Sunday Times: Sounds like we have a reading revolution

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Susan Godsland
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Sunday Times: Sounds like we have a reading revolution

Post by Susan Godsland » Mon May 02, 2005 9:34 am

In yesterday's Sunday Times -Scotland edition:

Sounds like we have a reading revolution

Clackmannanshire pupils are streets ahead of their peers thanks to a new literacy teaching system, writes Gillian Harris

Chloe McMeekin frowns in concentration as she reads aloud from a book given to her by her teacher. She starts slowly but soon gains confidence and reads the opening passage without faltering. Her teacher smiles proudly. The book — Daughter of the Sea by the award-winning children’s author Berlie Doherty — is aimed at teenagers studying English at secondary school. Chloe is 11.
Chloe and her classmates at Abercromby primary school in Tullibody, Clackmannanshire, are the bashful stars of a reading revolution which began seven years ago in central Scotland. The 304 pupils who started at 19 primary schools across the region in August 1998 were the first in Britain to be taught to read and write using a system which is being hailed as the key to improving literacy.

The system is called synthetic phonics. It is an imaginative way of introducing children to letters, words and sentences using sounds and has proved so popular with teachers, academics and politicians that it has already been adopted by more than 300 schools in England and Scotland. Now there is growing pressure for the scheme to be rolled out nationwide.

In a yellow-painted dining hall, older pupils from Abercromby school share their experiences of being part of an educational experiment. Gavin Brown, a primary six pupil aged 10, says: “The teachers made it exciting. We were taught to remember the way words were made by saying things like, ‘when two vowels go walking, the first one does the talking’ and we learnt about ‘shy I and tough y’ which means that a word like busy is spelled busy and not busi.”

At the other end of the school corridor, a class of five-year-olds grapple with vowel sounds. “From day one the children are learning sounds. By the end of the first week they know six-letter sounds, recognise letters and can make words,” says Sheena Mailer, the deputy head teacher at Abercromby.

The success of the scheme has generated huge interest. Earlier this year, following the publication of figures which showed that almost a quarter of 11-year-olds in England leave primary school unable to read or write, Nick Gibb, the Conservative parliamentary candidate for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, demanded to know why synthetic phonics was not at the core of the government’s national literacy strategy.

In a letter to Ruth Kelly, the education secretary, he asked if the government would now review its literacy strategy in light of irrefutable evidence uncovered by the Clackmannanshire study. Gibb also wrote to every director of education in England, enclosing a summary of the Clackmannanshire study, and asking them what action they intended to take.

The Scottish executive heaped praise upon the study’s results, with education minister Peter Peacock calling on schools north of the border to consider introducing synthetic phonics to all primary one pupils.

The idea behind synthetic phonics is simple. Children get to know letters through sounds. Instead of being presented with the jumble of letters on a page and using visual clues or guesswork to determine what they are, youngsters are taught the links between sounds and letters.

They are taught to synthesize, or blend, the sounds of letters to form simple words. The same strategy is used to build words into sentences. Within 16 weeks, after studying letter sounds for 20 minutes at a time, children have mastered the “decoding” aspect of reading. Compared to conventional methods, it is intensive and fast-paced. Using traditional teaching — look and say, where children are taught one letter at a time — the same skills can take up to two years to fully develop.

Once they are familiar with the 43 letter sounds and combinations which make up basic reading skills, children can move onto understanding the meaning of the words they see. They have, in the words of the scheme’s supporters, become code breakers.

“It accelerates word recognition and leads to good reading comprehension skills. They move onto sight-word reading which is underpinned by sound recognition,” says Rhona Johnston, a professor of psychology at Hull University, who worked with Joyce Watson, a psychologist at St Andrews University, to develop the synthetic phonics programme.

Unlike conventional methods, synthetic phonics eliminates the possibility of children guessing words or relying on memory. It also offers a multi-sensory approach to teaching with coloured magnetic letters moving around the blackboard, video presentations, rhymes and songs.

When the findings of the seven-year research project were unveiled in February, nobody could deny that synthetic phonics produced impressive results. The pilot study showed 11-year-olds who used the method were 3¬Ω years ahead of their contemporaries in reading and almost two years ahead in spelling. Pupils also learnt to read and spell faster than their peers and developed literacy skills that teachers believe will have a long-lasting effect on their academic abilities.

The study also turned up surprises: in skills tests boys outperformed girls, the opposite of what happens in conventional teaching, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds who regularly fall behind their better-off classmates by the age of seven, showed marked improvement.

“It might be something to do with the magnetic letters,” says Johnston. “Boys are more tactile at that age. The multi-sensory method could appeal more to boys. It is like a Lego approach — more constructional. It is something we would like to look into.”
The researchers would also like to monitor the progress of the first wave of Clackmannanshire pupils, now in their first year at secondary school, to see what long-term benefits, if any, can be attributed to synthetic phonics.

“There is a feeling that some children fall back in secondary school although they start off well,” says Johnston. “We would like to see if these pupils who did well at primary school continue to flourish at secondary, perhaps up until they are 16 and sitting their standard grade exams.

“Their teachers often said they had a very can-do attitude and it could be that the knock-on effect is that synthetic phonics gives them confidence that goes beyond their literacy skills.”

There is no doubt in the researchers’ minds that the new approach to reading and writing has given young pupils in Clackmannanshire a tremendous boost. In its conclusion, the report states: “The children in this study have achieved well above what would be expected for their chronological age. We can conclude that a synthetic phonics programme . . . has a major and long-lasting effect on children’s reading and spelling attainment.”

But more cautious proponents of the method point out that only 304 pupils took part in the central Scotland study. They would like to see more work across a wider geographical area before definitive conclusions can be drawn. The House of Commons education select committee called for more research to be done and 10 areas in England are being earmarked as possible sites for further trials.

The teachers responsible for introducing synthetic phonics into classrooms remain delighted with its success, however, describing the method as remarkable, innovative and in one case a “professional life-changing experience”.

Veronica O’Grady, head teacher at Menstrie primary school in Clackmannanshire, admitted at the time: “In the past I often felt that some children learnt to read in spite of what we were doing rather than because of it.”

Another indicator of the scheme’s popularity is that all of the 19 schools which took part in the study have now integrated synthetic phonics into the reading curriculum.

“For the children there is a fun element. They are more actively involved in their own learning,” adds Mailer, deputy head teacher at Abercromby primary school. “The children at this school are products of the system’s success.”

There is enthusiastic support for the new teaching among the children at Abercromby. Daniel Kelly, 10, who cites Philip Pullman and Geraldine McCaughrean as his favourite authors, says: “It starts with magnetic letters then you move onto words. It’s not always that easy, some of the words are difficult, but you learn fast. I used to read cartoon books and now I read novels. I might never have got into books if it hadn’t been for that way of teaching.”, ... 19,00.html

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