[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1994/2 pp3-12 later designated J17]
Joyce M Morris.
Dr Joyce Morris has been a teacher, psychologist and 'professional' researcher for 40 years. She is the author and editor of numerous pure and applied publications, including Standards and Progress in Reading, Language in Action, and the latest (1990) Morris-Montessori Word List which incorporates her 'Phonics 44' system for developing initial literacy in English. In 1963 she was a Co-founder of the United Kingdom Reading Association, and is now President of the Turn-a-Page Society and a Council Member of the Society of Women Writers and Journalists. Dr Morris is a Fellow of the British Psychological Society and has been appointed OBE for her services to literacy. She has also received from the International Reading Association the 1972 Special Service Award and the 1988 International Citation of Merit.
1. Resistance to Phonics.As an English teacher, psychologist, researcher and writer, I have been privileged to work for the cause of literacy all my adult life. It has been an enriching experience to serve such a worthy cause with dedicated colleagues at home and abroad. Nevertheless, like them, I am very disappointed that, despite our concentrated efforts at local, national and international level during the last forty years, no significant progress towards universal literacy has been made and, at present, over half the world's population remains illiterate.
For obvious reasons, I am even more disappointed that in England, where compulsory education was introduced in 1870, thousands of today's children leave school at sixteen with 'inadequate' reading, writing and spelling skills for all but the most menial jobs. Various reasons are advanced for this unsatisfactory state of affairs, some based on the findings of reputable research and others mainly reflecting the much publicised views of prominent citizens.
This paper is about a phenomenon which has long prevented many children from receiving the effective teaching they need to build a sound foundation for literacy during their early schooling. To my knowledge, until I coined the word 'phonicsphobia' for it last year, nobody had given a name to what is essentially an important reason for poor literacy standards and, consequently, it has not hitherto been discussed in the literature.
Naming an impediment to literacy acquisition is obviously a prerequisite for understanding its nature and for getting it removed or, at least, reducing its effect. However, especially if the impediment is the outward expression of an inner emotional turmoil as in the case of a phobia, and it is also in an educational context, the time has to be right for this process to be set in train with any prospect of a successful outcome.
In my view, the time has come for 'phonicsphobia' to be publicly identified in discussions about phonics following publication of the consultation document for the revised National English Curriculum. This is because phonicsphobics must not be allowed to influence the requirements of the English Order at a time when there is the best chance for many years of systematic phonic teaching being given its rightful place in educational provision for literacy, including teacher-training.
2. Definitions for the Key Constituents of PhonicsphobiaAt this point one does not have to be a psychologist or teacher to deduce that phonicsphobia is a 'phobia about phonics.' Therefore, phonicsphobics are people suffering from a pathological condition which, if they are in a position of influence, can and does have serious implications for literacy learners, student and practising teachers and the provision of published resources to aid them in their respective tasks.
However, for the purposes of this paper and to avoid misunderstandings, one does need to know that the key constituents of phonicsphobia are defined as follows:-
'Phonics' is the singular noun and 'phonic' the adjective covering all methods and materials designed to develop initial literacy in English by highlighting its major spelling patterns, and by making explicit the relationships between speech sounds (phonemes) and graphic symbols (graphemes).
'Phobia' is the singular noun and 'phobic' the adjective for a pathological condition characterised by irrational attitudes (including prejudice and hatred) to natural situations, objects or subjects and, in its severest form, by excessive and uncontrollable fear of them.
On rational grounds, one might expect 'phonicsphobia' to be a rare condition like for instance, 'linonophobia' (fear of string). This is because it follows logically from understanding the alphabetic nature of the English writing system and its complexity that phonics is an essential ingredient of educational provision for literacy. Unfortunately, phonicsphobia is far from rare and, in the space available, I can only describe briefly a few of the many cases I have come across before summarising what I suggest are the main causes of the condition, its consequences and possible cures.
3. Cases of PhonicsphobiaI first encountered irrational attitudes to phonics when I was a newly-qualified teacher in a London primary school during World War II. I had not been trained to develop initial literacy in English by any method or materials, and phonics had not even been mentioned by my college tutors. Consequently, I was totally unprepared to meet the needs of my first class of 40 children aged seven to ten, none of whom could read or spell more than two words.
