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

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
Synthetic Phonics in DundeeLynda Booth

Dundee City Council’s READ project (Raising Early Achievement in Dundee) has established that synthetic phonics is the most effective method for teaching reading and writing. In 1999 the READ Support for Learning staff tutors in collaboration with the Educational Psychologist Service undertook a successful small research project. This investigated the extent to which children with literacy difficulties could be supported by using a synthetic phonics approach, based on teaching the skills of segmentation and blending in a structured way. 

The children involved in the research made significant gains in reading and spelling, listening skills improved, motivation and self-confidence grew and their sight vocabulary was extended. In-service training was delivered as a follow up to the research and many schools decided to try out the synthetic approach. To begin with many schools trialled it alongside their existing phonic programme but after seeing the excellent results and the enthusiasm of their children they decided to implement it fully into the curriculum. Other schools adapted the parts of the synthetic phonic approach they liked best and ‘fitted’ it to their own programmes. 

Attainment is greatly improved especially in the children’s independent writing. Teachers are looking out resources for their P1 children that they possibly might not have used until P2. Pupils are willing to ‘have a go’ at spelling, reading and writing due to confidence gained though having a strong, solid foundation of phonic knowledge. 

We are now looking to sustain and extend that knowledge by developing spelling strategies and other phonic activities for further up the school. 

While carrying out the research, the staff tutors based their programme and utilised many of their resources, adapting them for their pupils’ needs, on the Phonics Handbook by Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham. As a result of this a phonics handbook of games and activities was devised to support teachers working in all primary schools in the city. Christopher Jolly, Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham have approved our publication and stated that it was a useful, supplementary book for Jolly Phonics. 

Editor’s comment: 

First of all, congratulations on the excellent work undertaken in Dundee. Lynda Booth, READ staff tutor for Dundee City Council, has sent me the supplementary material A Synthetic Phonics Approach to Literacy: Cracking the Alphabetic Code for review. (Contact: Lynda Booth, email: tel: 01382 434000). This material consists of a concise overview of rationale, advice and references with an enormous selection of photocopiable teachers’ resources to support the teacher in individual, group, whole-class work and for developing partnerships with parents. There is surely something for everyone in this bumper bundle, although I hope the ‘initial letter games’ are not used in excess as synthetic phonics is ideally about letters and sounds all-through-the-word. Also, at this point may I remind everyone of Bonnie Macmillan’s conclusions (RRF newsletter no. 46) that phonemic awareness is most effectively developed in the sight of print. 

In the section on Rationale, I would like to draw attention to one statement which is open to question: ‘Teaching children to use a phonics approach is meant to enhance, not replace, the wide range of word attack skills which also need to be taught to aid accuracy, fluency and comprehension, with the ultimate aim of enabling and encouraging them to read for enjoyment.’ This must come with a health warning. Synthetic phonics teaching is entirely about synthesising for the main decoding strategy, with no initial sight vocabulary. Focusing on a ‘wide range of word attack skills’ will undoubtedly dilute or distort the effectiveness of synthesising for decoding and also instil damaging guessing reading habits. Whereas there are different ways that various people can learn to read, research has shown that the best readers are automatic synthesisers. It is less skilled readers, by contrast, who use context to identify words. ‘The hallmark of a skilled reader is fast context-free word identification. And rich context-dependent text understanding.’ (C. Perfetti: ‘Cognitive research can inform reading education’, Journal of Research in Reading, Vol. 18 No. 2, September 1995). 

‘Every facet/tenet of whole language fails every test of validity or effectiveness. It damages children, even good readers, and promotes ideas that are false/unproven. Since whole language is anti-science, co-existence with any science-based program is illusory. Its literature choices violate children’s decoding ability, so “trial and error” take over. Would you let your child learn street-crossing by trial and error? We must let science decide.’ (Stanovich, 1993-4)

Whatever advances are being made in Scotland, I hope that they are not undermined by the continued ‘balancing’ of whole language and synthetic phonics. This is to misunderstand synthetic phonics teaching in its most effective form.  

Further I am not too happy about the following statement: ‘However, research literature highlights that the teacher is more important than the method.’ (Harrison, C. 1996.  Methods of Teaching Reading). Whereas we are all aware of the difference good teachers can make in the classroom, many excellent teachers have still failed their children by using the whole language and look and say teaching methods. As reading standards have dropped in recent decades and we have a resulting very high percentage of illiteracy, this cannot be attributed to a dearth of good teachers alone. Without underestimating the value of good teachers, nevertheless the fact that we can achieve markedly better results from a change of method – same teachers - shows that the method can be an essential factor in successful teaching. Equally, an appropriate method in the hands of even mediocre teachers is capable of having good effect. What we need is deployment of effective approaches along with good understanding of the issues and measuring the outcomes – these features in combination may inspire teachers to become even better as they are empowered by evidence-based approaches to succeed! In any event, much of the work of synthetic phonics teaching is perfectly well-accomplished by knowledgeable teaching assistants and partnerships between teachers and their assistants are invaluable. 

I have heard from several teachers and advisers throughout Scotland  (where evidence-based literacy teaching is spreading rapidly) that the Reading Reform Foundation newsletter is recommended reading. Scottish articles and reading results should be on their way in the near future and I do congratulate those individuals in Scotland who have promoted synthetic phonics teaching and made a substantial difference. Keep up the good work. 




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