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Raising literacy attainments of all pupils in a
mainstream primary setting with particular reference
to boys’ writing – a six-year longitudinal study
Nationally boys fall behind girls in early literacy skills and this gap widens with age (www.standards.dfes.gov.uk/genderandachievement/). A longitudinal study at a large mainstream primary school with low entry assessments has shown that this need not be the case. The first cohort of children who started with synthetic phonics in Reception took their Key Stage 2 SATs in summer 2003. Level 5 boys’ writing was found to be 33.3% compared with the figure of 9.5% for the Local Education Authority and 11% nationally. Statistically this is a highly significant difference.
Six years ago, the author and the Special Educational Needs (SEN) co-ordinator at a mainstream primary school started to collaborate on developing a system of teaching which aimed to improve literacy standards for all pupils. A synthetic phonics programme was developed (Sound Discovery®) which differed in its phonic progression from that in the National Literacy Strategy (Department for Education and Employment, 1998) but instead was based on the nature of the orthography of written English. A special teaching method was also devised (Snappy Lesson®) which was underpinned by principles of learning theory.
Research data was collected from a large number of pupils as the project school became the largest primary school in the Local Education Authority during the course of the study. From the academic year 1997-1998 the school has had a three-form entry of about 90 pupils. These pupils are all taught synthetic phonics from the outset in Reception in their mainstream classes and phonics teaching extends and develops as the children pass through the school. Individual word reading and spelling levels of whole cohorts of Reception pupils are first assessed after the first term on the synthetic phonics programme (in January of the Reception year). This allows for early identification of need and early intervention which is an important part of the teaching process. Results from this early intervention are reported in this paper for two consecutive year-groups. Whole reception cohorts are assessed again at the end of the Summer Term (June/July) and results are reported for six consecutive years. The results for Key Stage 1 SATs (the national tests for seven-year-olds in England) and for Key Stage 2 SATs (the national tests for eleven-year-olds in England) are reported for 2003.
The Instructional Method
The system of teaching used in the study is underpinned by the belief that instruction is the major issue in addressing literacy acquisition and dyslexia. Key skills are taught from the outset in Reception. Six grapheme-phoneme correspondences are taught each week and over a seven- to eight-week period the main 42 phonemes of English are covered. At the same time children are taught the two phonological skills of blending and segmenting. Hence from the beginning children are taught how to use their code knowledge to read and write. They are taught how to blend phonemes together in order to read words, how to segment words into phonemes and how to write down letters for the phonemes.Early identification of need is important. This allows for early intervention which contributes to the programme’s effectiveness. Throughout Key Stage 1 (children aged )and Key Stage 2 (children aged ) pupils follow a phonics progression of increasing orthographic complexity which differs from that laid down in the National Literacy Strategy (NLS).The synthetic phonics programme takes pupils through seven steps:
·Step 1 starts with 3-phoneme words using only alphabet phonemes (the sounds represented by single letters of the alphabet) such as ‘fun’ and ‘bus’ (at Step 1.1), moving on to 4- and 5- alphabet phoneme words such as ‘went’ (at Step 1.3), ‘stop’ (at Step 1.4) and ‘crisp’ (at Step 1.5 of the programme). There is also a Step 1.2 which is found to be motivating for older pupils requiring intervention. This involves consonant-vowel-consonant words of two syllables such as ‘velvet’, ‘sudden’, ‘picnic’ and ‘goblet’.
·Step 2 involves words containing consonant digraphs such as ‘ring’ (at Step 2.1) and vowel digraphs such as ‘toast’ (at Step 2.2), ‘park’ (at Step 2.3) and ‘soil’ (at Step 2.4).
·Step 3 deals with the alternative spellings for sounds. Step 3A of the programme covers vowels such as the phoneme /ai/ in ‘brain’, ‘gate’, ‘day’, ‘they’ and ‘paper’ (at Step 3A.2). Step 3B of the programme covers consonants such as the phoneme /c/ in ‘scrap’, ‘king’, ‘duck’ and ‘chemist’ (at Step 3B.1).
·Step 4 makes a morphological analysis of polysyllabic words into units which convey meaning: prefixes, root words and suffixes such as ‘un/break/able’ and ‘dis/courage/ment’.
