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

RRF Newsletter 58 back to contents
Report on the United Kingdom Literacy Association Conference: ‘Teaching Reading and Phonics: Implications of the Rose Report’ 19th May 2006 Maggie Downie, in collaboration with Susan Godsland and Elizabeth Nonweiler

The co-founder of UKLA in 1963 (then The United Kingdom Reading Association) was Dr Joyce Morris. Dr Morris was an active proponent of what she termed linguistics-informed phonics. One wonders what she has made of the direction towards whole language which the organisation she helped to found has taken.

As was to be expected, the keynote of the conference was struck in Jackie Marsh’s introductory comments, “Synthetic Phonics is necessary, but not sufficient”.

The first session of the conference was delivered by Prof. Kathy Hall, of the Open University. She started by presenting her model of the factors which had a bearing on the reading process, in which the alphabetic principle is a small component of the ‘Conventions of Print’ element. The implication was that it was a small factor among many. She expressed her disquiet at the emphasis given in the Rose Report to ‘fidelity to programme’ and her reservations on the separation of decoding from comprehension. She thought that we should guard against the ‘simple solution’ and take on board children’s motivations. She suggested that the debate was now about how to teach phonics and made a comparison of Synthetic and Analytic Phonics.

It was at this stage that we began to feel that she had an imperfect understanding of the synthetic phonics process. On her slide setting out the basic differences between the two methods she characterised SP as:

  • Sounding out and blending
  • Letter by letter decoding
  • Working with small phonological units (the phoneme).

‘Letter by letter decoding’ is frequently seized on by critics of synthetic phonics as being unworkable and illogical; which, indeed, it is, but we know that synthetic phonics teaches grapheme by grapheme decoding. We feel that the distinction between graphemes and letters has not been understood, and that a statement such as this only serves to perpetuate this misunderstanding.

She defined phonological awareness and phonemic awareness and illustrated the process of breaking a word into its individual parts, using ‘predict’ as an example. With synthetic phonics it would be broken into /p/ /r/ /e/ /d/ /i/ /c/ /t/, whereas with analytic phonics /pr/ would be the onset and (I think) /ed/ and /ict/ would be the rimes.

The question of the origins of the alignments of synthetic and analytic phonics was asked. Prof. Hall believes that analytic phonics is faithful to the developmental sequence, postulated by Goswami, of children working from early awareness of large units (words, syllables) to later awareness of small units (phonemes) and commends this as a compelling reason to teach analytic phonics rather than synthetic phonics. The origin of the alignment of synthetic phonics was not really touched on. She did throw in a heartening quote from Vygotsky: ‘... sometimes development follows learning’. I felt that it was difficult to subscribe totally to Goswami’s ‘developmental’ model and to agree, too, with Vygotsky! Following on from this, she mentioned research by Ehri which suggested that exposure to letter strings would help develop a strategy for reading new words and that because of this there was a place for using synthetic phonics along with analytic phonics. The two, she said, ‘are not dichotomous’. But was there really a need to teach all 44 phonemes? Some children can transfer learning, and children can vary so much that one progression is not always necessary or possible. She felt that a child’s identity on entering school was important and that synthetic phonics would have an adverse effect on children who entered school believing that they were already ‘readers’.

When she moved to the human brain and pattern recognition she appeared to become quite enthused by the fact that knowing ‘spelling patterns’ (using ‘ai’ as an example) could help children to decode a word, though this knowledge, it appeared, would be a product of analysing words, rather than direct instruction in synthetic phonics.

She then proposed that ‘Phoneme awareness is both a cause and consequence of acquiring letter knowledge’ and that it can be developed from ‘print experiences’. We agree. She went on to say that children acquire phonemic awareness even pre-school, through exposure in infancy to stories and rhymes, that most arrive at school with phonemic awareness and that ‘playing with language develops insight’.

Prof. Hall then examined the ‘complex orthography’ of English, which, in her view, made it impossible that all words could be decoded. Words such as ‘yacht’, ‘people’ and ‘choir’ must be learned as whole words. She pointed out the ‘inconsistency’ of the vowel sound in words such as ‘call’, ‘cat’ and ‘car’ and suggested that the vowel is more consistent in onset and rime. Once again, I felt that there was a failure to understand phoneme/grapheme correspondence and no knowledge of the ease with which most children learn the correspondences. When I spoke to Prof. Hall after the conference about children knowing one-to-one correspondences, but not knowing digraphs, I felt that she was not quite following what I was saying.

She then questioned the separation of decoding and comprehension as she believed it to be practised by SP advocates. She believed that at 5 years old a child needs to have ‘sounds and comprehension closely linked’. We find this a difficult concept. Of course, words and comprehension are linked, but comprehension occurs after the word has been decoded and blended. A child cannot comprehend a word until it knows what the word is.

