» » On Being the Collateral Damage of Michael Rosen

On Being the Collateral Damage of Michael Rosen

Quick Bulletin: If you’re interested in finding out more about the TRT approach to reading and spelling there’s a free 20 minute video over at trtgo.com – That Reading Thing’s new online training site.


I like Michael Rosen and I suspect he’d like me too.

I love the art, magic and power of language both written and aloud. I read to my children until they were in high school.

I have no professional purpose in life other than getting young people over the humiliation of not being able to read and spell and into the world of text.

I’m suspicious of commercial educational concerns – and would be happy to disclose my finances to Mr Rosen should he like a laugh. (Though I’m hoping he would ask, wide-eyed, “But Why do you keep doing this?”)

I’m not a fan of teacher-centred-face-forward classrooms.

I’m a happy product of whacky early 70s open education.

I always question authority.

Unlike Mr Rosen, I don’t really have an interest in what goes on in primary reading instruction – except as a person who keeps meeting teenagers who don’t understand how the squiggles on the page relate to the sounds they say out loud.

Also unlike Mr Rosen, I hate polarisation and I very much wish that the parties would step back from the warfare to make sure no one’s being caught in the crossfire. So I’ll take that step back for him and the answer is…….

me  – and my struggling readers. All because of phonics – because I have to tiptoe around suspicious educators who have fallen for the right/left, phonics/not phonics rhetoric.

I know it’s not only Michael (I’m sure he’d ask me to call him Michael by now) but he has become a “voice against phonics” – a cool, artistic and well loved voice against phonics. Fighting the evil Govians. He’s helped create a very strange world where the main thing that separates the Good & Right educators from the Govians is phonics.

So here I am in no-woman’s-land because I’m with him on almost everything – except phonics. You see, in 14 years of working with struggling older readers, I’ve never met one who didn’t need to know how to get from speech to print and back again. I’ve never met one who didn’t need to know that the English code isn’t chaos. Every single one of them had been failed by a system which assumed they should learn to read by guessing from context and memorising whole words.

A streetwise teenager is found crying in the toilets. Why? Because he just experienced his first ever educational success by spelling ‘fantastic’ in his first hour of That Reading Thing and can’t contain the ensuing emotions.

A Year 9 runs from the room and is found banging on the deputy head’s door. Why? Because she has spelled ‘accomplishment’ in her second hour of TRT and finally has something positive to share with him.

There are far too many young people who can’t access the secondary curriculum because they can no longer guess words from context and their memory banks are full. Please don’t make their teachers believe that phonics can’t possibly be the answer because Michael Rosen hates it.

Phonics is a tool – not a political affiliation – and it’s a darn good tool for those older struggling readers.

Michael – if you’re reading this, please look at my blog posts on Poverty & Culture, and working with an Adult Visual Learner on spelling and on reading.



9 Responses

  1. Bravo, bravo, bravo. I agree with you on all points. I adore Mr Rosen’s books but deplore his anti phonics views. Learning to read is every child’s right – but this means we MUST actually teach them – how else will they read your amazing books Mr Rosen? 😊

  2. Luke

    For some struggling readers phonics can be a good thing. However, I believe that what Michael Rosen rails against is the domination of a phonics approach at the expense of an immersion in real literature which was written not as a teaching tool but out of love. If children are taught to read without being taught to love to read, we are robbing them of their birth right. For those struggling children, young adults, adults even, synthetic phonics is a great tool. For many others, it is an insult.


  3. Tricia

    Thanks for taking the time to reply, Luke.
    I do understand what Michael dislikes though I think he is completely mistaken in his beliefs about lack of literacture in phonics classrooms.

    My problem is that people aren’t hearing any nuance at all from Michael; they’re hearing that phonics is bad. Full stop. I’ve certainly never heard anyone quote him as saying that “synthetic phonics is a great tool” for anyone at all. It’s all negative and that negativity has permeated education to the disservice of those vulnerable learners who need to be making the kind of progress they can make with age appropriate linguistic phonics.

    As a wise man once wrote: “Education suffers under false dichotomies and always has. Heres to a more balanced future!” 🙂

  4. I love the way this is put. Well done! My 8 year old daughter has made so much progress with one term of one to one OG phonics tutoring she now goes to school with a smile on her face. There is so much research that can’t be ignored to backup explicit synthetic phonics.

  5. Tricia

    Thanks for the encouragement. And so pleased that your daughter got help so young! I hope all her school years are happy ones.

  6. Jen

    So nice to read someone who agrees phonics is necessary. So many people go on about how all children learn differently, and that those who fail the year 1 phonics test are beyond using phonics and use other strategies – pictures, context clues… So good, too, to have it pointed out that teaching phonics doesn’t exclude good literature. Good literature needs to be read to children and discussed with them – it’s the reason they are learning phonics and reading their decodable books, so that soon (very soon if they are well taught) they will be reading that good literature themselves! Nothing is so sad as a child that can’t read – and dogma is frequently stopping them.

  7. Tricia

    Thanks, Jen.

Leave a Reply