Deprecated: mysql_pconnect(): The mysql extension is deprecated and will be removed in the future: use mysqli or PDO instead in /home/rrforg/public_html/Connections/rrf.php on line 9
Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 51 back to contents
In Denial - A personal response to the DfES phonics seminar held on 17 March 2003 and Greg Brooks’s subsequent paper: ‘Sound sense: the phonics element of the National Literacy Strategy’ (July 03).Debbie Hepplewhite

View or download the papers from the seminar at

In RRF newsletter no. 50 I wrote ‘Thoughts related to the Ofsted report (HMI 555) The National Literacy Strategy: the first four years 1998 – 2002’ and described how this Ofsted report (Nov 2002) created substantial media interest and led to the convening of a phonics seminar hosted by Professor David Hopkins, head of the standards and effectiveness unit. The seminar was a much-welcomed event and viewed with great anticipation by many who are concerned about the high percentage of illiteracy in our country.

It is time to examine what changes have been made, or are likely to be made, as a result of these significant events and whether theses changes are consistent with the research, and reflect the criticism, which was presented prior to and during the phonics seminar:

  The seminar

I wanted to be able to report positively about the seminar. I cannot.

I was invited to attend the seminar as a representative of the Reading Reform Foundation. It was perplexing, however, why Sue Lloyd (of Jolly Phonics’ fame) was not at first invited considering the huge contribution that Jolly Phonics is making to raising understanding of just what is possible with early years literacy teaching since its publication in 1992.

When eventually Lloyd was invited, her paper for the seminar was not distributed to the attendees. Subsequently, Lloyd’s response to the NLS paper did not qualify for publishing on the DfES standards site as she was not invited as a ‘speaker’ per se.

Out of the whole day’s conference, each speaker was allotted a 10 minute slot to present their research followed by a brief question and answer session. Professor Linnea Ehri (chairperson of the US National Reading Panel which conducted a meta-analysis of experiments on phonics published in April 2000) was allowed a few minutes extra in the light of being flown over from the States especially for the event. I would suggest that these time allocations amounted to an insult, considering the importance of this seminar.

Some of the speakers were visibly flustered when Professor Hopkins rang his warning bell to indicate that the finishing time loomed near. I could not believe that this was a national-level review of international research into the teaching of reading. It was dismaying and, in my opinion, grossly inadequate. None of the researchers were able to do justice to describing their findings on, collectively, thousands of children over many years in these circumstances.

Surprisingly, barely anyone asked any questions of the speakers. This afforded me the opportunity to raise with the attendees issues that the RRF has drawn attention to over and again through its correspondence, newsletters and website. These included grave criticism that the National Literacy Strategy programmes and training have promoted the reading strategies of learning words as whole shapes through the emphasis on an initial sight vocabulary and guessing/predicting from picture, context and initial letter cues. Such strategies have led to fierce debate throughout the English-speaking world. They have been shown to create needless literacy special needs, symptoms of dyslexia, behaviour problems and actually RETARD the development of good reading and writing skills. Unfortunately, the teaching profession continues to believe widely the teaching myth of promoting ‘multi-reading strategies to suit individual learning styles’ in reading instruction. This is often confused with the advantage of applying multi-SENSORY teaching and learning strategies. Reading instruction methods which can work for some, but which can damage many children’s reading skills, prevail and the NLS programmes champion them. This could explain why the schools cannot reach the government’s targets and there is a large gender gap in literacy.

One of the comments I made (several times) was that no-one at the DfES or NLS team would address this criticism no matter what we said or did. No-one would mention or respond to information we have provided about the international debate. It is very simply, and very cleverly, avoided, sidelined or ignored. This continues to be the case. [Greg Brooks’s paper mentions research relating to the role that ‘context’ plays in reading (p. 21 of his report). He has addressed this matter, therefore, but fails to examine what part the National Literacy Strategy has played in promoting the ‘strategy’ of guessing from context, and other guessing/predicting strategies, to the detriment of developing good decoding skills in young readers. He justifies the searchlight model claiming that “it has been (mis)interpreted”. It would appear that he does not know what reading strategies, for example, the Early Literacy Support programme promotes first and foremost!]

Ruth Miskin’s appearance as a speaker was a breath of fresh air as she stated: “Give little children several weeks of intensive phonics, interesting books to read with words that they are able to read and you get spectacular results. What is your problem?” She said it in a nutshell.

As the end of the seminar drew near Professor Hopkins summed up. His conclusions were inexplicable as they failed totally to reflect the research findings or to address the questions raised about the NLS programmes. He said that there was still need for a small initial sight vocabulary and that there was no need to change the NLS including the searchlights reading model. I was incredulous as were some others. The speakers were all clear about major flaws in the NLS advice and programmes.

Professor Ehri flagged up the fact that ‘second graders’ showed signs of damage from bad guessing habits caused by learning words as wholes and reading strategies that included guessing (which the NLS prefers to describe as ‘predicting’). Professor Ehri represented the findings from a wide range of reading research as summarized by the National Reading Panel. I capitalized on Professor Ehri’s mention of children with ‘bad habits’, asking her to elaborate and then relating her comments to the flawed reading advice in the Early Literacy Support programme which heavily promotes the learning of words as whole shapes and the prediction of words from pictures, context and initial letter cues as the main reading strategies. Phonics is last on the strategy list and then for the most part as a ‘checking the word that you guessed’ strategy. Why did Professor Hopkins not think that this NLS early intervention programme AT LEAST required further investigation considering Professor Ehri’s comments about bad habits? Why indeed. Why were the contents of the ELS programme not up for examination considering the RRF has called for its complete withdrawal?

