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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 51 back to contents
Raising standards The opportunities and difficulties

Keynote speech by Christopher Jolly, Managing Director of Jolly Learning Ltd

British Council conference, Brunei , Thursday 9th October 2003



Raising standards is what everyone wants, is it not?  In practice it is not so simple.  Experts have different views about what ‘raising standards’ means.  Creativity and expression may be thought to conflict with learning skills and facts.  There is a need to balance the limitations of time, and more especially of money.  We need to ask who should drive the raising of standards?  Should it be government through a specified curriculum, or to what extent should teachers be informed and given the decision making – and then be evaluated on their results?  What role for private education and the market place?  Chris Jolly will explore these conflicting issues in raising standards.  He will also look at it in more depth in his own field of publishing, the use of phonics to teach reading and writing, where differences of view have long been played out.  

What I want to discuss today is how raising standards is an opportunity, a challenge, but how there are difficulties at the same time.  I want to show the different points of view because it is only through understanding that we can make progress. Firstly, what are higher standards?  I suggest to you that they come in two forms, both of which are valid.  There are those that are quantitative and can be readily measured.  These tend to involve instruction, best of all in small stages, with skills that are acquired and can be tested.  An ability to spell would be an example.  The second, the qualitative, is more subjective and harder to measure.  It develops thinking ability and allows for personal differences.  An example might be the ability to write a good essay.  There was a somewhat chauvinistic claim that the Second World War was won on the playing fields of Eton , a posh private school in England .  What was actually being claimed was that the English education system gave better problem solving ability, with which to challenge the Germans well-known but perhaps rigid skills.  On a lighter note there is the proverb that “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”.  Again a reflection that education needs these two sides.  By extension, teaching needs a balance of both of these.  It needs the quantitative and the qualitative elements.  

Now to some people, raising standards in education is simply a matter of resources.  The more money we have the more teachers we can train, the smaller the class sizes, the more we can do for special needs, and so on.  I have to tell you that the effect of more resources is not a strong one.  Many a benefactor in the US has given vast sums to school districts only to find, after the money has been spent, that it has had little or no effect on standards.  Resources alone cannot double the achievement of children in the way other changes can.  In the UK and the US , both wealthy countries, still around a fifth to a quarter of adults are functionally illiterate.  In a recent study in the UK this applied to 22% of adults, and was defined as being unable to find a plumber in the yellow pages.  In 1992 in New Zealand , at the height of the whole language movement, 26% of children were going through Reading Recovery, a remedial programme.  

Let me turn now to the role of the state, of government.  To what extent should government intervene to raise standards, or are standards likely to improve best if responsibility is delegated to teachers and parents?  

Let’s look first at school ownership.  In most countries there is a large sector of state education, and a smaller private one.  Private schools will select their pupils, based on exam results and their parents’ ability to pay the fees.  In practice, state schools select too, usually by a tightly defined catchment area around the school.  The complaint is that private schools favour the middle class who can pay.  It is claimed they take away the better pupils and leave the state schools worse off as a result.   If this were true it would be the only case I am aware of where greater competition leads to lower standards.  The evidence shows the reverse.  Where there are more private schools in an area, the results for pupils in the state schools are higher.  To try and introduce the same disciplines to state schools there is a growing interest in vouchers.  These are already in use in certain parts of the US , such as Cleveland , Milwaukee and Florida .  The vouchers are typically given to poorer parents, and can be used to pay for education at any school, private or out of area, whatever the parent chooses.  The aim is to give parents more power over their child’s education and encourage schools to improve their standards as a result of more open competition.  

A superficial comparison of costs shows private school fees to be higher on average than the on-site costs of state schools.  However when the costs of district offices are included for state schools, the costs are much closer.  Private schools have long suffered from being seen as elitist in the UK , or for exploiting teachers in the US , and the number of private schools has not expanded in line with demand.  This may well have allowed private school fees to run ahead of costs, and explain the large building programmes some of them have.  The net effect is that the costs of state and private schooling are very similar, and do not explain the difference in achievement.   

Over the years of primary schooling, the average result achieved by private school pupils is more than 12 months ahead of state schools, even allowing for the different intakes.  It suggests that school ownership and funding are a promising area for raising standards.  

Let us now look at the role of the state in setting the curriculum and the structure of examinations.  Government is ideally placed to provide a well structured framework and to set a standard for all schools.  However, even here, we can question whether this enables the highest standards to be achieved.  

While having an established curriculum seems a good idea, problems come when there are several of them.  A curriculum can be radically rewritten, as with the UK National Curriculum in 1994, when there had been major criticisms of the previous one.  Any such revision still needs evaluating for its effectiveness.   

