Teaching reading in primary 1 by emphasising the blend of sounds and print has produced startling gains, a research project carried out by St Andrews University psychologists has discovered.
Within three months of deploying an alternative method of teaching phonics, a controlled group in two primaries were four months ahead of their peers and a year later were nine months ahead. Low achievers in reading were almost eliminated.
The findings, if replicated in a wider study, could have a major impact on early intervention programmes, boosted by the Secretary of State's announcement of a Pounds 9 million scheme to combat educational disadvantage. Michael Forsyth has invited local authorities to bid for the cash to help children learn the basics. The St Andrews project began in September 1995 and worked with 92 children in two primaries, split into three comparable groups. Researcher Joyce Watson worked with each, twice a week for 15 minutes over a 10-week period. One group had extra work with print, the second had accelerated learning of letter sounds and the third had extra learning of letter sounds and the blending of print.
The third group involved in the blending strategy made the most progress, according to Dr Rhona Johnston, a lecturer in the psychology department. By September this year, only one pupil had reading difficulties compared with seven in one group and eight in the other. "It's learning that the words are composed of letters and letters have sounds that relate to pronunciation, " she stated.
Dr Johnston believed blending was unfashionable and that teaching phonics was more than just learning about sounds. The combination of sound and print was important, as well as the speed and intensity with which phonics are taught.
The research revealed it was less effective to show children words and encourage them to break them down into their component letter sounds, than it was to teach some letter sounds and show the children how they combine to form words.
The initiative stemmed from work carried out by Sue Lloyd of Woods Loke primary in Lowestoft. Dr Johnston initially compared the reading progress of 300 Scottish pupils with those in Lowestoft and found around 20 per cent of the Scottish pupils were well behind in their reading, defined as more than a year behind their chronological age.
In the average Scottish P1 class, Dr Johnston found pupils did not start phonics until October. However, in Lowestoft pupils began as soon as they entered primary in September. By Christmas, the English pupils were 10 months ahead in their reading and by the following March, 16 months ahead.
Dr Johnston mirrored the findings in her own small-scale study.
The reading approach "synthetic phonics" can be delivered through whole-class teaching, a method favoured by the Government. In the Lowestoft primary, children are shown letters and shout them out. Dr Johnston said: "It's unfashionable to do whole-class teaching but they're finding it very effective. Some children make faster progress than others but all seem to cotton on. "
The method does not depend on expensive new programmes or materials and much can be achieved by blackboard and oral work, the researchers believe. They plan to test their theories on a larger scale.