Why teachers won't teach children to read or...Marx would have taught synthetic phonics.

October 24, 2017




‘Once you learn to read you will be forever free,’ is the quotation by Frederick Douglass (2017, p1) that adorns numerous primary school libraries across England and who would disagree?  With 25% of young offenders having reading skills below that of the average seven-year-old and 60% of the prison population having literacy difficulties (Clark and Dugdale, 2008) the assertion might have more accurately quoted that an inability to read will ensure that you may be forever incarcerated. 


Certainly the list of ills associated with poor literacy skills make for uncomfortable reading: lower income; greater likelihood of unemployment; lower self-esteem; greater likelihood of school exclusion; greater likelihood of depression; lower levels of trust in others and greater likelihood of feeling unsafe (Literacy Foundation, 2017).  It would seem that Kofi Annan’s proclamation that ‘Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope’ (un.com, 1997) has a resounding toll of veracity.  And yet the very group within society with the greatest power to address this social and economic debility; the group explicitly trained to challenge it and charged with overcoming it, is the very group most resistant to adopting the means to do so.


Humanity’s ability to communicate through language has developed over an evolutionary period of many hundreds of thousands of years and the ability to communicate through speech is a developmental skill that is biologically primary knowledge (Geary, 2007) and thus developed and absorbed by maturing humans with no need for didactic instruction.  Writing on the other hand (and by implication reading) first developed in the ‘fertile crescent’ in the fifth milenium BC with symbolic characters and marks representing words until the revolutionary advance of the Phoenician alphabet in the second millennium BC (Dahaene, 2014).  With sounds being represented by letters and groups of letters, literary communication was not now the preserve of a small group of educational elite but was available to anyone who could learn those phoneme/grapheme correspondences. However, the brain has not evolved to read: writing has evolved to the constraints of the human brain (Dehaene, 2014). Written communication is thus biologically secondary knowledge and has to be taught; it cannot be naturally absorbed (Geary, 2007). 


Teaching of reading and writing developed rapidly amongst the social and economic elite and further expanded within the merchant class with the invention and development of the printing press and the reduction in cost and subsequent availability of printed material allied to the desire for and availability of commercial schooling.  At no point, however, was the education of the labouring classes considered relevant, advantageous or necessary.  Indeed, the vast majority of text was written in Latin, with the first English curriculum designed and developed for the colonised Indian lower-middle classes (Eaglestone, 2010) who were not considered cognitively developed enough to master Latin.  It was this Indian curriculum that was reimported into the newly formed English state education system of the late nineteenth century and delivered to the new working classes – also not considered sufficiently cognitively developed to learn Latin (Eaglestone, 2010). 


Universal literacy was historically viewed with deep suspicion in England, with many concurring with MP David Giddy’s (Standpointmag.co.uk, 2013) assertion in the early nineteenth century that the ability to read and write would be prejudicial to the morals and happiness of the poor.  It was certainly not intended to interfere with the need to work, with the Committee of the Council on Education (Lloyd-Jones, 2013) insisting in 1850 that children of the labouring classes leave school at the earliest age at which they could earn a living.  Even when compulsory schooling was eventually introduced in England in 1880 the intention was to produce readers able to manage only the very basic requirements of the new clerical expectations of the expanding businesses, factories and empire.


These low expectations within state education were never addressed, despite the rise in the compulsory school leaving age to 13, and the quality of reading instruction never assessed until this complacency regarding standards received a shock at the outbreak of the Second World War: one quarter of sixteen and seventeen year olds entering the armed forces were functionally illiterate (Lloyd-Jones, 2013).  Compulsory state education was clearly failing in the teaching of reading to the majority of the population.  As a result of this discovery, the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) began a longitudinal study in 1947 to assess the reading improvements in eleven year olds.  The research continued for the next fifty years.  The results were alarming: despite some fluctuations, by the end of the twentieth century reading standards in England were at the same level as they were in 1948 (NFER-Nelson, 1998).  The situation did not improve in the twenty first century.  In 2016 forty six per cent of English eleven year olds had not attained the ‘expected standard’ of reading (Gov.uk, 2016).


