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Early literacy the write way

Clackmannanshire's early years literacy programme using synthetic phonics, rather than analytic phonics, has proved a success in accelerating reading and spelling, reports Elizabeth Buie

The 300 children who embarked on the Clackmannanshire synthetic phonics programme seven years ago are now in S1 and not only have they sustained their early progress in reading and spelling; they have increased their gains.

The pupils' literacy skills have been scrutinised more closely than any other children of their generation and the programme's architects, Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston (both originally researchers at the school of psychology of St Andrews University, the latter now at Hull), appear to have confounded the sceptics who claimed early results were a flash in the pan.

By the end of P7, the pupils' word reading was 3 years 6 months ahead of their chronological age, spelling 1 year 8 months ahead and reading comprehension 3.5 months ahead, according to the report The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment, which is published today.

The children's verbal ability when tested on entry to P1 scored 93 compared to the national average of 100, so this is a group whose normal performance might be expected to have been below average for their age on standardised tests. Their results may therefore be an underestimate of the gains with this teaching method.

The most interesting findings in tracking these pupils over seven years is that boys' word reading was significantly ahead of girls' from P3 onwards.

By the end of P7 they were 11 months ahead of the girls'. In spelling, the boys were significantly ahead of the girls in P5, P6 and P7. They were 8.6 months ahead by the end of the study. They were also 3 months ahead of the girls in reading comprehension, although this was a less statistically significant difference.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that boys read better than the girls, they reported a less favourable attitude to reading.

These findings are in contradiction to international studies which have invariably shown girls to have better literacy skills than boys. For Dr Watson and Professor Johnston the question now is why the synthetic phonics programme should have reversed the gender gap.

Perhaps the most positive message to emerge is that not only does this method allow teachers to detect language difficulties at an earlier stage, but it allows low-achievers to reach relatively high levels of reading ability.

For a government concerned about the impact of deprivation upon academic attainment, there is another positive outcome. The authors of this longitudinal study conclude: "Socio-economic differences in literacy skills were non-existent in the early years of the study, only emerging in the upper primary years."

The synthetic phonics project started in August 1997 at eight primary schools and was taken up by the authority's other 11 primaries the following year. At Menstrie Primary, one of the second batch, the older pupils appear to follow the pattern detected by Dr Watson and Professor Johnston in the first cohort.

Mark Deacon is one of the strongest readers in his P6 class but does not do very much reading outside the classroom. However, Nicole Mutter, who is also in P6, confesses to doing a lot of reading at home.

For Ann Doran, who teaches P1 and has more than 30 years of teaching experience, the key to the success of synthetic phonics is its multi-sensory approach.

"It's visual - children are watching; it's auditory - children are listening; and, most importantly, it is kinaesthetic, using movement. It's important with children so young for them to get actively involved. In the past there was a lot of chalk and talk," she says.

While no one has found the answer to why boys do significantly better than girls under this scheme (and the girls still do very well), she suggests it is because it is not passive learning, which suits them. "The boys are up and doing and active. Boys don't like to sit about much," she says.

"The way we teach these synthetic phonics, children are experiencing success on a regular basis. When they come to work with magnetic boards they can make the words pin and tap. It makes them more confident."

Mandi Carmichael, a principal teacher at Menstrie Primary, who takes a P5P6 composite class but taught P1 for three years, says: "By the time they came up the school to me, I could see quite an improvement in the children's confidence.

"They enjoyed writing a story and they enjoyed literacy work. They had got a lot more strategies and they were more independent. They are far less likely to come and ask you for a word because they have got a way of working it out themselves, and they enjoy that. They are able to break up words and make informed decisions. If they ask you for a word, they will use informed questions; they can spell the first part but not the second part.

"They are very enthusiastic."

She also notes there is no longer the difference between boys and girls.

"The boys have an interest in it; they are keen to write and do spelling," she says. "I used to find that boys struggled in the past."

Her explanation for the boys' greater attainment is early successes. "In P1 the children get success really quickly. Within a couple of weeks they are spelling and reading. Boys quite like instant gratification: it helps to get them motivated," she says.

Veronica O'Grady, the headteacher, has observed year on year increases in the children's literacy ability. She says they have gained skills, confidence and a can-do attitude.

"You do get some needing support by the end of P1 but you don't get the same trailing edge that you used to get," she says.

"We have had to look at how we teach spelling further up the school and changed because the pupils were so used to interactive teaching and learning.

"We have a new scheme, written for that purpose, using big books. Classes in P3 and P4 use overhead transparencies so that children can look at how words are made. They are getting up and doing things - not just being done to - and using more of their senses."

Lesley Robertson, the linchpin to the development of the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire over the past seven years, would not claim that the programme is the panacea to all ills, but does believe that children of all levels of abilities can make progress and in this way it is inclusive.

She says synthetic phonics helps children with language difficulties to learn through methods other than the traditional auditory and visual channels, and quotes the case of AF, a boy with "significant receptive language difficulties", who would normally have difficulty accessing the curriculum. At the end of P7, his reading age was slightly ahead of his actual age, though his spelling and reading comprehension lagged behind.

Dr Watson describes the results of the programme as "heart-warming".

"One of the better sights has been the under-achievers doing fine, as so many of them have been. Even if it helps just one or two, it's worthwhile," she says.

"We are now beginning to look into why boys are doing so well. There are various thoughts, whether it is the use of practical magnetic letters that appeals to the boys or whether it is that they are verbalising their thoughts, speaking about what they are doing. Some teachers say it is the magnetic letters, but they don't go on for all that long.

"Another reason might be that the reading and spelling are done simultaneously. Normally, spelling is not done till later. It could be that the interaction between the different processes is something that matches the boys' thinking processes."

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