Letterland NOT synthetic phonics...is it just me?

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Lesley

Letterland NOT synthetic phonics...is it just me?

Post by Lesley » Sun Nov 06, 2005 11:56 pm

Having just received the latest RRF newsletter, I am very disturbed to find over 6 pages filled with a detailed description of Letterland, written by its author, in which she describes it as a SYNTHETIC PHONICS PROGRAMME.

Is it just me, or is this not totally confusing?

We have spent a great deal of time defining and refining what is and is not synthetic phonics so that we can all agree on the methodology, regardless of the strengths of one programme in relation to others. At least we all know what we are talking about when we talk about a synthetic phonics approach.

But Letterland does not fit anywhere even close to synthetic phonics, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Is there going to be a full discussion of the programme as there was with THRASS? It can't be left like this.

I am also dismayed at the comment in the editorial where it is intimated that we should "let go" of the term synthetic phonics because of confusion surrounding its use! Well, describing Letterland as synthetic phonics is certainly going to add to that confusion.

We have worked long and hard to get synthetic phonics recognised, and now, when the media, teachers, parents and politicians are picking up on it is NOT the time to abandon it.

I really don't know what to think. What do others feel?

Surely we should be focusing our efforts on the Rose review, not Letterland?

Guest

Post by Guest » Mon Nov 07, 2005 12:38 am

I have not seen this article yet but look forward to reading the newsletter.
Perhaps Letterland has been updated in line with what we are seeing from Clackmannashire and JP schools.
In the guide for pre-schools, (Discovering Letterland by Judy Manson and Mark Wendon, Ed. Lyn Wendon published in 1995) the focus is entirely on letter recognition and pronunciation, to be taught at the rate of one letter per week, in any order wished by the teacher , or alphabetic order. Advice is to refer to letters by their Letterland names.
I had to use Letteland at my last school with pre-primary children and the advice was followed as in the guide. The Y1 teacher continued with word building etc.
It is quite different from JP. A knowledgeable teacher could adapt of course but for a novice using the guide there are no instructions about the importance of blending etc.

JAC

quipg.

Post by quipg. » Mon Nov 07, 2005 12:57 am

Am all for inclusivity....but the more I read about Letterland via the rrf newsletter the less I thought of it as a synthetic phonics programme. In fact it demonstrated just why so many remedial children who were referred to me had done Letterland initially . The concentration on the first letter/sound, the overarching connection between letter and character, the lack of blending-through-the-word, the concentration on alliteration (lovely - but read little ones lots of stories, nursery rhymes - reading via alliteration is not learning to decode....), the stories about the characters which chldren could only possibly read by whole word recognition - not by decoding.

I was utterly bamboozled.....and the lost opportunity to talk to teachers, parents, address the ITT problem, look at the political implications, look again at the effect on boys, on the growing underclass of white working class boys, inner-city Afro-Caribbeans, Pakistan second-generation boys - - we should be addressing Trevor Phillips and the Race Equality Commission, Alan Wells and the Basic Skills Commission, the work in youth offenders centres, looking at the Reading Recovery debacle, the Australian enquiry into reading, interviewing Nick Gibb or the golden boy himself... looking at syntheticphonics.com, the bottom up work that Louise referred to - mumsnet for example, There didn't seem to be any rationale for almost half the magazing being devoted to Letterland.

Toe by Toe, for instance, is not a synthetic phonics programme but it does have enough in common with s.p. to see why and how it works for some struggling readers and with adults - in prison especially.
Am sorry - I would love it if Letterland had enough in common with all the programmes we promote - had enough documented success to demonstrate that we should learn lessons from it - but I can't see it . I hate being critical of a programme which has been constructed with such care and good will - but it's so far from any synthetic programme I've encountered...not even at the baroque end of synthetic phonics...
Lesley, I did wonder if it was just me, too....

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Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Mon Nov 07, 2005 1:05 am

A review of the 'new style' Letterland will be forthcoming.

