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

RRF Newsletter 51 back to contents
..... the last word.Debbie Hepplewhite

…and the last word is on the NLS managers’ claim that issues of improvement are to do with the implementation, not the design, of the National Literacy Strategy…and clear signs from Hopkins and Brooks that any future changes will still leave the NLS as a ‘mix of methods’, not a synthetic phonics approach…  

Extract from the NLS seminar paper ‘Teaching phonics in the National Literacy Strategy’ (2003): “It is the contention of this paper that the design of the NLS is broadly correct and that the issues of improvement are more to do with its implementation than its design.” [p.1]

“However, even where the NLS or another phonics programme is in place, too many teachers under-emphasise the application of phonics in the teaching of continuous reading. This has two important consequences. Firstly, it fails to consolidate and practise phonics learning; secondly it tends to teach children to be over-reliant on non-phonic strategies. This inhibits fluency and thus progress. This is a significant issue for the NLS. As well as the weaknesses in the direct teaching of phonics, a number of teachers have failed to grasp the importance of applying it effectively in shared and guided reading. There is a tendency for some teachers to direct children away from the phonics searchlight in the first instance and only to use it as a last resort.” [p.14]  

Hepplewhite says, “Such a claim and such blaming the teachers defy belief.” The tendency of teachers to teach as described above in the NLS paper is a direct consequence of the NLS training and programmes. The RRF has drawn attention to numerous examples of flawed training and advice through its newsletters and correspondence. For instance:- the reading text example on the Progression in Phonics CD Rom shows a girl attempt to sound out ‘s-o-f-t’ but the adult says ‘What would make sense?’ and does not reinforce nor require the blending process (synthesising). The infamous ‘Go-Karts’ ELS training video for guided reading in a reception class is entirely a whole language approach with no blending to be seen. In the Early Literacy Support training manual for Y1 teachers and teaching assistants it gives the following (typical) instructions for teaching children to read; “Shared reading: *work out an unfamiliar word based on the pictures and context of the sentence; *re-read sentence with suggested word: Does it sound right in this sentence? *cross-check suggested word by looking at initial letter: Does the word that you suggested start with this letter?” Does this rigmarole bear any resemblance to the promotion and application of synthetic phonics teaching for reading text? These instructions for teachers and assistants correspond with half way through Year 1 – the children have not yet been told to sound out and blend all-through-the-word for reading at this point in the Early Literacy Support programme. Instead teachers are told to use the guessing range of reading strategies (which are frequently associated with the searchlights model) and children are expected to remember whole words for reading and spelling by sight recognition. If teachers are not emphasising “the application of phonics in the teaching of continuous reading”, then it is highly likely that the NLS itself has led to such a consequence. This is a significant issue for the RRF.  

Extract from Professor Brooks’s report of the DfES phonics seminar: “Though I know of no experimental evidence of the question, I support the teaching of a small initial sight vocabulary.”  

Extracts from Professor Ehri’s paper for the DfES phonics seminar: “People used to think that readers learned to read sight words by memorising words by their visual shapes. However, research has led us to reject this idea. Now we know that sight word learning depends upon the application of grapheme-phoneme correspondences.” [p.1]

“…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….students may need to suppress the habit of guessing words based on context and minimal letter clues…” [p.8]  

According to Professor Brooks and Professor Hopkins, learning words as an initial sight vocabulary continues to be recommended (though Brooks says he knows “of no experimental evidence” to support this) and according to the Professors, the DfES and the NLS managers, a range of reading strategies (variously described in different NLS programmes but which clearly promote the “habit of guessing” warned about in research conclusions) continues to be recommended for the teaching of reading.  

So…the teaching of reading remains a contentious issue, but a most worrying factor is the continuing denial and whitewash of what the NLS programmes and training ACTUALLY promote compared to the advice that the NLS managers believe, or say, that they promote. Who will address this?  

The RRF continues to maintain that the research on reading instruction points to the need for Synthetic Phonics teaching, and the NLS continues to claim it is “a synthetic phonics programme”. In reality the NLS promotes something quite different….  

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