In a traumatic state which I shall never forget because it affected the course of my professional life, I explained my predicament to the headmaster. He uttered a few words of encouragement with reference to my academic and school practice record and, after handing me some tatty copies of The Beacon Readers (Fassett, 1922), advised me to study the teacher's manual carefully. He then explained that the scheme had originally been used successfully in the feeder infant school on the same site. But it was discarded by the headmistress and her staff after she had taken a university course which had persuaded her that Beacon phonics had no place in the 'modern' infant school she aspired to create. Henceforth, 'activity' methods and a 'look-and-say' approach to reading were to be the order of the day.
As the headmaster used professional terms which were new to me, I simply asked him whether these changes had made a difference in terms of the intake to our first-year, junior classes. He simply replied that it was 'not as good as it used to be'. Therefore, he was very pleased that the A and B streams were taken by experienced, infant-trained teachers who used 'traditional' methods and a predominantly 'phonic' approach to reading.
Soon after that particularly memorable day, I learned that our school was due for a general inspection, and I could expect an observer in at least one of my lessons. I trembled at the thought that it might be in one of my trial-and-error reading lessons when I was trying to get to grips with my pupils' difficulties. In the event, I need not have worried because an inspector came to my classroom during a scripture period when we were dramatising the fall of Jericho. He approved of this activity and of the class library I had formed from my own and donated books. In short, as a preserved note from my headmaster testifies, I passed some sort of informal test of competence even though, in my heart of hearts, I knew it was largely due to chance.
At lunchtime, the same inspector sat next to Miss B., the infant-trained teacher responsible for the first-year, junior B stream. I sat opposite but did not take part in their discussion which began something like this:-
Inspector: Which methods do you use to teach reading Miss 'B'?
Miss B: Phonic mainly and systematically.
Inspector: Surely not the old-fashioned c-a-t- and all that!!!
Miss B: Certainly.
Inspector: But c-a-t- sounded out does not make 'cat'!
Miss B: It does in my class.
Inspector: How do you manage that?
Miss B: I use the 'nip-behind-the-knee' phonic method. A smart nip behind the knee when a child stands by my desk going c-a-t, c-a-t, soon joins the sounds together to make 'cat'.
Needless to say, I was astonished by this exchange and the ding-dong battle of words which continued until lunch was over. Moreover, I could hardly wait to ask Miss B privately why she had responded to the inspector's questions in a manner which could result in a black mark on her professional record. She replied that such an outcome was hardly likely because it was well-known that she was very successful in raising the reading, writing and spelling standards of children who came to her almost as retarded as those in my backward class. In any case, she was not professionally ambitious except to be regarded as an outstandingly effective class teacher. Therefore, she felt in a strong position to challenge those in authority like the inspector and infant school head who advocated 'fashionable', untested methods and, albeit unwittingly, deprived children of their basic human right to literacy by denigrating the role of phonics.
Not long after the war ended our junior school became oversubscribed, and I was allocated a spare room in the contributory infant school for two years. This gave me plenty of opportunities to observe activity methods at close quarters, and to study the possible reasons for the failure of so many of the school's pupils to make a successful start on the road to literacy.
I discovered that the headmistress had made phonics a taboo subject and got very emotional if anybody questioned the methods used in her school. I also discovered that below the surface some of the staff were uneasy about what she expected them to do and not to do. In fact one of them, Miss S. who was a friend of Miss B. confessed to me that she was glad to have the excuse of getting married to resign her post as she was afraid that, if she stayed much longer, she would openly flout the head's wishes especially about phonics.
I found a similar emotional cauldron bubbling away in the Surrey secondary school to which I was appointed after deciding that I needed to broaden my professional experience. The main problem there was a headmistress who had led a sheltered life, and knew virtually nothing about how to cope with the behaviour of teenagers from deprived backgrounds. There was also a problem of illiteracy amongst those pupils which I was expected to help solve because, by then, I was an experienced teacher of 'late' beginners in reading and a graduate in psychology to boot.
No member of that school was phonicsphobic, and I was encouraged to persist in trying to find a more motivating, published scheme than The Duncan Readers (Duncan, 1947) which, at that time, was the only remedial reading resource available in the school. Having done so without success, I wondered why educational publishers generally had not catered for the needs of retarded, older readers especially for phonic resources. I realised that it was probably because it is not profitable in commercial terms to provide for minority groups. Later on, when I was responsible for reading investigations at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), I discovered that this was not the only reason. Some school book publishers had irrational attitudes towards phonics and feared that their 'progressive' image would be tarnished if they published phonic resources. Consequently, to my knowledge, even a much-needed research-based resource like Stott's Programmed Reading Kit (Stott, 1962) was rejected by many publishers before, at long last, being accepted for publication by Holmes.
