More thoughts arising from Toots's mention of Appendix B in the Torgerson, Brooks and Hall review....
When I first read the review in 2006, I ticked quite a lot of things in Appendix B, particularly in the two complete paragraphs on p. 56. I also pencilled in a comment that ‘the pressure for “fast” arises at least partly because of the pressure to get children reading books a.s.a.p.’. What I had in mind was that people who favoured approaches other than s.p. at the time were arguably taking things even faster by expecting children to read whole books using several different cueing strategies from the start of Reception.
The reference to Brooks at the end of the ‘Only’ paragraph on p. 56 made me re-read the 2003 paper of his referred to (http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/4938/5/nls_phonics0303gbrooks.pdf
) and also a chapter by him in the UKRA’s book Perspectives on the Teaching and Learning of Phonics
(ed. Cook, published 2002). The book chapter was about phonemic awareness training and something that struck me afresh was the enthusiasm Brooks expressed back then for a Welsh initiative called ‘POPAT’ (Programme of Phonemic Awareness Training). This involved initial training in phonemic awareness without letters:
In 2002, Brooks wrote:POPAT seems to me to have the potential to speed up the learning of the alphabetic principle for many children, and to unlock it for children who are mystified by conventional phonics.
Brooks himself was monitoring it, so when I saw him at a conference the year after the book came out, I asked him whether he was writing up any results. He said he wasn’t, as the children had now done the Key Stage 1 assessment and the POPAT children had done no better than the rest. I was sorry that this was not publicised – it might have helped to persuade people that training phonemic awareness before starting to teach phonics doesn’t help. It illustrates the way that useful findings don't always see the light of day.
In his 2003 seminar paper, I was struck by this, on p. 13:
He wrote:Also, it is not as clear as it might be from the experimental literature that synthetic phonics is markedly more effective than analytic. As far as I am aware, there are rather few experiments, and all but one (Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson’s study in Scotland) took place in the United States; confirmation is needed that the same result would apply in England.
In any case, before a randomised controlled trial was authorised the existing literature on synthetic vs. analytic would have to be thoroughly evaluated through a systematic review and meta-analysis; if this provided convincing evidence from several trials in English-speaking countries then it would be unnecessary to carry out an RCT in England. If the review failed to provide convincing evidence, there would then be a case for mounting a study of ‘naturally occurring variation’ in the teaching of phonics correlated with children’s progress.
Well, the review of existing literature was done 3 years later, with Brooks himself as part of the team (Torgerson, Brooks and Hall). The researchers concluded, on the basis of two USA studies and one UK study, that there was no ‘convincing evidence’ in favour of s.p., but this conclusion may not have been reliable, as Johnston, McGeown and Watson have pointed out – here’s the extract again:
Johnston et al. wrote:However, a meta-analysis, funded by England’s Department for Education and Skills (DfES), claimed that there was no clear outcome as to whether synthetic or analytic phonics was the most effective method (Torgerson, Brooks, & Hall, 2006), which may seem surprising in the context of the research by Torgesen et al. (1999) and Johnston and Watson (2004). There are various reasons for this null result. One of the three studies included in the meta-analysis was an unpublished study of kindergarten children, where the children were inappropriately trained on complex vowels, such as tape and rode (Skailand, 1971); these sorts of words are not suitable for early sounding and blending. An advantage was found for the analytic phonics group on the trained items, but not on the untrained words. However, the data on the reading of the trained words were used in the meta-analysis, whereas the National Reading Panel only analysed examined performance on untrained items. Torgesen et al.’s (1999) study was also included. This showed in the long term that the synthetic phonic method was more effective than embedded phonics but Torgerson et al. (2006) used data from a few months into this two and a half year study, when the embedded phonics group was briefly ahead in reading. This was because the synthetic phonics group was mostly learning phoneme awareness at this stage rather than phonics. The third study included was Johnston and Watson’s (2004) Experiment 2, and this also showed that synthetic phonics teaching led to much better reading skills than the analytic phonics method. (Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25, 2012).
Another 7+ years have passed since the Torgerson et al. review was published but there has been no ‘study of naturally occurring variation' of the type that Brooks thought might be needed (unless the 2012 study by Johnston, McGeown and Watson counts as one). And even if such a study had been done and had been good enough for Brooks, would it have been good enough for Davis? It seems that Davis himself has been for many years in a position where he could have been pressing for people to do the sort of research he favours - I wonder whether he has done this.
Shortly after the Torgerson et al. review appeared, Jim Rose wrote:...notwithstanding the uncertainties of research, there is much convincing evidence to show from the practice observed that, as generally understood, ‘synthetic’ phonics is the form of systematic phonics work that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers. Amongst other things, this is because it teaches children directly what they need to know... whereas other approaches, such as ‘analytic’ phonics, expect them to deduce them’ (Rose Review, 2006, para. 47).
The footnote to the paragraph refers to the definitions of synthetic and analytic phonics in the 2006 Torgerson et al. review, where a.p. is indeed defined as requiring children to ‘deduce’ or ‘infer’ letter-sound correspondences:
Torgerson et al. wrote:Analytic phonics refers to an approach in which the phonemes associated with particular graphemes are not pronounced in isolation. Children identify (analyse) the common phoneme in a set of words in which each word contains the phoneme under study. For example, teacher and pupils discuss how the following words are alike: teachers and children discuss how the following words are alike: pat, park, push and pen. Analytic phonics for writing similarly relies on inferential learning: realising that the initial phoneme is the same in [certain words] children deduce that they must write that phoneme with the letter <p>. (p. 13).
Statements that phonemes are not pronounced in isolation in a.p. have always puzzled me. If /p/, for example, is not pronounced in isolation by teachers or children, how do teachers know that children have identified exactly the right sound? In any case, I think that phonemes probably were
pronounced in isolation in the a.p. condition in the Clackmannanshire study.
The definitions of s.p. and a.p. used by Torgerson et al. are those used by Brooks in his 2003 paper, which, in turn, are based on those of Strickland (1998). Strickland, by the way, is not an s.p. advocate (see her ‘Afterword’ to M.J. Adams’s 1990 book Beginning to Read
), so Davis is wrong to imply that the tendency to use terms such as ‘phoneme’ loosely is a particular weakness in s.p. circles.
S.p. has had government backing since 2007, with Letters and Sounds
embodying the recommendations of the Rose Review and made available to schools not already using, or prepared to start using, other suitable programmes. Mixed methods obviously continued, however, and results continued to be mediocre at best. I suspect that it was because of this that it was decided to offer matched funding and introduce the phonics screening check.