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

RRF Newsletter 54 back to contents
The Johnston and Watson Clackmannanshire Research: ‘The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment: A Seven Year Longitudinal Study’

As stated above, this study was published on 11 February, four days after the final Select Committee hearing. The authors are Prof. Rhona Johnston (University of Hull) and Dr Joyce Watson (University of St Andrews). RRF readers will no doubt be familiar with previous findings. The new element is the findings relating to the performance of children at the end of their primary schooling.

As a reminder: The study had started seven years previously, with experimental and control groups, each spread over several schools. The experimental groups were given 16 weeks of intensive synthetic phonics teaching, starting after the first month of school. During those 16 weeks, the control groups were given the more analytic type of phonics teaching which is typically found in Scottish schools, where some sight-word learning precedes letter-sound teaching and the emphasis is at first only on initial letters and sounds. One control group also received ‘systematic phonemic awareness teaching without reference to print’. This was done to test the theory that discrete phonological awareness training is important. After the first 16 weeks, the experimental groups were reading and spelling so much better than the control groups that it was considered unethical to withhold the synthetic phonics programme from the control groups, so they received it in their second 16 weeks at school. From then on, it was impossible to maintain separate experimental and control groups.

At the end of their primary schooling, the children who had had synthetic phonics either in the first 16 weeks or the second 16 weeks were 3 years 6 months above chronological age in word-reading ability, 1 year 8 months above chronological age in spelling ability, and 3.5 months above chronological age in comprehension ability. The comprehension score may look a little disappointing, but the researchers point out that the children were from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds, that their receptive vocabulary score was below average (they had an average standard score of 93, as compared with a national average of 100), and that comprehension scores are more difficult to raise than word-reading scores.

Boys generally did as well as or better than girls. Children from disadvantaged homes did as well as others in reading and spelling until Primary 7 (the equivalent of Year 6 in England), and even in Primary 7 their word-reading lag was only ‘marginally significant’. Relatively few children were reading and spelling more than two years below chronological age, which is a frequently-used criterion of under-achievement. A fascinating case study is given of ‘AF’, who was given extra help because of severe problems, and who ended up with a word-reading age 9 months above his chronological age.

Teachers were very positive about the programme. They felt that ‘reading, spelling and writing skills had been greatly accelerated by the programme’ and that they were able to detect children needing learning support much earlier.

It is impossible to do justice to the Clackmannanshire research in a short space, and readers are strongly recommended to read the full study at

Media Coverage of the Clackmannanshire Study

Friday 11 February

BBC1 News at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. The head teacher at Menstrie Primary School, Ronnie O’Grady, was interviewed, and said, ‘I’m delighted with the results, because in 35 years of teaching I’ve never seen children so enthusiastic and such success being sustained right through to the 11- and 12-year-olds at the top of the school.’ ‘But,’ said the presenter, ‘officials in England deny they’re using the wrong strategy. Like at this school in London, they recommend a range of approaches to learning to read, arguing different strategies work for different children.’

We then saw Sue Hayward, head teacher of Sir John Lillie Primary School, saying, ‘We’re not locked into any strategy whatsoever. We will use absolutely anything to encourage our children to read and to be interested in printed words and to use that language, whether it be building the words up from picture-cues and flashcards, or building the words up using individual letter-sounds and putting them together and blending the sounds together.’ This commitment to eclecticism surely remains very common among teachers – understandably, because it is what seems to be encouraged by the NLS. Certain questions need to be answered, however: Are these methods producing children who, by the age of eleven, have word-reading skills more than three years above chronological age on average and spelling skills nearly two years above chronological age? Have schools teaching in this way reduced the long tail of under-achievement as much as it has been reduced in Clackmannanshire? If so, well and good. If not, why not?

Radio 4, ‘PM’ programme. The interviewer’s introduction mentioned the fast pace of synthetic phonics and the fact that children were taught to blend all through the word. Rhona Johnston said that just a few letter-sounds were taught at first (e.g. /a/, /t/, /p/) and that children were immediately taught how to read words by blending, with magnetic letters being pushed together to reinforce the point. The method has a particularly large effect in areas of deprivation. Nick Gibb, a Conservative Member of Parliament who is a member of the Education and Skills Select Committee, confirmed that the approach was getting very good results, and compared it with the NLS’s way of getting children to guess at words using pictures and story context: ‘This is no way to teach children to read, which is why we have such a long tail of under-achievement in literacy in this country...The Government needs to refocus the National Literacy Strategy so that it has synthetic phonics at its core, and we also need to change the way teachers are taught to teach in the teacher-training colleges, because that’s where the problem begins.’

