Two things happened early in 2005 which may be of significance for the reading debate in Britain. One was the completion, on 7 February, of a series of hearings on ‘Teaching children to read’ by the parliamentary Education and Skills Select Committee. I attended two of the three public hearings just to listen in, and was also involved in a private seminar on 26 January. The other event was the publication, just four days after the final Select Committee hearing, of Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson’s ‘The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: A seven-year longitudinal study’. This study was published by the Scottish Executive Education Department (SEED), and is the culmination of work which we first heard about in the 1998 Interchange 57 report ‘Accelerating reading attainment: The effectiveness of synthetic phonics’, published by the Scottish Office Education and Industry Department. It is the work which we have all been referring to for years as ‘the Clackmannanshire study’. Clackmannanshire may be the ‘wee county’, but it has made a deservedly big impact. The study received good media coverage in Britain and was apparently mentioned even in New York newspapers.
It seems appropriate to devote much of this Newsletter to the Select Committee hearings and to the Clackmannanshire study, though other items also reinforce the message about the effectiveness of synthetic phonics. We now await the report of the Select Committee. As far as the RRF is concerned, the evidence from Clackmannanshire and elsewhere already indicates that better results are being achieved in schools where children are started off on pure synthetic phonics than in schools using the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) multi-cueing searchlights model, but if the Select Committee is not yet convinced, we hope that its members will at least see that a proper comparison is needed. Unfortunately this will take time, but testing simple context-free decoding at the end of Reception in matched synthetic phonics schools and pure NLS schools would be a quick step in the right direction.
It is worth stressing again that the essence of ‘synthetic’ phonics is its great emphasis on synthesising (‘putting together’ or ‘blending’): beginners are taught to read all words they encounter by producing sounds for the letters and blending those sounds. This means that they must be quick and automatic at producing sounds for letters and that the words they are asked to read, for at least the first few weeks, should embody only the letter-sound correspondences taught to date. This may sound narrow, but it is surely not unreasonable, given that many of these children have not yet turned five when they start school and that this approach is strongly supported by research.
The NLS approach, by contrast, has beginners ‘reading’ books from the start, identifying some words by sounding out and blending but (arguably) identifying many more by using context, sight-word recognition, grammar and even pictures. The NLS’s commitment to teaching children to use all these cues was reiterated by the Director of the Primary National Strategy when he appeared before the Select Committee on 8 December. In view of this, the RRF feels justified in continuing to maintain that the NLS approach is markedly different from genuine synthetic phonics. We believe that synthetic phonics is better by a considerable margin, but we shall stand corrected if firm evidence emerges to the contrary. If such evidence does not emerge, we shall continue to advocate synthetic phonics as the approach which is not only the most child-friendly for beginners but which also produces the best short- and long-term results.
The Select Committee transcripts and the Clackmannanshire study are both lengthy. My summaries are therefore very selective, and my selection inevitably reflects my own view of what is important. Full transcripts of the Select Committee public hearings are available at http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmeduski.htm#uncorr, and the full Johnston and Watson study can be found at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/sptrs-00.asp.