The development and launch of The Phonics Handbook was covered in the previous newsletter. Having The Phonics Handbook shown on the television was a lucky start for us and just what we needed. As the majority of educationalists and teachers considered phonics unnecessary we knew we had an uphill struggle. It was still fashionable to criticise phonic teaching, testing and structured learning. However, things were about to change. Members of the government were painfully aware that far too many children were not able to read and write satisfactorily. They believed that a lack of phonics in the teaching was one of the major causes. In an effort to try and put this right, some phonics was included in the National Curriculum.
Many teachers, now that phonics was being recognised as important again, bought The Phonics Handbook and followed the teaching in it. They found that the children enjoyed the style of teaching and made much greater progress than before. The schools that followed the instructions and monitored the progress of their children found that their children were generally a year ahead of their chronological age in reading and a bit more in spelling by the end of the reception year. Often they reported to us that the children were doing as well as the Year 1 children who had not had the synthetic teaching of Jolly Phonics. This was exactly our experience when we introduced this phonic teaching back in the 70's.
At about the same time I went on a few courses about the teaching of phonics in Suffolk. To my amazement the course tutors were talking about the importance of developing 'onset and rime'* and phonological awareness for beginner readers. I was pleased to hear about the phonological awareness because we had been teaching our children to identify the sounds in words for years and knew how useful this was for developing their writing skills. However, the 'onset and rime' was a disturbing element. How could young children possibly learn all the hundreds of 'rime' patterns? I knew it was hard enough for the children to master even one spelling for each of the 42 sounds in Jolly Phonics. I explained this to the advisers and asked them to come to our school to see our structured phonic programme. They never came.
The Suffolk advisers had mentioned that the 'onset and rime' had been chosen because of the research carried out by Dr Usha Goswami. I think they recognised that in the previous years they had promoted the 'real books approach' (also known as 'whole language') and that it had been a failure for far too many children, so this time they wanted to choose something that was supported by research. This 'new phonics', developed from Dr Goswami's research, was just what they needed. It was different from the old letter-by-letter sounding out 'c-a-t' says cat, which they had been adamantly against for years and would find difficult to promote. Naturally I wanted to find out more about the research, so I attended a conference in Ipswich where Dr Goswami was giving a lecture. In her lecture she explained that young children were more able to hear the 'onset and rime' of a word than the individual phonemes and that it seemed sensible to start with an 'onset and rime' method of teaching, that is teaching the consonant sounds for the onset and teaching the hundreds of rime patterns for the rime. She also demonstrated that the children could use analogy. The children were shown the word 'beak' and from that they could work out the words 'peak' and 'weak' by exchanging the initial sound. This seemed very complicated phonics to me. I thought of all the <ea> rime patterns that the children would have to learn by sight: -ead, -eaf, -eag, -eak, -eal, -eam, -ean, -eap, -ear, -eas, -eat, and –eav. It was much easier to learn that <ea> usually has an /ee/ sound and then all the regular <ea> words can be blended. Also, no account was taken of the real situation in the classroom. When children come across a word that they cannot read, which is the majority of the words in the beginning, there is not an adult giving them a clue word, as was provided in the research experiment. Research by Prof. Philip Seymour and his colleagues have shown that children cannot use analogy properly until they have a reading age of 7+ years. By then they have a big store of words that they know, and they are able to recognise patterns in these words and apply them to their unknown words. Dr Goswami also produced charts to show that the children who had had this type of teaching were better than those who had not. It all sounded very plausible.
At this stage of my understanding, when Dr Goswami said that young children were not able to hear the individual phonemes in words, I was able to explain to her that it was relatively easy to teach the children to hear the individual phonemes in words and that most of our children were able to do this in their first term. I invited her to see it in action at our school. She didn't take up the offer.
Later on I was given a copy of the test that Dr Goswami used for her research. I tried it out on our children, who on a British Picture Vocabulary Scale test were poorer than the sample of children that were used in the original experiment; thereby showing that our children had no intellectual advantage. Our children not only scored considerably higher but also were a year younger when they took the test. If Dr Goswami had used our children as part of her research, she would have seen that the children taught with synthetic phonics were far more advanced than the 'onset and rime' children and even more so than the children who had virtually no phonics. Although Dr Goswami and the advisers were correct when they pointed out that the 'onset and rime' children were better than the control group, they were totally wrong to assume that it was the best approach or even a good one. This just goes to show how easy it is for researchers and advisers to get it wrong. We need different attitudes in education and far more accountability. Why did the Suffolk advisers not try out their ideas on a small sample of schools, using standardised reading and spelling tests, before attempting to spread the practice to all schools? Why did Dr Goswami and the Suffolk advisers not look or listen when their initiatives were challenged? Also, in the wider context, why were the DfES initiatives not scientifically tested before being foisted onto the LEA's advisory staff and teachers in schools? These questions I shall try to address in the last part of the Jolly Phonics story.
* Onset and rime is an approach which focuses on individual phonemes only when they are single consonants or consonant clusters at the beginning of words. The rest of the word (or syllable, in longer words) is treated as a single unit. So 'cat' is not treated as consisting of three phonemes but as consisting of two chunks: an initial consonant phoneme (the 'onset') and a rime chunk ('-at'); 'beak' is 'b-eak'; 'crab' is 'cr-ab'; 'sprinkling' – 'spr-ink-l-ing'.