Worse still is when government suffers from curriculumitis and publishes new curricula when the old one is still in operation so that several conflicting ones are in operation at the same time!  This may seem a very odd situation but it is the one that applies in England and Wales at the moment.  Children in their first year at school, in Reception, are subject to the National Curriculum, the National Literacy Strategy which is similar but different, and the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, which is quite different: it is a muddle in other words.  

More serious for raising standards is whether the expectations of the state can match those of parents.  We know that expectations can have a strong influence on achievement.  In a study some years ago, researchers asked teachers in various schools to administer some standardised tests to their pupils.  When they got the test results back the researchers totally ignored them.  Instead they selected children’s names at random.  Then they went back into the classes and told the teachers that this child, this one, this, that and that child there, are what we call “specially talented”, and they will do really well.  Much later on, they came back to test the children, and lo and behold, these ‘specially talented’ children, chosen at random, had done better than average!  

The concern with government setting the curriculum is that their expectations are lower than the expectations of parents.  To give an example, three and a half year olds at a private nursery school in the UK are expected to be taught to read.  In state schools, for children a year later at aged four and a half, according to the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, the teaching of reading is not a high priority.  This suggests that any national curricula should be advisory at best.  

A related issue is that of the dumbing down of exams.  Secondary school exams in the UK have been made easier over the years.  The accusation is that this has been done so that pupils achieve higher grades to make it appear that standards are rising.  As a result there has been a growing interest in exams with international status, free from government interference, such as the International Baccalaureate, and the same could apply to the Cambridge Overseas exams.  

What now of the role of the teacher.  Is the teacher there to give instruction, or is the teacher just a facilitator, letting children discover for themselves?  Time and again we find that direct instruction produces much higher results, yet it is surprising how often government and academics seek to diminish this role.  Again, how much decision making should be delegated to teachers?  In the US it is surprising how much authority is taken from teachers.  The selection of a new programme, for maths say, or literacy, is entrusted to the assistant superintendent of the district, sometimes of the state.  If it doesn’t work it is not the teacher’s fault.  The assistant superintendent chose the wrong programme.  Publishers respond by making their programmes prescriptive, and have described them by the awful term of ‘teacher proof’.  The results do not suggest this is a way to raise standards.  In my experience, with our published material, the more that the teacher personalises the way they use our material the better the results they get.  Delegation to teachers really does raise standards.  

As a further insight, let me show you this list of factors which might tell you how well a child will learn to read:  

Phoneme segmentation ability (eg. What sound is at the beginning of “smile”?)

Letter names

Kindergarten teacher’s prediction of reading success

Peabody Picture Vocabulary (a measure of oral vocabulary)

Father’s occupational status (as a measure of social class)

Library membership (ie. Whether the child already has a library card)

Number of books the child owns

Amount that parents read to their child

Child’s gender

Amount that parents read in their spare time

Whether or not the child attended pre-school

Hours of TV the child watches  

Could you select the two factors that you think would best predict a child’s future ability to learn to read when they start school?   Let me tell you that this was a study done on 500 Australian children.  Common choices when I ask people have been the father’s occupation and the amount that parents read to their child.   

Would it surprise you to know that the answer is that these factors are in rank order?  Not only that, but the first two were much the best predictors.  Knowing the letters and their use in words is the best start to learning to read.  And these are factors that are taught at school.  It is one example to show that what children learn at school matters much more than the background from which they come.  

I am the publisher of a programme for teaching young children to read, called Jolly Phonics.  So I am biased in favour of phonics!  Having said that, let me give you a comparison of phonics and whole language.   

Phonics teaches all the letter sounds of English, of which there are about 44.  These are the alphabet and some sounds like sh and ee that need two letters to be written, and so are called digraphs.  To read a word the child sounds out the letter sounds and then blends them to say the word.  So the letters s-a-t are blended to make ‘sat’.  For spelling it is the reverse.  The word ‘sat’ is broken into ‘sss’ and ‘a’ and ‘t’, and each of these letters is then written down.  Since English has so many irregular words you also need a strategy for dealing with them too.  This teaching is also called synthetic phonics to distinguish it from watered down versions.  Synthesis means to build from parts, and in this case reading the word is made by building it from each of its letter sounds.  

Whole language on the other hand believes that learning to read is a natural process, just like learning to speak.  It comes from exposure.  In practice of course it does not!  If you went into the middle of Borneo you would find that everyone could speak but few could read.  Whole language, they say, introduces children to the delight and variety of storybooks.  If children are motivated and given lots of exposure to books they will pick it up.  Effectively whole language children are being asked to memorise the dictionary!   

