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

RRF Newsletter 46 back to contents
A Five Year Journey with Synthetic PhonicsDr. Marlynne Grant

The journey started when I read a newspaper article about synthetic phonics in November 1995.  As a part-time LEA Educational Psychologist and Independent Psychologist for dyslexia, I was impressed by the report that virtually all children were learning to read and spell, even if they were socially disadvantaged, lived in the inner cities and their first language was not English.

I bought copies of Sue Lloyd’s The Phonics Handbook and Mona McNee’s Step by Step and started to take them into my schools.  The response varied from wariness to negativity.  These were pre-National Literacy Strategy days and virtually no-one had heard of phonemes or thought that sounds in words could be so important.  Instead whole language methods, real books, paired reading, magic lines and emergent writing were being used.  The most structured teaching involved some phonics and sight words and the well-organised schools sent home words in tins along with the reading book.

In some of my schools there was such resistance to synthetic phonics that I thought I owed it to myself and them to look into the literature and research to see if there was a consensus about the most effective way of teaching reading and to see if this agreed with the principles underlying The Phonics Handbook.  To my surprise there was about 20 years of research which seriously questioned the whole language approach but unfortunately these finding were not getting through to the educational establishment nor to the teacher training colleges. However, the research did support the key elements of Jolly Phonics.

Armed with this research evidence I felt sufficiently confident to write a paper about literacy teaching.  It went to the elected members of the Education Committee of my LEA and as a result of this the Educational Psychology Service was given permission to prepare some INSET materials, to be delivered through the LEA’s Continuing Professional Development (CPD) programme.

The writing of the materials caused a deal of discussion within the Psychology Service but eventually we produced a course on ‘A synthetic phonics approach to reading, writing and spelling for Key Stage 1 staff’ which was based on Jolly Phonics.  Sue Lloyd was extremely helpful and provided us with ideas and materials from her own school.  Three of us from the EPS delivered four courses of six twilight sessions each.  Increasingly, as time went on, Trudy Wainwright, SENCO, from St Michael’s Primary School, Stoke Gifford, became a central part of the team.

Trudy was dyslexia trained and she was one of the SENCOs who was most interested in Jolly Phonics.  Rod Jones, her headteacher, agreed to a pilot study for one term, the summer term of 1997.  The school was pleased with the results and by the end of the term the reception cohort of 66 pupils was 6 months ahead of chronological age both for reading and spelling (using Burt and Schonell).

In 1998 St Michael’s started Jolly Phonics from the outset in September, rather nervous about how the tiny tots, some of them just past their fourth birthdays, would cope with the pace of learning one phoneme per day.  They need not have worried.  At the end of the year, the reception cohort of 90 pupils was on average 12 months ahead on reading and 17 months ahead on spelling. 

We wanted this good practice to be recognised throughout the LEA.  Off to a flying start with literacy’ was written to describe the principles underpinning synthetic phonics, to review some synthetic phonics programmes such as Jolly Phonics, Phono-Graphix, Best Practice Phonics and Early Reading Research (Jonathan Solity) and to describe how Jolly Phonics could be taught through the Literacy Hour.

Encouraging as the St Michael’s results were, we wanted to close the gap between reading and spelling.  There seemed to be too big a jump for children from reading their Jolly Phonics word boxes to reading Oxford Reading Tree.  We thought that a series of decodable early reading books, which followed the Jolly Phonics progression of phonemes, would be useful.  We could not interest the publishers in writing them so there seemed to be no other option than to produce the books ourselves.  This is how the 7 levels of Phonics First Books came to be written and Ridgehill Publishing to be born.

The following year 1999 with Jolly Phonics plus Phonics First Books the reading results of the reception cohort of 85 pupils jumped from 12 months ahead to 17 months ahead of chronological age.  Spelling was 18 months ahead.

About this time we rewrote the synthetic phonics INSET course based on our experience over four years and pared it down to a one day course giving the essentials of what absolutely needs to happen for good literacy learning.  We were also influenced by the work of the McGuinnesses in Phono-Graphix, we had visited Ruth Miskin at Kobi Nazrul School and Sue Lloyd at Woods Loke.  We were impressed by the Wilson Programme for use with older children from the States brought over by an EP colleague who had worked there.  The research of Jonathan Solity, Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, Jenny Chew, Morag Stuart and others at York and Dundee Universities also added to our ideas.

By this time St Michael’s was achieving reliably successful results and the whole school was developing an impressive expertise.  We found that children who made a flying start with their literacy in reception did not lose this advantage and went on to achieve good end of Key Stage 1 test results.  Teachers throughout St Michael’s became interested and could apply the ideas in their classrooms.  