I shall also be discussing the role of mnemonics including their dangers.

When I do my synthetic phonics training, I give a health warning about mnemonic systems and ask teachers to focus on what they are for and how they might be counterproductive.

During my training I also suggest that teachers should not go to great elaboration with such activities as playing with word cards in the sand and making letter shapes from play dough. The question is whether the emphasis on Letterland characters, story lines and wider activities actually detract from the business of reading and writing.

My interest in the area of reading instruction was partly aroused by the numbers of junior children still saying the Letterland character names instead of sounding out the letter sounds. I was very alarmed by this situation as it could indicate two things: 1) that teachers do not understand the process of early reading and the need for children to say the letter sounds automatically and not the character names, and 2) that the mnemonic system itself has inherent dangers as the children are remembering the 'hook' rather than the information required.

A phonics programme is not automatically a 'synthetic phonics' teaching programme and yet already we are seeing the name 'synthetic phonics' being used liberally without due regard to what 'synthetic phonics' is or isn't.

This includes THRASS which looks more like a whole language programme than a synthetic phonics programme in its early stages with its emphasis on 500 key words and no mention of blending for quite a while.

All comments are welcome about the new Letterland and whether people who are using it recognise it as synthetic phonics. I am looking forward to finding out what is meant by "a Phonemic Awareness Fast Track strand, a Reading by Analogy strand and a Sight Word Strand" as these are not features associated with synthetic phonics per se.

Readers are not expected to interpret the presence of the Letterland article in the latest newsletter as an RRF endorsement of this programme.

Guest

Post by Guest » Mon Nov 07, 2005 1:05 am

In the note to parents at the back of the pre-school guide mentioned above,
'Letterland is a successful and well proven teaching method. It is used in many pre-schools and over 50% of the 25,000 UK primary schools. Letterland is also fully compatible with the National curriculum. so nothing that your child learns will have to be unlearnt later."

I hope that this 1995 guide has been updated in line with current understandings of synthetic phonics approach, and that the evidence for its success is robust!

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Post by Susan Godsland » Mon Nov 07, 2005 9:41 am

Having looked at the website it appears to me that Letterland is what could be termed the 'dogs dinner' approach AKA 'mixed methods' or 'NLS' :x

On the Letterland FAQ page:

Is Letterland a synthetic phonics system?
Synthetic phonics teaches letter sounds before they start to build words. Letterland teaches letter sounds first but very quickly moves into building words. Letterland pictograms also allow children to look at words in context and break down the sounds of its letters in a friendly and meaningful way. Analytic phonics looks at a word, often in context of a story, and breaks it into its different sounds. Letterland is therefore a synthetic phonics system that also uses analytic strategies. It combines the best of both approaches.

Letterland is a phonic-only system and doesn't take into account the fact that many children learn best using a 'whole language' approach.
Letterland is not a phonic-only system. It combines phonics with 'whole language', synthesizing the two approaches. Maybe 50% or 60% of your class will succeed on an exclusively 'whole language' diet with regard to reading but far fewer will find that enough for developing spelling ability. Among the remaining 40-50% there are always children who reach a plateau in their reading because their memory for whole word shapes reaches overload. Letterland provides strategies to lift them beyond that plateau in a form which children welcome -- and makes spelling interesting for them too.

http://www.letterland.com/Teachers/FAQT.html#3

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Post by Elizabeth » Wed Nov 09, 2005 10:01 am

Firstly, I agree with the comments above about Letterland.

On a less important note, I was puzzled by this. Quipg writes:

'Toe by Toe, for instance, is not a synthetic phonics programme but it does have enough in common with s.p. to see why and how it works for some struggling readers and with adults - in prison especially.'

Why isn't Toe by Toe a synthetic phonic approach? It seems to me to have all the attributes of synthetic phonics. It teaches letter/sound correspondences and blending, with no guessing and no memorising whole words.

