What every teacher and parent should know about synthetic phonics.
On February 12 2005, the Scottish Office released the seven-year follow-up of the Clackmannanshire study, and children taught to read with synthetic phonics were a staggering 3 ½ years ahead of controls. Surprisingly, boys outperformed girls on all measures, and pupils from disadvantaged homes scored virtually as well as more advantaged pupils. Johnson, R.S. and Watson, J.E. "A seven year study of the effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading attainment" Insight 17, the Scottish Executive.
On March 2, the Centre for Policy Studies published my report, After the Literacy Hour-May the best plan win! This added to the growing pressure on the Government, and on June 5 Education Secretary Ruth Kelly—who had previously dismissed the Clackmannanshire research—made a dramatic U-turn. She annouced the appointment of Jim Rose, one of the so-called 'three wise men' of British education, to head a committee to implement the introduction of synthetic phonics.
On November 30, Jim Rose released his interim report , which recommended the abandonment of the 'Searchlights' model which formed the basis of the old Literacy Hour. (In the US, the 'Searchlights' model is more commonly referred to as the 'three-cueing system'.)
Unfortunately, the Rose report put a lot of pompous noses out of joint. Greg Brooks and many other stalwarts of the old literacy mafia have done everything they can to deny the simple fact that synthetic phonics works far better than the old 'Searchlights' model that they have defended for so many years.
If the Clackmannanshire results were not enough for Mr Brooks, In 2006, West Dunbartonshire—Scotland's second poorest local authority—announced that reading failure was virtually eliminated in all of their schools. In 2007, they expect that every pupil entering high school will have a reading age of at least 9 ½. Dr Tommy MacKay, who engineered this miracle, spent 10 years convincing teachers that with synthetic phonics, every child could be taught to read. In November, the Centre for Policy Studies published my report,
A World First for West Dunbartonshire—The elimination of reading failure".
Inspired by this remarkable success, many English authorities are now making a serious effort to eliminate reading failure. They are hampered by the lack of clear information from the DfES—the
Final Report on synthetic phonics published by the DfES in March, 2006 consists of 100 pages of jargon. Of course, the great merit of synthetic phonics is its simplicity.
Here are the facts about synthetic phonics:
Children are capable of learning basic skills far faster than most people would think possible.
Nearly all children are capable of learning one letter sound per day. In the first term of Reception, they can learn all their letters plus an extensive range of common digraphs (such as /ee/, /ai/, /or/, /th/). In a matter of a week or two, they are blending these sounds into words.
Children learn to decode irregular 'sight' words easily. Usually, it's only the vowel that is irregular. Because these words occur so frequently, they don't pose a problem—unless they are taught as whole words.
Most children become independent readers in a matter of months, if not weeks. About 25% of any class will need extra coaching in small groups or individually. But they all get there very quickly. The beauty of synthetic phonics is that it gets the 'boring' mechanical bits sorted out very quickly. When children can decode words easily, they can devote their entire attention to the meaning of what they have read.
In fact, young children don't find synthetic phonics boring. They enjoy 'cracking the code'—it's a magic game to them. In the Scottish Office trials of synthetic phonics, Headteacher Joyce Ferguson at Abercrombie Primary school commented that:
"The scheme might have been contrary to my educational philosophy, but very quickly we were impressed by the results for the less able as well as the able. The children have developed remarkable listening and concentration skills as well as confidence and self-esteem."
The Scotsman, 28 October 1998, leader.
The Sound Foundations Early-Intervention Pilot:
In 2006 Sound Foundations conducted
pilot programmes in Suffolk and Gloucestershire which were designed to demonstrate that all 5-year-olds can learn to read independently. 20 schools used our new "Bear Necessities" with non-readers in Reception.
Use only decodable text at first.
All skilled readers can translate letters to sound effortlessly and automatically. They can read non-words like jabberwocky just as easily as they can read real words. They can do this because they have over-learned the English spelling code through long practice.
When beginning readers are given stories with uncontrolled vocabulary, their primitive decoding skills are not up to reading all the words. When they are encouraged to 'guess' from context or picture cues, they stop looking at the letters. This means that they aren't learning to decode-and they aren't learning the skills they need to read words they haven't seen before.
There are other problems with 'word guessing'. First, it doesn't work very well. Researcher Phillip Gough found that with content words, only 1 in 10 can be guessed from context-and then only when all the rest of the words can be read. Because it doesn't work very well, slow readers keep making wrong guesses. And children hate getting things wrong. When this happens, all enthusiasm for reading is quickly lost. In any case, children frequently get confused when they are given different strategies.
Still, it takes a real leap of faith for teachers to stop asking children to 'predict' words they can't read. But as Geraldine Bedell commented in The Observer,
Jane Cameron, the head of Notting Hill Prep, a new independent school which opened using a synthetic phonics scheme, says her teachers had initially been wary of dropping the old 'clues' method, but had all now been converted."
The Observer, 20 February 2005.
Many schools adopt synthetic phonics, but stop short of giving up on these 'clues'. But if you give young children decodable readers, they won't have to guess. It won't be long before they are able to read anything that interests them.
Children can decode 'irregular' words.
Recent brain research at the University of Texas and at Yale Medical School indicates that teaching children to recognise whole words may cause problems for some children. Skilled readers scan words from left to right, and they process every letter. With magnetic resonance imaging, this shows up as left-brain activity.