Phonicsphobics became more visible during the mid 1950's when Daniels and Diack headed what became known as the 'phonic revolt' by publicising in the News Chronicle (Daniels & Diack, 1954a) the rationale of their 'phonic-word method' as incorporated in their Royal Road Readers (Daniels & Diack, 1954b). They subjected both men to the most appalling verbal abuse and on one astonishing occasion in London, Dr Daniels was physically attacked for daring to give a lecture challenging the 'ultra-progressive' methods of teaching reading advocated by members of the anti-phonic movement.
In 1958, for the first two issues of the NFER journal Educational Research, the Foundation's Director asked me to write articles summarising research into the effectiveness of different methods of teaching reading. At his suggestion, the first article was about 'The place and value of phonics' because, being such a highly controversial subject, it was the most likely to attract readers for the new journal. It certainly did so and revealed cases of phonicsphobia I would never have suspected or expected to meet. For example, soon after publication of that article (Morris, 1958), I spent a day in the University of London library checking research references for my second article, 'The place and value of whole-word methods' (Morris, 1959a), and for my first report on the Kent Reading Inquiries called Reading in the Primary School (Morris 1959b). Having skipped lunch and wanting to avoid a tube journey home in the rush hour, I decided to have a light meal in 'The Restful Tray' at the then Lyons Corner House in Tottenham Court Road.
In the event it was one of the least 'restful' meals I have ever had. For I had no sooner sat down with my tray when into the restaurant came Miss K., a former colleague in the junior school where I found my vocation for the cause of literacy. I had got to know her well during fire-watching in the evenings when there was no enemy activity over London. But we had lost touch during the intervening ten years or so. Consequently, as she came to sit at my table I greeted her with, 'It's good to see you again. How are you these days?' To my amazement she stabbed a finger at her open copy of Educational Research and replied, 'Very angry! If I ever meet the Joyce Morris who wrote this article on phonics, I shall give her a piece of my mind.' Then, almost without pausing for breath, she launched into a diatribe about phonics which was so irrational and emotionally-charged that I realised that my old colleague had become 'phonicsphobic', apparently incapable of distinguishing between fact and opinion about a subject, the mere mention of which disturbed her equilibrium.
If further proof of this was needed it came when, eventually, I managed to get a word in edgeways and explain that I had got married since our last meeting and my surname was now Morris. At which point, visibly shocked to find that I was the author she had so decried, she simply said in a manner I shall never forget. 'Oh Joyce. How could you? You used to be such a nice person!'
About six months after my fall from grace in Miss K.'s phonicsphobic estimation, I was appointed reading research adviser and NFER representative on the London University committee supervising the first experiment with Pitman's initial teaching alphabet (i.t.a.). I suggested that the experiment should allow comparisons to be made between i.t.a. and both phonic and look-and-say methods of teaching infants to read. Unfortunately, partly because vociferous phonicsphobics tended also to be anti-i.t.a., the late Sir James Pitman persuaded the Steering Committee that it would be best to confine experimentation with his alphabet to a comparison with look-and-say using the then most popular infant reading scheme, The Janet and John Books (O'Donnell and Munro, 1949) as the main published resource. This caused a good deal of critical comment, especially after the results were published, and prompted Dr Haas, Professor of Linguistics at Manchester University, to write a critique for The Times Educational Supplement entitled, 'From look-and-say to i.t.a.' (Haas, 1969) in which he pointed out that, if phonics had been included, the results in favour of i.t.a. might have been very different.
Be that as it may, experimentation with i.t.a. had several important bonus effects. For example, it focused widespread attention not only on the intrinsic difficulties of English orthography for literacy learners but also on its alphabetic nature and, hence, on the basic reason for including phonics as an essential ingredient of educational provision for literacy. It encouraged scholars like Professor Haas to contribute contemporary linguistic knowledge and fresh insights to the task of teaching children to read and write as in his book Phono-graphic Translation (Haas, 1970). Moreover, experimental i.t.a. teachers naturally acquired a more explicit, detailed understanding of the orthography than was generally expected of primary school teachers when one considers the content of their pre-service courses. Consequently, they had a better foundation for giving effective phonic instruction when subsequently teaching reading and spelling in traditional orthography and, because of that, were very unlikely ever to develop phonicsphobia. Moreover, some i.t.a. teachers such as Sue Lloyd have helped to change attitudes to phonics in recent years and, in her case, by publishing the results of her considerable classroom experience as a resource for teachers called The Phonics Handbook (Lloyd, 1992).
