The Scotsman: Why synthetic phonics was a natural winner

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Susan Godsland
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The Scotsman: Why synthetic phonics was a natural winner

Post by Susan Godsland » Wed Apr 27, 2005 12:51 pm

In today's issue of The Scotsman

Why synthetic phonics was a natural winner


IN 1996, shortly after the formation of the new authority, the directorate of Clackmannanshire convened a group to advise on how to improve pupils’ literacy skills. Interest was expressed in Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston’s research at the University of St Andrews on the teaching of reading in the early stages of primary school. As soon as the government’s "early intervention" initiative was announced, it was agreed that one part of Clackmannanshire’s strategy would include a partnership with the university to continue research on the initial teaching of reading.

In the seven years since the words "synthetic phonics" were first heard in the staffrooms and classrooms of Clackmannanshire, many column inches have been taken up with reports on the authority’s success in improving pupils’ reading skills. The synthetic phonics method is normally taught before children are introduced to either books or reading. It involves teaching small groups of letters very rapidly. Children are shown how letter sounds can be co-articulated to pronounce unfamiliar words.

Recently, reports on Clackmannanshire have focused on the results at the P7 stage where pupils’ reading and spelling ages were found to be, respectively, 42 months and 21 months ahead of chronological age. An unexpected result of the study showed that from P4 onwards, boys outperformed girls.

Earlier feedback on the teaching method focused on the pace of learning to "sound and blend" in the early stages of P1. Where it could previously have taken up to three years to cover all 40-plus sounds in English, these are introduced early in P1 in approximately 16 weeks. The increased pace of learning expected of P1 pupils is undoubtedly an important element of the programme. However, most reports have focused on this to such an extent as to suggest that this is the sole method used to teach pupils to read.

Learning to read in P1 in Clackmannanshire also includes pupils being taught to make words (to "encode") before they are presented with unknown words to read ("decode"). Alongside this, pupils learn to build and read phrases and sentences, use movement and rhymes to increase their knowledge of language and are actively involved in their learning process. As a result, the pupils are able use terms such as vowels and consonants with confidence and enthusiasm. From the beginning, pupils are thinking and talking about their learning.

While there is a predictable pattern to most lessons, each one is "chunked" to provide a variety of learning experiences. Alongside the synthetic phonics programme, schools make use of core reading schemes and library books, which were provided as another strand of the early intervention programme. Activities and games that are familiar in P1 classes across the country are also included in the range of pupils’ learning experiences.

In attempting to define the success of the programme, we believe that a significant component of the methodology is the explicit modelling of the thinking process by the teacher. This is then imitated by the pupils. Nothing is left to chance and it is likely that the focus on the development of thinking about learning is a key factor of the programme’s success.

Teachers will already know part of the programme involves teaching pupils to make simple words. The pronouncing of letter sounds to make words is demonstrated and practiced using magnetic letters that can be pushed together easily.

Many of the teachers involved in the beginnings of early intervention have contributed extensively to the programme currently in use. In 1998, the first version was rolled out to all of the schools not involved in the initial research. This was not difficult: one of the great advantages of working in the smallest mainland authority is that good news travels fast. Strong professional networks meant the word on the street was that, despite many of our initial reservations, something exciting was in the air. Seven years on, this has been confirmed by comments from teachers who describe their pupils as "very motivated", and having "improved confidence in their literacy skills". One teacher with 30 years experience said that the outcomes for pupils were "the best ever achieved" while a headteacher in another school said the programme had "empowered teachers and pupils". There is agreement that teachers’ expectations of all pupils had been raised as a result of their involvement in the programme.

So, what next? Despite all the successes associated with the scheme, there has been no room for complacency and other strategies have been adopted in the authority’s efforts to continue to improve pupil performance. Among these are the implementation of the Thinking Through Philosophy programme which focuses on listening, thinking and talking. Thinking about learning is being developed through an authority-wide commitment to formative assessment. There has been widespread training of staff in the teaching of reading and writing and the authority believes that these skills will be enhanced further through the implementation of critical skills or co-operative learning techniques.

• Lesley Robertson is the quality improvement manager for Clackmannanshire Council ... =446582005

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