So why have policy makers and educationalists been so arrested in their attempts to address illiteracy, despite being fully cognisant of the associated debilities, despite the huge sums spent on education and despite numerous socialist governments that have held office since the Second World War?  Is it merely that teaching reading is just too difficult?


Certainly English is a complex language when represented graphically.  It prejudices short words, numerous homophones and is so phonically complicated that it takes on average three and half years to learn to decode compared to the four months it takes to learn to decode Italian (Dehaen, 2014).  The formal teaching of reading English has a chequered history beginning with a form of phonics in ‘Reading Without Tears’ (Bevan, 1857) to the almost universal adoption of a mixed method that included phonics but heavily prejudiced the ‘look and say’ method as recommended by Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools in 1877 (Lloyd-Jones, 2013).


This evolved into the whole language, or literature-based method of teaching reading (Goodman, 1967) and became the dominant and almost universal pedagogical approach in most English-speaking countries.  Learning to read, the methodology opined, was as natural as learning to speak and with the use of contextual, grammatical and language cues in natural language the approach would work for any language.  It was, argued Goodman (1967), particularly appropriate for the phonic irregularities of the English language.  The method heavily prejudices the use of picture cues and the use of ‘other’ information over the alphabetic construction of words.  The method was so ingrained that The Plowden Report (1967) into primary education noted that, ‘Children are helped to read by memorising the look of words, often with the help of pictures, by guessing from a context…’ (Blackstone, 1967, p212).  Nonetheless, the method was fatally flawed as it ignored the linguistic certainty that alphabetic writing is a coded transcription of talk and distracted emergent readers from the inherent and vital element of that code: the letters (McGuinness, 1999).


Despite the complete lack of corroborating research evidence, whole-word reading and whole language approaches remained as the foremost method of teaching reading.  The poorest readers were left to resort to contextual and syntactic guesswork with a one in one hundred chance of guessing an unknown word using the method (Stanovitch, 1986).  As ‘whole language’ methods took hold in England the 1980s, NFER standardised reading scores declined dramatically (NFER, 1998).  Not, however, as dramatically as in California, which adopted the approach as a universal panacea for illiteracy.  Seven years after the adoption of the programme Californian children were officially the least competent readers in the United States with 60% of nine and ten year olds unable to gain even a superficial understanding of their books (Turner and Burkard, 1996).  McCandliss and Posner’s (1993) research into whole word memorising further undermined the technique with Dehaene’s (2014) utilisation of MRI brain scanning technology emphatically concluding that the brain, when reading, ‘did not look at the whole word shape but at individual letters…’ (Dahaene, 2014, p210)  The inference was as clear as McCardle and Chhabra’s (2004) meta-study conclusion: systematic synthetic phonics was the most efficient and effective method of teaching decoding skills.  There was no denial that reading was more complex than mere decoding.  As Hoover and Gough (1990) explained in ‘The Simple View of Reading’, the reading process included a lexicographical aspect; this aspect was, however, separate and discrete from the decoding aspect of reading.  Without decoding, comprehension was impossible.


So the teaching of reading English is dependent on the teaching of decoding and not the repeated memorisation and recognition of whole words.  The teaching of decoding, although complex, is nonetheless possible, has been systemised through the development of synthetic phonics programmes and is therefore certainly not too difficult to teach (McGuinness, 1999).


If this is the case then why do reading standards still languish at levels of seventy years ago?  Why isn’t systematic synthetic phonics teaching a cornerstone of national education policy? 


It is.


The Rose Review (2005) recommended the inclusion of systematic synthetic phonics into the curriculum in Key Stage One and although not implemented, its recommendations in phonics were included in the Conservative party manifesto in 2010 and implemented by the coalition government.  Phonic teaching became central to the revised National Curriculum (DfE, 2014), was included in the Teacher Standards (Gov.uk, 2011), in OFSTED inspector training and a phonics screening check was introduced at the end of Year One as a national assessment across England.  Furthermore, phonics programmes were evaluated for approval against strict criteria and funded centrally with grants of up to £3000 available for schools for purchase, training and implementation.