Despite these and other favourable consequences of i.t.a. experimentation, I believed in 1959 (and still do) that, instead of orthographic innovations, what was really needed was a radical reform of teacher-training which would put language and literacy at its very heart and give phonics its rightful place in the teaching and learning of initial literacy. Sadly, as explained in my 'mini-autobiography' (Morris, 1989), I also had reason to believe from my experience as a professional researcher at the NFER that such a reform, if it ever came to pass, was probably light years away. Therefore, with strong support from Professor Dennis Fry, Head of the Department of Phonetics and Linguistics at University College, London, I decided to carry out linguistic research with the object of providing a more informed base than hitherto available for the phonic ingredient in initial literacy provision.
At first the linguistics-informed system developed from this research was known simply as 'new' phonics and, in 1965, it was incorporated in the pioneering BBC television series, Look and Read. To my knowledge as consultant/writer for the series over the next twelve years or so, it was warmly welcomed by teachers of the poor readers in junior classes for whom in was primarily intended, and there was no opposition to its use in schools by LEA advisers and HMI. With only a few objections from educationists opposed to phonics for infants, there was also a similar favourable response when my system was subsequently incorporated in the television series for infants called Words and Pictures, and in the research-based scheme for four to nine-year-olds called Language in Action (Morris et al., 1974-83) whose core storybook titles are mnemonics for the basic spelling patterns and main sound-symbol correspondences of English.
All this caused me and like-minded colleagues to be hopeful that the influence of the anti-phonic movement, which naturally attracts phonicsphobics, was petering out. Alas! It proved not to be the case. If anything, the movement began to grow stronger in 1978 with the publication in Britain of Reading by Frank Smith, and the dissemination by enthusiasts, mainly among teacher-trainers, of Kenneth Goodman's notion of reading as a 'psycholinguistic guessing game' and his 'whole language, top-down' theories which provide a foundation for the 'real books, apprenticeship approach to reading'.
On my professional visits to the USA in the mid 1970's, prominent researchers in the reading field told me that they were alarmed at the growing influence of Smith and Goodman in American schools and teacher-training institutions. They warned me that it could spread to Britain as it had done to New Zealand. But I did not take this warning too seriously because, like them, I could not find any evidence to support the disturbing statements of the two theorists and, besides my own in the major research series of the NFER, I knew of much to refute them.
In face-to-face discussion with each theorist, I had been similarly disappointed in my quest for evidence. For example, in May 1975, I met Frank Smith with his publisher in New York mainly because the latter admired the first wave publications of Language in Action (Morris et al., 1974-83), was contemplating a collaborative project with me, and wanted to witness Frank's reaction to the scheme and my response to his radical views.
It was an extraordinary meeting during which Frank admitted that he had never been a school teacher. Nevertheless, he made confident assertions such as 'reading cannot be taught' and 'phonics is unnecessary', knowing full well that his publisher and I thought otherwise, and believed that American children and their teachers would benefit from using a research-based, motivating resource like Language in Action for the development of initial literacy in English. Then, politely ignoring our request for scientific evidence to support his views, he introduced me to his then latest publication, Comprehension and Learning: A Conceptual Framework for Teachers (Smith, 1975) with its declared theme, 'Children know how to learn'. Finally before leaving us to digest all this, he handed me a copy of the book in which he had written, 'For Joyce Morris - on an afternoon of mutual comprehension and learning'.
That polite, diplomatic inscription and afternoon meeting should have warned me not to underestimate Frank's charismatic power to influence the teaching of reading when, three years later, he came to Britain to lecture and publicise his book Reading (Smith, 1978) which includes the above extraordinary assertions unsupported by research evidence. I also should not have overestimated the importance of scientific research in education. For, without any real evidence that Smith and Goodman's ideas are effective in classroom practice generally, Liz Waterland's translation of their ideas into her own practice (Waterland, 1985) has found widespread acceptance among British teachers, teacher-trainers and LEA advisers. This has led to what Margaret Donaldson calls the 'minimal teaching movement' using an apprenticeship approach to reading with 'real' (trade) books and a 'generalised rejection of anything that can be called a reading scheme.' (Donaldson, 1989).
Fortunately, Bevé Hornsby and others working in the dyslexia field have not been unduly influenced by these developments if at all. They have remained steadfast in using and advocating systematic phonic teaching and multisensory techniques to help children build a sound foundation for literacy. So have Montessori-trained teachers who work mainly in the private education sector. Significantly too, members of both groups are in the van of progress in that they use and recommend phonic resources which have a linguistically-sound base such as Alpha to Omega: The A-Z of Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling (Hornsby and Shear, 1974) and The Morris-Montessori Word List (Morris, 1990) which is the latest publication to incorporate Phonics 44.