Shortly after the seminar I emailed both Greg Brooks and David Hopkins expressing my great surprise at the latter’s summing-up. I asked whose opinion was Professor Hopkins expressing and on what evidence had he based his conclusions. Weren’t we, after all, looking at evidence that day? Were his conclusions evidence-based and related to the research described? Absolutely not. There was certainly no evidence brought to the event to refute any of the claims made by the researchers.

Until such time as Greg Brooks wrote his report, I did not feel free to comment on the seminar. What if, after all, Brooks did take on board some of the important issues mentioned and what if he did address such aspects as the worries about ‘guessing’ from cues/clues and learning words as whole shapes prior to learning letter/s-sound correspondences? Certainly at the seminar I had taken advantage of the ample opportunity to mention these things and the researchers had been unanimous in their criticism of the NLS.

Did it look as if anyone in the DfES and Ofsted could demonstrate sufficient courage and objectivity to draw honest conclusions from research and classroom results and conduct an honest investigation into worries raised by many knowledgeable and experienced researchers and practitioners?

Not so far.

The questions which should have been addressed transparently at the DfES phonics seminar were either not addressed or addressed by one side only. There was no ‘debate’ and the conclusions were not based on the evidence of the research presented on the day. There was no honest examination of the NLS and its programmes and how they should be adjusted.

My response to Greg Brooks’s report: ‘Sound sense: the phonics element of the National Literacy Strategy. A report to the Department for Education and Skills. July 2003’  

It is interesting that Brooks felt the need to state from the outset of his report “‘ Reading is making sense of print’ (Moustafa, 1996:7), writing is making sense in print, and meaning must be the heart of the enterprise. Phonics is purely a means to this end, not an end itself.”

This epitomizes half of the trouble with the reading debate. Over and again the inference is that phonics proponents are so steeped in phonics promotion that they are not interested in reading for meaning. Phonics proponents are so interested in reading for meaning that they are dedicated to ensuring that all children are able to read the words on the page in the first place. Greater decoding ability enables greater comprehension. It does not guarantee comprehension, but guarantees a better chance that comprehension takes place and takes place accurately. It guarantees that the child is so fluent and automatic with decoding that full attention can be given to the comprehension processes close to the level of the child’s oral comprehension.

Brooks states at the bottom of p.1: “This report is intended to ensure that we shall be much further on [in another four years].” I maintain that until someone in great authority grasps the nettle about the damage from guessing words and memorising words as whole shapes, we shall not be much further on in another four years.

On p.2, Brooks states: “I endorse the NLS’s ongoing provision of materials and training to address these issues. (Issues raised about word-level objectives from Year R to Years 3 and 4 in the Ofsted report paras 49 – 52, para 57 and para 59.)” Does Brooks believe that the NLS provision of materials and training is as good as, better than, or inferior to phonics programmes such as Fast Phonics First, Phono-Graphix and Jolly Phonics? How is the NLS team measuring up in terms of being able to produce materials and training that is likely to lead to the most effective teaching based on evidence to date?

Does Brooks have full confidence in the NLS Early Literacy Support early intervention programme (ELS), the withdrawal of which has been called for by the Reading Reform Foundation? Is he aware of comparative studies of the various phonics programmes and the improved results at schools changing to the commercial phonics programmes, Fast Phonics First or Solity’s Early Reading Research compared to using the NLS programmes and training advice? What are the results of any comparative studies? How can we find out?

Brooks goes to some length to describe the process of all the report writing associated with the phonics seminar, the tos and fros, the amendments and revisions following discussions. Sadly, this process was confined to the invited speakers, the NLS team, the DfES and Greg Brooks. This denied some renowned analysts a good opportunity to contribute objective scrutiny and attention to detail of the reading debate in the public domain via the DfES website. [However, I have included the responses of Jennifer Chew and Professor Diane McGuinness to the original NLS phonics seminar paper on pages 17 and 18 of this RRF newsletter.]

On p.2, Brooks lists the issues known to have been raised by Ofsted including issue no. 8 “The evidence from the considerable amount of research that has been conducted in the UK since the NLS was introduced.” Brooks falls into a trap of his own making when he (facetiously?) follows this on p.3 by stating “Issue 8 can be similarly dealt with very swiftly: there has not been a considerable amount of relevant research in the UK since the NLS was introduced.”

Precisely! The RRF has long argued that the DfES and NLS team have made a mess of writing their programmes (on some of which we have provided detailed critiques in the RRF newsletters and in our correspondence to high places. See the following RRF newsletter references on the RRF website: no. 45, pages 6 and 18; no. 46, page 20; no. 47, page12; no.48, pages 15 and 32; no. 49, page 11). There has been a failure to base the NLS advice on reading research and a failure to research the effectiveness of the programmes themselves compared to other programmes and approaches.