So either systematic synthetic phonics is not effective – clearly not the case as the research referenced above indicates – or its introduction has been resisted and not implemented.  However, that would imply that the resistance has come from educationalists and the teaching profession, and bearing in mind the vocational nature of teaching and the moral imperative of education (Fullan, 2003) this would seem absurd.


Absurd, but true.


In 2012 the National Union of Teachers (NUT), the second largest teaching union representing in excess of three hundred thousand teachers, denounced the introduction of systematic synthetic phonics as the promotion of a single fashionable technique with one NUT executive stating, "Most adults do not read phonically. They read by visual memory or they use context cueing to predict what the sentence might be…’ (Mulholland, 2014).  The union was emphatic that phonics alone would not produce fluent readers and that ‘mixed methods’ were essential.  The largest teaching union, the NAS/UWT, asserted that children, ‘…need to use a combination of cues such as initial letter sounds and illustrations to make meaning from text…’ (politics.co.uk, 2013).  They were not the only institutional resistors.  When the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority’s (QCA) redrafted National Curriculum document was rejected by The Secretary of State for Education as encouraging mixed methods of decoding and an emphatic amendment stipulating synthetic phonics inserted, the QCA failed to amend their website (Lloyd-Jones, 2013). 


This resistance from educational institutional leadership clearly reflected the attitudes of their memberships.  According to a NFER (2012) survey the majority of teachers specifically mentioned the use of picture cues as a reading technique along with the visual memorisation of word shapes and the sight learning of words.  Further research by the NFER (Walker and Bartlett, 2013) found that 67% of teachers believed that a ‘mixed methods’ approach to the teaching of reading was the most effective.  A survey by the NAS/UWT in 2013 (politics.co.uk, 2013) showed that 89% of teachers believed that children needed to use a variety of cues to extract meaning from text confirming the results of Sheffield Hallam University’s research two years earlier that revealed 74% of primary school teachers encouraged pupils to use a range of cueing systems that included picture clues (Gov.uk, 2011).   The message was clear: teachers were resistant to an evidence-based, research-proven, systematic and effective model of ensuring all children could decode text.


This begs the question: why would those charged with teaching reading be resistant to a programme that would build solid foundations for children’s reading fluency?  Could it be that teachers are content to maintain the socio-economic status quo: it suiting their implicit social prejudices and the maintenance of their unspoken power and status structures?


When viewed through the lens of the critical educational neo-Marxist theorists, it is this polemic that appears the most convincing.


Critical education theory grew out of Marx’s (1984) revolutionary social and political thinking of the nineteenth century and was formalised by the critical theorists of the Frankfurt school of the 1920s who maintained that knowledge was both socially constructed and influenced by power relationships and determined by the social and positional power of the advocates of that knowledge (Cohen, Mannion and Morrison, 2011).  Education, the critical theorists argued, was particularly riven by political motivation to maintain the status quo and that schools had become models of social engineering designed to condemn most to be subordinate (Gatto, 2002).  Knowledge, they argued, can thus serve different interests with interests being socially constructed and having ideological functions, which have the purpose of ensuring the empowered remain in power (Gatto, 2002).  Knowledge reflects the interests of those creating the knowledge (Kuhn, 1962).  The critical educational theorists would argue that if huge numbers of schoolchildren in England were unable to read, it was because that was the direct intention of those in power.


This claim, nonetheless, seems counterintuitive.  What possible reason would those with direct influence over such a fundamental educational skill as reading have to prevent that fundamental skill being mastered?  


Let us return to Marx.