For obvious reasons, there are no phonicsphobics among those two groups. Whereas, to my knowledge, there are some with influence working in the state education sector. They are largely responsible for the hostility amounting to hatred towards psychologist Martin Turner who reported in Sponsored Reading Failure (Turner, 1990) that reading standards fell during the previous five years or so, and suggested that this was due to increasing widespread acceptance of the 'real books philosophy' and a corresponding decrease in systematic phonic teaching in infant classes.
Thus, phonicsphobics nowadays are as hostile to reading researchers who dare to challenge anti-phonic orthodoxy by their findings as Miss K. was to me 35 years ago. It could also be argued that they are even more so. For instance, the American psychologist Marilyn Jager Adams, author of the scholarly report Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about Print (Adams, 1990) has been subjected to a great deal of harsh criticism for even accepting the task of carrying out an extensive, detailed review of what research tells us about the place and value of phonics. In reply to her critics (Adams, 1991) she states, 'People told me that I would lose old friends and make new enemies. People told me I would be shot.' She also points out that, although phonics advocates appreciate the value of whole language, whole language advocates do not reciprocate, and she is apprehensive of their 'strong-arm tactics'.
It will be interesting to see what the critics and phonicsphobics make of a new book edited by Roger Beard and entitled, Teaching Literacy: Balancing Perspectives (Beard, 1993). This is because it contains chapters which critically examine and highlight the weaknesses of the Smith and Goodman theories and the practices of their disciples. Jessie Reid, for example, states that the radical notions she reviews in her contributory chapter 'have been responsible for leading some teachers to believe that word recognition is not a crucial skill (see, for instance, Meek et al., 1983)'. She also provides the following insightful paragraph:-
'It is strange that a reading methodology erected on such shaky ground should have wielded so much influence. The reasons take us far beyond reading itself into the philosophical world of Rousseau's Emile and Froebel's 'Kindergarten', of the whole progressive movement in primary education. Its appeal lies perhaps in the promise of a kind of liberation'.
I agree with these sentiments and, indeed, have made similar observations in my own publication such as the paper (Morris, 1979) to which Beard refers in his Introduction as indicative of earlier critical responses to the views of Smith and Goodman. As already indicated, I also believe that the reasons go beyond even the influence of Rousseau's Emile which was the starting point of my widely-publicised address, Reading in Education: Facts and Fallacies at the North of England Education Conference in January, 1975. In short, they include the previously unnamed pathological condition 'phonicsphobia' which, as a psychologist, I would suggest has a number of causes summarised below after a further word about its nature.
4. Causes of Phonicsphobia.Like all phobias, phonicsphobia is learned behaviour and therefore can be unlearned albeit with varying degrees of difficulty. However, unlike agoraphobics for instance, phonicsphobics are not usually consciously aware of their condition and, consequently, do not seek treatment. Indeed, those I have personally encountered over the years would probably not consider that they are phobic or even that they belong to an anti-phonic movement, most of whose members I must stress are not so irrationally prejudiced against phonics as to be classed as 'phonicsphobic'. Yet despite all the research evidence against their views, phonicsphobics persist in making fallacious statements such as 'phonics is discredited' and, like Miss K., reveal that the mere mention of the word 'phonics' has the power to render them emotionally unbalanced.
Although I have only recently coined the word 'phonicsphobia' for this strange phenomenon, I have discussed it with professional colleagues at home and abroad for many years. All have agreed that it should be countered because of its disastrous consequences for literacy acquisition in English, but how best to do this is difficult to decide. In my view, it would be unethical to name influential phonicsphobics responsible for those consequences. But it is not so to highlight those consequences and suggest both causes and cures for phonicsphobia. Accordingly, I have done just that in what follows. beginning with a numbered summary of suggested causes.
4.1. In some cases, the origins of phonicsphobia can be traced to traumatic experiences during early childhood. For example, experiences caused, albeit unwittingly, by parents and/or teachers who, in their well-meaning desire for children to make rapid progress towards initial literacy in English place them under a great deal of pressure to acquire alphabet knowledge and word recognition skills with an emphasis on phonics.
Emotionally-secure children can and do flourish with this approach. But some of their peers, not so stable or with English as a second language, are confused by it and fail miserably at first, especially when inadequate attention is paid to their need to develop phonemic awareness and an understanding that reading is a purposeful, meaningful activity giving pleasure and information. When, eventually, they do make a successful start with learning to read, write and spell, potential phonicsphobics among them forever tend to associate with phonics the trauma of initial failure and pressure from adults which, unfortunately, they first experienced as incomprehensible, boring activities involving sounds and letters.
