The unforgivable happened yesterday.

I was engaged in an argument on Twitter yesterday. No, that’s not the unforgivable. The argument was about the new phonics screening check that has been pushed for in Australia. I am very much against it. No, that’s not the unforgivable, either.

The proposed phonics check is yet another means of policing teachers. Teachers already teach phonics explicitly and systematically. In my experience, in my discussions with classroom teachers, and by the research and assertions of peers in the field of literacy education whose work I’ve read, it’s well-documented that teachers are already teaching phonics explicitly and systematically, as one part of a balanced reading and literacy program, and have been doing so for many years. The UK has been undertaking this check for several years now, with no noticeable impact except on the work of teachers, and the stress levels of both children and teachers.

As I made my argument, I suggested that testing students with fake words was silly. Why is this necessary? I can see the reasoning behind it, sure: it forces children to pronounce common graphemes phonetically so that you can hear if they recognise letter-sound (grapheme-phoneme) relationships. However, the problem with this is that sound-letter relationships occur in context.  There are several common, basic words for which context is needed to know how to pronounce them, such as the word “read.” There are also several graphemes that are commonly used to represent each phoneme, and several phonemes that might be represented by any particular grapheme. Testing students using fake words reinforces the message that a particular grapheme will always represent a particular phoneme regardless of context, when this is simply not true. It is a rule that is bound to be broken. The best readers know this and will adapt. There are many stories of fluid readers “correcting” the words on the phonics check, and hence failing. Rigid rule followers will struggle later on, because as words become more complex orthographically, the phonemic match to graphemes becomes trickier.

This suggestion wasn’t unforgivable either. I’m coming to the unforgivable part now!

I had suggested that this was the essence of synthetic phonics. You see, I had been reading about synthetic phonics with a definition of synthetic that meant “fake” (you see where rigid, single interpretations take you?).

Unforgivable!

About six or seven twits I’d never met, some of whom did not have the courtesy to use their real name in their account, had tweeted me their derision. My mistake was unforgivable.

I blocked them. I don’t know them. They don’t know me. They don’t have the necessary context that would be expected for ignoring Gricean maxims. I don’t need a pack of strangers to jump all over my errors. I don’t need complete strangers to tell me I’m an idiot, as I have sufficient imposter syndrome as it is. (In my head, they cackle like Bellatrix Lestrange.)

To those people, if they ever read this, I suggest you consider the effectiveness of your strategy for teaching, for helping others change their mind. But I’m aware that’s probably not your intention. I think your intention might be to reinforce your belief in your own superiority.

To those who retweeted the mistake, dog whistling for your pals to pile on too, the same applies.

Is making a mistake, being wrong, as I was, unforgivable?

When we make a mistake in public, what should we do? When someone else makes a mistake, what should you do?

A friend (through Twitter, as it happens) — someone kind, who knows me and respects me — pointed out my mistake. She did so gently, through the sharing of her own experience.

And it turns out that the “synthetic” in “synthetic phonics” actually refers to “synthesis.” And when my friend described the explicit, systematic practices described as “synthetic” phonics, I realised… that’s what I had been doing as a primary teacher. That’s what all my peers had been doing.

In fact, all four schools I’d taught in — two Indigenous communities (one of those remotely located), one mining community, and a city school — had been using explicit and systematic, “synthetic” phonics programs and practices.

My ‘unforgivable’ mistake is no more than a red herring; a means to dismiss my argument without engaging with the reasoning.

And here’s the thing. Figuring this out actually strengthens, not weakens, my argument against the phonics check. I began teaching in 2004. The students in schools back then have graduated (mostly) and moved on. They were all taught synthetic phonics, by myself and my colleagues. We used regular low-stakes diagnostic assessments, monitored their learning, and adjusted our teaching accordingly, toward the improvement of our students’ phonemic skills (as well as other skills and knowledge needed to become fluid readers and develop literacy).

How is the phonics check supposed to help teachers who already use their own assessments to diagnose, monitor student learning, and inform their teaching? It isn’t. And it’s not the help we’re asking for either. My conclusion still stands, and if anything is stronger: the test is not supposed to help teachers. It is supposed to police us. It will encourage us to spend more time on one small part of becoming literate, at the expense of other knowledge and skills, or other educational objectives, such as collaboration and identity exploration. The results will be used to sell them a product which will “help” us to do this. A whole industry will appear to make money from students’ “poor” results, selling books to parents, tutoring, etc…

I think that may be… unforgivable.

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