And yet Ofsted has reacted publicly to this poor practice by the DfES. In October 2001 Ofsted stated in its report, ‘Teaching of Phonics: A Paper by HMI’ (ref. HMI 329):

“Those with the responsibility for the management of the strategy should:  

  • consider, in any revision to the NLS framework for teaching, the scope for raising expectations of the speed with which pupils can acquire and apply phonic knowledge and skills in the foundation stage and Key Stage 1
  • consider publishing criteria which schools might use to judge the extent to which commercial phonics schemes support the systematic teaching of phonic knowledge and skills”

The NLS managers have known for several years that results from synthetic phonics research (for example, the ‘Clackmannanshire’ project) and reputable synthetic phonics programmes were worthy of note, and yet clearly they have avoided transparent comparison with their NLS programmes at all costs.

I find this unacceptable in this day and age. What, for example, has Baroness Ashton done to address the situation after her admission to Lord Prior’s questions in the House of Lords in December 2001 (see RRF newsletter no. 48, p.17) that the Early Literacy Support programme was not scientifically tested? Did this not ring serious alarm bells for her? Did the Baroness ever investigate the exemplar synthetic schools as she promised?

What have the consecutive Ministers of Education done to address such failings and lack of accountability? Why has the Select Committee for Education and Skills not been prepared to investigate such a serious state of affairs?

This state of affairs is FAR from the case in Scotland where the Scottish Executive has insisted on pre- and post-testing of control and comparison groups for researchers to qualify for any funding.

One extremely important issue which Brooks does not even raise in his list of 17 is the intense criticism that the searchlights model has come under beyond Ofsted’s observations (issue no. 4: “The searchlight model….has not been effective enough, [para 58]”), that the model is widely manifested/interpreted, both directly and indirectly, as a range of reading strategies which promote guessing/predicting words from word shapes, picture, context and initial letter cues. These types of reading strategies are criticised in the reading research [see the statement taken from p.1 of Ehri’s paper]. Nowhere is this so evident as in the Early Literacy Support manual which is bereft of good phonics advice despite the fact that it is an early intervention programme.

Some time ago I received a letter from an HMI stating that “Ofsted does not approve of guessing”. I would suggest that if this is indeed the case, then Ofsted needs to make this publicly well-known, and the DfES needs to examine its role in promoting guessing through its programmes and ‘reading strategies’. What is David Bell’s position regarding this matter? What does Janet Brennan (HMI for phonics) promote?

I mentioned worries about the ELS programme several times at the DfES phonics seminar – in particular the fact that no-one in the DfES and NLS team would respond to the issues the RRF raised about this programme, and all the guessing which the NLS searchlights model and the NLS programmes promote generally. Clearly my protests were to no avail as there was no response during the seminar or in Brooks’s subsequent report of the seminar. Is this a deliberate ploy because some elements of the NLS are indefensible so it is safer to ignore the critics altogether? Or is it the case that Brooks and others are simply not knowledgeable about the contents of the ELS programme? Are they incapable or unwilling to argue the case for the ELS programme?

On p.3, Brooks writes “The phonics element of the NLS had other critics besides Ofsted. On one side were those who maintained that it did not take a strong enough line, while on the other were those who not only did not want phonics to have more prominence but wanted it rolled back – both groups were represented on 17 March. Typical of the former was Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation, who was quoted in the Times Educational Supplement of 15 November 2002 , p.9, as saying: ‘Synthetic phonics is the key to success in literacy in this country. The National Literacy Strategy has got it wrong all these years’ (Issue 7). No such handy quote is available from the opposing camp, but some Early Years experts are known to be sceptical of the drive to introduce children to formal literacy instruction, including phonics, at even younger ages, and few would want its introduction postponed (Issue 9).”

I was mystified to learn about this conflict at the seminar and wondered which ‘group’ apparently wanted phonics to be “rolled back”. I was also unhappy that an early introduction to phonics was being labelled as part of “the drive to introduce children to formal literacy instruction, including phonics, at even younger ages.” Take for example the Jolly Phonics’ multi-sensory, evidence-based approach which has revolutionised learning to read and spell in the past ten years with children aged 3+. Surely the success and enjoyment levels counter the fatuous idea that teaching specific information and skills, albeit at an early age, constitute ‘formal’ teaching? The formal/informal debate is an area which I do not choose to pursue in this article, but the RRF is not a group pushing for ‘formal’ education at even younger ages – just evidence-based, multi-sensory teaching and learning that children take thoroughly in their stride and which some teachers have described as ‘life-changing’ on their own behalf having been amazed by the children’s responses and the raised literacy levels resulting from a change of teaching approach.

What is relevant to the early years debate is the advice for early years teachers in the ‘Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage’. This is a government-generated manual where literacy advice for the 3 to 5 year olds is dominated by whole language, whole word memorisation, look-say and real books. Whilst there is some mention of learning letter/s-sound correspondences, the skill of sounding out and blending all-through-the-word (synthesising) is not made explicit. Foundation Stage children are, nevertheless, expected to start reading books, emulating the reading behaviour of the adults. Such guidance is inadequate, not based on science, and in danger of at least some children acquiring bad reading habits even before the age of 5. It certainly does not properly educate and inform the practitioners themselves about the science of early reading or the literacy debate. Therefore, what the children receive in the form of literacy in their early years settings is very much left up to chance and unlikely to be the best start unless practitioners take the initiative to use child-friendly synthetic phonics and to follow the programmes as the authors recommend – not as the government recommends in manuals such as the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage and Progression In Phonics.

