The evidence is clear – and it’s being wilfully ignored

images I am alarmed that teachers are still doubting that a crisis exists in teaching infants to read.
I refer readers to Britain where, in a study of 150,000 children (“Sponsored Reading Failure”) Britain’s foremost researcher Martin Turner uncovered the greatest peacetime decline in reading standards since records were kept and traced the decline back to the introduction of Whole Language to beginner readers.
Slip over the border to Scotland where the Clackmananshire Longitudinal Study compared outcomes of three strategies and found that not only did the phonics-first group come out on top in almost every aspect of reading but that 10 years later, they maintain that superiority.
Just in case you have trouble thinking this is not a deliberate act of academic and bureaucratic concealment, look at Australia where our national inquiry into the teaching of reading concluded 10 years ago that a phonics-first approach produced the best outcomes and yet 10 years later still doesn’t test phonic skills. You may be surprised to learn that the home of Goodman and Whole Language, (Tucson, Arizona), conducted the massive ‘Follow Through Study’ ($2 billion in today’s money) and found Whole Language-type teaching to be among the worst of all the teaching strategies in vogue. And judge the influence of our academics when I tell you that despite this finding, 4 years later Australian academics still mandated Whole Language in Australia. I could go on with the litany of failure but let me share some data from my practice. In part of a study of 3000 consecutive children I found that, after 3 years of schooling: 44% made more than 5 errors in the sounds of the alphabet, 29% confused letter names and sounds in 3 letter words (mad misread as maid), 15% confused b/d (bog/dog), 38% repeatedly misread 3 letter words for a range of reasons,10% made repeated guess-related errors on phonetically-regular 2 syllable words (e.g. picnic/picture), 88% made repeated errors on regular 3 syllable words (Eromanga, Continent etc), 70% repeatedly showed the signature, mid-word errors of a whole word guesser on 3 letter words (big misread as bag). etc etc.
In case you are still not concerned, you should know that the above data related to those cases where both the child and parent believed that the child was an ‘AVERAGE’ reader. The data on the ‘failing readers’ was even worse.
We hear similar reports from teachers on-line and during our lectures throughout Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the USA and Britain.
The full data-set can be seen at ; explanatory lectures and slide shows can be found at
What makes you think that we haven’t got a crisis?Byron Harrison
Chairman VAS Research P/L

10 thoughts on “The evidence is clear – and it’s being wilfully ignored

      1. Thank you Joy. I’ve been reading too many American books – it’s optional in US. I have changed it as I prefer UK spelling but I’m relieved it has been an acceptable spelling as the number of people who viewed it yesterday was 189. Thanks to all who shared as we really need to get the information out there.

      ISBN 0 255 36289 7. JULY 1990
      I hope this helps,


  1. OK. Thanks for your further explanations.

    The problem with the sounding test described is that all the vowel (letters) can represent more than one sound, including, in all cases, the sound used for the letter name. Presumably the test took place before all the alternatives were taught and was used to check knowledge of the ‘basic code’. Somewhat confusing for any child who happened to know the alternatives and were in fact more advanced in reading skill than catered for by the test. We have a similar problem over here when children respond to nonwords in the phonics check by assuming they are real words and use common sense rather than strict phonics to read them – another case of more advanced pupils being caught out by a phonics test.

    Phonics tests fail because they test phonics and not reading. While useful to explore the problems a struggler might have they are not suitable for pupils who are known to be progressing well. As phonics is not a reliable decoding strategy when used on its own, the phonics check should not be used uncritically. The results need interpreting by a person with knowledge of the child – their teacher. Unfortunately all *methods* prescribed for teachers to use in reading instruction (including Whole Language) bypass the teacher’s professional responses. They are set up as teacher-proof, ie the belief is that they succeed as long as they are delivered as prescribed (the corollary being that if they do not succeed, the teacher has failed to deliver them correctly). The trained teacher – who may have years of experience – becomes a technician.

    My answer to your question regarding the use of context is to observe that the aim of reading instruction is to enable the understanding of text. This involves the automatic recognition of words, which supports fluency and frees up the reader to concentrate on meaning. Reading instruction is not about recognising words out of context, although once words are known (automatically recognised) it follows that they will be known both in context and out of context. Is it important that words are recognised in isolation before they are recognised within context? It seems a bit odd to require this when the aim of reading instruction is that readers will understand texts.