The role of the teacher was then discussed. It was proposed that:

  • Teachers make a bigger difference than methods
  • Teachers make more of a difference in schools in poor areas than in affluent areas
  • Good teaching can even compensate for the limitations and constraints of poor programmes, textbooks, curricula etc.

Accomplished Early Years teachers

  • Integrate and apply
  • Coach
  • Assess formatively
  • Provide extensive experience with texts
  • Teach in small groups.

Effective teachers ‘know about phonology and orthography’.

We didn’t think we could argue with much of that, apart from the contention that a teacher makes a bigger difference than methods. We cannot see how a teacher trying to teach with an ineffective method will ever achieve very much; the failure of the NLS to teach 20% of children to read properly seems to contradict this.

The second presentation of the morning was given by Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University. She gave a very clear and interesting account of the setting up and implementation of the Clackmannanshire Synthetic Phonics research project. It was set up as part of a series of Early Intervention Projects in Scottish schools. The schools which took part were seven of the lowest performing schools in Clackmannanshire. She felt that decisions made at various levels were key to its success, from the LEA’s initial decisions to involve a small, manageable number of schools and to provide systematic and coherent continuing professional development, through the commitment and enthusiasm of the schools’ senior management teams to the support, in training, resources and responsiveness (some parts of the programme were developed further in response to teacher input) enjoyed by those who were implementing the programme, the teachers. In short, she presented a picture of an effectively led, well resourced and well implemented project which appeared to have been enjoyed by the participants. The results, she said, were ‘stunning’.

However, she expressed some scepticism as to whether the results were altogether impressive, showing us a table of the participating schools’ results in National tests (not SATs, which are not used in Scotland), which showed a considerable variation between individual schools’ achievement (though she did say that the results were difficult to interpret, and at least one seemed to be a transcription error). She emphasised that a great deal of funding had been put into the project and questioned whether there would be enough money forthcoming from the government to roll out synthetic phonics, as recommended by the Rose Report.

She also stated, ‘There was no increase in engagement’, with no further clarification as to what she meant by this. We can only assume that her implication was that children showed no more enthusiasm for reading than children not associated with the project, though how she arrived at this judgement was not made clear.

With regard to the implementation of synthetic phonics she noted that she had worked on the examination of the success of Reading Recovery in Northern Ireland. Interestingly, she said that it had worked well in schools which followed the programme faithfully, but less well and slowly in schools which were hostile to it. Taking this information together with Kathy Hall’s disquiet at ‘fidelity to the programme’, we felt that mixed messages were being given out about fidelity to programmes one approved of and manipulation of programmes one didn’t approve of.

As final thoughts she asked us, in relation to synthetic phonics, to remember first that academics, publishers and politicians all have their own agendas; secondly, that we need a strong, respectful educational discourse, and thirdly, that she thought synthetic phonics is interesting, important and deserving of professional attention.

At lunch we were made welcome by the UKLA ladies at our table and we had some discussion of our approaches to the teaching of reading.

The afternoon session was, we felt, more to the taste of the UKLA delegates, as Dr Maureen Lewis gave us a presentation on the latest research into comprehension, with no mention of synthetic phonics beyond a comment that it was a necessary element in learning to read. It was an interesting presentation and contained nothing that any synthetic phonics advocate would disagree with, dealing, as it did, with what we would consider to be the next stage along the road of learning to read effectively.

She did, however, make the startling assertion that she believed, with regard to multi-cueing, a child could focus on more than one cue at once. Prof. Greg Brooks later disagreed with her!

Before the final question and answer session, Prof. Greg Brooks, who was present throughout the day, was invited to join the panel and contribute some remarks on the Rose report and synthetic phonics. He said that he did not think there was enough research evidence that showed that phonics is good for comprehension, and that there was no clear evidence as to which of synthetic or analytic phonics was the better. He did, however, say that for beginning readers synthetic phonics was a ‘clear winner’ for teaching word identification. He also stated clearly that synthetic phonics was now part of the Framework and could not be evaded.


It was, perhaps, disappointing that a conference with the title ‘Teaching Reading and Phonics: The Implications of the Rose Report’ had so little content directly related to Synthetic Phonics. We did not think that anyone attending it with a desire to know more about how the recommendations of the Rose report would affect their teaching would have ended the day with a much clearer idea than at the start. We feel it would have been more helpful if an expert SP practitioner had been invited to explain the principles of SP and to clarify the issues which are clearly of concern to UKLA. This would surely have provided an opportunity to engage in the ‘professional discourse’ called for by Sue Ellis and may have served to allay some of their fears.

We note that there is very little that divides us. We are all deeply concerned with teaching children to read, both as a necessary life skill, and for the pleasure which reading can give. Dr Lewis’s presentation on comprehension contained nothing that we would disagree with; indeed, it was interesting and informative. However, it had very little to do with the theme of the conference.

