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A jolly good way to read

David Henderson reports on key areas of West Dunbartonshire's pioneering literacy strategy.

Analytic or synthetic? "Synthetic, please," has been the response of teachers in West Dunbartonshire who are on the road to eliminating illiteracy in primary schools almost 10 years into their early intervention strategies.

Tommy MacKay, the highly respected consultant psychologist who has been evaluating the literacy strategies over that period, points out that Scottish primary teachers have traditionally taught reading through the analytic approach. It starts with whole words which are then broken down into letter sounds.

Children are typically taught one letter sound a week and shown a series of alliterative pictures and words starting with that sound, such as mat, man and make. Synthetic phonics, however, teaches children groups of letters very rapidly. They learn to combine these to make simple words before they are introduced to books or reading.

In 1998-1999, nine primaries volunteered to pilot the synthetic phonics approach to early reading in West Dunbartonshire. Today, almost all 35 primaries are involved, such is the power of the evidence in support of a methodology common in Germany and Austria for more than two decades.

Scottish schools, with ministerial backing, are moving from traditional analytic phonics to synthetic phonics and primary 1 and 2 teachers in West Dunbartonshire have not been slow to support the change. They told Dr MacKay, author of a 200-page report on eradicating illiteracy, published this week: "Even the lowest child did far better than could ever have been done before."

Others said: "Children love it"; "We are very surprised at how quickly children have learnt - and have retained what they have learnt"; "Parents said they saw a big difference".

Teachers report that P1 and P2 pupils are working at higher skill levels than ever because of the Jolly Phonics programme.

Dr MacKay says the synthetic approach is based on direct instruction, is faster and builds on pupils' success, and includes social and interactive learning. "The children see the letters, they say them aloud and hear them, and they practise the actions that accompany them," he says.

West Dunbartonshire teachers overwhelmingly support the approach, with 83 per cent of the pilot staff in P1 and P2 reporting that children enjoy it much more; 91 per cent agree it is good for children at the top end of the class and 84 per cent for the middle; 75 per cent agree it helps children improve their writing.

Some 70 per cent also said they would not get as good results with any other phonics approach and just over half believed that Jolly Phonics led to children becoming better at other school subjects. But some question whether all children can cope with the fast pace, and warn they may fall behind.

Overall, Dr MacKay asserts, synthetic phonics accelerates early reading skills by improving knowledge of letter sounds and blending. It also enhances spelling abilities. A knock-on effect from the success in P1 and P2 are the changes to the reading curriculum further up the school.

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