Review of Systematic Phonics

Bowers (in press). Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction. Educational Psychology Review.

It has taken about 2 years, but my review of systematic phonics has been accepted in the prestigious journal Educational Psychology Review. I show that the “science of reading” does not support the widespread claim that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative forms of instruction. If you are interested in the topic I hope you have a look at the paper itself:  Reconsidering the evidence that systematic phonics is more effective than alternative methods of reading instruction, but for summaries you can either
(1) have a look at  slides of a talk that outline the same points  or
(2) read my earlier blogpost: https://jeffbowers.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/blog/phonics/

To avoid any confusion, my criticism of systematic phonics does not provide any support for whole language or balanced literacy. Rather, I am claiming that the decades long “reading wars” is best characterized as a draw. The implication is that researchers should consider alternative approaches to reading instruction. In my view, one promising alternative is structured word inquiry (Bowers & Bowers, 2017, 2018), but the main point is that more research is needed before making evidence-based claims regarding the efficacy of phonics, balanced literacy, structured word inquiry, or any other method.

Unfortunately, research into reading instruction has been one of the most contentious areas in all of psychology and education. Proponents of phonics who simply ignore this critique are engaging in advocacy not science. Whether you agree or disagree, it would be great to get feedback here.

11 Responses to Review of Systematic Phonics

  1. Harriett says:

    And finally, Jenny Chew in a November 8th response to you on Pamela Snow’s blog, “Trick or Treat: More nonsense words about phonics instruction and assessment”, ends her comments with the same question that I have.

    You write:

    “The key part of my quote is: “before focusing on the meaning of written words in isolation and in text”. Note the word *written*. Yes, children learn the meaning of spoken words, largely from home, and as far as I know, there is no systematic way in which meaning of spoken words is taught in schools. So phonics focuses on GPCs (like the quote from Max), with minimal teaching of meaning. SWI does explicitly teach GPC, but in the context of morphological matrices where the meaning of a set of morphologically related words are studied. Here, children are being taught meaning of *written* words, and learning GPCs in this context.”

    And Jenny Chew responds:

    “It looks as if you are using ‘focusing on’ to mean ‘teaching’, and are therefore saying that phonics teaches GPCs before teaching the meaning of written words. But written words have the same meanings as their spoken counterparts, and if children can use phonics to translate written words, however many morphemes they have, into spoken words whose meanings they already know, there is no need for teachers to teach the meanings of those written words separately. In those circumstances, however, not teaching meaning doesn’t mean that there is no ‘focus’ on it – teachers use questions and discussion to make sure that children understand what they read.

    Would you use a morphological matrix to teach GPCs from scratch to children who as yet knew no GPCs? Can you give an example?”

    It’s this example of a “morphological matrix to teach GPCs from scratch to children who as yet knew no GPCs” which would help me understand what SWI instruction to beginning readers looks likes in practice.

    Thanks!

    Harriett

    • Jeff bowers says:

      Hi Harriett, I’ve responded to these questions multiple times to the best of my ability. Videos have been posted of teachers teaching SWI in the early stages of reading instruction. Analytic phonics is an type of phonics where children learn GPCs within words at the start of instruction (no one claims that this is hard to understand as far as I know). But in any case, this is a paper about the evidence for systematic phonics, not about SWI. For this blogpost I’m hoping to talk about the claim that the science of reading supports SSP.

      • Harriett says:

        Thanks, Jeff. You say: “Analytic phonics is an type of phonics where children learn GPCs within words at the start of instruction (no one claims that this is hard to understand as far as I know).”

        Definitely not hard to understand. Forgive me, but I hadn’t appreciated that SWI promotes the use of analytic phonics. I’ll now revisit your links and look for analytic phonics combined with “morphological matrices where the meaning of a set of morphologically related words are studied. Here, children are being taught meaning of *written* words, and learning GPCs in this context.”

      • Harriett says:

        You’re right, Jeff, that I haven’t been addressing the main points of your review, but after reading what Anne Castles says, I realize that if she’s struggling with interpreting the data, then I would be way out of my depth. She writes:

        “I’d still cite the NRP study as coming out overall in favour of systematic phonics. I did read the Camilli et al (2006) study, but found it very hard to figure out what they’d actually done, and why they’d made the decisions they did about which factors to control. No doubt there are many, many different ways these data could be carved up – I really have no way of knowing whether things they have done have introduced other confounds. So, imperfect though it may be, I place more weight on the results as reported against the original set of criteria”

        However, I am not out of my depth when it comes to teaching 5 and 6 year-olds how to read, and after watching Pete’s video on teaching SWI right from the start (http://www.realspellers.org/forums/orthography/1412-video-on-how-swi-explicitly-teaches-grapheme-phoneme-correspondences-from-the-start), I’d have to say that I just don’t see that method working until students have nailed their GPC’s through quick and efficient blending and segmenting. Too much information! But once they’re “off the blocks” as Pamela Snow says, it’s good stuff.

  2. Harriett says:

    One more thing:

    You state in your paper: “To summarize, there are a number of different forms of reading instruction, some of which emphasize letter-sound mappings before other properties of words (e.g., systematic phonics), others that emphasize meaning from the start (e.g., whole language) and others that claim that the phonology and meaning of word spellings should be the focus of instruction from the beginning (structured word inquiry).”

    This confuses me. I do letter-sound mappings WITHIN the context of teaching words (dog, cat, mom, dad), and of course these words have meaning. I consider this to be teaching phonics. This is why many of us are unclear about exactly what SWI looks like in beginning reading instruction.

    Harriett

  3. Harriett says:

    Hi Jeff,
    As you know, I find this subject very interesting because I have worked with hundreds of struggling readers, and we practitioners really do want to implement “best practices” since so much is at stake when it comes to getting it right.

    Over the past two years since I first became acquainted with SWI, I have followed links that you and Jeff have posted and watched many videos. And this year I have started using word matrices with my third graders. What I still haven’t seen is a clear “how to” for beginning readers: How do you teach children who have no understanding of grapheme-phoneme connections how to read words?

    In her responses to you and Pete in the February 2018 exchange on her blog, Pamela Snow makes a similar point: the “sticking point” seems to be the “starting point”, and she–like many of us–would like to see how SWI is “translated into everyday practice” with students who have no grapheme-phoneme connections.

    She writes:

    “We have to start somewhere to help novices to understand the nature of reading and I’m curious to understand where you advocate starting . . . I just don’t see morphology as the starting point in a language that has a strong alphabetic component, particularly for the kinds of words we want to start young children off on . . . morphology and etymology are critical, but are not the entry point to early systematic reading instruction . . . I think pretty much all of us agree on the importance of phonemic awareness, phonics, morphology, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, and oracy, but the sticking point seems to be whether the starting point is introducing children to a small subset of phoneme-grapheme correspondences to get them off the blocks . . . If you have evidence that starting with morphology and guided word study is “better”, then of course I am eager to be directed to that and will read it with great interest. How such evidence would be translated into everyday practice in early years classrooms (particularly in Australia), however, is a leap into the darkness.”

    Thanks for such an interesting discussion!

    Harriett

  4. Jeff bowers says:

    The third Bowers brother speaks!

  5. Holly Shapiro says:

    Congratulations! I’m so glad your work will be getting the larger audience it deserves.

  6. Kevin Bowers says:

    What the hell is wrong with fonics?

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