To help understand the differences in approach look at how each method sees itself.  Phonics advocates rightly point to higher achievements and see whole language advocates as totally misguided.  Whole language advocates on the other hand see phonics as dull and boring, to be done as little as possible. Admittedly some phonics programmes are on the dry side.  Phonics, they say, misses the point that children should be reading for meaning, not just shouting out words they do not understand.  

In practice there is a dramatic difference in achievement.  Phonics taught children have a reading age that is typically a year ahead of their actual age after one year.  They have done two years learning in one year.  Every bit as important is that fewer children fail.  The proportion of children reading significantly below their age is less than 5%.  In fact it is common to have no children in such a class needing remedial help.  Interestingly the groups of children who have historically underachieved no longer do so.  Boys do as well as girls and children on free school meals or some form of welfare, as a measure of social class, do as well as the others.  Children with English as a second language also do much the same as the others.  This evidence for the effect of phonics comes from studies done on a number of different phonics programmes, though it is true that most of them have been on Jolly Phonics.  

Whole language children do very much worse and the love of reading that is claimed is not seen in practice.  It is a characteristic of such teaching that a quarter of the children are left unable to read effectively.  The only help for such children is an expensive remedial programme which is usually not given the funding to tackle more than a small part of the problem.  

This conflict in the teaching of reading has only come into the open in the last 30 years or so.  Up to around 1970 reading was mainly taught by teaching the alphabet alongside graded readers with stories of “the cat sat on the mat” variety.  Spelling was mainly taught by memorisation from spelling lists.  

Then people started saying that you do not need to do all that.  Reading is natural and can be learned just by reading.  Phonics was rejected and teachers were given the freedom to select any children’s books they fancied.  It was some while before the tragedy of this became apparent.  The people to blow the whistle, in very different ways, were Martin Turner in the UK , and Marilyn Jager Adams in the US .  Martin Turner was then an educational psychologist working for a local education authority in the UK .  He could see the problem at first hand.  He also knew how explosive it was.  He met with educational psychologists from 12 other areas and compared data.  What they saw was that reading standards in the UK had fallen over the course of the 1980s.  Their data indicated that this was directly due to the whole language method of teaching reading.  Martin Turner published this as a booklet called ‘Sponsored Reading Failure’.  Sponsored, because he and his colleagues felt the failure had been sponsored by the state in championing whole language.  It caused a huge uproar in the press.  Martin himself was surprised that even though there was the first Iraq war in progress at the time, the reading debate never seemed to be off the front page.  It led to a parliamentary inquiry and ultimately to the revision of the National Curriculum.  Needless to say he also lost his job pretty quickly.  

Marilyn Jager Adams wrote a definitive book on the research into reading.  Despite coming to it with an open mind she found the evidence in favour of phonics was overwhelming.  The brief from the publishing university was to be impartial and when they saw her script two professors demanded the right to add an Afterword to her book.  We often see books with a complimentary forward, but this is the only example I know of with a critical afterword.  They didn’t question her scholarship, they said, only her conclusions.  This is a reflection of the deep divisions that have existed in the reading debate.   

In England the National Curriculum was rewritten in 1994 and I will show you a brief comparison to illustrate the difference.  The teaching of reading was a major part of the UK general election in 1997.  It led to the National Literacy Strategy being published the following year.  It was led until recently by our previous speaker, John Stannard.  Teachers appreciate this Literacy Strategy and they like the structure it provides.  More recently, in 2000, we have had the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, which has been a reaction against structured teaching.  It shows that you can go backwards as well as forwards in this debate.  As I explained earlier, all three of these curricula are in operation in England and Wales at the moment, for children in their first year at school.  

As a final example there is the legislation passed by George Bush in the US entitled ‘No Child Left Behind’.  Although I am not in favour of legislation in teaching methodology, the advice given, in my view, is good, and I will mention it again shortly.  

Let me demonstrate the kind of advice given in these documents.  In the earlier, 1990 order of the National Curriculum was the requirement that:  

“Pupils should be able to show signs of a developing interest in reading”.  Well, that is not very demanding!  Any teacher could pass that hurdle, and parents would be looking for much more from their child at the end of the first year.  In 1994 this was revised to the much more positive:  

“Opportunities should be given for identifying and using a comprehensive range of letters, blends and digraphs, and paying specific attention to their use in the formation of words.”  