4.2. Student teachers who start their training disposed towards anti-phonic attitudes because of their childhood experiences are also predisposed to adopting an educational philosophy which, as Jessie Reid surmises, offers 'a promise of a kind of liberation.' They are also naturally attracted to a progressive, child-centred view of education of the kind associated with the English state sector as distinct from that, for example, advocated by Montessori which uses phonic and other materials of a didactic kind in systematic progression. What is more, according to research recently reported by Wyatt and Pickle (1993), they are inclined to accept uncritically the views of college reading tutors about knowledge, classroom authority and control of learning which are often expressed in strong terms. These bear witness to the existence of two extreme belief systems identified by Barnes (1976, 1990) and called by him 'interpretation' and 'transmission' views.
Thus, potential phonicsphobics among student teachers tend to adopt the views of tutors which are interpretative. This means that they see their future role as 'facilitators' of their pupils' cognitive development, enabling them to be 'agents of their own learning' and 'interpreters of knowledge'. In other words, they reject the traditional view of teachers as transmitters of established knowledge and, hence, of phonic knowledge through the use of didactic materials.
4.3. The publications of some phonicsphobic supporters of the whole-language movement indicate that they do not have the comprehensive, detailed knowledge of the English writing system which one would expect of reading 'experts', especially those who are teacher-trainers and educational writers. As I have pointed out elsewhere (Morris, 1990b), they also appear to know nothing about 'modern' or 'new' phonics exemplified by 'Phonics 44', or simply choose to ignore the difference between 'linguistics-informed' and 'traditional' phonics about which they find it easy to poke fun. Consequently, their students, and readers training to be teachers, are not encouraged to acquire the orthographic knowledge essential for the effective teaching of initial literacy which my research (Morris, 1985) indicates that they generally lack at the beginning of their pre-service course. In other words, ignorance of the true nature of the English writing system is associated with phonicsphobia and is very likely a root cause of it.
4.4. Inadequacies in pre-service courses for the teaching of reading have long been documented, and recently by the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education (CATE, 1992). These include, as recorded in the NFER contribution (Brooks et al., 1992) to that report, the claim by more than half the graduates of recent courses that they had received little or no teaching about phonics.
This claim and previous claims by newly-qualified teachers known to me and other researchers, give reason to believe that a lack of essential knowledge about the role of phonics and the techniques of phonic instruction are another cause of phonicsphobia, especially where there is also ignorance regarding the 'true' nature of English orthography.
4.5. Understandably, newly-qualified teachers with limited knowledge of phonics find it difficult to give phonic instruction successfully even if they are persuaded that this is crucial for many children. Because of this, they experience feelings of failure as I did long ago and, unless likewise inspired by the example of colleagues like Miss B. and/or a feeling of vocation, these feelings persist, and they pay only sufficient attention to phonics to allow them truthfully to declare their allegiance to 'officially approved', 'mixed' methods. In doing so, the needs of some pupils are not met and they, in turn, experience failure. Thus, a limited knowledge of phonics leads to failure in teaching and learning, and it is but a short step for some to becoming phonicsphobic.
4.6. On visits to hundreds of schools, I have found that teachers whose conversation in the staffroom has revealed at least an adequate knowledge of phonics have not always succeeded in putting it into practice. This is because they have apparently be unable to control the noise generated by chattering children in their classrooms. In other words, classrooms where children are happily engaged in absorbing activities, yet oblivious to requests for peace and quiet whilst their peers are reading silently or to their teacher, and especially when the object of individual tutoring is to develop phonic skills.
Teaching is a stressful occupation, and particularly in such conditions. They arouse anxiety in both teacher and learner, and make it virtually impossible to give and receive effective phonic instruction which requires recognising the phonemes in spoken words, and understanding how they correspond to alphabet letters identified singly and in combination. However, noisy classrooms are not only a cause of ineffective phonic teaching. They are also a breeding ground for phonicsphobia because they cause phonic 'withdrawal' symptoms in inexperienced teachers, who naturally tend to abandon their efforts in a situation fraught with anxiety for them and their pupils and, hence, doomed to failure.
