In the last four RRF Newsletters I recalled how two ordinary classroom teachers, namely Sara Wernham and I, developed the Jolly Phonics Programme. In the last of these articles I will share the experiences that I have had with the education establishment.
The teaching ideas for Jolly Phonics came out of the classroom where we had been using a systematic, synthetic phonics programme for years. We were excited by the success of this method and wanted to share it with others, but nobody from the advisory service or higher education world was interested. It came as quite a shock to realise that we have an education system that allows new methods to be introduced with no proof that they work, while turning a blind eye to successful initiatives in the classroom. This same system continues to fail so many of our children, particularly those at the bottom end.
When I started teaching in the 1970s I was told that the purpose of advisers was to go into schools and listen to the problems teachers might be experiencing. They were to keep an eye open for good ideas, share these with other teachers and try to solve the problems.
Unfortunately my experience was that the advisory role turned into a conduit for passing on the latest fashionable trends. New ideas were created at the top and passed on to the advisers and training colleges. They in turn spread the ideas into the schools. I could see teachers naturally believed that the advice coming from their superiors must be good, and therefore that they should implement the new ideas. Many teachers seeking promotion also knew that they had to welcome and implement the latest initiatives if they wanted to succeed. In fact, far from being interested in our methods, the advisers wanted us to change to their initiatives, which have now been discredited.
It seems to me that, in England, we have an excellent system for promoting new methods of teaching, yet no one seems to have thought that these new ideas should be scientifically tested before being promoted. Clearly this can be a harmful system if the ideas are faulty. History has sadly proven this to be the case with several poor methods promoted in this way.
We had seen the effects of the first fashionable trend and wrong method, 'Look and Say', which created a ‘long tail of under-achievement’. This was replaced by the 'Real Book Approach' (whole language and no phonics), which finally had to be abandoned because it produced an even longer 'tail'. Together these methods have failed the poorest readers for several generations. None of these major literacy problems would have happened if a more scientific approach had been adopted, with widespread introduction only after successful testing.
Once the falling standards had been revealed in the late 1980s, a new type of phonics called 'onset and rime' was rushed in with enormous enthusiasm. This approach seemed flawed to me. I knew that young children could not cope with learning all the letter patterns (the rime part of the word), and that it was much more effective to blend the individual phonemes. I went out of my way to invite the advisers, as well as Dr. Usha Goswami (the leading academic behind the approach), to come and visit our school. They never came. Looking back on this experience has made me realise that the advisers in my area, who were promoting 'onset and rime', believed that their role was merely to spread this latest initiative, based on accepted wisdom from on high, rather than open-mindedly looking for the best possible methods. Even though that initiative was better than no phonics, it did not work and has now largely been dropped.
Things have slightly improved. Phonics is no longer completely rejected and many schools and teachers have taken advantage of this to investigate alternative teaching methods. As a result Jolly Phonics is in use in many schools. However, despite this, we are still anxious about the future of literacy teaching.
Firstly, the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) advocates a mixture of methods and strategies. These mixed methods create problems for many children. Evidence-based research clearly shows that the simpler synthetic phonics approach produces higher results and reduces the 'tail of under-achievement'. The children at our school since the 1970s have always been taught with synthetic phonics and our results have been impressive since then. For example, our 2002 end of KS 1 results are:
Reading *2% below Level 2 (National 16%) Writing *2% below Level 2 (National 14%)
Spelling 97% level 2 or above (National 75%) Baseline quotient 87.11 (County av. 100.44)
* the 2% below consisted entirely of one child who had transferred from another school to our school. It is also worth noting that the boys were better than the girls.
Secondly, and partly owing to the NLS, even in schools where Jolly Phonics is being used it sometimes does not go beyond the introduction of letter sounds. There is often insufficient attention given to the process of blending, which in our experience is so important for achieving the higher results.
Thirdly, we do not have a culture of testing first. It is unacceptable that the NLS, Progression In Phonics, and Early Literacy Support were not scientifically tested by means of standardised reading and spelling tests before being directed into all schools.
So what needs to be done?
Undoubtedly the education system has to change further. The educationalists and advisers must become far more accountable for the ideas that they promote. I suggest that it should even become illegal to promote trends, initiatives, programmes etc. without previously measuring their effectiveness by means of standardised reading and spelling tests. No Heads or teachers should be expected to adopt new initiatives without being informed of the test results beforehand. After all, they are accountable for results and therefore need evidence that any new initiative will be better than their current practice.
Currently 16% of children are below standard at the end of Year 2. We now have enough evidence to show that it is possible to reduce this to below 1%. This can been achieved by recognising and adopting the following:
· The teaching of the mechanics of reading and writing is essential and must come first. Synthetic phonics is the fastest and most effective route to reading. It is a matter of understanding the right method and providing extra support for the weaker children.
· Once there is fluency in children's reading and writing, then all the good aspects of whole language and the NLS can be used to improve the vocabulary, comprehension, appreciation of good literature and poetry, as well as writing for many purposes.
There now needs to be a consensus in the education world, with evidence-based practices behind it all. A balanced definition that I have heard came from Professor Dale Willows, OISE, Toronto, Canada. She likened the teaching to a balanced diet. In the beginning a baby needs milk. The milk is the phonics teaching. Gradually the baby needs more nutrients in the diet and these are provided by the better whole language ideas. There have been good ideas on both sides of the so-called 'reading wars'. Now we must make sure that our children do get the right diet. It is phonics first, until the alphabetic code is fully understood and there is fluency to the reading and writing.
Not all local education authorities are reluctant to investigate and promote synthetic phonics teaching and programmes. There is clearly reluctance, however, to either undertake objective comparisons of reading instruction programmes/principles in the first place, or to inform practitioners of any comparative results in a transparent manner. The National Literacy Strategy appears to be a vehicle for reading reform but indications are that it is proving to be a barrier to open evaluation and scientific testing. In some authorities the NLS advice continues to be delivered as a monopoly whereas in other authorities leading literacy teachers are encouraged to offer training in synthetic phonics programmes. It would be interesting to note the record of all education authorities.