The interviewer quoted part of a statement issued by the Education Department: ‘Schools are already adopting this approach. The National Literacy Strategy...has from the start promoted a model for teaching which places a clear emphasis on instruction in phonics, but complements this with the teaching of other reading strategies such as word-recognition, graphic knowledge and grammatical and contextual knowledge.’ Nick Gibb said that there was actually ‘only a small amount of synthetic phonics, and it’s these other methods that confuse children, asking them to guess words in the context of a picture or a story. Now this study [Clackmannanshire] actually tested the synthetic phonics method against the National Literacy Strategy type of method of teaching reading, and it found that by the age of eleven children taught synthetic phonics were three and a half years ahead in their reading age.’ They were reading at 14+-year-old level despite the fact that they were below average in vocabulary – if they had been taught the NLS way they would have had a reading age of only eleven.

Mr Gibb concluded, ‘This is a staggeringly better way of teaching reading. This study has been around for a long time, and it is a disgrace that those in charge of the National Literacy Strategy are putting out misleading statements like that, and they haven’t used this research to change the way our children are taught to read.’

BBC2, ‘Newsnight’. About ten minutes were devoted to synthetic phonics. Gavin Esler started by mentioning the Clackmannanshire study, saying, ‘The results of the study seem so convincing that we wondered why synthetic phonics is not at the core of every reading programme in Britain.’

Rhona Johnston: ‘Instead of the results trailing away, which quite often happens in these intervention studies, in fact the effects have got much larger, and when we tested last summer, we found the children reading 42 months ahead of chronological age, and that’s up from 7 months in their first year at school.’

The head teacher of Elmhurst School, which has started using Ruth Miskin’s programme, spoke eloquently of children’s ability to read unfamiliar words by blending, and of their increased confidence and self-esteem. This is a large inner-city school in which 95% of children have English as an additional language, 40-45% are on free school meals, many children are from refugee backgrounds and there is high mobility. But the school does not make any of these factors an excuse for the children not learning to read. We saw a delightful clip of a little girl being asked by the interviewer how she had read the word ‘sent’: ‘Fred Talk’, she replied. (See pages 15 and 17 of Ruth Miskin’s article in this Newsletter.) ‘Fred Talk? How does that go?’, asked the interviewer. The child sounded out, ‘/s/ - /e/ - /n/ - /t/ – sent’.

The presenter reported that the number of 11-year-olds reaching the required standard nationally was now up to 78%, ‘but a significant proportion are going on to secondary school either struggling or completely unable to read’. The National Literacy Strategy ‘tries to equip children with lots of what it calls “searchlights” to illuminate the text. Children are told to try using not just phonics to discover an unfamiliar word but also its context (what the words around it mean, the shape of the word, and other clues like pictures.’ Rhona Johnston: ‘These approaches actually conflict. What should a child do when it comes across a word it doesn’t know? Should it be trying to sound and blend it? Should it be guessing from context? Should it be looking at pictures for clues? Synthetic phonics is very clear on that: faced with an unfamiliar word, the child should try to sound and blend it.’ Presenter: the NLS people ‘still say that giving children many ways of accessing a text is better than giving them just one way’.

There was then a brief interview with Kevan Collins, Director of the Primary National Strategy. ‘Children become confused, in my view, when they can’t make the right choices, when they can’t determine which is the right strategy to use...Now I want the children to believe themselves to be confident and effective readers, and they’re trying all sorts of things, because the children are active learners. When they’re in the classroom, I can control some of the texts that they get, but I think children become confused not because they’ve got too much but when they don’t know which strategy to select.’ [This point about children being ‘confused’ seemed to be the same as one made by Rhona Johnston, but she was critical of this aspect of the NLS whereas Kevan Collins seemed to be defending it. Is there evidence that children can usually determine which of the NLS searchlights strategies to use and thus avoid confusion?]