4.7. Although the fears of phobics are apparently irrational, they can usually be traced to a frightening situation in which it would be reasonable to expect anyone to be fearful. For example, coalminers trapped underground by a mine explosion can, on being rescued, easily develop claustrophobia, i.e. a fear of confined spaces. Likewise, phonicsphobia can be caused by circumstances in which, for instance, class teachers conceal their support for phonic instruction like the previously mentioned Miss S. But, in their case, they do so nowadays because they fear that they will be labelled 'reactionary', 'right wing', or even 'not politically correct', and thereby ruin their chances of promotion to headships. Moreover, as I have also stated elsewhere (Morris, 1990b), 'so great is this fear that, on certain memorable occasions, it has been confided to me literally in whispers by inservice course members who agree with me about the place and value of phonics, but dare not say so publicly.'
In this context, it is also significant that, before his Birmingham primary school won the £100,000 Jerwood Award in 1992 for educational excellence, headmaster Kevin Cassidy wrote a TES article anonymously about how all his staff provided children with systematic phonic instruction on a daily basis with outstanding results in terms of literacy acquisition. He did so because he too feared the unfavourable reactions of 'experts' opposed to phonic methods and materials.
5. Consequences of Phonicsphobia.Literacy is a political subject and never more so than in the last few years. Even if pro-phonic supporters have no political affiliation, they are considered to be 'ultra right wing' by the anti-phonic movement and especially by its influential, phonicsphobic members. Yet, strange to relate, when Dr Daniels led the 'phonic revolt' in the mid 1950s, and was verbally and physically abused for his efforts to apply research findings and restore phonics to its rightful place in the teaching of initial literacy, he was known to be an admirer of Chairman Mao and his Little Red Book.
Besides the abuse suffered by researchers from influential phonicsphobics and their followers, some of the consequences of phonicsphobia may be summarised as follows:-
5.1. Despite the findings of reputable research about phonics, the vast majority of basal reading schemes available in Britain today are predominantly look-and-say. If they do include phonics, the resources provided for teaching and learning are only a relatively small proportion of the whole scheme and, as in the case of the currently popular, Oxford Reading Tree (Hunt et al., 1987), are advertised as 'optional'.
Older basal phonic schemes such as The Royal Road Readers (Daniels & Diack, 1954) are out of print or have been brought into line with what some 'experts' (including phonicsphobics) refer to as 'modern' thinking about the reading process. For example, Gay Way (Boyce, 1949) has been given some new content and renamed New Way. More recently-published, basal schemes for systematic phonic teaching and learning have also gone out of print. They include Language in Action (Morris et al., 1974-83) which ceased to be available as a whole scheme in July 1989 largely because of the influence of the 'real books philosophy', and despite the fact that its core story books are by authors of 'real' (trade) books writing to linguistic briefs.
It is hoped that urgent requests from many teachers for a reprint edition of at least those core books will be met in the near future. However, much depends on the economic situation, and whether publishers feel that the time is ripe to ignore the advice of phonicsphobics and meet the need for motivating, linguistically-informed phonic resources. To my knowledge, a few publishers believe this to be so, and they are looking around for authors able to prepare such resources. Meanwhile, they cautiously await reactions to the consultation document for the revised National English Curriculum which will largely determine whether they go ahead with their tentative plans.
5.2. Phonicsphobics appear to have influenced Key Stage 1 of the original National English Curriculum because it contains only two references to phonic cues in reading. There is also reason to believe that they influenced the choice of authors for some of the chapters in The LINC Reader (Carter et al., 1990) i.e., the Reader which Ronald Carter, the Editor, says is 'related organically to the LINC (Language in the National Curriculum) Project.' For example, Chapter 7, 'The development of initial literacy' is by Yetta Goodman, wife of Kenneth Goodman. Not surprisingly, it endorses his whole-language, top-down theories and decries the use of structured reading programmes. Chapter 8, 'What do we know about reading which helps us to teach?' by Margaret Meek restates her well-known view that it is the texts by children's writers of 'real' (trade) books which really teach children to read. Moreover, she criticises orthodox reading research because, in her opinion, it 'breeds its own brand of evidence', and then goes on to make the extraordinary statement, 'The consequent problem is that reading specialists are bound to ignore the evidence that arises spontaneously in classrooms because it isn't generalisable'.
