A short while ago I was talking with a special needs teacher about synthetic phonics teaching. During our conversation it became clear that despite having attended an intensive training course, she was not fully convinced that this form of teaching could standalone and consequently alongside the synthetic phonics programme she was incorporating various elements of a more traditional analytic system. The reasoning behind this action was that she did not want to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater’. I wish that I had thought to ask which bits she viewed as ‘baby’ and which were ‘bathwater’ but sadly this only occurred to me much later. I do know however, that this teacher is not alone and that such mixing and matching is happening elsewhere to the detriment of many students and that is why I felt impelled to write this article.
When I first read about synthetic phonics teaching my initial reaction was to dismiss it out of hand. After all I had been brought up to believe that a quick fix was synonymous with poor workmanship and that anything worth achieving necessitated a great deal of time and effort. But then I read another article and then another, and each time a part of me wondered if there could possibly be something of value here. By this time I was really beginning to question what I was doing but without any clear idea of what direction to go in. A year later I listened to a talk on Phono-Graphix and was so inspired by the speaker that I signed up for a five day teaching course but all the time seeing it as an extra tool. It could be something to use alongside my traditional teaching methods but not as a whole programme by itself so I do understand how that teacher felt.
For the first few days of the course I constantly found myself silently asking “but what about suffixing, magic e, double letters, etc.” Quite when I stopped thinking like this I am not sure, but the simple logic of the system was slowly permeating a brain stuffed full of spelling rules and showing me that there might be a sensible alternative. Certainly watching the demonstration lessons opened my eyes although it was hard to imagine these students really had literacy difficulties as they were so confident and competent in the way they handled the various exercises; which were practising the necessary understanding and skills to unlock the English written code.
The course ended and I was itching to get started but there was still another six weeks of summer holiday before I could begin. This was when the fears set in again but this time there were self doubts as well. Could I deliver the goods? Was I a good enough teacher to convince my students that synthetic phonics was the answer and could I teach the new system effectively? September arrived and I had nine existing students, aged between 8 years and 13 years, to consider. Was it fair to tell them that after slogging through spelling rules, some for a year or more, that now we could ‘sort’ the problem in twelve hours? Was none of what I had been doing any good at all?
Since I was unable to identify any ‘babies’ in what I had been teaching, my choice now was between keeping everything or nothing. Since the former was no longer an option and because traditional analytic phonics and synthetic phonics are, by their very nature, incompatible, everyone’s first lesson consisted of ceremonially binning reading packs, spelling packs, and spelling rule worksheets together with establishing current reading and spelling ages. What a feeling of relief and not a word of protest. The logic of the new system shone throughout and no one minded that teacher and student were learning together, in fact students were delighted to point out my mistakes. They mastered the different techniques with far more ease than I and had no problem with understanding the concepts.
Twelve lessons later I repeated the assessments and considered the results. They were better than I had dared to hope. I admit to being surprised to find that overall the greatest improvements were with spelling although the reading gains were also significant. There could be no doubt that my students could learn much faster than they had previously been given credit for and importantly, the skills were rapidly transferred into the classroom where teachers commented on the improvements. Nothing was lost and so much was gained. My students now had the knowledge, understanding and the skills needed for reading and spelling, therefore they had the tools that allowed them to apply an independent strategy.
That was eighteen months ago and I have since completed the course with another nine students and am currently teaching eleven more. I could never have hoped to help so many in such a short time using traditional methods when twelve to twenty four months teaching was the norm. During this time I have also taught a student who previously had twelve months of ‘mixed’ analytic and synthetic teaching and who had made no progress at all. She is now well on the way to becoming a fluent reader and speller.
Learning to change my beliefs was not without difficulties. First came the guilt, that I had unwittingly been making life harder for my students rather than easier, followed by annoyance that this information had been around for some time but that teachers were left to discover it for themselves. However, change I did, and all my fears proved unfounded. Would I go back to the old ways, or keep one tiny little spelling rule? No I would not and neither would any other teacher who teaches synthetic phonics exclusively - because we don’t need to.
Go on, you have nothing to lose but the bathwater!