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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
Phonics and Book BandsJennifer Chew

The National Literacy Strategy recommends that early texts be chosen from Book Bands, a guide published by Reading Recovery. In general, these texts do not mesh in well with the NLS’s own phonics lessons: a quick check done on six randomly-chosen Book Bands texts being used with children in the first term of reception in one school showed that under 20% of the words could be decoded on the basis of the phonics the children had been taught up to that point. 

One piece of relevant research is a 1985 study done by Connie Juel and Diane Roper/Schneider. The account of this which may be most easily accessible for most people is on pages 275-280 of Marilyn Jager Adams’s 1990 book Beginning to read: Thinking and learning about print. The researchers looked at two groups of children receiving near-identical phonics instruction: ‘In the school district in which their study was situated, phonic instruction was tightly standardized across classrooms. ... Further, the phonics lessons were scripted such that the material taught, as well as the form and sequence of delivery, were controlled across classrooms’. One of the groups then practised their reading on texts which emphasised the decodable spelling patterns which they had been taught, whereas the other group practised on texts emphasising frequent rather than easily-decodable words. At the end of the year, ‘despite their common and standardized phonics instruction’, there were significant differences between the groups: the children who had practised on decodable texts were ahead. 

Juel and Roper/Schneider sum up as follows: 

‘The selection of text used very early in first grade may, at least in part, determine the strategies and cues children learn to use, and persist in using, in subsequent word identification.... In particular, emphasis on a phonics method seems to make little sense if children are given initial texts to read where the words do not follow regular letter-sound correspondence generalizations. Results of the current study suggest that the types of words which appear in beginning reading texts may well exert a more powerful influence in shaping children’s word identification strategies than the method of reading instruction’. (Juel, C. and Roper/Schneider, D. (1985). The influence of basal readers on first grade reading. Reading Research Quarterly, 18,  306-327). 

RRF members have repeatedly made this kind of point to NLS and OFSTED officials, but the replies we have received have not been encouraging. We would again urge them to give more serious consideration to the possibility that better results are achieved when there is a closer match between texts and phonics lessons.


Editor’s comment:

We have indeed been trying hard to persuade the NLS team and Ofsted of the need for suitable reading material for beginner readers and strugglers. Readers might be interested in some snippets of evidence in support of this view: 

‘Words containing letters not yet taught should not be presented for a child to read, and certainly not to read aloud.’ (Dyslexia in mainstream schools, Johnson, Phillips and Peer) 

 ‘Dr Reid Lyon’s NIH research is scientific and shows that students must learn to go from the smallest parts of the language (phonemes) and work their way through blending and segmenting until they are able to read entire paragraphs. While children are working through this decoding process in order to become independent readers, they should also be listening to great pieces of literature being read to them so that they can build their core knowledge, vocabulary, literary, and sentence-structure abilities. Indeed they should be immersed in a literature-rich environment, but that does not mean that they need to read independently those texts for which they have not learnt the decoding skills.’ (Donna Garner) 

‘So, if we’re working on “B”s and “A”s and “T”s, we don’t ask kids to read the word: can. We work on words like “bat” and “at”. And we give them practice using the tools that they are learning, so that they see the efficacy of those tools….’ (Dr Eunice Greer) 

‘Research also shows that the use of decodable text-books and materials containing a high proportion of new words that adhere to phonetic principles students have already been taught – can help young students at the pre-primer and primer levels to master decoding skills and increase speed and fluency. For the vast majority of students, much of this can be accomplished before the end of first grade, enabling them to tackle the vast array of interesting and challenging children’s literature that can help expand vocabulary and increase background knowledge and comprehension.’ (Resolution on Beginning Reading Instruction,   American Federation of Teachers - this site is worth visiting.) 

Extract from NLS team’s letter to RRF: 

‘The National Literacy Strategy does not consider that phonics should be taught through specially written books consisting of phonically regular words but though games – every day. Children should be allowed to read genuinely interesting, exciting and funny books. These are listed in Book Bands.’ 

Extract from RRF’s reply to NLS team: 

‘It is very worrying that the writers of the National Literacy Strategy do not believe that young children should have decodable texts in the early stages of learning to read. They prefer the children to have interesting, exciting and funny books, even though they struggle to read them and frequently end up just memorising them. This is a poor policy for your able children but it is a disaster for the Early Literacy Support type of child. Please will you let [us] know the scientific research that this policy is based on? 

[Followed by RRF reference to the Juel and Roper/Schneider research] 

In the Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter no. 46, Dr Marlynne Grant describes improvements in the reading and spelling ability of the children at St Michael’s Primary School when they were given decodable texts in the early stages of learning to read. Instead of being on average 12 months ahead on reading and 17 months ahead on spelling, they had jumped to 17 months ahead on reading and 18 months ahead on spelling. Adults may not find books with decodable text exciting but the children think they are fine. Their joy comes from the satisfaction of mastering the alphabetic code and reading the words all by themselves. The children are practising the most important strategy, which is blending or synthesising. Once there is fluency in this skill then the children are able to read anything, including all the genuinely interesting, exciting and funny books that you referred to. 

By the way, the books in Book Band 1 are not interesting or exciting. They are repetitive and boring. [We] could accept this style of writing if the children learnt a great deal about reading from it. All that is learnt by the poorer reader is that reading involves learning a sentence by heart and looking at the picture for the new word. This deception damages the children and guides them away from the essential skill of blending. 

[We] hope that those who have devised the NLS will change their policy about avoiding decodable texts. It is not acceptable that faulty ‘Whole Language’ methods are still being forced into schools by the DfES when there is plenty of evidence that they do not work…’ 

And President Bush’s Reading First initiative based on extensive research says the same!




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