I've used it successfully, although I think it is quite tricky to use well, because it is not multisensory and it can be frustrating for those steeped in guessing and memorising strategies. However, it forces pupils to change these damaging reading reflexes. It is highly and comprehensively structured and good for competitive pupils who like the reward of a tick, strictly only for when they read accurately.
Elizabeth

Jenny Chew

Post by Jenny Chew » Fri Nov 18, 2005 8:06 am

I am just back from 2+ weeks in the USA and am trying to catch up with things, despite worse-than-usual jet-lag (24-hour delay caused by bad storms in Houston!).

As Newsletter editor, I feel I must respond in particular to two comments of Lesley’s:

1. Re. ‘Letterland’: Its author, Lyn Wendon, wrote to me on 28 September, having become concerned about negative comments made about ‘Letterland’ in RRF circles. I had known about her programme since the early 1990s, had heard her speaking about it in (I think) 1993, and knew that it had done a lot to increase the respectability of grapheme-phoneme teaching at a time when ‘phonics’ was an extremely dirty word – people who have come into the debate only in the past few years may not be aware of this. After Lyn wrote to me, I had lengthy discussions with her which convinced me that if children got stuck on the ‘Letterland’ characters (the main problem that seemed to be bothering RRFers) it was probably because teachers were not using the programme properly – a phenomenon which we are quite used to in connection with (say) ‘Jolly Phonics’. She also made me more aware of the support she had had from leading researchers (e.g. Linnea Ehri) than I had previously been. As a result of all this, I felt that it was right to offer her space in the Newsletter. I didn’t, however, make this decision unilaterally – I talked to a couple of RRF committee members about it and they had no problem with it.
2. Re. my editorial comment in Newsletter 56 that it might be time to drop the term ‘synthetic phonics’: I said this because information from sources which I regard as reliable had made me feel that we might have a better chance of getting the right methods accepted (particularly in the context of the Rose review) if we were prepared to drop the term. In the first place, the DfES has seriously muddied the waters surrounding this term; in the second place, I don’t think that even RRFers all use the term in exactly the same way; in the third place, dropping the term probably allows a more comfortable place under our umbrella for some of the very good programmes which put more emphasis at first on analysis than on synthesis. When Mona McNee set up the UK chapter of the RRF in 1989, it was with the sole purpose of getting ‘phonics’ back into its rightful place. The term ‘synthetic phonics’ hadn’t come to prominence at that time: this happened only through the Johnston/Watson work, particularly from 1998 onwards. One subtlety, however, is that J and W used the term, strictly speaking, only for the reading side of the process – synthesising (putting together/blending) phonemes produced in response to graphemes, with no memorising of sight-words as wholes or guessing from pictures and context. Although the J and W programme teaches spelling by an exactly reciprocal process at first, the authors do not regard this (as some RRFers do) as strictly part of ‘synthetic phonics’ because spelling involves the analysis rather than the synthesis of sounds. The term ‘synthetic’ has done a fantastic job in getting us to where we now are, but dropping it seems a small price to pay if this reduces confusion and allows us to focus firmly on what Mona wanted from the start and what we all surely still want: i.e. that beginners should be taught to read and spell purely by phonics – phonemic synthesis for reading and phonemic analysis for spelling, with some flexibility over the exact amount of emphasis put on each.

Jenny.

Jenny Chew

Post by Jenny Chew » Fri Nov 18, 2005 8:16 am

Something else I should have said about 'Letterland' is that I think we should apply the same criteria to it as we do to other programmes - i.e. rely on research evidence rather than anecdotal evidence. The comments made by RRFers so far strike me as more anecdotal than otherwise - if anyone knows of RESEARCH evidence showing that this programme is ineffective, please let me know.

Jenny.

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Post by Susan Godsland » Fri Nov 18, 2005 12:50 pm

Brennan and Ireson (1997) 'They adapted a Lundberg-type program for kindergartners attending an American school in England.'

