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

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
Readers Letters

Dear Debbie, 

I am writing to you now as I have just come back from the first of three training days for Early Literacy Support and thought you might be interested to know what I found out. I attended with our other Year 1 class teacher and a teaching assistant. 

Everything was going well until they showed a video about guided reading. I could not believe what I was seeing! The video was of a male teacher teaching a small group. He started by showing the children some balls of coloured play dough and asking them what colour they were. I think his intention might have been to lead on to teaching them to read colour words but he did not show any words at this stage. He then showed them a book about go-karts and straight away turned to one of the pages, folding back the text so that the children could only see the picture. He asked the children what it was and they said it was a car. The teacher told them it was a go-kart (without explaining what it was) and asked them about the colour. This was repeated with several pages of the book – each time, the text was concealed. Finally, he gave the children their own copy of the book and showed them the text which said ‘Here comes the white/green/orange/purple go-kart’ and pointed to the words ‘Here comes’ telling them what they said but giving no reference to sounding out the words. He asked them what they should do if they could not read the colour word and they did not know. He told them to look at the picture and again prompted them to tell him how they should use the picture to help. Eventually he told them to look at the colour of the go-kart. He then told them to read the books individually and he helped them in turn. 

Before we were shown the video, I thought that we were going to be shown an example of how to teach guided reading. When the video clip had finished, I suddenly thought the course leader was actually giving us an illustration of how not to teach guided reading! My next thought was that it was an old video from the seventies when teachers taught using ‘Look and Say’. However, the course leader carried on talking about the ‘searchlight approach’ to teaching reading. I was amazed and I asked her what she thought the teacher in the video was actually trying to teach the children because it certainly did not look like a reading lesson. She disagreed with me and I told her that I thought the main thing that the children were learning was how to guess. She then said that, of course, the children were probably also being taught phonics in a separate session and that the reading session was a good way of introducing guided reading. I said that they needed to learn phonic skills first and, again, she disagreed. On reflection, I think that the only thing the children learned was colour recognition and they certainly were not learning reading skills. 

Later the course leader came up to me and said that we could decide our own teaching programme and I again said that the phonic skills came first and that I thought the government was supposed to have moved away from the ‘Look and Say’ approach. She said that they were promoting a balanced approach. I told her that I had always used the phonics first approach and it was very successful. I said that frequently, when children joined us from other schools and they had been ‘taught’ through ‘Look and Say’, we had to take them back to learning phonic skills as they could not actually read. She said that we each had our own views (and she was obviously not prepared to change hers). I said that I was surprised that our Advisory Teachers were taking this approach. 

As you can imagine, I was incensed. However, this is not the first time that I have come across this blinkered view from the Advisory Service. This only goes to reinforce my view that many teachers are teaching two separate things – the phonics system on one hand, and how to read as a separate system, based on ‘Look and Say’ and using unsuitable reading schemes. 

I look forward to hearing your views on this video clip which was quite an eye-opener to me. I’m glad that I had my say at the meeting, but the course leader made me feel as though I was being an undermining revolutionary! My main concern on seeing the video was that the teaching assistants present on the course would think that ‘Look and Say’ was a good way of teaching children. After I had made my comment, no other teachers (apart from the one in my school who agreed with me wholeheartedly) said anything to me about their views and I wondered whether they agreed with the course leader rather than me (am I a lone voice in the wilderness?)

Name and address supplied


Editor’s comment: This is the same Early Literacy Support video that Jennifer Chew evaluated in newsletter no. 47 (page 12, November 2001). You are not a lone voice in the wilderness and your reaction was identical to mine on the training day I attended, and to many other teachers and researchers with good literacy credentials.  See page 17 for Baroness Ashton’s reply to Lord Prior’s written question.


Dear Debbie, 

I have just received my first copy of the Reading Reform Foundation newsletter and was interested to read so many articles which concur with my beliefs about the teaching and learning of reading and writing. I am a primary school teacher, teaching 4 – 6 year olds and I firmly believe in the importance of phonics as a tool for learning to read and write. It seems to me to be the only logical system and I fail to understand how teachers can ever have thought there was a better way! 

I could write at length about my frustrations in persuading others of the importance of teaching phonics. Our school’s LEA English Adviser practically told me I was teaching incorrectly by introducing digraphs to Reception children. How else can children write down the sounds they need for writing if you don’t give them the skills to do it? 

There are two points about the current teaching of reading that particularly concern me:  

Firstly, the National Literacy Strategy states that during the Foundation Stage, children should learn the letter names as well as their sounds. Letter names are unnecessary while children are learning to read and write. They cannot be blended for reading and if children learn the sounds and names, they become confused as they have to choose which to use when they are reading and writing. Letter names can be introduced gradually at the end of Reception year, by which time most children should be confidently reading and writing using letter sounds. 