Professor Brooks describes some “general principles” on p.6 and states that “There should no longer be any dispute that phonics is part of the main highway to success in literacy teaching.” He goes on to say “Phonics is necessary…but not sufficient”. Brooks argues this point saying “the insufficiency of phonics on its own is proved by the complexity of English orthography” and he estimates “that the spelling system of English is about 75% regular.” Does Brooks fully appreciate that children taught well by the Synthetic Phonics approach are so much more attentive to letter detail and order and irregularities than those with a background of looking at words as ‘wholes’ and who guess their way through text? I consider that the importance of phonics for reading and the importance of phonics for spelling is totally underestimated and misunderstood by those people steeped in the philosophy of the need for a ‘range of reading strategies’ and the belief in the need for an initial sight vocabulary. Over and again I realise that people just do not know how children can learn to decode and encode better at young ages when taught well by synthetic phonics teaching. I wondered just how many attendees at the seminar had actually visited good synthetic phonics schools and seen the knowledge and abilities of the children themselves and the superior results for both reading and spelling. I wondered how many of the seminar attendees had actually TAUGHT young children to read and spell based on synthetic phonics principles.

To me there IS no argument that “the insufficiency of phonics on its own” is “proved by the complexity of English orthography”. In any event, synthetic phonics teaching includes looking at the tricky part of irregular or unusual spellings. Phonics proponents do not argue that reading, or learning to read, is about “phonics on its own”. Such an idea is ludicrous. What we do argue is that:  

  • rigorous phonics teaching empowers the learner to decode efficiently and automatically including new/unknown words
  • rigorous phonics teaching empowers the learner to be more knowledgeable about spelling variations and irregularity of spellings, to pay more attention to the detail of spellings and improve spelling ability
  • rigorous phonics teaching empowers the learner to focus on content, comprehension and enjoyment of literature
  • rigorous phonics teaching leads to more accurate readers and writers
  • rigorous phonics teaching reduces the incidence and effects of dyslexia
  • rigorous phonics teaching leads to more confident children/adults and reduces the likelihood of children/adults becoming disaffected with education and society
  • rigorous phonics teaching reduces literacy special needs and improves literacy results helping to maximise children’s academic potential

If Brooks had visited good synthetic phonics schools he would surely not refer to children being required to do their own sounding out and blending as a “North Face of the Eiger attitude” (p.18). Does this illustrate Brooks’s lack of first hand observations of schools following this practice if he considers that it is the “hardest route”? How can it be that this “hardest route” appears to get the best results and raise test results and eliminate the gender gap in schools where they change to this method?

Based on Seymour et al’s findings “that English-speaking children take two to two and a half times as long to reach the same level of competence as children learning literacy in less complex languages with shallower orthographies”, Brooks gives several suggestions as to why the complexities of our language would justify the learning of an initial sight vocabulary. But Brooks’s arguments are not acceptable as they can be strongly countered by research which illustrates the dangers of children learning an initial sight vocabulary prior to learning the alphabetic code. On p.8 Brooks states “Though I know of no experimental evidence of the question, I support the teaching of a small initial sight vocabulary.” This is extraordinary! One could easily surmise that this is a diplomatic move to support the inexplicable summing up of Professor Hopkins at the seminar where, despite the testimony and criticism of the researchers, Hopkins concluded that the promotion of an initial sight vocabulary and the searchlight reading strategies would remain. Why do both professors continue to draw such ‘individual’ conclusions when purportedly leading a debate which is looking at scientific evidence and examining whether the National Literacy Strategy is consistent with that evidence unless some politics or prejudice has crept in? Are they in denial of the evidence that was not only put before them but is also readily accessible in the public domain through the internet.

There is evidence to show that learning an initial sight vocabulary is damaging to at least some children. Learning words as whole shapes from their squiggles (descenders, ascenders) or perhaps initial letter shapes and/or word length give children the entirely wrong message about how the reading and writing system works. Children can develop incorrect reading reflexes and engrained bad reading habits from the tender ages of 3, 4, 5 and 6. And our government materials and training are promoting this!

Significant extracts from Ehri’s seminar paper which illustrate the inadvisability of promoting an initial sight vocabulary and guessing words:

Professor Linnea Ehri herself, flown over from America to describe the findings of the National Reading Panel, writes on p.1 of her paper for the phonics seminar “People used to think that readers learned to read sight words by memorising their visual shapes. However, research has led us to reject this idea [my emphasis – DH]. Now we know that sight word learning depends upon the application of grapheme-phoneme correspondences. These provide the glue that holds the words in memory for quick reading (Ehri 1992)….Words remain poorly connected when readers habitually guess words from partial letters and contextual clues [my emphasis – DH] without analysing how all letters in spellings match up to phonemes in pronunciations (Ehri, & Saltmarsh, 1995; Stanovich, 1980).” Please note the dates of these research references.

On p.8 of her paper, Ehri writes “…when phonics instruction is introduced after students have already acquired some reading skill, it may be more difficult to step in and influence how they read, because it requires changing students’ habits. For example, to improve their accuracy, students may need to suppress the habit of guessing words based on context and minimal letter clues, to slow down, and to examine spellings of words more fully when they read them. Findings suggest that using phonics instruction to remediate reading problems may be harder than using phonics at the earliest point to prevent reading difficulties.”