'The third group was taught 'Letterland' characters (letters drawn to look like animals) to teach letter sounds.'

'The only clear result was the extremely poor showing of the Letterland program.'

Brennan F and Ireson J. 1997. Training Phonological Awareness: a study to evaluate the effects of a program of metalinguistic games in kindergarten. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 9. 241-263

I'd like to add that by their own admission Letterland is a 'mixed methods' programme -see my message above in this string.

Also, if they do have an empirical research-base then they are very coy about it . The article by Lyn Wendon contains no details of the type of research, or results, to back her claim that 'Letterland is a research-based programme', though we do get several opinions and endorsements

The Letterland website also has a page of 'opinions' but no research evidence is made available www.letterland.com

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Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Fri Nov 18, 2005 1:48 pm

Diane McGuinness flags up some negative research about Letterland in her book 'Early Reading Research...'

But I think there are other issues here than just single pieces of research:

We know that we need to research the research. We know that research can be skewed by an insufficient analysis of the 'results' and an insufficient analysis of a variety of factors affecting results.

We know that research can be poorly, or not properly, controlled, or not controlled and compared at all!

We know that we have to look at past research and that we have a BODY of research which shows certain teaching features are damaging and certain teaching features are particularly effective. This is why Diane McGuinness came up with her idea about the 'prototype' - looking at common features of the most effective programmes in order to help us evaluate programmes and predict their likely success.

If Letterland, as a programme, is reviewed/analysed as a mixed methods programme, I would not be persuaded that this was as effective as a sythetic phonics or linguistic phonics programme.

I would not be persuaded until there was a body of research which showed that a programme which was the same or similar to the Letterland advice convinced me - because currently there is a body of research which shows mixed methods is not the best. So, is Letterland 'mixed methods' or 'synthetic phonics'?

The RRF tries its utmost to look 'in depth' at the teaching of reading.

The strength of our arguments regarding the NLS has been our scrutiny of the DETAILS of the NLS programmes and, in the absence of any objective testing of those programmes, the RRF has had to offer an 'analyses' of whether the various NLS programmes are really mixed methods or synthetic phonics based on the body of research of which we are aware.


Had teachers had sufficient subject knowledge and skill, they would, arguably, have evaluated 'Progression In Phonics' according to the research on reading. They SHOULD also have been supplied with objective testing results of the national programmes to help them evaluate the efficacy of using the government programmes.

Diane McGuinness points out that we already have the research to show that mixed methods is not the best way and that the way forward is for the various phonics programmes to be compared so that we can continue to improve our teaching 'for the future'.

All this means is that we do need to analyse the Letterland advice to compare it with the RRF's definition of synthetic phonics in the light of our wealth of knowledge and understanding and practical classroom experience to date.

Of course we also need to scrutinise and evaluate the 'research' which has been undertaken with the Letterland programme.

Lyn Wendon says that she has updated her programme - but how? Has there been any research with her updated advice? How much has her advice changed since previous research? How much research is there comparing Letterland with other methods and programmes?

I have been concerned by the number of children stuck saying the Letterland character names instead of the pure sounds for different reasons:

1) Does this indicate a fundamental design flaw of the mnemonic system?

2) Does this indicate that teachers have not followed the advice offered in the programme closely enough regarding a) the use of the mnemonic system, b) the method of beginning reading instruction?

3) Is the advice offered in the programme for reading instruction sufficiently evidence-based?

I have occasionally heard of children being stuck on the Jolly Phonics mnemonic system - which may also be an indication of poor teacher understanding or a design flaw. It is not uncommon for teachers to use the mnemonic system well to teach the letter/s-sound correspondences but then fail to teach the blending and segmenting and to include the advice of the NLS 'range of strategies' alongside.