·Steps 5 and 6 deal with the six different syllable types in polysyllabic words such as ‘kin/es/thet/ic’, ‘ex/plode’, ‘mu/sic’, ‘pea/nut’, ‘bub/ble’ and ‘mar/ket’.
·Step 7 involves words which contain special suffixes which can be considered as individual chunks or units, such as the special suffix /shun/ which can be spelt as <tion> in ‘vacation’, <sion> in ‘extension’, <ssion> in ‘passion’, <cion> in ‘suspicion’, <cian> in ‘musician’’ and <cean> in ‘‘ocean’ (at Step 7.1 of the programme).
The programme works at phoneme, word and sentence levels. Readingand writing skills are integrated rather than being taught separately. There is repetition and reinforcement built into the programme. Multisensory rather than multistrategy methods of instruction are used – in other words, the strategy is always a grapheme-phoneme one, but the children are taught to use their senses of hearing, seeing and even feeling (as they become aware of their sensations in pronouncing phonemes, flicking up phoneme fingers, manipulating grapheme cards, sky-writing graphemes in the air and writing on their individual white boards, on the classroom board and in their exercise books.).The principle of little and often is stressed.
Modelled writing has also been developed which builds on a progression of skills and stresses the importance of vocalisation of ideas and regularisation of written language. For example, a child at the stage of being able to write alphabet phoneme words at four-phoneme level at Step 1.3 may vocalise his own sentence ‘The huge hurricane blew down the garden shed’. This is wonderful oral language and his verbal expression and vocabulary can be praised, valued and reinforced (and may be scribed), but for independent writing of his own sentences in the Snappy Lesson the success criterion is for accuracy, so the teacher would regularise the sentence for writing as, for example, ‘The big wind hit the hut’. The child would repeat this orally and should be able to write it with 100% accuracy and include a capital letter at the beginning and a full stop at the end. Once the sentence is written, the child would read it back for checking and reading practice. There will be other opportunities for children’s extended creative writing, and writing samples from the school indicate a high level of creativity.
Phonics at sound, word, sentence and eventually text levels is taught daily during the whole-class parts of the Literacy Hour and during group time. Every opportunity is taken to reinforce its use throughout classwork during the school day. For slow-to-start children and those with special educational needs there may be extra Snappy Lessons in small groups. In Reception, phonemes are taught at the rate of six per week and the first forty-two phonemes are covered in about eight weeks. When children have a reasonable grasp of phoneme-grapheme correspondences and can blend they are introduced to decodable books. The majority of children need to practise with decodable books for only a few weeks before moving on to other reading books. Slow-to-start children are likely to take longer. There is now additional decodable text-level work written specially to support Sound Discovery.
At Easter 1997, the school started using the synthetic phonics programme Jolly Phonics (Lloyd, 1992). The following academic year 1998-9, Jolly Phonics was introduced to Reception pupils from the beginning of the autumn term. For the next academic year (1998-1999) decodable reading books were written to go with the Jolly Phonics programme (Phonics First Books, Grant, 1998) and were used to develop children’s blending skills further. Compared with the previous year, the little books were found to produce a 5 months’ additional advancement in reading skills when measured in Summer 1999, so that the children’s average reading was 17 months ahead of chronological age (with a cohort of 85 children receiving Jolly Phonics plus Phonics First Books). In summer 1998, the children’s average reading had been 12 months above chronological age (with cohort of 90 pupils receiving Jolly Phonics without Phonics First Books). (See table 1.)
As the study progressed, the thinking and method of teaching were shaped by influences such as:
1.academic books (e.g. Macmillan, 1997; McGuinness, D., 1998),
2.literacy and language programmes (e.g. McGuinness, C. and G., 1998; Steere, Peck and Kahn, 1996, Wilson, 1998),
3.academic research findings from universities such as
(a)St Andrew’s (Johnston and Watson, 1997 and 1998),
(b)Dundee(Seymour and Duncan, 1997),
(c)York(Muter, Hulme, Snowling and Taylor, 1997; Nation and Hulme, 1997),
(d)Instituteof Education, London(Stuart, 1999),
(e)Warwick(Solity, Deavers, Kerfoot, Crane and Cannon, 1999)
4. Visits to schools (e.g. to KobiNazrulSchool, London, where Ruth Miskin was head teacher and to WoodsLokeSchool, Lowestoft, where Sue Lloyd was a teacher).