Teachers attending the INSET courses fed back that they particularly liked input from Trudy Wainwright who was able to tell it like it was, at the chalk face (white board face!).  So now Trudy delivers the core of the programme. Her head of Key Stage 1 who teaches in reception also gives input particularly into modelled writing.  Another EP colleague and I present aspects of the research and underpinning principles.

We have delivered three of these one-day courses and have just presented the fourth in an amended form.  Now we deliver a course which outlines Jolly Phonics principles in the morning and we go on to talk about the principles underlying Sound Discovery in the afternoon.  This course is advertised for a wider age range: Key Stages 1, 2, and 3.

Sound Discovery grew out of the concerns of secondary school teachers who were reporting that about a third of their Year 7 pupils were unable to access the curriculum.  Psychologist colleagues were also reporting their worries that some pupils with statements of SEN for dyslexia still had chronically poor literacy when they were assessed at their transition reviews (first annual review after their 14th birthday).  This could not be attributed just to lack of financial resources as sometimes thousands of pounds had been spent on individual pupils.  My secondary schools knew

all about Jolly Phonics and I had explained the principles to them.  They valued this but felt the materials were more appropriate for Key Stage 1.  I was also concerned to hear the experiences of adult dyslexics who had attended adult literacy classes following which they still could not read.

The ‘bones’ of a synthetic phonics programme emerged which would be suitable for all ages including adults and for specific learning difficulties/dyslexia and these were sketched out in Second chance at a flying start.

The materials to teach this programme were written and were published.  It was called Sound Discovery and currently a Manual and a Words and Sentences handbook are available for Steps 1 to 3 of the programme.

Sound Discovery was piloted at two secondary schools with groups of about 15 pupils who had the most severe literacy difficulties in Year 7.  Reports from these schools were very positive in terms of interest and attention levels of the pupils, literacy gains and success at managing behaviour.  Results are being collated and will be reported as soon as they are available.  Two more secondary schools have shown an interest and have started their own pilot teaching groups.  The Psychology Service started a termly secondary SENCOs group for interested secondary schools and the group is growing.

Sound Discovery was also piloted at St Michael’s, Stoke Gifford, with a slow-to-start group of eight reception pupils in January 2000, following an initial autumn term of Jolly Phonics. It was delivered by an excellent nursery nurse, four times per week during registration for 15 minutes per session.  By summer 2000 the group of eight slow-to-start pupils (the potential ‘tail’ of underachievers - 9.3% of the cohort of 86 pupils) had improved from no reading or spelling age in January 2000 to averages of 5 months ahead for reading and 8 months ahead for spelling.  The whole reception cohort of 86 pupils achieved average reading ages of 16 months ahead of chronological age for reading and 18 months ahead for spelling.

The St Michael’s teachers found that the Sound Discovery snappy lesson format for teaching was very effective and that it improved behaviour, attention and listening skills.  We now find that teachers throughout St Michael’s are beginning to use the Sound Discovery teaching progression, the words and sentences and the snappy lesson in their classrooms and also for first time teaching in reception this year, 2001. 

Several other primary schools are using Sound Discovery for intervention in Key Stage 2.  We are encouraging them to collect standardised test results so that we can report them.   We have heard of other schools that are planning to use the snappy lesson and the Sound Discovery phonics progression in reception from the outset.  We are also encouraging early assessment and intervention in reception for slow-to-start pupils.

Training on the synthetic phonics and psychological learning theory elements which underpin the Sound Discovery programme were delivered at two workshops at an LEA SENCO conference, recently, by myself and a member of staff from the Learning Support Service. 

An EP colleague and I also delivered some CPD INSET on the latest definition and theories of dyslexia as outlined in the recent BPS (British Psychological Society) report.  One half of the INSET was theory and the other practice.  The practice element outlined synthetic phonics and the Sound Discovery programme as an effective initial teaching programme to prevent literacy difficulties developing in the first place and as an effective intervention with existing literacy difficulties.

Our experience at St Michael’s indicates that a goal of 100% success for all mainstream reception children is realistic, in terms of reading and spelling at least to their age levels.  We do not find a gender gap or a summer birthday gap.  St Michael’s is very unlikely to be requesting statutory assessments for dyslexia for any of their pupils in the future.  Certainly there have been no such requests since we started with synthetic phonics.  The pupils are not without the full range of cognitive learning difficulties: severe, moderate and complex, but virtually all of them learn to read, spell and write.  It is also worth noting that base line assessments of reception pupils on entering school are below the LEA average.

Further analysis of the 2000 reception cohort was interesting.  The top 25% of pupils achieved an average of 26 months ahead in both reading and spelling in summer 2000.  The bottom 25% achieved an average of 8 months ahead for reading and 11 months ahead for spelling.  As you can see synthetic phonics does not hold back the high fliers nor do we have a ‘tail’ of underachievement, although there are several pupils in Year 1 and onwards who still receive some top-up help to keep them using their blending and segmenting skills and to reinforce their letter/sound matches.

