In ‘Accelerating Reading Attainment: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics’ (Watson, J. E. and Johnston, R. S., 1998), we reported our findings on teaching synthetic phonics to children just starting to learn to read. Synthetic phonics involves children learning the sounds of a group of letters and being shown how those letters can be recombined to form words (e.g. ‘at’, ‘pat’, ‘tap’). The children are also taught to sound out and blend letters in order to pronounce unfamiliar words. In analytic phonics children learn to recognise words by sight and are then shown how to analyse them. Teaching sounding out and blending to children after they have been introduced to an analytic phonics scheme is not equivalent to a synthetic phonics approach as the children have not been taught early on that letters can be combined and recombined to form a large number of words.
In our study, 113 children in the Clackmannanshire Region in Scotland were taught to read by a synthetic phonics method, starting shortly after they entered school. At the end of the 16 week programme, they were reading 7 months ahead of chronological age on the Schonell test.
Two other groups of children in the study had started out learning to read using analytic phonics, but after two terms of this they then started the synthetic phonics programme. In May of the second year at school, the 264 children in our study were reading around 11 months ahead of chronological age and spelling around 11 months ahead of chronological age. The boys and girls were found to be reading equally well, although the girls were nearly two months ahead in spelling. We found that only 2% of the children had reading ages more than 12 months behind chronological age, and all of these were children who had received initial analytic phonics teaching. The children did not differ overall in reading ability according to whether they had learnt the synthetic phonics method early or late in their first year at school, but some of the ones who had learnt synthetic phonics later had to have extra help during the course of the second year. However, the early synthetic phonics taught children were found to be significantly better at spelling.
We conclude that there are long term benefits to be gained from learning to read by a synthetic phonics method, and that it is more effective to start by this method rather than an analytic phonics one, as we found spelling skills were better, and there was less need for learning support. Furthermore, when the children started reading text they had the tool of sounding and blending already available as an approach to reading unfamiliar words.
A new study is currently being carried out in a Birmingham school, and when Rhona Johnston takes up a chair at the University of Hull at Easter, she will be very keen to make contact with schools in the region that would like to try the method.