Letterland was first published in 1985. At a time when the education establishment rejected all phonics-based teaching, it was a pioneering programme. As a result Letterland has contributed to the current progress in our campaign to promote the use of synthetic phonics.
Yet the decision to include an article about Letterland by its author in Newsletter 56 has raised questions from several readers. Why was it included? Did its inclusion mean that the RRF recommends it? Is Letterland effective? Is it truly a synthetic-phonics programme? This article is an attempt to answer these questions.
· Why was the article included in the Newsletter?
Last year on the RRF Message Board there were discussions about Letterland and some contributors made negative comments. Lyn Wendon, the author of Letterland, asked the RRF if she could respond to those criticisms in a Newsletter, and it was agreed that she should have that opportunity.
· Does the inclusion of the article mean that the RRF recommends the use of Letterland?
The decision to include the article was based only on the reason given above. It was not meant to be a recommendation of Letterland by the RRF.
· Is Letterland effective?
One of the principles of the RRF is to ‘provide information about effective teaching methods’ and another is to ‘promote the use of scientifically proven reading instruction programmes’. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence both to support Letterland and to give rise to serious reservations about it. Unfortunately I am not aware of any scientific study where the results of the use of Letterland have been measured, analysed and compared with those of other teaching methods. At present the RRF can neither endorse nor reject Letterland on the basis of its results. However, the RRF also promotes ‘research-based principles of reading instruction’ and, consequently, methods that can be described as ‘synthetic phonics’ (see ‘Research and Links’ on www.rrf.org.uk). The extent to which Letterland fits with a description of synthetic phonics can be examined, and in the following paragraphs I have tried to do that.
· Is Letterland truly a synthetic-phonics programme?
There is an ongoing debate about the precise definition of synthetic phonics and the teaching principles involved. I shall use the definitions given by Lyn Wendon in her article and by the RRF on the website home page.
Lyn Wendon defines synthetic phonics as:
direct instruction that prioritises teaching children how to convert letters and letter combinations into sounds, how to segment them and how to blend them into meaningful words
I examined the Teacher’s Guide and the Letterland Early Years Handbook to find out if Letterland fits this description.
· Does Letterland involve direct instruction?
Yes. Every lesson involves direct instruction.
· Does Letterland prioritise teaching children how to convert letters and letter combinations into sounds?
Yes. Through Letterland characters and stories, priority is given to the sounds represented by letters and letter combinations. Letterland characters are also used to help children to remember what letters look like.
· Does Letterland prioritise how to segment them [sounds] and how to blend them into meaningful words?
This question is crucial and, because the answer is not immediately clear, I have gone into some detail in the following analysis. There is certainly scope for different teachers to follow the Letterland Teacher’s Guide and vary greatly in the extent to which they make segmenting and blending a priority. Nevertheless, the Guide does emphasise some activities more than others.
A ‘Reading Direction’ sign and other activities are used to help children read words from left to right. The ‘Lesson Plan Structure’ in the Introduction contains the recommendations, ‘build words from the seventh lesson’, ‘blend CVC/CCVC/CVCC words’ and ‘segment CVC/CCVC/CVCC words’, which may imply the frequent inclusion of blending and segmenting in lessons.
However, in the 39 lesson plans in Section 1, segmenting is explicitly included in the main part of the Lesson Plan in only 10 lessons and blending in only 7. In contrast, every Lesson Plan explicitly includes instruction in initial letter sounds, and 25 Lesson Plans explicitly include flashcards for characters’ names.
