The major event since the last Newsletter has been the publication of the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee’s commendable report Teaching Children to Read. It deals fairly with the issues, strongly recommends the DfES ‘to commission a large-scale comparative study, comparing the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) with “phonics fast and first” approaches’, and outlines some good points for investigation: for example, ‘the effect of mixing phonics instruction with other methods of teaching, compared to “phonics fast, first and only”’, ‘how long any gains afforded by a particular programme are sustained’, and ‘the effect of teaching texts which go beyond a child’s existing knowledge of phonics compared to that of limiting instructional texts to those within a child’s current decoding abilities’. It also recommends that the study should ‘measure and compare attainment by means of standardised testing and not Key Stage test results’, and should ‘measure attainment in all components of literacy (word recognition, reading comprehension, narrative awareness etc.)’.
The Education and Skills Committee seems to recognise that there are differences between ‘synthetic phonics’ and the phonics in the National Literacy Strategy, in spite of being told on 2 March by Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Education, that ‘We do teach synthetic phonics, it is at the heart of our approach’. She conceded on that occasion that the NLS was ‘not a pure synthetic phonics approach’. Not long afterwards she told the House of Commons ‘We have a synthetic phonics strategy in our schools – it is called the national literacy hour. We introduced it in 1998 and its approach is now almost entirely based on synthetic phonics’ (Hansard, 21 March 2005, Column 607). Such statements make it sound as though synthetic phonics is much more prominent in the NLS than it really is.
The term ‘synthetic phonics’ was brought to prominence in Britain by the Clackmannanshire study, and it would seem reasonable to make the Clackmannanshire version the basis for further discussion. The Clackmannanshire report describes synthetic phonics as ‘a very accelerated form of phonics that does not begin by establishing an initial sight vocabulary ... With this approach, before children are introduced to books, they are taught letter sounds. After the first few of these have been taught they are shown how these sounds can be blended together to build up words (Feitelson, 1988) ... The children are not told the pronunciation of the new word by the teacher either before it is constructed with magnetic letters or indeed afterwards; the children sound each letter in turn and then synthesise the sounds together in order to generate the pronunciation of the word. Thus the children construct the pronunciation for themselves. Most of the letter sound correspondences, including the consonant and vowel digraphs, can be taught in the space of a few months at the start of their first year at school. This means that the children can read many of the unfamiliar words they meet in text for themselves, without the assistance of the teacher’. The NLS diverges from this at a number of points: in teaching sight words, in introducing books before sounding and blending skills are in place, in recommending that teachers pronounce words-to-be-read before the children sound and blend them, in extending the teaching of grapheme-phoneme correspondences far beyond the first few months of school, and in recommending strategies other than sounding and blending for the reading of unfamiliar words. Can two approaches diverge as much as this and yet both qualify as ‘synthetic phonics’? The RRF thinks not.
Even more important than agreeing on terminology, though, is establishing which features of teaching produce the best results in practice, regardless of whether or not we call the resulting package ‘synthetic phonics’. The recommendations of the Education and Skills Committee have in fact highlighted some key differences between NLS practice and what the RRF regards as true ‘synthetic-phonics’ practice. A study which investigates these differences should go a long way towards establishing what kind of early reading instruction is most effective. We can only hope that this study will be undertaken efficiently and without delay.