5.3. Statements about research like that of Meek, quoted above, certainly do not persuade other teacher-trainers to encourage their students to read the published reports of 'professional' reading researchers who appreciate the importance of scientific method in their work and, naturally, do not accept anecdotes as 'evidence' that a particular theory works in practice as some phonicsphobics do. On the contrary, to my knowledge, such fallacious statements have helped some teacher-trainers to continue ignoring generalisable evidence about the crucial role of phonics in teaching initial literacy and they, in turn, have managed to persuade their students also to do so. In other words, it is reasonable to suggest that ignorance of 'real' research evidence about phonics is a contributory cause of phonicsphobia and, hence, one of its consequences is that student teachers are not trained to understand research methods and/or to teach phonics. This of course also accounts for the fact that the book lists given in the NFER report, What Teachers in Training Read about Reading (Gorman, 1989) do not include any research reports or how to use phonic methods and materials.
5.4. Experienced teachers who do read research reports, and are enthusiastic, successful users of Language in Action, not least because it is research-based, have drawn my attention over the years to how some English advisers and inspectors have tried to persuade them to abandon the scheme. Clearly, what they have suggested after acknowledging the above-average standards achieved by using the scheme does not make sense. For instance, the head of a delightful, suburban infant school I visited told me that, despite receiving that kind of acknowledgement, she was recently advised not only to have a less structured reading programme, using children's literature as the main published resource, but also to provide opportunities for more 'sand and water' activities in her school. From this one may justifiably conclude that phonicsphobia is a cause of inappropriate advice, and one of its consequences is that Language in Action is now out of print after the generally favourable response to it previously mentioned. Moreover, as already indicated, another related consequence is the failure of all but a few educational publishers even to contemplate following the lead given by that scheme and bring phonics into the modern age. In other words, to make available the carefully-researched, linguistics-informed, motivating phonic resources which many children need to make a successful start on the road to literacy.
5.5. Of course, the most important consequence of phonicsphobia is the depressing effect it has had on initial literacy teaching. Therefore concerted efforts must be made to remove or at least reduce the influence that, directly and indirectly, phonicsphobics have so far had on educational provision for literacy.
6. Cures for Phonicsphobia.Removing or at least reducing the influence of phonicsphobics is probably the best scenario one could hope for. They do not respond to appeals to commonsense, and some even deny that commonsense plays any part in how children are taught to read, write and spell. They also ignore the vast amount of professional research which demonstrates that their anti-phonic stance is ill-founded. So how can they be cured of a pathological condition which now that it has been named they will deny its existence, and are unlikely ever to recognise it in themselves, especially if left to their own devices?
It is obviously no good suggesting the classic treatments for phobias such as behaviour therapy and its opposite number, psychoanalysis, even though, as previously mentioned, phonicsphobia is learned behaviour and, in some cases, can be traced to traumatic experiences in early childhood. Shock treatment is out of the question too. Yet drastic measures are called for. Accordingly, I suggest that these begin by including phonicsphobia with dyslexia in future public debate about the causes of illiteracy and poor reading standards. As phonicsphobics need to be confronted with the consequences of their damaging anti-phonic stance, all the news media should be asked to make a concerted effort to inform parents about the crucial role of phonics in initial literacy acquisition. For example, some television programmes could well focus on children who are disabled readers, and show clearly that in their case it is primarily because they lack basis phonic knowledge. Others, in significant contrast, could highlight the achievements of pupils in primary schools like that of Headmaster Kevin Cassidy, previously mentioned, where the daily teaching of phonics has made such an enormous difference to the children's lives.
Influential phonicsphobics who protest against such a concerted effort to counteract their views should be publicly challenged by knowledgeable interviewers to explain exactly why they do so. Unfortunately, they would not be cured of their phobia by putting the spotlight on them and on the rationale for the provision of systematic phonic teaching in all schools. But they would be forced by public pressure to think again. Publishers would also have second thoughts about publishing the books of educational writers who make no reference to 'real' research to support their anti-phonic views. Furthermore, although in a democracy one is entitled to one's own views, if those views are phonicsphobic and therefore harmful, those who hold them should not be promoted to headships, the inspectorate or, indeed, to any post which would give them power significantly to affect educational provision for literacy.
Finally, as what should be done is a very different matter from what will be done, it is important to point out that the damaging influence of phonicsphobics has already been counteracted in some parts of the U.S.A. by resorting to the force of law. For instance, three years ago, the Ohio State Board of Education made it legally binding for phonics to be used in schools as a technique to achieve minimum standards in grades Kindergarten through three.
It may be that, in the autumn term, the revised National English Curriculum will likewise make phonics a statutory requirement in English state schools. If it does so, and the English Order is accepted by the teaching profession, many more children will receive the systematic phonic instruction they need. For their sakes, therefore, we must hope that this will happen whilst regretting that the law, rather than commonsense and the findings of professional research, has won for them the provision of an essential ingredient in their literacy education.
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