Marxist (1968) theory maintains that it is the economic structure of society that is the foundation and basis for any socio-political superstructures that develop to serve that economic structure; these superstructures are not independent of the base structure but are interdependent with it.  Education, Marx (1968) argued, is thus no more than a superstructure serving the base economic structure and directly reflects the economy (Bowles and Gintis, 1977).  Where that economy is capitalist and elitist, the education system mirrors, serves and maintains that economic structure.  If, as Bowles and Gintis (1977) argue, where schools function to serve the needs of capitalist society then it is a perfectly logical step to postulate that if that economy requires a clear classification of members of society with an elite at the summit, one of the most powerful enablers of that classification, and the maintenance of an elite, will be the ability to read well.  It would thus be a requirement of the education system to withhold this skill from some of its students to ensure the classifications were maintained and the economy suitably fertilised.  However, this interpretation of the maintenance of power is entirely structuralistic, privileging structure over any possible influences on the formation and sustaining of that structure (Blackburn, 2016). It ignores the potential independent actions of those within the superstructure whose values may be at odds with the base structure and could undermine it.  In the case of education this would be the teacher.  If teachers were determined to teach children to read then who could stop them?  There would have to be a more insidious and subtle influence for the exertion of power.


Hence Bowles and Gintis’ (1988) maintenance of the direct correspondence between superstructure and structure was questioned by Apple (2004) and Giroux (1980) as ignoring the influences and cultures within schools, namely teachers and students, and the complex relationships between culture, state and economy.  This post-structural polemic adds a stimulating interpretation to illuminating the stated contradiction of teachers being complicit with an outcome that is so at odds with the moral imperative of education (Fullan, 2003).  There must be some tacitly accepted power or influence that enables teachers to consent to the paradox.


This consent, given by the mass of the population to dominant elites, is identified by Gramsci (1994) as hegemony and is organised through leadership that influences either through domination or direction.  It is not merely political but also cultural and is enforced implicitly through a system of values that give the appearance of reciprocity between elements of society.  It is this lived system of values communicated through an apparently commonsense ideology and culture that enables contradictory practices and principles to flourish through the appearance of this reciprocity (Williams, 1977). 


In terms of the teaching of reading and teachers’ resistance to effective methods of instruction, Gramsci  (1994) would argue that as part of the superstructure, teachers are not explicitly ignoring evidence but that the ideology and values of the economic base enforces the acceptance through a counter-intuitive ideology that a stratum of society is unable to learn to read effectively.  This is underwritten by empirical and historical data.  As a result, the ‘commonsense’ explanation is that there will always be some pupils who struggle to learn to read (almost always from poorer, less privileged contexts) and teaching methods that resist this societal and pedagogical ‘fact’ are founded on ignorance, misconception and an inability to accept the truth. They are thus rejected.  As such, teachers’ rejection of phonics instruction is in no way malign but is entirely logical in a capitalist society, as the superstructure, dependent on and dominated by the values of the economic base, seeks to reinforce those values and as a result teachers receive the reciprocal approbation of the elite.  Gramsci (2012) was adamant that it was the gulf between the culture of teachers and the culture of their pupils that entrenched low expectations and inertia.


Gramsci’s model of neo-Marxist critical theory bases the existence of these value contradictions on the structure of society, with the economic structure defining and driving the values and restricting non-conformity.  In other words, teachers have no choice but to accept that some children will always struggle to learn to read and so prepare those children for a life of servitude and manual labour – the appearance of Fullan’s (2003) moral imperative.  Althusser (1971), however, takes a more post-structuralist approach and suggests that the superstructure, in which he states schools function, maintains a relative autonomy in respect of the economic base.  In order to maintain authority over this autonomy the powerful employ a combination of Repressive State Apparatus and Ideological State Apparatus: systems of direct control and a culture of ideology to control.  Schools fall into the latter apparatus. 


Althusser (2010) held that education plays a crucial role in the maintaining of hegemony.  Schools, and by implication teachers, give the appearance of being ideologically neutral but are one of the essential forms of enforcing the dominant ideology.  They succeed in transmitting the governing ideology by the very nature of the concealment of their role and thus contribute to Gramsci’s ‘spontaneous consent’ of the dominated (Apple, Gandin and Au, 2009).  Within the education system, Althusser (2010) implies that schools appear to be free from the ideology of the elite and that schools and teachers have relative autonomy to make decisions on teaching methods, instruction and methodology.  In reality, however, schools reinforce the ideology of the elite. 