On the other hand, each lesson does direct the teacher to a range of other activities, and some of these, the ‘Tricks’ and the ‘Activity Bank’ activities, include blending and segmenting. If these blending and segmenting activities were to be included in all lessons, then Letterland could be said to prioritise blending and segmenting. Yet of the 8 ‘Tricks’ there is only one, ‘The Roller Coaster Trick’, which is good for blending, and it is explicitly suggested in only one Lesson Plan. There is one ‘Trick’ good for segmenting, ‘The Slow-Speed Trick’, and it is explicitly suggested in 5 Lesson Plans. A choice of either the ‘Alliteration Game’ or an activity from the ‘Activity Bank’ is given in 24 Lesson Plans. Choosing the ‘Activity Bank’ involves a further choice of 19 activities, of which 4 involve blending and none involves segmenting. In contrast, the ‘Character Names Trick’, which involves no blending or segmenting, is suggested in 25 Lesson Plans. Ideas for individual activities include Letterland Reading Booklets and activities in Copymasters or Workbooks. The Reading Booklets include decodable words for blending, but also NLS high-frequency words and Letterland character names. The Copymasters and Workbooks include blending, but also whole words and other activities.
My conclusion is that the Teacher’s Guide does not unambiguously prioritise segmenting and blending.
In the Early Years Handbook, which is designed for children before formal schooling, there is no mention of segmenting or blending.
The RRF description of synthetic phonics is:
1. no initial sight vocabulary where words are learnt as whole shapes
2. emphasis on letter sounds (not names – learn names in the first instance through, for example, an alphabet song)
3. systematic, fast-paced, comprehensive introduction to letter/s-sound correspondence knowledge (e.g. six correspondences per week including vowels and consonants)
4. putting the correspondence knowledge to immediate use with all-through-the-word blending for reading
5. segmenting single-sound units all-through-the-spoken-word for spelling
6. no guessing words from picture, context or initial letter cues.
· Does Letterland include an initial sight vocabulary where words are learned as whole shapes?
In Letterland children are introduced to some whole words before they have been introduced to the letter/sound correspondences needed to decode them. Whether they are expected to learn these words ‘as whole shapes’ or in some other way is not made clear. In the Teacher’s Guide Lesson Plans, classroom labels and Letterland character names are to be used mainly to reinforce initial letter/sound correspondences. However, it is suggested that children read ‘My Letterland Reading Booklet’ and read and spell ‘Take-home Reading and Spelling Lists’, which include NLS high-frequency words and Letterland character names, before all the necessary letter/sound correspondences have been taught. Spelling lists begin at Lesson 3, but blending is not introduced until Lesson 7.
In the Early Years Handbook, children are encouraged to ‘read’ labels, when they have not been taught to blend letters.
· Is the emphasis on letter sounds or letter names?
The emphasis is undoubtedly on letter sounds and teachers are given clear advice about how to pronounce letter sounds accurately.
· Is the introduction to letter/sound correspondence knowledge systematic and comprehensive?
Yes. It begins with a one-to-one correspondence for each letter of the alphabet, and a ‘short’ and ‘long’ sound for the five vowel letters. Consonant digraphs are taught next, then several spelling alternatives for ‘long’ vowel sounds, and lastly spelling alternatives for the remaining vowel sounds. There is a further ‘advanced’ level, that introduces more spelling patterns.
· Is it fast-paced?
Letterland provides a number of different options for the pace of the introduction to letter/sound correspondences. Using the ‘Lesson Plan structure’, 73 letter/sound correspondences are taught in 83 to 88 lessons. With 5 lessons a week, that is an average rate of just over 4 correspondences a week. Another option in the 2003 Handbook is the ‘a-z Phonemic Awareness Fast Track’, which involves teaching one phoneme for each of the single letter a-z graphemes in 2 to 3 weeks, i.e. 9 to 13 correspondences a week at first. After that, teachers are to choose how to move on. One suggestion is to work through all the following lesson plans, which would result in an average rate of less than 4 a week. Another suggestion is to skip straight to Section 2, but only if the children ‘are already familiar with’ 13 correspondences that would not have been taught within the programme. This would involve a further 43 to 48 lessons, possibly resulting in only 9 weeks to introduce 60 correspondences, which is more than 6 correspondences a week. All of these options could result in a fast-paced introduction to letter/sound correspondences.