A new synthetic phonics programme, Sound Discovery, was developed. It started being used by the project school in the academic year 1999-2000. This phonics programme aimed to extend literacy instruction through Key Stage 1 and into Key Stage 2 of the project school. It was also designed to be used in Key Stages 3 and 4 and potentially also into adulthood. Results are available for a whole cohort of Year 7 pupils at Key Stage 3 (Hunt, 2000). Sound Discovery built on Jolly Phonics, dovetailed with it, and was designed as a programme for intervention as well as for first-time teaching.
Results for whole cohorts using standardised word-reading and spelling tests
In the Summer Term 1997 all pupils in Reception (66 children) in the project school started a trial study in mainstream class teaching with synthetic phonics. In that first term, there was a significant reduction in the SEN Register and in June 1997 the children on average were 6 months ahead of chronological age for both individual word reading and spelling. This was a remarkable result for the school given its intake: entry assessments show that children enter this school with E for language, D for writing and D for social skills (Crown Copyright, Inspection Report, 2000). Since 1997 the school has built on these findings (Wainwright and Grant, 1999).
First starting in the academic year 1998-1999, synthetic phonics teaching plus decodable reading books (Phonics First Books) are used from the outset in Reception. On average each year pupils now perform about 16 months above chronological age in reading and spelling by the end of Reception (see Table 1). The reading test used is Burt Individual Word Reading Test and the spelling test is Schonell B.
Table 1: average reading and spelling scores above chronological age for whole Reception cohorts in this study
No. of pupils
Literacy standards for all pupils were raised, there was a lack of summer birthday delay, and there was a reduction in numbers on the SEN Register and of the gender gap.There have been no new specific learning difficulties/dyslexia Statements of SEN since 1997, when the school started using synthetic phonics. These results represent substantial ‘value-added’ in view of the Base Line assessment data.
Some general observations were made about the learning of the ‘synthetic phonics’ children:
·there was no significant difference in literacy skills between boys and girls;
·there was no significant difference in literacy skills between children with summer birthdays and others;
·there were no children with English as an Additional Language on the SEN register;
·there was no significant difference between children eligible for free school meals and others;
·SEN children benefited from early identification and intervention;
·few children moved beyond School Action Plus (Stage 3) of the SEN Code of Practice;
·on average, Reception children could read 40 out of the 45 NLS List 1 High Frequency Words; 53% could read all 45 words;
·there was a significant improvement in the listening skills, concentration span and ability to follow instructions for all children;
·low language levels were impacted by increased awareness of sounds, the ability to segment and blend at word level and the exposure to increased vocabulary and good sentence structure found in extension work at sentence level;
·group work teaching was effective at developing attention, focus, social skills and social interaction.
In summary, the method of instruction appeared to be more powerful than the effects of gender, birth, first language, poor initial language levels and social factors (as measured by free school meals).
Results for top and bottom quartiles
In the academic year 1999-2000 an analysis was made of the achievements of the top 25% and bottom 25% of the whole cohort.
Table 2: average reading and spelling scores above chronological age for the top and bottom quartiles of the 1999-2000 cohort of Reception pupils in the study
The results in Table 2 show that the more able did extremely well but that the achievements of the less able children were also raised. It is not surprising that few children moved beyond School Action Plus level of the Code of Practice and the numbers of children on the SEN Register were reduced.
Results relating to early intervention
The importance of early identification and intervention is recognised in the programme for all pupils with literacy difficulties. To identify the slow-to-start pupils the whole cohort’s individual word reading and spelling skills are assessed in January when they have all experienced one term of synthetic phonics. Most children will have made measurable progress but some will not.
In the 1999-2000 Reception cohort eight children (out of 86) were identified as having no measurable reading or spelling ages in the January 2000 tests. This constituted about 9% of Reception pupils as a potential tail of underachievers. All other children in the cohort were making good progress. In the 2000-2001 Reception cohort all 84 pupils scored on either the reading or the spelling tests in January 2001. However an intervention group was selected as two pupils had a measurable reading age but failed to score on the spelling test and two other pupils failed to score on the reading test although they achieved a measurable spelling age. This group of four pupils constituted about 5% of the Reception cohort and were considered as a potential tail of underachievement. All other children in the cohort had made measurable progress in both reading and spelling in the January tests.
