Under the heading ‘Research Update’ this publication contains an article entitled ‘Looking beyond the headlines’ by Ros Fisher. The article claims to ‘raise questions about the interpretations that some phonics lobbyists have placed on these findings’, but some of the points it raises are themselves rather questionable.
For one thing, the definitions which it uses of ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’ phonics are not a perfect fit with those used in Clackmannanshire. The definitions used in the UKLA article are Dorothy Strickland’s, as quoted in the ‘Sound Sense’ paper written by Greg Brooks after the March 2003 DfES phonics seminar.
A more complex point concerns Ros Fisher’s comments about the Clackmannanshire ‘control programme’. She points out that as it involved analytic phonics and graded reading books used in a look-and-say way, ‘it cannot reasonably be compared to the meaning based approaches more commonly found in UK schools’. The RRF would agree that the approaches found in UK schools are most commonly ‘meaning based’ – different from the analytic phonics done in Clackmannanshire and even more different from the synthetic phonics programme which all the children had received by the end of the first year. Meaning-based approaches are used in the belief that they promote good comprehension, which, after all, is the ultimate goal of reading – so where do these approaches leave average comprehension levels at the end of primary school? Three and a half months below the average level in Clackmannanshire, according to the Macmillan Group Reading Test. This test was normed on a representative sample of UK children and therefore presumably on children taught by precisely the meaning-based approaches which Ros Fisher mentions, and yet the Clackmannanshire children scored above the average, despite being from the most deprived 10% of the population and despite having been taught by an approach which the UKLA evidently dislikes! Could it be that it was actually because they had been taught this way as beginners that they ended up comprehending very much better than children from their background typically do?
The Fisher article also implies that other things that the local authority did as part of a campaign to boost literacy attainment had a great deal to do with the Clackmannanshire children’s success. Whatever else was done, however, was done after the children had received the 16-week synthetic phonics programme. The study does not provide evidence that results can be as good or better if other things are done instead of or before synthetic phonics. Does any such evidence exist?