In terms of teachers’ resistance to the acceptance and absorption of synthetic phonics, this suggests an interesting paradox.  It appears that as a government initiative, synthetic phonics forms part of the ideology of the dominant class and yet has been resisted by institutions that Althusser (1977) regards as underwriting that ideology.  This is only the case if one government initiative driven by one minister does indeed constitute the ideology of the elite.  Althusser (2010) would argue that it cannot, and that is why it has not been adopted.  Only had it correlated with the reigning ideology would adoption have occurred.  Thus the resistance to the wholesale engagement with synthetic phonics from education institutions such as the aforementioned teaching unions along with the QCA was perhaps the elite ensuring that their ideology remained.


 Bordieu (Silva and Warde, 2010) extended this argument further by delving into the depths of culture with his theories on social superiority. He identified ‘cultural capital’ as the invisible investment and understanding, which enables privilege to perpetuate whilst legitimising its dominant position.  Education, he argued, was the most effective way of perpetuating social patterns because not only did it provide a justification for the inequalities, it treated the ruling cultural heritage as a natural state rather than a social gift.  The ability to read well would then form part of the ‘habitus’ (Silva and Warde, 2010), the values held by the dominant class and transmitted through the cultural ecosystem, and would thus be viewed as a natural state rather than a social gift.  In these circumstances, if reading well were as ‘natural’ as speaking well (Goodman, 1967) then an inability to read well ‘naturally’ would indicate an inability to learn to read.  There would be no point in teachers wasting their time ‘teaching’ such children to read so it was the duty of teachers to prepare their charges for lives of semi-literate servitude; Fullan’s moral imperative was squared: knowledge was genetic and a function of power (Silva and Warde, 2010).


These ‘dialectical contradictions that come with capitalism…’ (Allman 2007, p8) are further elucidated by Bernstein (1977) who maintained that the education system was a system of class creation and enforcement that preserved the dominating principles of the social structures (Bernstein, 2007).  However, power in education was transmitted through pedagogic discourse and this discourse, and by implication ‘relative autonomy’ (Althusser, 1977), lay in the hands of teachers.  It was through culture, and specifically cultural codes, that the social status quo was perpetuated in the classroom (Bernstein, 2007).  Bernstein’s (1971) work on cultural language codes used and understood by students indicated that a child for whom a ‘restricted’ code was the only language code was excluded from much learning, as opposed to more privileged children who also understood the ‘elaborated’ code.  In terms of why teachers’ resistance to phonics instruction is so cemented, this would be explained through these cultural codes.  Teachers’ language and belief in ‘natural reading’ (Goodman, 1967) is immersed in the ‘elaborated code’ with an implicit acceptance and understanding that the need to decode using phonics and an inability to read ‘naturally’ belongs to the ‘restricted code’ users.  If less privileged children are taught in a cultural code that they cannot access, what chance do they have of reading ‘naturally’?


This all denies the existence of human subjectivity and agency (Althusser, 1977) and to a certain extent absolves teachers from any responsibility in the rejection of an efficient reading pedagogy: the economic structure dictates culture and perpetuates the status quo and teachers find themselves pawns within the structure unable to resist.  With the development of post-structuralist resistance theory (GIroux, 1987) they are not let off the hook.


Giroux (1987) maintains that schools are relatively autonomous institutions with fertile opportunities to express opposition to the status quo and asserts that they are able to act and function counter to the ideology of the dominant society.  He goes further, emphasising Hebermas’s (1977) belief that education should be emancipatory, to insist that schools have a duty to resist this domination where it runs counter to social justice and that they embody, ‘…the possibility of resistance and struggle…’ (Giroux, 1986, p51).  So why have teachers become the commissars (Chomsky, 2000) and cultural middle managers (Macedo, 2006) of a system of ‘control and coercion’ (Chomsky, 2000, p 2)?  Why have they not resisted the social injustices of illiteracy and adopted an evidence-based approach to decoding instruction?  Ironically, the answer may lie in resistance theory.