By contrast, poor readers show activity in the areas of the right brain associated with holistic processing. It is possible that teaching children whole-word recognition may be a major source of reading failure. (See Neurology 2002;58)
Happily, synthetic phonics teachers can get around this problem in two ways. In the first place, words such as 'her' and 'out' can be decoded because children are taught the digraphs /er/ and /ou/. And with words like 'said' and 'was', the teacher points out that these are 'tricky' words that don't quite follow the rules. Since the consonants behave fairly well in most of these words, they can still decode them.
As children progress, they are taught less common patterns, such as the hard /ch/ in 'chemist', and the /ph/ in 'photograph'. They are taught prefixes and suffixes, and compound words. Skills build up rapidly because they are taught in a logical sequence.
Many teachers reject this approach because they think it sounds too mechanical, and that it distracts young children from the essential task of getting meaning from print. But there is another way of looking at it:
"Educational liberals, those of us who believe that the education system is too narrow, prescriptive, test-based, and miserably obsessed with grading, should be embracing synthetic phonics with relief. One great advantage of the system is that it teaches the 'decoding' part of reading quickly, in 16 weeks, freeing children to get on with the more interesting comprehending part of reading".
Bedell,G. The Observer, 20 February 2005.
Synthetic phonics works with all children, no matter what their 'learning style'.
Let us start with this extract from the classic work by Marilyn Jager Adams:
...it was reasoned, not all children are alike. Some are global perceivers by nature, some are analytic; some are auditorily attuned, and some are visual...wouldn't it be wise to tailor instructional processes and materials to children's perceptual styles or dominant modalities?
So appealing is this argument that it has been broadly advocated and adopted. In a study of special education teachers in Illinois, Arter and Jenkins found that 95 percent were familiar with the argument. Of those familiar with it, 99 percent believed that modality considerations should be a primary consideration in devising instruction for children with learning difficulties.
Arter and Jenkins also found that 95 percent of their special education teachers believed that the modality argument was supported by research. Unhappily, it is not. Although many empirical studies have been conducted on the issue, the hypothetical interaction between program effectiveness and preferred modalities is not supported by the data. Adams, M.J. Learning to Read: Thinking and learning about print. MIT Press. 1990.
Synthetic phonics teachers concentrate exclusively on teaching the skills that need to be learnt. All synthetic phonics programmes utilise the multi-sensory principle-pupils' weaknesses in one area are buttressed by strengths in others. Except in the cases of the most severe learning deficits, IEPs are largely irrelevant-for the simple reason that synthetic phonics pupils so seldom need them. This is just one more example of how a truly rigorous programme of synthetic phonics can liberate a school's resources to do the things that really matter.
Slow readers can be identified in their first term of school, and they get extra help before they fall behind.
In a synthetic phonics classroom, you can tell which children will have trouble learning to read in a matter of weeks, if not days. They find 'blending' difficult, and they may have trouble remembering letter sounds. About 25% of all children have some problems, but thankfully serious reading difficulties are limited to around 2%--and almost all of these will respond well to intensive teaching.
At this point, I have to declare an interest. The Promethean Trust is a registered charity which has been working with poor readers-and their parents and teachers-for the last 15 years. Although I am its director, the Sound Foundations programmes developed by Hilary Burkard and myself are privately published. Needless to say, we think that they are very good. They are not designed to replace whole-class synthetic phonics programmes, but to supplement them.
However, I stress that there are many other excellent programmes on the market that address the problems of slow readers. We believe that healthy competition is good; we learn from others, and we hope that they learn from us. We should all be working to devise ever more effective teaching materials to suit different circumstances, and you as the teacher are the ultimate judge of what works well and what doesn't. This is why we believe that the Government should encourage extensive trials of different programmes.
The point remains: slow readers will need extra help individually, or in small groups. With the (approximately) 2% who have the most severe learning difficulties, many teachers will be tempted to conclude that phonics is too difficult. Unfortunately, phonics isn't an optional extra. Without good phonological skills, a child will always be a poor reader.
Solving the problems of these children is easy with carefully-structured synthetic phonics materials and lots of decodable text. There are many programmes on the market that can be used by any competent classroom assistant. Naturally, we think our own materials are the best. They certainly are the most comprehensive, and at the same time the simplest; they eliminate the need for planning lessons.
Phonemic awareness emerges automatically from teaching synthetic phonics.
If you teach children to say the correct sound when they see a letter or digraph, you are teaching them phonemic awareness in the most concrete manner possible. Nearly all children learn to blend phonemes into words very quickly-at the Promethean Trust, we find that even the most backward children pick it up in a week at most. Needless to say, one of our most gratifying moments is when these children decode their first word from print.
Once children have learned to blend, teaching them to break words into sounds is seldom a problem. My personal opinion is that most phonemic awareness training is unnecessary for the purposes of learning to read and spell. Although such training may be good for children in other ways, word games and rhyming do not have much to do with learning essential phonological skills. However, most synthetic phonics teachers do not use onset-and-rime, as many children find it confusing when used alongside conventional phonemic analysis.
Teaching correct letter formation speeds the process by which children can become independent writers. Children who are left to 'copy' letters do not know where to start forming letters, and this uncertainty delays the development of fluent writing. Children who are taught to form letters properly very seldom make reversals.
The consequences of reading failure:
"Slow reading acquisition has cognitive, behavioral, and motivational consequences that slow the development of other cognitive skills and inhibit performance on many academic tasks. In short, as reading develops, other cognitive processes linked to it track the level of reading skill...The longer this developmental sequence is allowed to continue, the more generalized the deficits will become, seeping into more and more areas of cognition and behavior. Or to put it more simply-and sadly-in the words of a tearful nine-year-old, already falling frustratingly behind his peers in reading progress, "Reading affects everything you do."
—from Keith Stanovich's classic 1986 article on the 'Matthew effect' in reading