We felt that Sue Ellis could find very little to criticise in the Clackmannanshire results, apart from the expected comment on comprehension being ‘only’ 3½ months ahead of chronological age and the comment on the variable results in the National tests (though she emphasised that there was absolutely no way of interpreting the wide variation in the table of results and there could well have been mistakes made in the figures).

When, in her closing remarks, she cautioned us to be aware of the different agendas of those promoting synthetic phonics, we felt that she had missed a very important group, that group being the teachers who use synthetic phonics. We have no agenda, other than a desire to teach the maximum possible number of children to read effectively, in the fastest time possible, using the most efficient method we know.

With regard to comprehension, we feel that there is a point of significant difference. UKLA seem to take the stance that reading itself develops comprehension. While we would agree that Stanovich’s ‘Matthew Effect’ means that reading will aid the extension of vocabulary and understanding of syntax of a child who has been taught to read, we cannot see how this applies to the initial teaching of reading. Beginning readers see what they may have been told is a word, but have no knowledge of how to translate the symbols on the page into the spoken word that they represent. Without knowledge of what word the symbols represent, there can be no comprehension. We would contend that until a child is able to decode accurately and fluently, comprehension of the written word correlates directly with the child’s comprehension of the spoken word. It seems to us to defy logic to believe that a child who could not understand a word when spoken would understand it when written. We would also contend that unless children can ‘read’ a word (by decoding), they cannot extract any meaning from it.

The question of phonemic awareness and Goswami’s developmental model is, we think, the issue which divides us most. It is a fundamental issue, for it must be extremely difficult for people who firmly believe that children enter school only being able to discriminate sounds at word level, and can only finally learn to discriminate phonemes by a developmental process, to adjust to the principle underlying synthetic phonics (and supported by research) which says that most children can only learn to discriminate phonemes through an instructional process.

It could be argued that Goswami formed her model on the basis of work with children who were taught by whole language methods, and so indeed, had no concept of phonemes, as they weren’t taught to discriminate them with whole language. As we know that some children are able to work out the alphabetic principle for themselves, it seems plausible that, with a certain amount of analytic phonics teaching and self teaching, a number of children would arrive at phonemic awareness. As this was not explicitly taught, the conclusion could be that it was arrived at by a developmental process. But Goswami herself now seems to be acknowledging that children may be capable of single phoneme awareness at an earlier age. Discussing the NLS teaching of letter/sound correspondences in 2002 (‘In the Beginning was the Rhyme? A Reflection on Hulme, Hatcher, Nation, Brown, Adams and Stuart’, Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 82, 2002), she writes:

 At first sight it may seem peculiar that spelling correspondences for the large units (rimes) that are phonologically easier to process are taught later than spelling correspondences for the small units (phonemes) that are phonologically more difficult to process. However, the small units (phonemes) usually correspond to single letters, which are clearly separable in the orthography, and most words used in the early reading curriculum have a 1:1 correspondence between letters and sounds. Furthermore, many children learn the alphabet before formal teaching in reading commences, and there is good evidence that this letter knowledge helps them once they begin learning to read (e.g. Treiman, Tincoff, Rodriguez, Mouzaki and Francis, 1998). Hence pedagogically it may well be easier teaching children about letters, which many of them will already know about, and then to proceed to instruction about larger units such as rimes.

It is certainly the experience of synthetic phonics practitioners that (their) pupils, who are taught first the individual phonemes (alongside?) and the letters which represent them, then how to blend them into words, develop phonemic awareness as a result of this instruction (with no need for ‘playing with sounds’ as preparation for this learning). We would agree that many children do enter school unable to discriminate sounds at anything other than word level (once they have learned to talk in infancy they have had no need to be aware of phonemes), but we know that, with clear and explicit teaching, nearly all children are able to relearn this skill.

We also noted over the course of the day that there was a certain amount of distrust expressed of ‘scientific’ research and approval of ‘action research’. We cannot see how any valid conclusions can be arrived at without the rigorous testing of hypotheses and scrutiny of results required by scientific research. If scientific research is discounted, all that remains is anecdote and subjectivity. We cannot believe that this is a sound foundation on which to base educational practice.

Overall we thought the day was interesting and enlightening. We certainly left the conference with plenty to discuss and think about.

We were amused at one point when Dr Lewis spoke of attending conferences and being ‘stuck next to the phonics lot’. We wondered what distinguished them from the rest: horns, tails, a whiff of sulphur? We felt that our attendance had some value in informing us of the concerns and fears of many practitioners, and we very much hope that some UKLA members will (if you will excuse the mixed metaphor) ‘venture into the lions’ den’ in search of further mutual understanding when we hold our Autumn conference.




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