We are also able to offer regular meetings at St Michael’s School through our CPD LEA training.  This takes the form of a Synthetic Phonics Users Forum, to share ideas, deal with queries and to offer support and encouragement.

The LEA in general has come to hear of the snappy lesson and visits to St Michael’s School to see Trudy demonstrate a lesson are growing.  Visitors also come from outside the Authority.

Our interest in synthetic phonics continues to grow and we are seeing that many other schools are wanting to find out about it as they wish to replicate the results which St Michael’s and other schools throughout the UK are achieving. 

Since our LEA has a rising fives entry policy for reception we are trying to encourage early identification of literacy difficulties/dyslexia and early intervention.  For the future we are planning to work with the LEA literacy consultant and LEA early years advisor.  Our experience at St Michael’s has shown that this identification can be carried out as early as the January of the reception year and the intervention implemented from that point.

I want to leave you with St Michael’s latest OFSTED report, November 2000.  The school’s previous inspection was in 1996 just before synthetic phonics was started.  Currently the school is reported as having made a ‘very good level of improvement’ since the last inspection and has just received a substantial award from DfEE in recognition of this. Reading the report, the adjectives ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’ and ‘very good’ are used liberally. ‘Provision for pupils with special educational needs is now excellent, and the very good progress these pupils make has done much to raise the overall standards attained by the school.’  The Standards achieved by 11 year olds based on National Curriculum tests were A (well above average) for English, mathematics and science, compared with those of similar schools nationally of C for English, B for mathematics and B for science.  There were also ‘no significant issues requiring attention to effect improvements to the school’.  I think that says it all.

Undoubtedly these results are excellent but we believe that they are potentially achievable by all mainstream schools who use synthetic phonics from the outset, who monitor closely, intervene early and who extend children’s progress throughout the school.


1.    ‘Off to a flying start with phonics...’, (Second Edition, November 1999) Educational Psychology Service, South Gloucestershire Council, Bowling Hill, Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire BS37 6JX.

2.    ‘Second chance at a flying start’, (in production) Educational Psychology Service, South Gloucestershire Council, Bowling Hill, Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire BS37 6JX.

3.    A Case Study.  An intervention with slow-to-start Reception pupils, (2001), Marlynne Grant, Educational Psychology Service, South Gloucestershire Council, Bowling Hill, Chipping Sodbury, South Gloucestershire BS37 6JX.

4.    Sound Discovery Manual, (2000) Marlynne Grant, Ridgehill Publishing, 32 Ridgehill, Henleaze, Bristol BS9 4SB. Tel: 0117 9622670. Fax: 0117 96283444.

5.    Sound Discovery Words and Sentences for Reading and Spelling, Steps 1 to 3, (Second Edition, April 2001), Marlynne Grant, Ridgehill Publishing, 32 Ridgehill, Henleaze, Bristol BS9 4SB. Tel: 0117 9622670. Fax: 0117 96283444.

6.    Sound Discovery Words and Sentences for Reading and Spelling, Steps 4 to 7, (in production), Marlynne Grant, Ridgehill Publishing, 32 Ridgehill, Henleaze, Bristol BS9 4SB. Tel: 0117 9622670. Fax: 0117 96283444.

7.    Phonics First Books, (1999) Graded decodable texts based on the Jolly Phonics order of teaching the letter sounds. Marlynne Grant, Ridgehill Publishing, 32 Ridgehill, Henleaze, Bristol BS9 4SB. Tel: 0117 9622670. Fax: 0117 96283444.


Dr. Marlynne Grant, Chartered Educational Psychologist.

32 Ridgehill, Henleaze, Bristol, BS9 4SB.

Tel: 0117 962 2670   Fax: 0117 9628344.   March, 2001.


Editor’s comment: Congratulations to St. Michael’s for an excellent report from OFSTED and well done to all the people, especially Marlynne and Trudy, who have worked so diligently to investigate and change their method of teaching literacy. It is vitally important that every LEA and school can build on this achievement and knowledge, without needing to go through their own five-year journeys. St. Michael’s OFSTED report fails to note that the success in the early years was founded upon synthetic phonics teaching and not the directives of the National Literacy Strategy. The report says “Children make very good progress in the area of language and literacy because of the excellent use of a structured reading programme in the reception class.” I suggest it would be far more helpful, honest and accurate to say “…the excellent use of a synthetic phonics structured reading programme.” As things stand, the National Literacy Strategy unfairly receives the credit for all success in the literacy domain. This could prevent the best rate of literacy progress easily attainable for all children in the early years, because practitioners are unaware of the alternatives. What a shame that people have to resort to home printing for reading books despite a vast supply of commercial material on the market. Sadly, the National Literacy Strategy emphasis on an initial sight vocabulary and a range of reading strategies continues to give the publishers the wrong message.

















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