We then had a clip of Debbie Hepplewhite. ‘At one stage in the history of the teaching of reading there was something called phonicsphobia, where people just associated phonics with deadly dull drill and kill. In actual fact, the good synthetic phonics programmes are the furthest thing away from deadly dull drill and kill that you can imagine, and the children love them. And because it is researched, and because it is appropriate for little children, they are empowered by this method to read very early, and they’re very thrilled by it.’ [It was good to have this point about children’s enjoyment being made, and it linked in well with the comments made by the heads of Menstrie and Elmhurst schools. People need to realise that synthetic phonics, far from being a killjoy approach, actually produces children who are happy, fulfilled and confident.]

Gavin Esler finished by announcing, ‘On the day the Prime Minister unveiled, as one of his new pledges, “Your child achieving more”, we naturally wanted an education minister in London or someone from OFSTED to talk about the phonics report, but unfortunately they refused our invitation.’

Saturday 12 February

The Daily Telegraph. There were two articles, both by Liz Lightfoot. The first gave factual information about the Clackmannanshire study and included pictures of Reception children at St Michael’s School, Stoke Gifford, which uses Jolly Phonics and Sound Discovery (see Marlynne Grant’s article in Newsletter 52). Chris Woodhead, former Chief Inspector of Schools, was mentioned as having strongly advised a synthetic phonics strategy when the literacy hour was being planned in 1997 but as having been overruled. ‘It was the message I tried to get across, but David Blunkett and Prof. Michael Barber [in charge of bringing in the strategy] refused to listen and relied on the wisdom of the so-called experts who had been responsible for reading failure in the first place.’ [Alas, too true!]

The other article was a touching account of the experience which Liz Lightfoot’s twins, John and Jamie, had when they started school in 1997 and were taught by whole-word and whole-language methods. She could see that this was not working well and resorted to teaching them herself, using Jolly Phonics. Their school, however, continued to use non-phonic methods, and John became discouraged when told off by his teacher for ‘relying too heavily on phonics to decipher new words’. Jamie, however, was much more willing to persist with phonics, and ‘it gave him an advantage in English which he held over his brother for the rest of their time in primary school’.

The Times. An article by Gillian Harris and Tony Halpin gave good factual coverage to the Clackmannanshire study, mentioning that ‘the technique was also backed by Peter Peacock, the Scottish Education Minister, who said that he wanted schools across the country to consider adopting the synthetic phonics method’. In addition, there was an excellent leading article, explaining that whereas synthetic phonics ‘teaches children the building block sounds made by letters or groups of letters which make up words’, analytic phonics ‘encourages children to recognise whole words from the start, to use grammatical structure to identify words, and to guess words from their context’. The article concluded, ‘But to plunge them straight into the deep end is expecting them to swim before they can paddle, or solve equations before they have learnt their tables. Reading is one of the greatest human pleasures and most important skills. So listen carefully to the words being pronounced by the wise teachers of Clackmannanshire.’

Sunday 20 February

The Mail on Sunday. The columnist Peter Hitchens referred to the research which ‘showed that what is nowadays known as “synthetic phonics” is hugely more effective than the so-called “mixture of methods” used in the Government’s laughable National Literacy Strategy’. Hitchens was one of the few journalists not to say that what is now called ‘synthetic’ phonics is new and pioneering: it had been known about since the nineteenth century and was in effect recommended in Rudolph Flesch’s 1955 book Why Johnny Can’t Read. He mentioned that even the new Clackmannanshire report ‘was, in fact, a follow-up of work done five years ago which showed exactly the same thing’. ‘So why is this Government, which pretends to be so worried about education, flatly ignoring more than a century of experience combined with modern research?’

The Observer. Geraldine Bedell mentioned that in Clackmannanshire ‘the boys, unusually, outperformed girls. And the children who made the most marked improvement were those from disadvantaged homes’. She reported that Nick Gibb, M.P for Bognor and Littlehampton, had written to Ruth Kelly (Secretary of State for Education) ‘asking whether she now intends to review the national literacy strategy in the light of this evidence’. Bedell pointed out that one great advantage of synthetic phonics is that ‘it teaches the “decoding” part of reading quickly, in 16 weeks, freeing children to get on with the more interesting comprehending part of reading’, whereas the NLS stretches out the teaching of decoding over years and dilutes it by teaching other strategies. ‘As the government contemplates its plans for a third term, it might be useful if ministers made use of their own educations and opened their minds a bit. While the educational establishment clings to its shibboleths and a misplaced anti-traditionalism, children are being denied opportunities; often, they are the very children that a Labour government should be most seeking to help’.




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