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'Amazing' gains for synthetic phonics

A report tracking the impact of an innovative early literacy programme over seven years has confirmed the significant gains reported earlier - with some teachers claiming "amazing" results they had not seen in 30 years of teaching.

The latest report on Clackmannanshire's scheme of synthetic phonics - the relationship between sounds and letters - shows that children are reading three-and-a-half years beyond their chronological age by the time they leave primary.

And to the surprise of even the researchers who have run the programme since 1997 - Joyce Watson from St Andrews University and Rhona Johnston from Hull University - boys in the 300-pupil study were nearly a year ahead of girls in word reading, more than eight months ahead in their spelling and three months ahead in reading comprehension. They now plan to find out why.

The study also showed that it was only once children reached primary 7 that those from disadvantaged homes performed less well than those from advantaged backgrounds.

Clackmannanshire Council, which is running the programme in all 19 primaries, highlighted its ability to identify underachievers or children with literacy difficulties early on and then to start tackling their problems.

The progress of one particular boy who entered P1 with severe learning difficulties, having already deferred entry for a year, was tracked and this showed that by the time he finished P7 he was reading nearly a year beyond his chronological age.

While his spelling was behind his chronological age by almost two years and his reading comprehension five years behind, the research suggested he had been able to exceed the literacy skills teachers would normally have expected of a child starting with his particular difficulties.

Teachers involved in the programme have given it a ringing endorsement. One P2 teacher said: "These are the best results in reading, spelling and writing ever achieved. I have never seen this before in 30 years of teaching. One child was writing his own story aged four. The pupils'

writing and spelling are amazing. I would normally have expected such work at P3 stage. The children are also very motivated."

Another said that teachers' expectations had been raised as a result of the programme. She said: "We know our children can achieve, therefore we don't make excuses such as, 'this is an area of deprivation'. We make a difference and we can prove it."

Peter Peacock, Education Minister, is to ensure that schools are made aware of the latest results but he stopped short of suggesting that all schools should adopt the programme, given that Scottish Executive policy is to allow headteachers and teachers greater curricular freedom and discretion.

The Executive, however, sent copies of an earlier study on the Clackmannanshire results to every primary in Scotland in 2003 - and Mr Peacock made clear his view. "These youngsters have a head start in reading and writing," he said. "This strong foundation will prepare them well for the challenges of secondary school and adult life.

He had recently seen the benefits of synthetic phonics during a visit to a primary school in Inverness. "Primary 1 pupils there were already reading a variety of words and clearly found reading fun. Importantly, they were learning how to combine letters to read new words, rather than recognising words on sight," Mr Peacock said.

The programme involves teaching children a small group of letters initially which they proceed to push together and blend, using magnetic letters, to form simple words. Other groups of letters are then taught and the blending process expanded.

In the alternative analytic phonics approach, the method traditionally favoured in Scottish primary schools, children learn words at first largely by sight, having their attention drawn only to the initial letter sounds.

Only after all of the letter sounds have been taught in this way are sounding and blending introduced.

Leader 22; Scotland Plus 2-3

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