Debbie Hepplewhite replies to Richard Garner of the Independent

Read here Debbie Hepplewhite’s robust reply to a shoddy article by Richard Garner of the Independent:

And Richard, if you would like to see how Synthetic Phonics helps dyslexic children to read, please come to the Bloomfield Learning Centre to observe my lessons.  All our pupils learn to read.  Mostly they have not been taught systematic phonics in school properly.  Possibly due to the ‘reading for pleasure’ approach.  Do you know what that actually is? It means leaving children to flounder and guess the word as they have no idea how to decode it.

And by the way Richard, if children are sounding out – ch-ur-ch, that is good news because:

1.  They are developing correct sound/letter correspondences and can probably spell the word correctly.

2. Because they probably can decode lots more words with the spelling ‘ur’:  ‘s-ur-f-a-ce’,  t-ur-b-a-n,  g-ur-g-le, h-ur-t-i-ng etc. and that is fantastic!  Come on down to the Bloomfield and observe how to teach children to read.  No, seriously. Do!


  1. I thoroughly agree with what she says but her tone is very off-putting. Yes, it is frustrating to read such things but this is not actually the result of ideological conspiracy or lazy belligerence.

    The audience she needs to get on board, teachers, have been pushed around by ‘experts’ for so long they have become resistant. Given that nearly all the high-profile phonics advocates are attached to commercial enterprises or have a political axe to grind, some cynicism is to be expected. It also doesn’t help that some describe an almost fanatical approach to phonics – one that does sound like they are anti-pleasure.

    This evening I read a phonics-scheme book with my son. Whilst I’m sure the authors paid good attention to which graphemes were used, and in what proportion, it was a badly written story (and he knew it). There were characters with unfitting names and mixing up of tenses from page to page. This type of thing fuels concerns that phonics ignores the need to present children with decent writing.

    It’s time for phonics to grow up. The big battle is won – phonics is national policy – now it’s time to refine the implementation. This refinement will not happen by being condescending. The ignorant commentators and sceptical in the workforce need to be engaged.

    1. It is most frustrating to read ill-informed commentators, who enjoy a platform, assume the voice of experts. They use terms they do not understand such as ‘the reading for pleasure approach’. What is that?

      Sadly, I don’t believe the phonics battle has been won. It is ideology that it obstructing the changes that need to be made to improve the teaching of reading in this country.

      TEACHERS ARE NOT RESPOSIBLE. Teacher training institutions and poor school leadership are to blame.

      A culture of unaccountability is prevalent as too many children leave primary school unable to access secondary education. How is that allowed to happen in a rich county like the UK? Yes, this is still going on. How do I know? I meet these pupils at the centre where I teach.

      Powerful lobby groups lobby against phonics, Reading Recovery – a mixed methods programme which has poor results, and shabby research to support it, is still used in schools for intervention.

      The Unions object to telling teachers how to teach. But they have not been trained now to teach – so how can they be expected to know?
      But then, the Unions are not accountable to the children who leave the school illiterate. They are only accountable to their members.

      Who is accountable for these children?

      Notions such as – ‘Phonics hasn’t worked – why offer the child more phonics?’ is now current in intervention programmes. How can it be that children who have been taught ‘so called phonics’ suddenly learn to read when it is taught with a systematic phonic programme?

      We hear the claim, “Not all children are the same. We need different approaches.” What are these approaches? You can either decode a new word or guess it. What are the other approaches? Guessing by picture, word, context?

      In this country we have the crazy system by which the most needy children are taught by the least qualified and trained. TA’s on low wages, who are hard-working and well intentioned are left to work with the strugglers. Why are they not trained?

      As you see, the battle is not yet won. We need to be heard.

      1. When I say the battle is won, I mean that phonics is national policy. This fundamentally changes the position for phonics advocates. Yours is not a protest movement. You can’t keep apportioning blame and USING CAPITALS.

        At this point, I’m afraid the job is just to tirelessly engage with those who have concerns in as constructive a manner as possible. The Indy’s Edu correspondent was potentially a powerful ally if the response hadn’t been so patronising – intended only to appeal to those already convinced of the merits of SSP.

  2. I like what you say. ‘Tirelessly engage’ is positive and forward looking.

    I am not confident, though, that phonics will necessarily stay a national policy. It has been implemented badly and piecemeal. This is used by phonics deniers to show it as a failed initiative. To make a real change the government should have provided training for all those engaged in teaching. Instead it subsidised the spending of millions of pounds on resources they do not know how to use.

    I don’t think that the Indy’s journalist had any interest in the subject and like other celebs jumped on a band wagon he doesn’t really understand. These people can do a lot of damage.

    Anyway, thanks for your comments. I do think you have a good point about the tone of discourse.

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