Systematic synthetic phonics was introduced as government policy.  The Department for Education sought to embed it nationally using the three principal policy drivers at its disposal: curriculum, accountability and assessment.  Thus it was woven intrinsically into the new National Curriculum of 2014, included in OFSTED inspection criteria and training and formed a cornerstone of KS1 statutory assessment in the form of the phonics screening check.  At a time when teacher pay was frozen, and a new curriculum was being introduced by an unpopular Secretary of State it was perhaps not surprising that the teaching unions, who exist primarily to defend and improve the pay and conditions of their members (Compton and Weiner, 2008) resisted the institution of an ideological and politically motivated pedagogical initiative that appeared counterintuitive to generally accepted thinking and increased teacher workload.  The advocates of resistance theory would thus argue that teachers were exhibiting oppositional behaviour (Apple et al., 2009) towards the dominant powers and the ideology of the economic base.  Rather than being manipulated by and complicit with the dominant elite they were resisting, undermining and destabilising them.  Paradoxically, although not acting maliciously, teachers were acting wholly to the detriment of their pupils.


It is incontrovertible that systematic synthetic phonics should be adopted and embedded across all schools in England and that the government’s policy is justified both in terms of instructional efficacy and social justice.  The issue of inconsistent adoption is either one of strategy or cultural ideology.  If it is the culture of a dominant elite resisting the introduction on grounds of ideology and the maintenance of clearly defined social classification that sustains their power, with schools and teachers consenting through reciprocal approval and reward that is the barrier to acceptance, then there is almost no hope for universal adoption and universal literacy.  Marxists would argue that it is only the dismantling of a capitalist economic structure that would liberate the ideology, change the culture and liberate this oppression.  Although Gandhi’s (2005) belief that no state of oppression is ever sustainable, liberation from oppression is a complex paradigm.   If, as Friere (1996) believed, this liberation is in the gift of the oppressed and not the oppressor then it may be some time before universal reading becomes fact; although Friere’s hands-on work on transforming the paradigm is an inspiring exemplar.


If, as the post-structuralists and neo-Marxists argue, structures are not only defined by their architects but by the influences working on them, then it was the strategy of implementation that has created the resistance from teachers.  Seen as the imposition of an illogical, counterintuitive, traditionalist pedagogy, teachers have taken a cynical post-modernist view of phonics and resisted the policy implementation with suspicion and disengagement, which has resulted in an incoherent, inconsistent and ineffective implementation.  By failing to win the ‘hearts and minds’ (Porch, 1986) of teachers and by engaging the Repressive State Apparatus (Althusser, 1971) through the use of policy drivers to implement change, the government has generated an almost frenzied antagonism to phonics from a group of professionals traditionally skeptical of any state intervention however well-intentioned.


 Habermas (1977) would argue that the situation had arisen as a result of the nonexistence of an ‘ideal speech situation’ where the evaluation of alternative assertions has been made on the basis of reason and evidence with participants motivated by the desire for a rational consensus. Coercive and non-rational influences had led to an irrational and illogical outcome.  Policymakers must seek to create an ‘ideal speech situation’ with teachers and their representatives and then engage in a free and open debate regarding the efficacy and adoption of systematic synthetic phonics.  However, with the overwhelming and deeply entrenched hostility to synthetic phonics from practitioners currently within the profession the chances of a rational dialogue seem remote.


 This leaves one effective strategy for the policymakers: they must win the hearts and minds of new entrants to teaching.  This places the Initial Teacher Training providers at the heart of any strategy.  With all new entrants to the profession not only highly trained at delivery but, more importantly, fully cognisant of the fundamental pedagogical philosophy and rationale of the strategy, there is the smallest chance that universal literacy may not be the white rabbit (Carol, 1954) of education in England. 


Nonetheless, with the inevitable further fracturing of teacher training provision after the Carter Review (2015), the chances of a coherent and consistent approach to the teaching of any subject, let alone the reading of English seems remote.  It may be that Marx (1984) was right: that the superstructure is always subservient to the economic base, and with Cuba’s literacy rates (Flood, 2016) at nearly 100%, leaving the United Kingdom and the United States languishing many places behind in the international league tables, there is evidence to suggest that he is correct.  That leaves only one true way to ensure systematic synthetic phonics is taught consistently in England…


‘Viva la revolucion!’ (Guevara, 2004).











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