Ehri’s comment above is fundamentally important in understanding the best way to teach reading and writing. The findings that she describes should be critical in influencing early reading and writing activities in pre-schools, schools and at mother’s knee. Brooks glosses over the debate re early years reading instruction giving attention only to the ‘age’ factor and the ‘how early to introduce phonics’ factor whilst ignoring the ‘could/will cause special needs/dyslexia’ factor. He displays a lack of attention to the proper detail required for a deep understanding of the reading debate and to the detail of the research presented at the phonics seminar and to the role of the NLS methods in handicapping a substantial number of children in acquiring desirable reading skills.

On p.9 of her paper, Ehri goes on to explain a different type of sight vocabulary from the one advocated by Brooks and Hopkins, one which develops AFTER the introduction of phonics: “Phonics programmes differ in how instruction is sequenced. Some teach children most of the letter-sounds before they learn to read any words, whereas others begin word reading and writing sooner. Once children have some alphabetic knowledge, they need to practise using it to read and write.” [This is a feature of Synthetic Phonics teaching – DH] “To read new words in or out of text, children need to be taught how to decode the words’ spellings. As they practise decoding the same words, connections between letters and sounds are formed for those words in memory and they become able to read those words by sight rather than by decoding. As students practise reading words, they become able to read them automatically. This makes text reading much easier and faster. Of course, learning to read words includes bonding spellings to meanings as well as pronunciations in memory so that word meanings are activated automatically during text reading.”

Another relevant part of Ehri’s paper to the UK debate relates to criticism that the RRF has levelled about the approach to teaching phonics of the National Literacy Strategy where phonics teaching is through separate ‘fun and games’ but is then nowhere to be seen in NLS training materials and manuals for subsequent text-reading activities. It is ironic that the NLS managers in their seminar paper attribute this lack of applying phonics to text reading to teachers’ failures rather than acknowledge it is a failure in the NLS training. [See page 43 of this newsletter for my comments regarding this matter.] Ehri writes on p.9; “A third approach that is less effective is to teach phonics as a separate subject unrelated to anything else students are taught during the day. For example, children might study letter-sound correspondences for 20 minutes every morning, and then move to reading and writing instruction that bears no connection to the phonics lessons. Research shows that students will not apply their alphabetic knowledge if they do not use it to read and write (Juel & Roper/Schneider, 1985). The best phonics programme is one that is deliberately integrated with reading and writing instruction.”

Progression In Phonics is an unrelated-to-reading-text phonics programme with very little synthetic phonics emphasis. The letter introduction ‘steps’ focus on consonants and not vowels (which Brooks discusses at length from p.15.) The searchlight reading model with the associated emphasis on guessing from picture, context and initial letter cues has ensured that any phonics learnt is far less likely to feature in the reading of actual text. The NLS promotion of real books and Book Bands books instead of phonics decodable books has also ensured that phonics knowledge and skills are demoted/not rehearsed compared to word shape memorisation and various other guessing strategies. The RRF has been writing about this in the RRF newsletters and in correspondence with considerable detail and frequency.

How can Hopkins and Brooks possibly justify the promotion of learning an initial sight vocabulary and endorse the searchlights reading model and the NLS programmes and materials with their ‘mix of methods’ approach having studied the research and heard the testimony and warnings of so many people? Did Brooks and Hopkins not read, or agree with, Ehri’s paper or the consensus of research? This epitomises the reading debate in England . So much of the reading instruction and advice of the National Literacy Strategy does not correspond with the conclusions of research on reading. Even when people such as those in the RRF can give example after example down to the smallest details of why, where, what and how the instructions are flawed – they are the opposite of what the science and classroom findings tell us – there is no recourse. How can this be right?

On p.9 of his paper, Brooks writes “Elley pointed out (p.58) that ‘Three of the six countries with the largest gender gap start reading instruction at age five – New Zealand, Trinidad and Tobago and Ireland.’ These were also three of the only four countries in the survey with a school starting age of five.” This was part of the argument that early starting ages lead to the gender gap. Brooks at this point does not consider the possibility that it might not be the starting age of formal (or let’s say ‘official’) education that was the factor creating the gender gap, but perhaps it was the whole language, look-say, real books beginning reading instruction prevalent in English-speaking countries which have played a significant role in the subsequent gender gap? [See Bonnie Macmillan’s highly relevant comments on this issue on pages 28 and 29 of this RRF newsletter.] Consider that currently in synthetic phonics schools with children starting as young as 4 and 5, there is no gender gap. Brooks himself points this out on p.10: “…I would argue that we must search for methods which accelerate the pace of learning once begun without leaving a (subgroup of) boys behind. Ruth Miskin and Alan Davies claim that their methods accelerate learning, as do advocates of Jolly Phonics, represented at the conference not only by its deviser, Sue Lloyd, but also by a presenter who has used it in her research, Morag Stuart (who has used it with children as young as 3). The greater pace in phonics teaching and learning which the NLS has successfully championed is having the same effect. But what about the gender gap? It is reduced in Jonathan Solity’s and in Key Stage 1 results (NLS paper p.12), there isn’t one in Morag Stuart’s, and in Rhona Johnston’s it’s reversed. If replicated, these results would suggest that we may be able to reduce or even eliminate the gender gap without necessarily beginning the teaching of reading of phonics earlier than Year R.”

