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Sound reading method

Comparative phonics study shows Clackmannanshire pilot is ahead.

The "wee county" has a thing or two to teach our large southern neighbour in reading and spelling.

An independent evaluation of the different approaches used in Clackmannanshire primaries and in the National Literacy Strategy in England suggests the former is superior.

The study found that synthetic phonics used in Clackmannanshire, which teaches children to blend letter sounds throughout words, showed clear gains when compared with the "progression in phonics" system in England, which delays the sounding and blending until the end of pupils' first year in school or the start of the second year.

It is the early sounding and blending in synthetic phonics that makes the technique so successful, according to Rhona Johnston of the University of Hull and Joyce Watson of St Andrews University, who carried out the research.

Professor Johnston said: "The children in the Clackmannanshire study were reading words about two years ahead of what would be expected for their age, their spelling was six months ahead and their reading comprehension was about right for their age.

"However, although the pupils in England from similar backgrounds were reading words about right for their age, their spelling was 4.5 months below what is expected and reading comprehension was about seven months behind."

A comparison of the two methods showed Clackmannanshire pupils were 10 points ahead of those in England on word reading, eight points in spelling and a little over four points on reading comprehension. These were said to be statistically significant.

Despite the findings, there has been criticism of synthetic phonics. John Stannard, former director of the National Literacy strategy in England, said: "The much-vaunted Clackmannanshire study, if it shows anything, shows that good phonics teaching delivers reading accuracy and fluency but has little impact on comprehension."

He based his assertion on the fact that at the end of the study, after the Clackmannanshire pupils had been in school for seven years, they showed the biggest gains in reading and spelling but a smaller one in reading comprehension.

Professor Johnston and Dr Watson dismiss Mr Stannard's claims, saying that in all cases, including reading comprehension, performance was significantly ahead of that expected for the children's age. "Reading comprehension skills rely very heavily on children's general language ability, so are unlikely to receive as much of a boost as word reading and spelling ability," they add. "This is particularly so for children from areas of deprivation."

Professor Johnston said: "The children in the Clackmannanshire sample had much better reading comprehension than children from similar backgrounds in England and were also much less likely to be underachievers."

Comparisons between the two methods were weighted to account for deprivation, with 46.6 per cent of the pupil sample in England from moderately to severely deprived backgrounds, and 45.6 per cent of those in Clackmannanshire.

But the last word has gone to the Scottish initiative. The new Primary National Strategy in England uses a new programme called "letters and sounds", which adopts the method applied in Clackmannanshire. It follows the Rose review of primary education in England, which recommended all pupils should learn to read by a systematic synthetic phonics approach.

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