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

RRF Newsletter 47 back to contents
Readers Letters

Dear Debbie,

I have just received my first edition of the RRF newsletter and I wanted to write to you straight away to give you a very brief outline of my experiences:

I have been teaching in state schools for 7 years and 2 years in a private school prior to that. Just as I was about to start my first job, my mother (also a teacher) gave me a present, The Phonics Handbook. When I went to teachers training college, already enthused by the results I had achieved in a private school, I eagerly looked forward to my training in the teaching of reading. Well, if I had sneezed I would have missed it! It was delivered in one short sentence: ‘Use a mixture of context clues, look and say, grammatical clues and phonics.’ That was it – no explanations at all!

When I started teaching in the state system I was quite shocked by the standard of literacy among infants. My first two years were spent teaching a Year 2 class in a school with 33% of children on the special needs register, followed the next year by 50% on the register due to their poor literacy skills. I was determined to help these children and spent hours out of the classroom preparing almost individual lessons to meet their individual gaps in understanding. A large amount of the teaching was phonics based and we did see a significant improvement in their literacy skills, especially in their reading. Following this I went into Reception and got my Sue Lloyd book out of the cupboard and set about getting it ‘right’ from the beginning. I spent 3 years in Reception improving my techniques and astounded myself and colleagues by the results that were achieved. When tested in reading on the Pips end of year assessment, 67% scored in the top 15% of the sample (35,000 children), but with their value-added scores taken into consideration, only two children in the class did not score in the top 10%.

Sadly, however, this good start was not to be continued. Unfortunately the literacy hour was then introduced and as a ‘failing school’ we had to follow it. At this point, totally frustrated and not wishing to allow another group of children to be failed by the system, I asked to be moved up to Year 1 with my class the following year. Unfortunately for me, the Grammar Handbook was not published until the end of the year, but I attended 2 seminars by Ruth Miskin and adapted a mixture of her ideas, Sue Lloyd’s and Diane McGuinness’ ideas to meet the children’s and my needs. Needless to say, the children by the end of the year had overtaken the Year 2 children (who had started, but not continued the Jolly Phonics programme, but instead had switched to the full specifications of the NLS).

Despite all the successes and enthusiasm some of my colleagues and I had for these methods, I could not persuade my headteacher that this really was the solution to our problems and that if we all threw ourselves 100% into synthetic phonics teaching we could turn the school around. My head was genuinely excited that all my class had reading ages at least a year ahead of their chronological ages and therefore (by our school’s definition) for the first time ever, we had a class with no special needs children, but the feeling was that Ofsted would expect to see the NLS in our school.

When I first arrived at this school, my headteacher had inspired me by telling us that as a team we were going to make our school a centre of excellence, in an area where many had educationally been written off. I left that school because I realised that I was the only one still believing that we could achieve that. Despite my successes I felt that I had failed because in the end I had probably changed very little.

My next school was in a very different area where 100% of the children reached level 4 in English. I was therefore shocked to find how poor literacy standards were in the year 1 class and how bright children were needlessly struggling. I gained the support and enthusiasm of the literacy co-ordinator when I described how I would remedy this. I called a meeting of the parents and had their full support as it turned out that many of them were worried about the lack of progress of their children. Well, if you had told me then what the class could achieve in such a short space of time, even with my previous experiences, I would not have believed it. By the end of the year the majority would have been judged as 2b writers. Sadly, once again, my colleagues did not seem interested in Jolly Phonics, least of all the Reception teacher. Anyway, all I want to be able to do now is make up for the many similar occasions as above where I felt I didn’t do enough to change things when challenged. This is why I am looking for people like yourself for advice and help on how to persuade other teachers of the virtues of synthetic phonics teaching. I am really looking forward to speaking to you.

Name and address supplied.


Dear Debbie,

I am looking for information regarding copies of the newsletters which we (Education Development Service, Renfrewshire Council) had received during the summer. They were of particular interest to us, as through Early Intervention we are ‘revisiting’ the teaching of phonics and have been promoting the Synthetic approach. In fact those schools in our authority which have taken it on board are reporting high levels of success. To quote an ‘older’ member of staff “Not much excites me in education nowadays but I have to admit that Jolly Phonics has been an innovation!” The achievements in her present primary one class are well beyond those of previous years!

I was wondering how long you intend keeping the newsletters on your website (now that I’ve found it!) so that I can direct schools to it.