If Letterland emphasises whole word learning and has been designed to fit in with the NLS (which the RRF has already analysed by a scrutiny of the NLS programmes and training as being undesirable mixed methods), it is surely not sufficient for the designer to claim that the programme is synthetic phonics? This is comparable to Ruth Kelly claiming that 'synthetic phonics' is at the heart of the NLS when we have written over and again that a programme cannot be both synthetic phonics and promote whole word learning (by shape) and a range of reading strategies amounting to guessing.

Look how Alan Davies is now claiming that THRASS is a synthetic phonics programme and yet he proclaimed to the attendees of the DfES phonics seminar in 2003 that he believed in a whole language approach. His website 'steps' for the beginning stages certainly indicates that this is the case.

The RRF has already set the precedent of evaluating programmes with and without the research. I think it is valid that we look at the new-design Letterland and evaluate it to see whether it fits a synthetic phonics teaching approach. It is also right that we look at the research studies which Lyn Wendon is able to provide us with.

I have asked Lyn to refer me to the main Letterland manual for beginning reading instruction so that we may review it as we would any other programme - particularly where we have been approached to provide space in the newsletter.
Last edited by Debbie Hepplewhite on Sat Nov 19, 2005 12:46 am, edited 1 time in total.

Jenny Chew

Post by Jenny Chew » Fri Nov 18, 2005 9:23 pm

I don’t want to get embroiled in lengthy discussion about this but would like to respond briefly to Susan’s message above.

I have the Brennan and Ireson article in my files and have just re-read it and the section on it in Diane McGuinness’s ‘Early Reading Instruction’, from which Susan’s quotations are taken. I also heard Fiona Brennan speak about the early stages of her work many years ago – I think this was in 1993, at a conference, which was held at the American school in Cobham, at which Brennan was teaching and doing her research (probably the same conference at which Lyn Wendon spoke). I said to Fiona Brennan at the time that I thought that teaching letters and sounds together and teaching children to read words by sounding out and blending produced much better results than discrete phonological/phonemic awareness training.

The Brennan and Ireson article says that the teacher of the control group ‘tended to use Letterland characters as a basis for teaching the children letter names and sounds’. It is not clear that this teacher used Letterland systematically in accordance with the author’s instructions and therefore I don’t think that this study constitutes clear research evidence showing that Letterland is ineffective – I don’t think it allows us to be sure one way or the other, and I suspect that Diane McG did not intend her own brief comments on the article as a definitive summing up of Letterland. I also don’t think that Lyn Wendon’s article in Newsletter 56 was any more ‘coy’ about research than many other Newsletter articles which people have found perfectly acceptable. All I am asking for is fair play.

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Post by Susan Godsland » Sat Nov 19, 2005 12:36 am

Jenny,

If there is empirical research supporting Letterland then you'd think the developers would be keen to display it, but, as I said previously, there is no information re.research on their website. If I go to one of the synthetic phonic programme websites such as Jolly Phonics or Sounds~Write, the research is proudly displayed.

Also, the Letterland website says clearly that it is a 'mixed method' programme. The RRF, I believe, has stated firmly that the synthetic phonic method cannot be part of a mixed method programme.

This is the sort of information that I feel should have accompanied the article.

Jenny Chew

Post by Jenny Chew » Sat Nov 19, 2005 7:25 am

OK Susan, points taken. I will ask Lyn Wendon if she would be prepared to deal with these matters in a future Newsletter.

In the meantime, I just want to make it clear that her article in Newsletter 56 arose out of her concern about negative things said publicly about Letterland by RRF members - one member in particular. I consulted this member and we agreed that it would be fair to include an article by Lyn in the Newsletter. My own knowledge of Letterland, going back to the early 1990s, suggested that it was doing good work, and this view was shared by another very experienced committee member. I had also heard positive reports of Letterland during my visit to South Africa a few months ago. As Newsletter editor, I would not have felt free to include 'health warnings' without much more hard evidence than seemed to be available.

Jenny.

Guest

Post by Guest » Sun Nov 27, 2005 12:39 pm

It was mentioned that this article was in the newsletter. Will it be available online shortly?

JAC

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