The second point is one of which the DfES does not appear to be aware. There are two things currently taking place in some early years classes. Children are being taught phonics on the one hand in order to comply with the National Literacy Strategy, and then being taught through reading schemes that do not encourage the use of phonics. On the contrary, they require the practice of Look and Say. You only have to look at the early books in the majority of schemes to see that this is the case. The only reading scheme I have found that uses phonics systematically is the Soundstart scheme, published by Nelson Thornes. This scheme was mentioned in the Resources section of your newsletter (no. 47). It is an excellent scheme but I do not think that many schools know about it. We have frequently found that when children join our school from other schools, they are not able to read the books that the previous school said they could and they are unable to apply phonic skills to reading. This has serious implications for their progress and we often find that we have to take them back to square one – the learning of letter sounds. 

I gather from most of the articles in your publication that, like me, you and some of your contributors have become cynical about persuading others of the importance of the common sense approach. Sometimes I think it is like knocking your head against a brick wall. However, I take heart in the fact that we no longer have ‘dyslexic’ children in our school (how much dyslexia is actually the result of poor teaching?) and the number of special needs children who have poor reading skills is also low. Nearly all the children I have taught have moved on to their next class with a reading age 18 months ahead of their chronological age, so at least I have played my part in helping them along their way!

Name and address supplied.


Editor’s comment: I, and others, concur with everything you say.  You will be interested to know that behind the scenes the RRF has been corresponding with the DfES and Ofsted about the issue of appropriate reading books for beginner and struggling readers. Jennifer Chew points to research in this newsletter about the advisability of using decodable reading books at the level of the knowledge and skills of the children (see page 15). We have yet to convince those in authority that Look and Say books develop damaging reading habits in children. We have pointed out that the children have to resort to guesswork to simply ‘get through’ the books. But then the NLS advises a range of guessing reading strategies despite the conclusions of research and the advice of many experts in the field of teaching reading. Many teachers are simply unaware that blending is the best way to teach reading and they rely entirely on the Reading Searchlight Strategies and Look and Say. They think that phonics is for spelling/writing purposes.


New Decodable Reading Books:

Superphonics by Ruth Miskin published by Hodder and Stoughton

Jolly Phonics Read and See books and Jolly Readers by Jolly Learning Ltd

(And don’t forget Soundstart by Nelson Thornes as mentioned in previous newsletter)


Publishers please note- we would appreciate more decodable reading books on the market. 

Dear Editor, 

I can see why Felicity Craig (Newsletter 47) has reservations about the term ‘synthetic phonics’. It certainly has drawbacks, not least the possible connotations of artificiality and the misleading implication that no attention is paid to phonemic analysis. ‘All-through-the-word phonics’ might be a better term, covering the use of grapheme-phoneme knowledge from beginning to end of a word in both reading and spelling. But if we dropped the term ‘synthetic phonics’, we would still need to stress the concept: that of reading words by producing phonemes for all graphemes and building up a pronunciation without knowing that pronunciation in advance. Even proficient readers consciously do this when they encounter unfamiliar words, and as beginners are in a position where virtually every printed word they encounter is unfamiliar, it seems an appropriate skill to teach right at the very beginning. 

If the whole spoken word is made available before the letter-sound mapping takes place rather than being the end-product of the mapping, then the approach can be regarded as more analytic: the word is pronounced (usually by the teacher but sometimes by the children if they recognise it at sight), and then analysed into smaller units of sound which are mapped on to the graphemes. The National Literacy Strategy materials provide many instances of teachers supplying the spoken form of a printed word before getting the children to think about the phonemes in it (usually just initial or initial and final phonemes) and their relationship to the letters.  

Felicity Craig, too, envisages the teacher supplying the spoken form of a written word before letter-sound mapping takes place. In a paper entitled ‘Words made of shapes and words made of sounds: the parallel forms of language’ which she submitted to a phonics seminar organised by OFSTED in 1999, she wrote, of sounding out, that ‘We can show a child how to do this by telling him the whole spoken word first’ (p. 9 - underlining original). Her ‘apple’ example (Newsletter 47, p. 20) makes the same point. Her mapping is more thorough than that of the NLS in covering all letters and sounds in a word, though her belief in including words with complex letter-sound mappings from the start means that the mapping is not always strictly left-to-right: e.g. she writes that ‘For some words, however – e.g. “thought” – it is more helpful to match the beginnings and ends first, and then the bits left over, in the middle, have to match with each other’ (Newsletter 47, p. 20). That’s fine if the main thrust of phonics instruction is to help children to match the letters on the page with pronunciations which someone else supplies, but it’s not fine if the main thrust is to teach children to work out pronunciations from spellings and spellings (at least simple ones) from pronunciations. If this kind of working out is a priority, letter-sound correspondences must be kept simple at first: the introduction of `ough’ words must be delayed because they do not lend themselves to simple left-to-right mapping. 

All approaches sacrifice something in the early stages, because beginners cannot take in everything at once. If one wants to get beginners to do a lot of working out in reading and spelling, one sacrifices storybooks and natural language for a short time. If storybooks and natural language are a priority, one may sacrifice rigorous all-through-the-word left-to-right sounding out and blending. Only test results will tell us which way of proceeding is the most effective. 

Jennifer Chew




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