Kind regards,

Fiona Scouller (Early Intervention Co-ordinator, Renfrewshire Council)

[In fact, Fiona has subsequently ordered further copies of newsletters no. 45 and no. 46 to send directly to the Renfrewshire schools – Editor.]

Dear Debbie,

Please accept my congratulations on the RRF newsletter no. 46.

In another 3 months I hope to be free to submit to you a series of articles based on our team’s research but I have to concentrate on getting our diagnostic systems on-line first.

Briefly we have been investigating the basic nature of whole word processing, linking that process with a particular aspect of visual memory and then demonstrating that 50% of infants aged 7.6 years have not developed that level of memory. We thus demonstrate why guessing strategies are inappropriate for large numbers of infants.

Our current study of almost 3000 consecutive children looks at about 20 aspects of reading performance. We not only demonstrate why whole word processing is doomed to fail so many children, we also explain why boys are affected more than girls and confirm predictions that we made in 1988 and 1996 concerning the type of error pattern that guess-dependent infants habituate. Our work identifies a number of skill deficits and we will later be compiling a list of effective remedial materials for use by parents and teachers. The deficits include:

  1. confusions between names and sounds of letters. (We find, when children are not specifically taught letter sounds from the outset, that about 30% continue to demonstrate confusions between names and sounds throughout primary school. We also record that, once established, past the age of 9 it becomes very difficult to remediate. The result is on-going poor phonic skills).
  2. confusions between b, d, p, q at three levels: a) seeing the difference, b) knowing which sound goes with which letter and c) b, p, d confusions which only occur in words.
  3. difficulty in blending sounds into syllables and difficulty in blending syllables together.
  4. inaccuracy in blending syllables together.
  5. proof reading problems (e.g. seeing that the spelling of the word ‘laed’ [laid] looks wrong).
  6. guessing based on just a few letters in the word.

Back in 1989 when I lectured in the UK I had expected that educators would examine our data. I have long since lost that naiveté. In the last few years we have therefore been quietly designing Internet software and on-line training to by-pass the bureaucrats and are now very close to completion. In about 2 months any parent (or teacher) will be able to diagnose the major causes of reading failure. It will be a public repudiation of Whole Language infant teaching practices. The system has the capacity to generate automatic reports for parents to take back to their schools.

We will then start to establish on-line links with groups such as yours and to promote phonic-based resources. Your recommendations even now would be very welcome. When the Internet system is ready you will be one of the first to know in recognition of your groups past fortitude and courage. It turns out that you were right all along!

Kind regards,

Byron Harrison F.S.M.C.    Tasmania

Dear Debbie,

I may not be your best resource in Texas; but I will share with you what I know. Rod Paige, ex-superintendent of Houston ISD, has become President George W. Bush’s new Secretary of Education. Secretary Paige has studied Dr. Reid Lyon’s National Institutes of Health (NIH) reading research and is a great supporter of phonemic awareness/decoding skills. He and President Bush are both promoting a national model of reading instruction which places a heavy emphasis on phonemic awareness/decoding skills.

Dr. Barbara Foorman at the University of Houston is one of several NIH researchers around the U.S. who has participated in the NIH reading research project, and they have conclusive research to prove that the teaching of phonemic awareness/decoding skills using the Open Court Reading Series is highly successful even with children who come from language-impoverished homes.

It is because of the high quality of the NIH research that people in the U.S. are finally moving away from whole language reading instruction. House Resolution 1 (Senate Bill 1) is now in conference committee, and the final legislation is expected to reflect a move toward the utilization of the NIH reading research findings.

Unfortunately, when it came time in July 1997 for Texas to adopt a set of quality curriculum requirements for English/Language Arts/Reading (ELAR) called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), the Texas Education Agency was so controlled by whole-language advocates that our curriculum requirements do not reflect the best of the NIH reading research. We now have a blend called “the balanced approach to reading” which is a repackaged and renamed term for whole language.

If you want to read any of my articles (largely about Texas public schools), you might want to go to Type in ‘Donna Garner’ and you will find a wide variety of subjects about which I have written.

Best wishes to you in your new job.

Donna Garner
[In the UK, the National Literacy Strategy is described as a ‘balanced’ approach to reading, which is really whole language. Evidence for this conclusion includes the promotion of the ‘reading searchlight strategies’ which encourage guessing, plus the Early Literacy Support materials and training based on the whole language Reading Recovery programme – Editor.]





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