A delay of a month in the publication of this Newsletter would have allowed us to comment on Jim Rose’s interim report on the teaching of phonics, but it was decided to keep to our normal schedule and to comment, instead, in the spring 2006 Newsletter, by which time both the interim and final reports should be available.
One thing that we hope will be clarified in the Rose review is the difference between the phonics in the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) and the kind of phonics which the RRF has hitherto called ‘synthetic phonics’. This may be the right time to let go of this term as confusion is increasingly surrounding its use. Whereas it once meant only programmes which taught beginners to read all words by synthesising (blending) sounds, it is now often used even when there is much less emphasis on synthesising. The Department for Education and Skills (DfES), for example, regards the ‘direct’ and ‘systematic’ teaching of the alphabetic code, rather than the amount of synthesising, as the criterion for calling a programme ‘synthetic phonics’ – see its submission to the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee dated 30 November 2004, the ‘Phonics PHAQs’ document sent out in spring 2005, and the September 2005 edition of ‘Teachers Magazine’ on the DfES website. It is thus able to claim that the phonics in the NLS is ‘synthetic phonics’ despite the clear differences between it and the approach used in the Clackmannanshire study – the study which, after all, brought the term ‘synthetic phonics’ to prominence.
One of these differences is that the NLS focuses far more on the segmenting-for-spelling side of phonics than on the blending-for-reading side. ‘Phonics PhAQs’, for example, states that the NLS ‘starts by teaching children to hear and segment the sounds in a spoken word and showing them the letters for those sounds so that they can spell the word’. This document appeared in 2005, but even back in 1999, Progression in Phonics had made the NLS’s segmenting orientation very clear, both in explicit statements and in the activities it recommended. Segmenting is certainly important for spelling but ‘PhAQs’ itself states that teaching this way is ‘slightly different’ from the blending approach – and yet it still calls the NLS approach ‘synthetic’. The best results of all are surely achieved when beginners are taught exactly what to do in reading and spelling respectively: in reading, they work out the spoken form of the word by looking at the letters and digraphs etc. from left to right, saying the sounds they have been taught for them, and then blending the sounds together; in spelling they work out what letters to write down by listening to the whole word, segmenting it into separate sounds and writing down letters for the sounds. Spelling soon starts requiring word-specific knowledge, but the ‘working out’ routine continues to be important in reading and the NLS does too little of it, which means that it differs more than ‘slightly’ from a true blending approach.
A second difference is that it has always been clear, for example in the ‘searchlights’ model, that the NLS does not favour a ‘phonics-only’ approach to word-identification for beginners, whereas this is central to ‘synthetic phonics’ as the RRF has always used the term. The Education and Skills Committee, to its credit, recognised that there was a difference between teaching ‘phonics fast, first and only’ and ‘mixing phonics instruction with other methods of teaching’ (see p. 36 of this Committee’s report Teaching Children to Read). This difference has also been recognised by the Office for Standards in Education, for example in its report The National Literacy Strategy: the first four years, 1998-2002. In paragraph 58 of that report, OFSTED commented that ‘The “searchlights” model proposed in the framework has not been effective enough in terms of illustrating where the intensity of the “searchlights” should fall at the different stages of learning to read. While the full range of strategies is used by fluent readers, beginning readers need to learn how to decode effortlessly, using their knowledge of letter-sound correspondences and the skills of blending sounds together. The result has been an approach to word-level work which diffuses teaching at the earliest stages rather than concentrating it on phonics’. This is exactly the RRF view.
Three years after that report appeared, however, the DfES is still defending the ‘searchlights’ model. In a section of its website devoted to the Rose review, a frequently asked question is said to be ‘Is it true that the Literacy Strategy does not focus exclusively on phonics?’ The answer given is ‘The Literacy Strategy is based on the best available independent research which makes clear that phonics is most effective when it is combined with other teaching strategies that support word recognition, understanding context and knowledge of grammar’. The wording there is clearly that of the ‘searchlights’ model. In spite of the OFSTED criticism of the ‘approach to word-level work which diffuses teaching at the earliest stages rather than concentrating it on phonics’, the DfES still backs this approach.
The DfES’s confidence about the research evidence behind the ‘searchlights’ model is at odds not only with OFSTED’s view but also with what Prof. Morag Stuart said in her paper for the March 2003 DfES phonics seminar, where she wrote about the ‘searchlights’ model ‘confounding word recognition and text comprehension’. She comments that although the grammatical knowledge and context searchlights could apply to comprehension, they are actually presented in the NLS ‘as providers of information useful to word recognition’, perhaps because of the influence of Reading Recovery. She points out, though, that it is poor readers who use grammar and context in order to identify words, and that it is ‘highly questionable’ to suggest these strategies as a suitable basis for the development of normal reading.
Prof. Stuart is now a member of the Rose review team, and we hope that due weight will be given to this crucial point of hers. If the Rose review is truly independent it will not take the DfES’s word for it that the ‘best available independent research’ shows that ‘phonics is most effective when it is combined with other teaching strategies’ as in the NLS – it will investigate whether this is really true, as the Education and Skills Committee recommended.
It is often argued that a strong initial emphasis on decoding has a detrimental effect on comprehension. This has led to criticism of the Clackmannanshire approach because at the age of eleven, the children were on average only three and a half months above chronological age in comprehension as against three and a half years above chronological age in word-reading. But these children were from the most deprived 10% of the population. Is there evidence that children from similar backgrounds score better on this test (the Macmillan Group Reading Test) if taught from the start by an approach which emphasises decoding less and reading for meaning more? If the evidence exists it should be produced – if not, the criticism should stop.
The RRF flagged up the possibility that problems might arise with the term ‘synthetic phonics’ at the foot of p. 1 of Newsletter 55, written before the Rose review was announced. We still believe that the important thing is to establish which features of literacy programmes produce the best standards of reading and spelling in practice, regardless of the terminology used. This is what we hope the Rose review will do.