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

RRF Newsletter 46 back to contents
Old Habits Die HardGeraldine Carter

‘Expenditure on pupils with S.E.N. may be as high as £7.1 billion (out of a total education budget of about £20 billion)’

Research and class-based programmes, developed during the 1990s, have shown that young children using synthetic phonics (a simple, practical, sound-based training that includes all letter sounds taught rapidly, with emphasis on the reading code i.e. how words are built up) is revolutionizing the teaching of reading. Instead of up to 30% of children experiencing reading difficulties at age 7-8, only around 2% - 5% of the most severely ‘dyslexic’ children would require specialist help after the introduction of synthetic phonics in nursery and reception classes.

In spite of overwhelming evidence (U.S., U.K, and New Zealand based) old habits die hard. Opposition to synthetic phonics, and its implementation into schools comes from:

a.       Proponents of whole word ‘real books’ reading who are implacably opposed to synthetic phonics. They include influential academics such as Professor Henrietta Dombey of Brighton University – adviser to John Stannard/National Literacy Strategy. In sound-bite terms, phonics teaching is considered to be authoritarian – not ‘politically correct’.

b.      Teachers who mix and match (encouraged by the eclectic approach of the National Literacy Strategy) with a desperate belief that if you try everything you must succeed.

c.       Some practitioners of analytic phonics (mainstay of the U.K. dyslexia training institutions over the past 30+ years). Until the development of synthetic phonics, analytic phonics was the only universally recognised, effective way of remediating poor readers. Analytic phonics followers believe that, as the roots of dyslexia are complex, and the written code is difficult, an appropriate programme must reflect these complexities. Analytic phonics takes children with scrupulous thoroughness through a two to four-year programme. It is inordinately expensive, and can be distressing for children who see themselves falling further behind their peers. Nevertheless, it is infinitely better than options a. and b..

Synthetic phonics rapidly teaches almost all children to read (and to become better spellers) within weeks rather than years. It requires no great outlay on materials, is extraordinarily cost effective in terms of staff requirements, and is simple, rewarding and exhilarating to teach. Thousands of special needs teachers could be returned to mainstream teaching if synthetic phonics were to be introduced in the foundation stage continuing into Year 1.

There are four main synthetic phonics programmes:

  1. Accelerated Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics  researched and developed by Dr. Joyce E. Watson and Dr. Rhona S. Johnston, School of Psychology, University of St. Andrews, whose impressive and wide-ranging research pilot covering 5 year olds in 16 Clackmannanshire schools has led to ‘staggeringly good results’ (Judith Judd, TES 1999).  
  2. Best Practice Phonics developed by Ruth Miskin, former headmistress of Kobi Nazrul School, Tower Hamlets. ‘Every healthy child can learn to read – and in a rigorous system of phonics…effectively, phonics keeps children off the SEN register.’ Kobi Nazrul School, with its large Bengali intake, has only 3% of children regarded as having SEN: a neighbouring school with similar intake has 55% of children regarded as having SEN.  
  3. Phono-Graphix developed in Florida by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuinness, introduced to the UK in 1998. ‘The innovative Phono-Graphix method demystifies phonics by throwing out the rules and re-emphasising the nature of the code-sound to symbol. Phono-Graphix emphasises the representation of the sound as the children actually hear it. The progress for language and literacy is outstanding.’ Ofsted.  
  4. Jolly Phonics developed by Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham (see this issue of Reading Reform Foundation newsletter for response by LEA advisers to improved reading test scores). ‘We introduced Jolly Phonics in 1996. Instead of having 40% of 6 year olds struggling, by the end of that year, every child was reading. Same teachers, just a change of methodology.’ (New Zealand Listener 4.3.2000)

POSTSCRIPT: I was introduced to the Reading Reform Foundation this year. Their newsletters are essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the political landscape of the reading debate and the labyrinthine struggles to bring the debate on synthetic phonics into the open.

Geraldine Carter, B.A., Freelance Editor. Hornsby Diploma in SpLD


Editor’s comment:

We are also eager to learn more about the Early Reading Research being conducted in some Essex schools. Results from previous research concluded that the synthetic phonics teaching of the ERR led to far higher results than in the National Literacy Project schools. (Deavers, R., Solity, J. and Kerfoot, S, 2000. ‘The effect of instruction on early nonword reading’. Journal of Research in Reading Vol. 23 No. 3, October 2000, pp. 267-286). Jonathan Solity and his colleagues are now making similar comparisons between ERR schools and National Literacy Strategy schools. We are hoping to have an article describing this in the Reading Reform Foundation newsletter later in the year.

It is extraordinary that after much correspondence, the DfEE have yet to acknowledge any of the research mentioned by the Reading Reform Foundation. Statistics at Key Stage 2, however, are churned out like ‘name, rank and serial number’. What about results at the end of Key Stage 1? Of course we cannot get a true picture of the effect of different methods in the teaching of reading in the early years, because apparently neither Ofsted nor the DfEE are publicly acknowledging the existence and/or effectiveness of synthetic phonics teaching. All literacy results are described under the National Literacy Strategy umbrella. We should also be very concerned that the overview of results at Key Stage 1 is not publicly available – disguising what is actually going on in early years’ settings.

We hope to have made it crystal clear in this newsletter that ‘which’ literacy teaching is undertaken in the early years is vitally important for the possibility of substantially reducing national special educational needs.

















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