since 2019, with the NRP itself cited over 24 thousand times, and almost 3 thousand times since 2019. The relative lack of attention to the Camilli et al. meta-analysis may help explain why all subsequent meta-analyses of phonics included the same design limitation as the NRP. It is hard enough to publish a paper critical of phonics (see final section of: jeffbowers.bristol.ac.uk/blog/buckingham/), but once you do, it seems the work will largely be ignored by the research community. Hopefully my rather direct and persistent challenges will make this harder. But currently, the politics of science has corrupted the science of reading instruction.
I don’t expect my articles will convince many who claim that the science of reading supports phonics. But I do hope that more neutral observers interested in this issue will read the Bowers (2020) critique (or the shorter summary blogposts that I’ve published, including one in the Washington Post: jeffbowers.bristol.ac.uk/blog/916-2/), read the recent published exchanges (Buckingham, 2020; Fletcher et al., 2020 vs., J. Bowers, 2021; P. Bowers, 2021; Bowers & Bowers, 2021), and look at the comments (or lack of comments) below, or the comments in the blogpost response to Buckingham, or in Ashman’s recent blogpost (fillingthepail.substack.com/p/structured-word-inquiry). If indeed the evidence for phonics is strong, it should be easy enough to identify the research that supports this conclusion, and it should be easy enough to identify problems/mistakes in my publications. Proponent of phonics should be motivated to correct my mistakes.
Any comments are welcome but let me try and anticipate three responses that I think are distractions. First, I expect some advocates of phonics will want to challenge me regarding the evidence for SWI. As I have noted in multiple papers, there are good theoretical arguments for SWI, and there are some empirical studies that lend support to SWI. But I agree, more research is needed. Second, I expect some advocates of phonics will say that the term “phonics” refers to knowledge of letter-sound correspondences, and children need to learn these correspondences to read aloud. The problem with this is that almost all forms of reading instruction teach letter-sound correspondences, including whole language, balanced literacy, and SWI. The issue at hand is whether phonics instruction (as defined in all the meta-analyses and government reports) is the best way to teach these mappings. Third, I expect proponents of phonics will note that “no one claims that phonics instruction is enough”. And I agree, no proponent of phonics makes this claim (nor do any critics as far as I am aware). But what proponents of phonics do claim is that phonics instruction is a necessary part of effective reading instruction. The issue at hand is whether there is any evidence for this.
Again, I’m happy for any comments, but I’m most interested hearing what proponents of phonics consider the best evidence for systematic (or explicit) phonics. Please post your responses below.
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. doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09515-y
Bowers, J.S. (2021). Yes children need to learn their GPCs but there really is little or no evidence that systematic or explicit phonics is effective: A response to Fletcher, Savage, and Sharon (2020). Educational Psychology Review. Published online on 13 March 2021. doi.org/10.1007/s10648-021-09602-z
Bowers, P.N. (2021). Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) Teaches Grapheme-Phoneme Correspondences More Explicitly Than Phonics Does: An open letter to Jennifer Buckingham and the reading research community. psyarxiv.com/7qpyd
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. 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. doi.org/10.1017/edp.2020.12
Camilli, G., M. Wolfe, P., & Smith, M. L. (2006). Meta-analysis and reading policy: Perspectives on teaching children to read. The Elementary School Journal, 107, 27-36. doi.org/10.1086/509525
Fletcher, Savage, and Sharon (2020). A commentary on Bowers (2020) and the role of phonics instruction in reading. Educational Psychology Review (2020). doi.org/10.1007/s10648-020-09580-8