What I find worrying is that Brooks brings up the debate about starting ages, indicates that starting ages might be a cause for the gender gap, speculates that phonics is good for boys because they “seem to thrive on technologies” whilst avoiding (?) any discussion about the much-written-about RETARDATION of boys’ literacy development (and other children’s) from the different ways one can teach reading. Furthermore, there is no conclusion about looking more closely at the more successful Johnston’s and Stuart’s research to identify exactly the detail of how the advice (not just the pace) differs from other methods and programmes INCLUDING the NLS. In effect, Brooks avoids any hint that the NLS materials themselves could be CAUSING the continued gender gap and yet isn’t this exactly what we should be looking at as the NLS is the prevailing method foisted on the teaching profession coupled with the understanding that Ofsted is expecting to see it in the schools?

Brooks puts forward definitions of analytic and synthetic phonics teaching starting at the bottom of p.10 and goes on to ask “Is the NLS’s approach to phonics analytic or synthetic?” (p.13). Brooks concludes “In terms of the definitions I have put forward earlier, the variety of phonics embodied in and advocated by the NLS is clearly synthetic, as the NLS paper claims (p.17).” Brooks then provides as evidence the passage from the NLS Framework for Teaching (1998, p.4) which is quoted in the NLS paper (p.5) reinforced by further description pp.5 and 11 of the NLS paper.

The RRF and others are very clear that the NLS is not a synthetic phonics approach. Far from it. The NLS refers to allowing teachers to use “Progression in Phonics – or equivalent programme.” So, we must examine which phonics programmes are “equivalent” to Progression in Phonics:

We are very clear that Jolly Phonics, Fast Phonics First, Sounds Discovery, c-a-t = cat (McNee), Phono-Graphix, rml (Ruth Miskin’s Literacy) and ERR (Early Reading Research) are NOT equivalent programmes. These programmes do not promote the learning of an initial sight vocabulary. They do not promote a range of reading strategies such as guessing/predicting from picture, context, or initial letter cues.

The NLS Early Literacy Support programme, which one would imagine would have included rigorous synthetic phonics, is bereft of good phonics teaching and is ‘whole language’ in nature. This is extraordinary. Guessing reading strategies predominate without a shadow of a doubt and this is NOT what the scientists would advocate for catch-up. Progression in Phonics itself was written in great haste in 1999 because the original NLS Framework for Teaching, written the previous year, was so blatantly flawed. PiPs was launched on the teaching profession untested and, quite frankly, bears no comparison to the commercial synthetic phonics programmes above which ARE based on the reading research.

Brooks claims on p.14: “…the NLS approach does advocate starting with single letters and is therefore a synthetic phonics programme in Sue Lloyd’s sense.” Now bear in mind that Sue Lloyd was never invited to the seminar as a speaker and therefore her paper “Synthetic Phonics – what is it?” did not qualify to be published along with the other speakers’ papers on the DfES standards site and was also not distributed to the attendees at the seminar. Lloyd’s paper outlines in detail why the NLS cannot be called a synthetic phonics approach. This can be accessed via the RRF website through the ‘newsletters’ page. It is published on p.25 of RRF newsletter no. 50.

As Lloyd goes to some lengths to describe why the NLS is not synthetic phonics, it is UNBELIEVABLE that Greg Brooks would then go on to write in his report that “…the NLS approach….is therefore a synthetic phonics programme in Sue Lloyd’s sense.”

In 1991, Kenneth Clarke, then Minister for Education, said in a radio interview “Successful teachers rely very heavily on phonics as a basic method”. Here we are in 2004 and we are still arguing about what role phonics has to play in literacy. Everyone may well be paying lip-service to the importance of phonics, but the truth is that the NLS is in the hands of people who have neither demonstrated the expertise or knowledge of research on how best to teach reading, including how to teach phonics, and who still promote reading strategies which confuse children and damage their reading skills – and deny that they do so.

We also have to question what is transpiring in the world of teacher-training. How many trainers have demonstrated an ability to question the NLS reading advice and materials and their relationship to science to date?  How many simply promote the NLS without question?

We are getting past the point where certain bodies can pass off their chosen advice to date by the expression the RRF has suggested before now, which is “…in the light of new evidence, (or Ofsted’s observations/advice) we are adjusting our advice to…..” I would argue that following this phonics seminar and report, the moment for using the above expression is fast disappearing.

It has to be considered that people are sticking to old prejudices and their personal beliefs about how to teach reading and/or saving face by modifying instructions slowly and painfully, and/or saving face for political and career reasons. Is there a lack of strong leadership in high places? Or alternately, is it SO strong that our evidence and common sense cannot break through those entrenched in their beliefs or those with vested interests?

Brooks makes quite a meal out of the order of letter introduction in PiPs. Good synthetic phonics schools introduce letter/s-sounds so quickly that it matters little what the order is as long as vowels are introduced ALONG WITH consonants to enable the reading and writing of words. Our complaint was that PiPs fails to introduce vowels along with consonants and fails to promote all-through-the-word blending and segmenting from the outset. Not only does PiPs delay putting to use the letters that are introduced, the emphasis on initial letter sounds, then final letters, then medial letters DELAYS the practice of all-through-the-word phonics but FURTHER PROMOTES the learning of words as whole shapes and gives the children entirely the wrong idea about how sounds and letters work.

