Phonics – a comment on the research

Ill-informed government interference with schools is nowhere as evident as in the blanket imposition of synthetic phonics on English schools. It will be interesting to see the long-term effect, as these pupils move into KS2 tests, but the research it was based on is cause for reflection.

Firstly we should be clear that there never was a time, before government interference, when teachers didn’t teach phonics. An HMI study published in 1990 and based on visits to 470 classes concluded that ‘phonic skills were taught almost universally and usually to beneficial effect’. However it also stated that ‘Successful teachers of reading and the majority of schools used a mix of methods each reinforcing the other as the children’s reading developed’. What has changed is a narrowing down, an obsession with synthetic phonics and a relative neglect of other complementary aspects of literacy.

There has been a lot of misinformation about two experiments in Scotland which were used to justify the change imposed across England. A small-scale experiment in Clackmannanshire involving initially 5 classes, expanding to 13, brought about substantial improvements in decoding letters and words, but at the end of primary school these children were only a few months above their chronological age in terms of reading comprehension. This project was not dogmatic, and pupils were taught irregular words by sight recognition.

The larger experiment in West Dunbartonshire was actually part of a 10-strand intervention, starting with two-year-olds. The first step was to make nurseries literacy-rich and to work with children’s librarians and parents. The aim was to get all children in this area of chronic poverty to enjoy books.

When these children reached the pre-school year and then Primary 1 and 2, the emphasis was still on enjoyment, using big books, having lots of books in the room, acting out the stories. Phonics was seen as an element of reading, not the whole, and children’s writing was displayed on the walls before Christmas. Again, this was not a dogmatic approach to phonics, and 75 irregular words were identified for Primary 1 to recognise by sight. (None of the nonsense of trying to make T+H+E sound like ‘the’ and W-A-S like ‘was’.) As the children progressed through school, their learning was enriched by policies to promote more interactive learning, and general attitudes improved.

An experiment with synthetic phonics in a few volunteer schools proved so successful in terms of letter and word recognition that the following year almost all other schools joined in. The results for each school year were compared with pre-intervention data, showing dramatic improvements. In particular, the number of children who couldn’t decode words was dramatically reduced. This led to a further project, with over a hundred trained assistants and volunteers providing intensive individual support to this small group of non-readers.

Parents were involved from the start, with a home-link team, workshops with parents, and an Extending Learning team for the more able in areas of the greatest deprivation.
This has almost eradicated illiteracy in an area where around 30% used to leave primary school with serious problems. However, as with Clackmannanshire, the improvement in understanding is not as strong. At the end of primary school, the average reading age was six months higher than before – a significant but smaller change.

It is possible that this complex intervention - organised on the best principles of educational change in order to generate real enthusiasm – has contributed to West Dunbartonshire’s improved exam results at age 16. In 1999 11% failed to achieve five subjects at the lowest grade (Foundation) and in 2011 only 5%, better (in this very poor area) than Scotland as a whole. The improvements at higher grades (General and Credit) were around twice as great as for Scotland as a whole, from very low to nearly average.

Some synthetic phonics resources are great fun (CBeebies’ Alphablocks) and some are just plain boring, but you need to change your name to Biff or Chip if you think a switch to synthetic phonics is some kind of magic key.

R Johnston and J Watson: The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment – a seven year longitudinal study (Scottish Executive, 2005)
D Wyse and M Styles: Synthetic phonics and the teaching of reading - the debate surrounding England’s ‘Rose Report’ (Literacy, April 2007)
T MacKay: Achieving the vision - the finalresearch report of the West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative (West Dunbartonshire Council, 2007)
Interviews with senior staff, West Dunbartonshire education department, 2008


TW, Sept 2012