In both years, the slow-to-start reception pupils followed a group intervention programmes in the form of extra Snappy Lessons. These were delivered about three times a week for about 15 minutes per session with their Nursery Nurse, during the Spring and Summer terms, until June. They took place during Registration and were in addition to the Snappy Lessons of synthetic phonics teaching the children were receiving during the Literacy Hour with their whole class and in the small-group time during the Hour when the curriculum was being matched to the level of need. We did not think that these children needed a different form of teaching or programme, but rather that they needed a little bit more teaching a little more frequently. The programme is multisensory and has reinforcement and repetition built in, to take account of different learning styles and poor memories, so that children with poor visual or auditory memories will not be penalised as the programme integrates what children see with what they hear and with what they do in a multisensory way, which particularly assists such children.
The results show in Table 3 that the early intervention virtually eliminated the potential tail of underachievement. It shows the average reading and spelling scores to be above chronological age for the intervention groups by the end of the intervention in the Summer Term.
Table 3: average reading and spelling scores above chronological age for Reception pupils in the intervention groups at the end of the early intervention in Reception
No. of pupils
Results relating to Key Stage 1 SATs in 2003
The study’s Key Stage 1 SATs results in summer 2003 (see Table 4) show achievements which lie above the national and the LEA’s averages. The cohort number was 81 and no children were disapplied.
Table 4: Key Stage 1 SATs results 2003 for the study
The ‘expected level’ nationally for KS1 SATs is Level 2, but this is subdivided into 2A, 2B and 2C. It is generally considered that Level 2B and above at KS1 SATs is required in order to reach Level 4 (the ‘expected level’) at KS2 SATs. In 2003, 69% nationally reached Level 2B (31% did not reach this level) compared with the figure of 88% for the study who reached Level 2B (12% did not reach this level). This indicates the advantage that the study’s cohort is likely to experience with KS2 SATs, with the secondary school curriculum and also, looking further ahead, in taking the General Certificate of Education taken at the age of 16 years.It can also be postulated that nationally the 31% of pupils who did not reach Level 2B in 2003 may not read well enough at 11 years of age to cope with the secondary school curriculum. The figure of 31% nationally compares with 12% from the study, which is significantly different at the 1% level. An analysis of girls’ and boys’ Level 3 reading results in the study (see Table 5) indicates that these are virtually identical for girls and boys.
Table 5: Key Stage 1 SATs results 2003 – Level 3 reading for girls and boys in the study
Boys and girls
Level 3 Reading
An analysis of girls’ and boys’ writing results in the study for Level 3 in the study does show a gender gap (see Table 6).
Table 6: Key Stage 1 SATs results 2003 – Level 3 writing for boys and girls in the study
Boys and Girls
Level 3 Writing
However, when compared with the LEA’s averages the gender gap in the study is not so pronounced and both the girls and the boys in the study achieved significantly higher (at the 1% level of significance) than the LEA and national figures (Table 7).
Table 7: Key Stage 1 SATs results 2003 –Level 3 writing for girls and boys in
the study compared with the Local Education Authority figures
Study’s Level 3 Writing
LEA ‘s Level 3 Writing
National Level 3 Writing
Results relating to Key Stage 2 SATs in 2003
The first cohort of 66 children starting synthetic phonics at Easter 1997 took their Key Stage 2 SATs in 2003. This group comprised 33 girls and 33 boys. No children were disapplied from taking the Key Stage 2 SATs. The cohort of 66 pupils achieved 89.4% Level 4+ for English without a significant gender gap (see Table 8). The achievement for the whole cohort of 66 pupils achieved 89.4% Level 4+ English without a significant gender gap (see Table 8). This achievement for the whole cohort (89.4%) is significantly higher, at the 1% level, than the comparable LEA figure of 79% and the national figure of 74%.
Table 8: Key Stage 2 SATs results 2003 – Level 4+ English for the cohort
Girls plus Boys
Level 4+ English
Level 5 reading results also did not show a gender gap for the cohort, with boys and girls performing exactly the same (Table 9).
