I’m not sure whether to feel flattered or irritated by Jeff Bowers’ latest blogpost, where he expresses his disappointment in my failure to support his critique of research on phonics intervention.
The short explanation, as I already conveyed to Jeff, is that I'm busy with other stuff. I’m aware that there’s a pretty intemperate debate going on at present about the value of phonics in teaching children to read, with various people writing lengthy critiques of one another’s positions. So clearly it’s a complex and murky situation. The last thing this needs is for someone else, me, who hasn’t looked in depth at the relevant research, to weigh in with an opinion.
As background: I am a (soon-to-be retired) researcher who has never worked on reading intervention, though I do work on topics tangentially related to this. I'm currently finishing off a big project on cerebral lateralization for language. I’m also involved in a couple of other projects unrelated to reading. I am a hands-on researcher, so am heavily involved in designing, analysing and writing up research. I currently work a 4 day week, and these three projects, plus regular reviewing, giving talks, etc, take up all of my time.
One of the fun parts of my job is that I am my own boss and, as far as time allows, I can pursue odd topics that take my fancy. I sometimes put my head above the parapet and engage in, or even initiate, academic disputes about research. These consume much time and emotional energy, so I choose carefully which battles I want to get involved in. In particular, I think hard about what can be gained - I do get passionate when something is wrong, especially where someone is behaving badly and deliberately distorting science for some nefarious ends. In such cases I will get engaged to try and put things right.
The reading wars don't look like that to me. They actually look rather like the equally heated debates going on among epidemiologists and public health experts around Covid – another topic on which I don’t’ speak out because I lack expertise. The most I’m prepared to offer is a general suggestion about perspective that might be helpful in achieving some truth and reconciliation.
In both Covid and reading wars there are arguments about research evidence and arguments about policy. Typically, there isn't really good research on which to base important decisions, but we don’t have the luxury of waiting for such studies to be done. Doing nothing is in itself a choice, for which, in the case of an epidemic, we know the consequences are likely to be bad. So it’s all about making the best decisions we can, given the patchy evidence that we have – a point nicely made by Trisha Greenhalgh in the context of COVID-19.
The current debates have highlighted the shortage of well-designed studies to show which teaching method is most effective for which children at which age. As with medical interventions, studies also need to evaluate potential costs and harms – something which was neglected in the past, but which is relevant given that some of the disagreements are about whether particular approaches can be counterproductive.
But, as with Covid, policy decisions have to be pragmatic. This was the remit of the 2006 Rose Report, which attempted to synthesise evidence and expert opinion on reading intervention and came out recommending use of synthetic phonics. Overturning the status quo to radically change how reading is taught would only be reasonable if there was some other intervention approach for which there was better evidence of effectiveness – so much so that the costs of making a change would be justified. Maybe there is, but it hasn’t come up on my radar.
My apologies to all of those engaged in current discussions whose contributions I have ignored. I hope this blogpost will suffice to explain why.