Synthetic phonics teaches children the code
before getting them to read books.
Her own school used to use the look-and-say approach. They were doing quite
nicely, but the Head of Department, Joan Dorr, noticed that the older
strugglers could not blend and did not know digraphs. In order to help these
children, it was decided that this should be concentrated on in the first term,
before expecting them to read books for themselves. This emphasis brought
significant improvements and the average reading quotient went from 102 to 108.
From this experience the teachers realised that most reading problems had been
caused by asking children to memorise whole words by their shape and giving
them books to read too early. Then Dr Pidgeon asked the school to implement his
research programme – children needed to be able to hear all the sounds in
words. The school made the programme more teacher-friendly. This brought about
another jump in standards – the bottom children became ‘average’ [according to
national norms], but the authorities just did not want to know.
Sue Lloyd realised two things:
- the teaching method
counts enormously, and
- people in authority
have been following fashion and fads.
Literate adults are able to read and write
words they have never seen before. For reading, they turn the letters into
sounds, blend them, and quickly come up with the pronunciation. Writing is the
other way round. The adult hears the spoken words, identifies the sounds, and
writes letters to represent the sounds. This is how the alphabetic code works.
Sue demonstrated the difficulty of
whole-word memorisation by showing the Arabic words for ‘garden’ and ‘fairy’,
which look very similar, especially at the beginning. To most of us adults, the
Arabic words look just like squiggles – to young children, English words also
look like squiggles. The English writing system is opaque for a number of
reasons. This means that learning to read and write in English is much harder
than in languages with more transparent writing systems. Teaching sight words
is a very bad way to start children off. In a class, 25% will learn whatever we
do, 50% will jog along on a whole-word start and a bit of phonics. But the
bottom 25% cannot cope. They have to go through the blending route and they
need to start with a transparent code.
There are two necessary skills: decoding
and aural comprehension. If children understand something when you say it to
them, they will understand it when they read it, provided that they can get the
words off the page. The main problem in schools is poor decoding.
There are several pieces of research on
synthetic phonics. They all show similar results, namely that children score
roughly one year ahead of chronological age on standardised reading tests after
one year at school. Comparisons show that when decoding is well taught,
children do better in the long term, too. For example, by the end of primary
school Clackmannanshire children were 3.5 years above national norms in
word-reading, 20 months above in spelling, and 3.5 months above in
Political parties are united in wanting a
higher percentage of children achieving Level 4 or above in their Key Stage 2
tests. In one large synthetic phonics school in an economically disadvantaged
area, 94% of 11-year-olds are at Level 4 and above in the Key Stage 2 English
test as compared with 77% in England
as a whole; 65% are above Level 5 as compared with 27% in England as a whole. If this school
can achieve these results, then it should be possible for other schools to do
so. This particular school used synthetic phonics, decodable reading books, and
an intervention programme for the children who had problems with reading and
writing. Synthetic phonics is also fun.
Phonics teaches five basic skills:
- letter formation
- identifying sounds
- ‘tricky’ words.
The first four of these occupy the first
six weeks. Teachers also read aloud to children and discuss the stories. The
letter-sounds are taught in seven groups. The ‘ai’ digraph comes in before all
the single-letter sounds are finished. Reading
is a step-by-step progression. Within the first few days, children understand
that they can work words out. The first 18 letter-sounds give access to over
1000 words. We cannot teach everything at once, so we add on gradually. If we
give children books that they cannot decode, they give up blending and start
guessing. Decodable books are sensible, but we need more research on whether
they produce better results.
Writing is taught at the same time as
reading and is just as important. We can start by asking children, for example,
‘Is there a /s/ in sun?’ or ‘Is there
a /s/ in dog?’ This quickly
progresses to listening for all the sounds in words. Then we can start calling
out sounds and asking children to write down the letters. Then we move on to
calling out words for the children to write down. Then we move on to sentences.
Many children can write whatever they want to by the end of Reception. It is
unfair, however, to ask children to write if we have not taught them how to do
it. Reading is
easier than spelling: in reading you can get close to a word’s pronunciation by
blending, and then ‘tweak’. Good spellers use their ears when spelling, know
the alternative spellings and read a lot. One typical child, at the end of one
term, was able to write ‘I went hors ridin. That wos fun.’
A first year check-list would include 42
sounds, lower-and upper-case alphabet letters, alphabetical order, the ability
to read and spell tricky words. Letter-names are introduced towards the end of
the first six weeks. Jolly Phonics
recommends not teaching ‘sight words’
as words simply to be memorised (even ‘tricky’ words should be blended, as far
as possible), not teaching children
to guess from initial letters, pictures or context, not teaching letter-names in the first few weeks, and not spending time on phonemic awareness
There remains a need to do something about
the advisers: programmes are still being recommended without being tested, and
teachers feel under pressure to follow them.