When you add together the whole language emphasis in the ‘Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage’, the NLS promotion of an initial sight vocabulary, the guesswork reading strategies, the promotion of books based on look-say memorisation or real books where children are confronted with words and letters they have not yet learnt, you can see that any phonics teaching is confused, delayed and diluted. The children get nothing but mixed messages about how our reading and writing system works and they are given material to read which is beyond them. The teachers themselves also get mixed messages about how reading should be taught. It’s a mess.

It is a travesty that both Ofsted and the DfES continue to blame the headteachers and teachers for poor literacy results at the end of Key Stage 1 and 2, particularly for the boys. I would have thought that the messages the teachers receive from the NLS about how best to teach reading plays no small part in the state of illiteracy in this country!

On p.19, Brooks asks “What aspect of teacher knowledge might need improving?” (Issue 15). All aspects! The RRF  has long since maintained that the DfES has failed to inform teachers properly about the reading debate, the international research, the current research in the UK and the results of classroom findings such as those in Gloucestershire, and South Gloucestershire. There are even claims that the NLS is ‘based on research’ that the NLS team has failed to substantiate.

Whilst teachers should be aware of the International Phonetic Alphabet, personally I cannot see why they need to know it in great detail. Better to learn the detail of the phonics and orthography of the English language in order to be able to teach better.

Brooks does his best to examine and explain the searchlights reading model whilst commenting that Morag Stuart’s reading model need not be in conflict. However, from my experiences through receiving NLS training since 1998, I can describe how the searchlights reading model has become associated with the use of a range of reading strategies which promote guessing and this is contrary to the recommendations following research findings. I would suggest, therefore, that this whole issue needs clarifying further. Does the DfES continue to believe that children should learn to read through guessing from word shapes, picture, context and initial letter cues? YES OR NO?

Are the DfES, the NLS team and Ofsted in denial about the manifestation of those reading strategies which promote guessing as signified by the searchlights model –whether this is a ‘misinterpretation’ by teachers and trainers or not?

For example, in the latest NLS training programme ‘Guided Reading : supporting transition from KS1 to KS2’ brought out in June 2003 there is a training video which should be as infamous as the appalling ELS ‘Go-Karts’ video. In one clip poor David (Year 2) does his best at reading text clearly applying a ‘range of reading strategies’ including whole word recognition, guessing from initial letters, context etc. with some attempts at sounding out and blending. Teachers are trained to undertake a ‘miscue analysis’ which corresponds with the idea that we are looking for, that is wanting to see, a ‘range’ of strategies to identify unknown words. The training leads to the conclusion that David needs more phonics teaching as he is weak in this area.

The question is NOT asked as to whether David is weak in phonics because he is weak in phonics, or because his teacher is weak at teaching phonics, or because his teacher has been mistrained by previous NLS training and programmes in the teaching of reading and that is why she is weak at teaching phonics. Some people, like me, will recognise that the NLS is responsible for the way that David is reading and that both he, and his teacher, have been misled and let down by the NLS advice. David’s reading style is a product of the interpretation of the searchlight reading strategies and all the NLS training. Furthermore, the type of failings we see in David’s decoding style is frequently noted by educational psychologists and special needs teachers when analysing the problems of children with literacy special needs.

Progression in Phonics should not be re-written, it should be scrapped. Teachers, instead, should be treated as professionals and encouraged to develop professionally by following the debate and looking into the research. How many teachers, for example, will even get to read all the papers from the phonics seminar or are likely to be aware that it has taken place? If the government wants to play a major role in education, it should focus on informing teachers so that the teachers themselves can make informed choices.

I believe that a supplement to PiPs will be rolled out this spring. It is likely to include a change of the teaching steps so that vowels are introduced alongside consonants and it is likely to include the promotion of all-through-the-word blending replacing the current emphasis on initial letters, then final letters, then medial letters.

But consider this – the new supplement would only be promoting such phonics teaching advice twelve years after such advice appeared in the publication of the Jolly Phonics manual, ‘The Phonics Handbook’. BUT – ‘Progression in Phonics’ will STILL be part of an overall approach to reading which promotes learning words as wholes and guessing words from picture, context and initial letters. Therefore, it will still NOT be equivalent to the commercial synthetic phonics programmes. How much tax payers’ money will be squandered to produce this supplement for an inferior reading programme compared to those already out in the public domain? The DfES has made a mistake in publishing its own material as clearly this has led to complications when changes need to be made.

In conclusion, I totally disagree with Professors Hopkins and Brooks. I believe that a “major redirection of the phonics element of the NLS” is both necessary and appropriate. I would also suggest that if Professor Brooks and the NLS managers cannot even recognise that the NLS is a mixed methods/analytic approach and not a Synthetic Phonics approach, how can the DfES “carry out a systematic review and meta-analysis on the relative effectiveness of analytic vs synthetic phonics”?