You can see the difference.  This second statement does express what is needed to achieve good results in the early teaching of reading.  Moreover, if you trace the results of 5 year old children in the years up to 1994 you can see a major improvement in their reading scores at age 11.  The National Literacy Strategy is similar to the National Curriculum, but the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage is very different.  This is from its training manual:  

“You can help children to learn numbers and rhymes or to recite the alphabet by heart.  This rote learning can be helpful to children but it should be recognised as a lower level of learning.  The most important learning involves children having an idea and testing it out.”  

So here we are back at the child as discoverer with direct instruction being played down.  You will notice the slightly underhand use of language.  Instead of learning letter sounds in a lively way, which is commonly done, it is described as ‘to recite the alphabet by heart’, which is described as ‘rote learning’ and a ‘lower level of learning’.  Who dreamed that up?  A lower level of learning!  There is no evidence for such a statement.  It has to be said that since this guidance came out in the year 2000 reading scores have stagnated in England and Wales with 25% of 11 year olds failing to read effectively.  This curriculum advice does not apply at that age, but my view is that the advice given sets the tone as the government’s most recent advice on the teaching of reading.  As I mentioned before, if there is a reading war, it is never won.  You have to keep fighting the advice that would let standards fall.  

I mentioned the legislation in the US.  This simply requires schools to adopt ‘scientifically based’ ways to teach reading.  This is mature.  It puts the requirement on teachers and schools.  It does not spoon feed them, but tells them to use methods which are known to work.  It has been taken as a victory for phonics and it should significantly raise standards.  

Now you will remember that I made a case to you for the quantitative and qualitative sides of teaching, the skills and the creative.  But you will have seen that phonics is very skills based.  So where does the creative come in?  Let me give you this model which guides my company.  We see phonics as the foundation, and yes it is the development of skills.  We then see literacy as having two strands, a skills one which is about phonics and grammar and spelling, and a creative one, which is about storybooks.  Let me give you a Confucian proverb, if I may.  It is this.  If a person have two pennies with one let him buy bread and with the other a flower.  The bread to give life and the flower a reason for living.  Phonics and grammar are like bread; they give the ability.  Storybooks are like the flower; they give the reason for learning to read.  The conclusion I offer you is that we need both the quantitative and the qualitative elements in education, and some understanding of how best to integrate them to get the best results.  

To finish, let me ask you a question?  Can standards keep on rising, or are we in a static situation, just trying to keep them as high as we can?  Economic productivity keeps on rising.  Can it do the same in education?  If educational productivity is to keep on rising, as I believe it can and must, then change needs to take place.  Let me give you an example of such a change that I believe can and should come.  Not today, not tomorrow, but probably this century.  

Here is a list of English words which are spelt with more letters than they need.  Indeed the extra letter in them is just confusing for young children learning to read:   


friend                frend    as in trend

guard                gard     as in hard

were                 wer      as in her

wrong               rong     as in long

lamb                 lam       as in ham

guest                gest      as in best

guide                gide      as in ride

height               hight     as in light

court                cort      as in fort

are                   ar         as in car

gone                 gon       as in on

shone               shon     as in on

knock               nock     as in sock

doubt               dout     as in out

drought            drout    as in trout

juice                 juce      as in spruce

switch               swich    as in rich

thumb               thum     as in sum

thread               thred    as in red

head                 hed       as in red

meant               ment     as in tent

earth                 erth      as in berth

more                mor      as in for

board               bord     as in cord  

Normally the ‘ie’ spelling in the word ‘friend’ would be sounded /ie/ as in ‘lie and ‘tie’.  But the word is not ‘frie-nd’.  To spell it that way confuses children and means they have to learn it specially.  There are huge numbers of such words which just make the teaching slower, as well as making words longer, unnecessarily, for adults.  

If spelling were reformed, and it should go much further than these examples, then learning to read would be much swifter.  So the conclusion I offer you, from this example, is that standards could indeed continue to rise, but it may involve society as a whole, to enable the teacher to achieve more.



Editor’s comment: Chris Jolly touches upon many interesting and important aspects of education and offers much food for thought. I consider Chris to be visionary. Being a teacher of young children myself, I can say that to teach reading and writing with a much simpler spelling system would indeed make an enormous difference for children across the world who are struggling to learn the English language. The benefits of this vision would be so great that a brief comment here cannot begin to do justice to the potential transformation for so many in educational terms and life chances.


However, the RRF must focus on getting good evidence-based teaching of English into our schools as the spelling system currently exists. I have tried to play my part in this challenge. To the best of my ability, I have endeavoured to cover as many angles of the reading debate as I could, frequently focusing on the English scene - such are the worries about the reading instruction advice of the National Literacy Strategy. The way to raise literacy levels urgently and significantly in this country lies in the hands of those afforded the clout and the authority. Who in the educational and political domain will do it?




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