Also of interest are the figures for Level 5 boys’ writing for the cohort. The boys performed significantly better than the girls, at the 1% level (see Table 10).
Table 10: Key Stage 2 SATs results 2003 – Level 5 writing for the cohort
Girls plus Boys
Level 5 Writing
It is interesting to compare the cohort’s Level 5 writing results with the LEA and national figures. The cohort’s boys performed significantly better, at the 1% level, than the LEA and national figures for boys (Table 11).
Table 11: Key Stage 2 SATs results 2003 – Level 5 writing for girls and boys in the cohort compared with LEA and national figures
The cohort’s Level 5 Writing
LEA Level 5 Writing
National Level 5 Writing
The Year 6 girls in the study performed better at Level 5 than the LEA and national figures for girls, but not significantly so (see Table 11). However, it should be noted that when Levels 4 and 5 English results were considered together, the girls’ figure (88%) was significantly above the national average (69%) and also above the LEA average (75%) although again not significantly so.
The evidence suggests that the school under study is effective in teaching literacy to all its pupils. The school has shown this effectiveness with respect to pupils with literacy-related learning difficulties whether these are specific to literacy (Specific Learning Difficulties/dyslexia) or associated with wider difficulties in learning. The school has shown a high level of literacy attainment for its intake.
It is believed that the major issue in addressing literacy difficulty, whether related to dyslexia or more general difficulties, is one of instruction. It is significant that the school uses a strategy for teaching literacy which differs from the National Literacy Strategy (NLS). The school has demonstrated greater gains in pupils’ literacy attainments than would be expected from using the NLS.
The strategy for teaching literacy is called synthetic phonics. The essence of synthetic phonics is that key skills need to be taught from Reception using a staged introduction of 42 grapheme-phoneme correspondences coupled with the use of this knowledge to blend phonemes for reading and to segment words into phonemes for spelling and write down the letters. Synthetic phonics instruction is then used throughout the school to reinforce, extend, generalise and develop literacy skills.
It is significant that synthetic phonics is used for first-time teaching and throughout the school in mainstream classes as a primary strategy for reading and spelling. It is not just used for intervention. It is hypothesised that schools which use synthetic phonics solely for intervention and not as a primary strategy for mainstream classes and for first-time teaching will not be as successful at raising literacy standards for all their children. Early identification of need and the effectiveness of early intervention are also vitally linked to raising literacy standards for all.
Success has been shown in terms of a lack of a summer birthday lag, reduction of numbers on the SEN Register and reduction of the gender gap. There have been no new specific learning difficulties/dyslexia Statements of SEN since 1997, when the school started using synthetic phonics. These results represent substantial ‘value-added’ as children enter the school with low language, writing and social skills.
The study’s Key Stage 1 SATs results in summer 2003 show achievements which lie above the national and LEA figures.
It has been possible to track through the first cohort of ‘synthetic phonics’ children from Easter 1997 in Reception to their Key Stage 2 SATs in summer 2003. There was no gender gap for Level 5 reading and boys did significantly better than girls for Level 5 writing. Perhaps the most impressive statistic was that a third of the boys achieved Level 5 writing, which is significantly above national and LEA figures. When Level 4 and 5 writing results were considered together, however, the girls, too, significantly outperformed the national average. They also outperformed the LEA average, but not at a level which was statistically significant.
The systematic and structured nature of synthetic phonics was found to be successful at raising literacy standards for all pupils but the positive effects appear to be more pronounced with boys. It can be hypothesised that the pedagogy underpinning synthetic phonics is particularly effective with boys. There are parallels with the strategies suggested by other research workers as being particularly effective with boys (Hannan, 2000).
This study indicated that 11-year-old boys appeared to be more able writers than girls, but that the girls as well as the boys in the study outperformed the national averages for writing.
National figures indicate that boys underachieve in early literacy skills and that this gap in attainment widens with age. This research has demonstrated that underachievement in boys is by no means inevitable. The synthetic phonics approach has been shown to raise literacy attainment for all pupils and to reduce the gender gap with respect to literacy in general and with respect to writing in particular.
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Dr Marlynne Grant is an educational psychologist with the Educational Psychology Service, South Gloucestershire Council, Bowling Hill, Chipping Sodbury BS37 6JX.
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