Blog post Part of series: Spotlight on language and literacy
The politics of ‘scientifically-based’ teaching: Phonics for reading and grammar for writing
The teaching of reading and writing understandably attracts attention from researchers, teachers and policymakers because of the importance of literacy for children’s educational development. What research can, and cannot, tell us about effective teaching is a key aspect of debates about reading and writing. Recently, the idea of ‘scientifically-based research’ (see for example https://www.thereadingleague.org) related to the teaching of reading has been prominent, particularly in North America.
Two recent research studies included strong attention to scientifically-based research. One study was about the teaching of phonics and reading (Wyse & Bradbury, 2022); the other focused on the teaching of grammar and writing (Wyse et al., 2022). Both studies attracted attention in most UK newspapers and a range of other media, which has prompted us to reflect on some of the politics surrounding the work.
Phonics for reading?
The Guardian newspaper’s front-page/lead story on 19 January 2022 was ‘Focus on phonics to teach reading is “failing children”, says landmark study’. Most responses were constructive, but on the day of the story some negative responses to the Guardian article and our work were published online. These responses ranged from the surprising (such as two academics relying on bloggers for their opinions) to the offensive. The following are direct quotes from tweets in response to the Guardian story by Tom Bennett, the ‘lead behaviour advisor to the Department for Education’:
Tom Bennett @tombennett71 20 January 2022
This study, platformed uncritically by @GuardianEdu is, sadly, rubbish …
Dominic Wyse @Dominic_Wyse 20 January 2022
Your description of our robust peer-reviewed research as ‘rubbish’ is offensive. What this and many other debates in education need is reconciliation …
Tom Bennett @tombennett71 20 January 2022
I’ll call rubbish research that makes it harder for children to learn to read rubbish, and your feelings take a distant second to that objective. This debate doesn’t need reconciliation; it needs to accept where the evidence leads, not where you wish it to go.
(Quoted from Twitter tweets. Bold font added for emphasis and clarity.)
Quite apart from the unacceptable tone of the tweets, Bennett’s allegations about ‘where the evidence leads’ were completely unwarranted, and showed a disregard for the research published in the paper.
Grammar for writing?
Responses in the media to the grammar and writing research were mainly positive about the research. A particularly powerful piece in the Guardian was written by a parent who was a professional writer worried about the impact of grammar teaching on her child. The author, poet and playwright Michael Morpurgo was similarly critical in an article that bemoaned the lack of creativity in primary education in England, and cited the grammar research but also the phonics and reading research.
The main challenge to the grammar research came from two university linguists, in the TES. They challenged the idea, reported in the media about our study, that there was too much traditional grammar in England’s national curriculum. Their main argument was based on a comparison with national curricula in countries including in Eastern Europe, but not a comparison of other nations where English is the language of instruction.
Do extreme media views have an impact on policy?
Most researchers are rightly suspicious of polemical views, and assume such views will not influence education policy. However, the Minister for Schools at the time, Robin Walker MP, dismissed our research about phonics and reading on the basis of some of the very same polemical and offensive social media accounts. In his reply to our open letter, signed by more than 250 signatories, he said: ‘I have concerns about a number of the methods and sources used in your report, many of which have been detailed by commentators including teachers and academics’ (2 February 2022, Letter from Robin Walker MP Minister for Schools; emphasis added).
Nick Gibb MP, who inaccurately summed up our research in his opinion piece in the Telegraph newspaper, also cited the same social media: ‘The IOE report has been heavily criticised by teacher-bloggers. Tom Bennett, founder of ResearchEd, tweeted that the research was, “sadly, rubbish”.’
The blog of a secondary maths teacher in Australia was also glowingly cited by Gibb (see here for a review of the weakness of this blog). It seems that particular loud media voices can have a real influence on how education research is received by politicians.
If there is one thing that our research shows, including the sources of scientific research that we cite, it is that there is no simple answer to teaching children to read and write. However, we also show that the most up-to-date research evidence does offer powerful and nuanced findings that can be used to improve teaching and curriculum policy.
Extreme and inaccurate reactions to research risk impeding progress in effective teaching. If politicians base their actions on such accounts they risk progress in literacy for the nation’s children.
 See for example: https://bera-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1002/rev3.3314; https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2022/jan/teaching-reading-called-question; https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2022/mar/grammars-role-writing; https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10144257/
Wyse, D., & Bradbury, A. (2022). Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading. Review of Education, 10, e3314. https://doi.org/10.1002/rev3.3314
Wyse, D., Aarts, B., Anders, J., De Gennaro, A., Dockrell, J., Manyukhina, Y., Sing, S., & Torgerson, C. (2022). Grammar and writing in England’s national curriculum: A randomised controlled trial and implementation and process evaluation of Englicious. UCL Faculty of Education and Society. https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10144257/