Crying foul in the phonics debate. The influence of vested interests.

The anti-phonics advocates, like a bunch of lemmings lined up to jump off the cliff, like to dismiss phonics advocates valid arguments and research with the cry of commercial interests or evil right wing influences. Some even refuse to even read research based on unproven vested interests.

Twitter quotes… have a go yourself and search for vested interests phonics, think tank phonics, right wing phonics…never ending! Some tweeters pop up repeatedly.

“So, a right-wing libertarian think tanker on the cover of #researchEd magazine? No thanks….”

“Some years back reading became “phonics”. Pushed by linked right-wing “think tanks” and vested interests selling phonics programmes.”

So let’s get my vested interests out of the way first.

Someone even asked me if I truly had children’s interests at heart implying that I had some other vested interest. She then blocked me when I requested an apology. That individual actually has presented at seminars for a commercial program!

I do not gain any commercial interest from any product. All my advocacy is unpaid and has cost me money to advertise my Facebook pages and take time off work in the past to attend seminars which are not tax deductible. I am a founding member of Code Read Dyslexia Network (a charity). I am a board member of SPELD NSW. I run a volunteer support group Dyslexia Support Australia. My children are too old to benefit from primary schools teaching explicit systematic phonics and the phonics screening check (PSC) is 7 years too late for my daughter.

So according to the definition do I have vested interests?

“If you have a vested interest in something, you have a very strong reason for acting in a particular way, for example to protect your money, power, or reputation.” (Collins Dictionary)

The answer to that is probably yes as I have put myself out there strongly advocating and I will certainly look the fool if proven wrong. I have some sort of reputation to protect.

Do those crying vested interests have any investment that influences them?

Those who have built a career around supporting an approach to teaching reading that no longer follows current research certainly have a lot invested. Particularly so in the case of very public supporters with big reputations. There are many University teacher educators who are very public and have gone so far as selectively using evidence to support their position in news and teaching publications.

If the PSC gets implemented and shows significant deficiency in phonics teaching and then leads to an increase in reading outcomes they have big reputations on the line. Not only that but they have to sleep at night with the understanding that the thousands of teachers they have trained over the years could have been teaching kids to read better.

This certainly leads to a degree of cognitive dissonance when faced with a growing body of research.

Teachers who have long careers have a vested interests as they need to believe that what they are doing is the best possible for the students in their care. To finally admit that probably you could have been doing a better job is a hard pill to swallow. Many never get to see the long term outcome with “balanced literacy” often giving the impression of reading but failing when reading becomes more complex.

I know personally that since I have learnt and studied so much about learning difficulties that I now see, over a decade later, the faces of those kids I could have helped better. Those kids in my mind are what led me to advocacy work.

One of my fellow admins of Dyslexia Support Australia, like many of our teacher members, was led down the path to questioning her teacher training when her own child struggled to learn to read. She has since re-educated herself with further training and is a self confessed literacy research geek. Explicit systematic phonics and the PSC is over a decade too late for her child.

Is is fair to attack people’s comments based on their involvement in a phonics program?

One of the biggest catch cry’s in the phonics debate is most certainly about money making phonics programs. The majority of the stories I have heard about people designing phonics programs is that these programs have grown out of a need and desire to help children learn to read. I will admit I also know of exceptions and these “business owners” are obvious in their behaviour in decrying other programs and supporting only their methods.

I know that many Thrass advocates are quick to cry Multilit on one hand whilst singing the praises of the Thrass creator on the other.

Marie Clay gets quoted often and held up like some sort of god by her supporters. But not once have I had her research dismissed on the basis of her involvement in the Reading Recovery program. A program that was costing over $50 million a year in NSW alone. I’m not sure if during her life Marie made a cent out of Reading Recovery and I don’t care. I’m more concerned about her research validity.

Despite their vast differences Reading Recovery and Multilit have many parallels in their back story. Born out of research with a passion to help children learn to read. The big difference being Multilit continues to change and develop with ongoing research and feedback from teachers and parents.

Let’s not forget the huge amount of income that is being made in schools right now from companies selling “balanced literacy” resources and programs. They have a significant amount of cash and reputation to lose. Some are even moving into the phonics market.

Let’s not forget that no one is actually advocating the exclusive use of a particular program. I have seen the accusations that if a kid fails the phonics check they will be pushed into Multilit. This is an unfounded claim and there is no such evidence of a government pushing one program in England.

Many would like to see every teacher trained in explicit systematic phonics well so that they do not need to follow or use a particular program. Phonics teaching does not require fancy resources. My daughter was taught with a very old set of alphabet letters. Programs are really only as good as the teacher implementing them. Phonics programs exist because of the inadequate training of teachers. They are a very easy solution for a school to implement an across the board approach to teaching phonics.

Many creators of phonics programs and remedial tutors have expressed that nothing would make them happier than, after decades of advocacy, being out of a job.

Is it fair to dismiss a person’s views based on their political leanings or where the cash for their research comes from?

Politics should be left out of the debate and I have addressed this in previous blog. https://dekkerdyslexia.wordpress.com/2019/02/22/mind-the-gap/

My brother in law is a medical stroke researcher and he spends a lot of his time trying to fund his research. I’ve seen him writing research proposals on Christmas Day lying on the floor after back surgery. This is an on going battle that all researchers face. Does where the cash cow come from influence his work? I doubt that very much.

Are medical researchers possibly bias by drug company money? Undoubtedly! Freebies by drug companies has been scaled back in recent years due to such concerns.

But do people refuse to read medical research by a researcher based on their income source? I think not. Declaration of conflicts of interest are a part of any good research. Complete lack of bias in research just does not happen. This is human nature. Researchers are trained how to read and identify valid research and how to identify bias. They don’t validate research based on the author but on reading the research.

The Ad hominem personal attacks and knee jerk right wing, commercial program cries need to end. We need to start listening to the research evidence and questioning how we can drag up Australia’s growing tail of struggling readers. One child who could have been taught to read left suffering due to illiteracy is one child too many. I know because that one child was mine.

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Dekker Delves into Dyslexia

Advocate for the introduction of the phonics check in Australia. Advocate for the teaching of evidence based literacy instruction for every child in every school. The explicit and systematic teaching of Phonemic Awareness, Phonics, Fluency, Vocabulary and Comprehension. Advocate for Dyslexia Awareness I support reputable organisations such as the Australian Dyslexia Association (ADA), Learning Difficulties Australia (LDA), the International Dyslexia Association (IDA), the FIVE from FIVE Project, and the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) AUSPELD and State-based SPELD organisations, as they all recommend the use of EVIDENCE-BASED TREATMENTS/PROGRAMS for learning difficulties. Mum to 2 delightful, amazing and creative kids. Mum to a kid with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia, Dyscalculia and anxiety. Admin of Dyslexia Support Australia Group, Dyslexia Awareness Australia and Dyscalculia Awareness Australia. Board of Directors SPELD NSW 10 Years a High School Teacher All my opinions are based not only on experience as a teacher, a mum and an administrator of Australia’s largest Dyslexia Support group but on research. I believe in the scientific method and the need for education to meet the same rigorous evidence based standards as the medical profession.

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