    It is true that words are encountered in lists etc and important that the reader can automatically identify words in those particular situations. It is not quite true to say that these words are not in context. In any genuine reading experience the words will be intended to carry meaning, not just be recognised without purpose, and dictionaries and menus are contexts. ‘Guess-dependency’ might be used, perhaps, to describe an early stage of reading skill. Before the reader knows most of the words they encounter of course they have to use various guessing strategies to identify them. They have to apply their imperfect novice phonic knowledge (perhaps not knowing that ‘a’ can represent /ai/); or guess from different phonic ‘possibles’ once they know alternatives; they may apply their knowledge of the context. It’s not a case of being ‘handicapped’ by guessing – the guessing stage is an earlier stage than the automatic word identification stage. Unfamiliar word identification remains a matter of informed guesswork even for experienced readers.

    Your point 4 does not answer my concerns. I am not championing Whole Language. The dichotomy Whole Language/ Phonics is a false dichotomy that has led to a lot of wasteful vitriol and the over-emphasis on phonics enshrined in the Rose Report.

    Thank you for the links you provided. You might like to browse the following:;jsessionid=C9B80FF86C91794E8FD74A5550CF8792.f02t01?v=1&t=i4pyg2bn&s=8e98dd2897a0f0ceba34d8238ae1c708e508e92b

  2. 5 errors in the sounds of the alphabet. It would be interesting to know what these were, and whether like the substitution of the /ai/ phoneme for /a/ in ‘mad’, they were phonically plausible mistakes (think of the ‘a’ in bacon and radon).

    The guess-related errors were clearly guesses based on phonic knowledge, albeit used without due care, as it is unlikely that anyone reading for meaning would substitute ‘picture’ for ‘picnic’ or vice versa. Hmm, “they sat on the grass and ate a picture”.

    I’m not from Australia but my phonic knowledge suggests that Eromanga has 4 syllables, not 3. If I am wrong it is a highly irregularly spelt word which might explain the lack of success in pronunciation.

    Of course, the ‘war’ between Whole Language and phonics methods is built on the perception of these two approaches being the only ones available, and their being mutually exclusive. But this is a false dichotomy. Readers take into account phonics and meaning in decoding. Sadly, phonics-enthusiasts seem unable to accept and work with this fact, a fact of huge significance when it comes to the decoding problems presented by the English language. We now have a ‘phonics check’ administered to 6 year olds in Britain which has been shown to have increased the teaching of nonwords during reading instruction. Is this really to be recommended.

    Take another look at the Clack study:

    1. Thank you for your response.
      1. Before the Sounding Test was started, children had to demonstrate that they understood the difference between letter names and the common letter sounds. If a child gave a name rather than the common sound during the test the tester said ‘yes that’s right but what SOUND does that letter make?
      2. The most common letters where the name and sound are different are a,e,i,o,u,g,c and y, the most common confusions occur on the 5 vowels. The statistics referred to only those children who made 6 or more errors. We thought that 6 errors was a reasonable indication of embedded name/sound confusions.
      3. You suggest that children would not confuse ‘picnic’ for ‘picture’ in context. If you tested words in isolation you would know that such errors occur frequently in context/guess dependent infants. VAS Theory explains the memory processes that contribute this kind of misreading.There are many situations (lists, dictionary, menus etc) where words are presented with little or no context cues. Submissions to the USA national inquiry estimated that in real life, context cues were inadequate in 7 out of 8 sentences.
      You might consider two questions: ‘Who is the handicapped child, the one who can read words in or out of context or the one who is context-dependent?” I would also ask “When did parents give permission for their child to be made guess-dependent?”

      4. Whole Language is a fad, lacking any scientific basis. This is not just my opinion that is the published opinion expressed in an unchallenged open letter to the Australian government in April 2004. The open letter from 26 senior academics and researchers from psychology, speech hearing & language research, education research, disability development, audiology, special education, speech pathology, communication science, cognitive science, linguistics and cognitive sciences was the direct trigger for the Australian inquiry into infant teaching methods. That inquiry concluded that a Systematic Phonics approach produced the best outcomes. A view shared by similar national inquiries in Britain (Google ‘The Rose Report’) and the USA.

      I refer you to our websites and videos for the explanations as to why a systematic phonics-first produces better outcomes and the dangers inherent of encouraging sophisticated word-guessing in developmentally immature infants, many of whom lack the minimum level of memory storage that would enable them to accurately word guess.

      If I may paraphrase Winston Churchill …”Never in the history of Western Education has so much damage been inflicted upon so many children by so few educators”.


      Byron Harrison
      VAS Research P/L

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