After graduating from ITE, I landed a job as a year 6 teacher in an outer London school. Whereas my ITE was definitely of the progressive kind, my school prescribed to a much more ‘traditional’ view of teaching and learning. This included the explicit and systematic teaching of phonics. In ITE, phonics was considered (somewhat begrudgingly) a necessary part but was also very much sidelined. Like the awkward family member you cannot deny you have but try to keep hushed, it was spoken of very quickly and then hidden away from view.
In my first week at my new English school, I underwent training. This included training in phonic work and explicit teaching. I was very sceptical. Why are they focussing on such a narrow aspect of teaching? Why are they engaging students in ‘kill and drill’? Don’t they know it will kill a love of learning and a love of reading? Don’t they know that’s what makes the difference? This was my attitude and it stayed this way for many months, yet over the course of the year, my scepticism began to waver. I was in a very challenging school – the kind where progress is hard-won. I could see the effect my explicit instruction was having, particularly on my students’ reading and writing skills. The more explicit I became, the better things seemed to go for my students, and outcomes of a reasonable kind ensued.
The moment I believe my scepticism changed to a feeling of cognitive dissonance came during a writing moderation. Although almost always a waste of time, we teachers would gather together to try and assess the writing ability of a set of students. It was late in the year so the year 2 teacher attended to present some of their writing, too. His students had obviously undergone intensive phonic work during their R and 1 years. Some of the writing was truly amazing and so too was the spelling. In many ways, it was clear the students in year 2 had grasped concepts my year 6s were still grappling with. In that moment, I began to doubt myself. Perhaps they were on to something. I decided to investigate.
Cognitive dissonance is the state of having inconsistent views, beliefs or attitudes. Teachers want to raise academic achievement and I am no different. I was imagining a world of romantic possibilities for raising achievement; of students in love with books, writing beyond their years and passionately pursuing their dreams. This progressive ideal was being challenged by the approach reaping some serious results: explicit instruction and phonic work. I wanted to raise academic achievement but I was beginning to realise the way to achieve this did not suit my ideals. It was painful, but after much thought and reading (including papers like this), I decided to change my mind. It was clear the systematic and explicit approach to teaching reading through phonics was best.
Phonics is still extremely unpopular. This is because many Australian educators still think the way I used to think; they still have romantic ideals about how students should come to learn to read. But the more I learn about the subject the more I realise there is little time to waste indulging to romantic ideals: many children still fail to learn to read, and this does not need to be so. That’s why I am thankful for the coming of Initialit. An Australian-based phonics program from an organisation with a track record of success has the potential to shake things up. And this is important, because the more programs we have of this nature, the more cognitive dissonance it will impose on teachers. It is one thing to read about it, quite another to see the results for yourself. They will notice the difference, just like I did, and will begin to doubt their own beliefs about how children come to learn to read.
There is no time to waste on flawed approaches to teaching reading when so many fail. Sticking to ideals is self-indulgent and needs to stop because learning how to read is a one-shot deal for children:
“Schooling is a one-shot deal for kids and if we are wasting time playing around with ideas that have no impact on student achievement… then we are frankly wasting time and wasting the students chances of success.” – Dylan Wiliam
We must draw on the evidence and stop wasting time on worse ideas. It is vital we do whatever we can to ensure students learn how to read and learn it well. We teachers are in control of whether or not that happens. Great, evidence-based programs have the potential to impose cognitive dissonance in the minds of the gate-keepers: teachers. With the tide beginning to turn, it is time we saw some minds changed.