On the other hand, in the Early Years Handbook it is suggested that teachers focus on only one letter a week.
· Is the correspondence knowledge put to immediate use with all-through-the-word blending for reading?
Using the ‘Lesson Plan structure’, blending begins in Lesson 7, which could be regarded as almost immediately. Yet in spite of this, blending is not explicitly included in most of the following Lesson Plans. ‘Take-home Reading and Spelling Lists’ include a minority of ‘blending words’. So in the Lesson Plans, correspondence knowledge is put to immediate use with all-through-the-word blending, but, as indicated above, it is difficult to tell whether or not blending is expected to be practised in every lesson from the seventh onwards.
In neither the ‘Fast Track’ nor the Early Years Handbook is correspondence knowledge used for blending.
· Does Letterland include segmenting single-sound units all-through-the-spoken-word for spelling?
Segmenting sound units for spelling is explicitly included in 10 out of 25 lessons and in ‘Take-home Reading and Spelling Lists’.
· Is guessing words from picture, context or initial letter cues encouraged?
In most of the Teacher’s Guide, children are not asked to use picture or context cues. However, in almost every lesson plan it is suggested that they read ‘My Letterland Reading Booklet’. They are asked to illustrate these booklets and then reread the pages and ‘use their own illustrations to help them’. Children are constantly directed to look at the initial letters of Letterland characters’ names and classroom labels that have the same initial letters. One of the ‘tricks’ suggested is to use the initial capital letter to ‘help you to read all the Letterlanders’ names’.
In the Early Years Handbook, children are encouraged to ‘read’ labels ‘by knowing their place on the wall’. Guessing from context and initial letter cues is undoubtedly encouraged for some activities.
Other points that have been discussed
The use of Letterland characters and stories as mnemonics for letter/sound correspondences occurs not only in the initial stages. It is elaborate and central to the whole programme. I have no evidence, except anecdotal, to judge whether this is effective or not.
Letterland has whole sections devoted to teaching children about onset and rime and consonant blends. At first sight, this may not seem to fit in with a strict synthetic-phonics approach, but it is in fact not excluded by either of the definitions of synthetic phonics I have used. Furthermore, where the onset-rime is concerned, the main objection has usually been to its use instead of letter-sound decoding as the initial way in to reading, and this is not how it is used in Letterland.
There is no scientific research evidence available about the results of using Letterland, but there is research that shows that synthetic-phonics methods are more effective than methods that mix synthetic phonics and other word identification strategies. On this basis, the essential question is whether or not Letterland can be considered a synthetic-phonics programme.
Letterland is undoubtedly predominantly a phonics programme, and it includes many elements of synthetic phonics. It involves direct instruction and a systematic, fast-paced, comprehensive introduction to letter/sound correspondences. It introduces blending early on, and it explicitly includes blending and segmenting in some Lesson Plans.
Although Letterland includes the teaching of ‘sight words’ before all the letter/sound correspondences involved have been taught, there are other programmes considered to be synthetic phonics that also do this to some extent. Guessing from context and initial letter cues cannot be part of a synthetic-phonics approach, but it could be argued that this is a minor part of Letterland.
As with all programmes, different teachers interpret guidance in different ways. As a result, some might use Letterland more according to mixed methods, where phonics is only one of a number of cueing strategies, and others more according to the principles of synthetic phonics.
In spite of this, there is no doubt in my mind that the Teacher’s Guide does not give blending, or ‘synthesising’, the unambiguous priority I would expect of a synthetic-phonics programme.
*I have referred to the 2003 Teacher’s Guide, the 2004 Early Years Handbook, and the Letterland website, www.letterland.com.
New Letterland materials are about to be published. It would seem appropriate to delay further debate about this programme until these new materials are available and, more particularly, until the results of standardised tests and/or Key Stage 1 and 2 tests are available from schools using Letterland as it is intended to be used.