The conclusions and recommendations on p.24 of Brooks’s paper are, in my mind, way off track. Here I reproduce those conclusions and recommendations and add my own comments:

Brooks’s conclusions and recommendations taken from p.24 of his report:

“My [Brooks’s] overall conclusions are that:  

-          as David Hopkins said in his summing-up at the conference, a major redirection of the phonics element of the NLS is neither necessary nor appropriate;  

-          but a number of revisions, and some focused research, are needed.  

To help guide those revisions and research, I make the following recommendations:  


Revisions of the NLS  

  1. Make it clear that, within the 100 most frequent words, only those that are irregular should be taught as sight words. [Arguably there are two main kinds of ‘sight words’ – pre and post phonics teaching. Brooks fails to distinguish the differences.-DH]
  1. Convene a focused debate between experts to design and mount research on

-          the need to differentiate phonics for reading and phonics for spelling

-          whether grapheme-phoneme translation and blending in reading should be taught with or without hearing the teacher say the word  

-          how much phonics needs to be taught.  

[Who is going to “convene a focused debate between experts to design and mount research” if this March DfES phonics seminar is an example of ‘debate’? Is this really the research necessary to move teaching forwards? Who was consulted about this?-DH]  

  1. Re-organise Steps 2-4 of the sequence for teaching phonics in accordance with the criteria of frequency, regularity and usefulness. 

[Yet more public money should not be wasted on revising Progression in Phonics. Who will be accountable for this weak and untested programme even with its ‘tweaks’? Just inform the teachers about the research and debate and then they can follow the ‘teaching principles’ with whatever programmes or materials that they decide.-DH]  

  1. Tidy up the phonetics.

[Fine, but this is a small detail in the scale of things.-DH]  

  1. Strengthen the explanations of the status and intended application of the searchlight model, adopt Morag Stuart’s model alongside it, and add a model of reading comprehension. 

[The DfES and NLS team have a responsibility to open their minds about the searchlights model representing and promoting guessing strategies which are NOT a substitute for the attention to efficient and automatic decoding. This is a huge unanswered issue and Brooks does not have the right answer.-DH]  

Focused research  

  1. Before starting phonics even earlier, check if current initiatives are reducing the gender gap in reading attainment.

[The DfES knows which initiatives are reducing the gender gap in reading attainment. It is teachers who need to know. The ‘starting age’ and ‘formal teaching’ issues are arguably red-herrings. The fundamental questions are: Which initiatives are reducing the gender gap the most and why? What prevents us from reducing or eradicating the gender gap? What is it that prevents the DfES from being transparent about this issue?-DH]

  1. Carry out a systematic review and meta-analysis on the relative effectiveness of analytic vs synthetic phonics.

[How can we do this under the DfES auspices? There is not yet a consensus about whether the NLS is analytic or synthetic or indeed what kind of programme it is in its entirety. To date, international conclusions have already been reached that synthetic phonics is more effective than analytic.-DH]  

  1. Research which letters and letter-sounds are most useful to beginners.

[We do not need research into which letters and sounds are most useful to beginners. We just need to include vowels along with consonants and promote all-through-the-word blending and segmenting.-DH]

  1. Investigate incorporating International Phonetic Alphabet training into initial and continuing teacher education. 

[The International Phonetic Alphabet is important generally, but does not need over-emphasising.-DH]  

And above all

  1. Move the debate on to researching and improving comprehension.”

[I have no argument with “researching and improving comprehension”.  The early reading/phonics debate, however, has not been PROPERLY addressed by the March DfES phonics seminar, or Brooks’s paper which is unsatisfactory, and it is a mistake to assume that “we need to move the debate on…”-DH]  

We have a long way to go before truly evidence-based reading instruction reaches all the teacher-training establishments and the teachers – and benefits the children in all the classrooms.  

Here are the fundamental questions:  

Does the NLS advice correspond with the research and classroom findings?

If not, why not, and what will be done about it?

Who is responsible for ensuring that this issue is transparently and honourably addressed?  

My Thoughts:  

The government undertook an enormous responsibility to develop a national literacy strategy which I am sure was an act of genuine concern for educational standards in this country. But what those in charge then failed to do was to go about such a project in a complete research-based and scientific manner. Having initially demonstrated some degree of social and educational concern, the Powers are not now demonstrating any responsibility or accountability for the lack of rigour in this exercise - nor demonstrating a true will to put things right. At this point we might surmise that we have witnessed historic influences in reading instruction, politics, diplomacy and incompetence - but at what point do we collectively and publicly question the ongoing whitewashing of this situation, ignoring the research and turning a blind eye to the actions of those in charge and the actual content and advice of the NLS programmes?  

Where is there any genuine concern for ordinary children and educational standards if obviously flawed national advice continues to persist? Woolliness in this debate will no longer do. It has gone on far too long. Someone has to ask these difficult questions and someone should be accountable for answering these difficult questions.




Copyright Notice
All rights, including copyright, in the content of these RRF web pages are owned or controlled for these purposes by the RRF. In accessing the RRF's web pages, you agree that you may only download the content for your own personal non-commercial use. You are not permitted to copy, broadcast, download, store (in any medium), transmit, show or play in public, adapt or change in any way the content of these RRF web pages for any other purpose whatsoever without the prior written permission of the RRF.
© Reading Reform Foundation 2010
Home  |   RRF Conferences  |   Resources / Articles  |   Newsletter Archive  |   About Us  |   Contact  |   Donate

Sites for Teachers