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Sounding out the truth

A controversial Scottish study may be inadequate but it raises vital questions about how we teach children to read. Diane Hofkins reports.

No aspect of primary education raises the heat like reading. Whenever it hits the headlines people rush to their computers, writing letters, articles, testimonials, pronouncements, all desperate to be heard. Parents, politicians, teachers, dons are all bursting at the seams to give their evidence, or to refute someone else's.

This passion comes partly because everyone knows how important reading is to children's life chances. But it is more than that. Reading is political, and the way it is taught reflects proponents' views of the educational process and who owns it - adults or children, politicians or teachers? Are there strict rules, or does every child learn in a different way?

The latest phase of the debate has been spurred by an MPs' report on reading, published virtually minutes before the election was called. The Commons education select committee was struck by a recent longitudinal study by Dr Rhona Johnston of Hull university and Dr Joyce Watson of St Andrews university, which appeared to show that an intensive programme of a particular type of phonics at the start of primary school made a real difference to attainment at age 11. This was especially true for boys and those from deprived backgrounds.

The Labour-dominated committee felt the research showed something important, but that it was not conclusive: the group of children studied (300) was relatively small, there were flaws in the methodology, and because it traced children in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, the methods compared did not directly relate to those used in England. They want more research and a review of the National Literacy Strategy.

Impatiently, the Conservatives pledged to "replace the present National Literacy Strategy with new guidance based wholly and exclusively on synthetic phonics", while Labour ministers defended the quantity and quality of phonics already contained in the NLS.

So exactly what is the argument about? First, it is only about children in reception classes, or P1 in Scotland. So if the Conservatives really plan to scrap the NLS, there will be no guidance for Years 1 to 6. And it boils down to what sounds like a minor dispute. It isn't really about which kind of phonics is better, synthetic (learning individual letter sounds and then blending, or synthesising, them into short words) or analytic (breaking down words into their component sounds). They play different roles in reading and writing. There is growing evidence that at the start of learning to read, children need to be taught synthetic phonics systematically and quickly. The central argument is over whether this method of instruction must be exclusive.

Rhona Johnston, and other phonics advocates, argues that until children have learned all their sound-letter correspondences, they should not try to read books or use any other methods, such as guessing from context or even breaking words into segments, such as c-at and h-at.

Dr Johnston told The TES that evidence is emerging that boys naturally take a phonological approach to reading. "This builds on their natural strength," she says. "There's evidence that boys need to be focused on a cognitive task. It's a bit like Lego - a sort of mechanical approach."

She says the synthetic method shows children how to construct words for themselves, and to look for the patterns in words. To those who point out that (according to one study) only 35 of the 150 most common words are irregular, she says, "Even the notorious 'yacht' contains a y and a t that can be pronounced. Children don't really blend like a computer would. It's not just about sounds, but letters and letter patterns that activate a likely candidate word for you."

In her programme, two irregular words are taught a week, with more difficult combinations, such as "igh" (as in light) taught after the 16-week programme. Phonics must come first, she says so that children use optimal strategies for reading. Otherwise, some will develop bad habits which are hard to break. It is important to decode logically rather than to guess. Children should only be given words to read with letters they know how to blend. Rather than finding this dull, children enjoy the experience of mastery, say proponents.

Literary specialist Sue Palmer has come to agree that synthetic phonics should come before other reading instruction. But, she asks, what else were the Scottish children doing in class? It is essential to learn songs and rhymes and hear lots of stories as well, she says. She points out that Scottish children start school six months older than English youngsters, and she believes reading instruction should not start until later in reception year.

Under the NLS, phonics is seen as essential but not sufficient to get children reading and developing a taste for literature. Exposure to books is important, too, and its Playing with Sounds guidance and activities start with games to learn awareness of sounds, before they are related to letters.

However, Rhona Johnston's study does not compare her synthetic approach to the NLS, and this is one reason a large research project in England is needed. An important difference is that the Clackmannanshire phonics method is closely prescribed, while the NLS gives guidance. In several reports, inspectors have found the quality of phonics teaching in many schools wanting.

In the Clackmannanshire study, pupils were divided into three groups at the start of P1. The first was taught synthetic phonics 20 minutes a day for 16 weeks. The second learned through an analytic approach common in Scotland, and the third combined analytic phonics and learning about sounds. The synthetic group was seven months ahead in reading at the end of the programme even though it contained more deprived children. After that, the other two groups were given the synthetic programme, and completed it by the end of P1, aged five. A year later, the six-year-olds in the original first group were still ahead of the other two in spelling, but in reading comprehension there was no significant difference. Some of the analytic group received extra help during P2 (Year 1 in England), but the phonics first group did not. Girls in the first group had better word reading.

So, does this study show that phonics "first, fast and exclusively" is the "magic bullet" everyone is looking for? Unfortunately, it does not. After P2, the study brings all three groups together and follows them through to the end of primary school in one big batch. The gains are impressive, but there is no way to see whether the phonics-first children did better over time than the pupils whose initial reading instruction was corrupted by other methods.

But here is what the report does show. Compared with their chronological age, children's gain in word reading and spelling skills increased significantly over the years, even though the training programme ended in P1. Since a large proportion of the group was from socially deprived backgrounds, they normally would have been expected to show below-average attainment. Word reading increased from 11.5 months ahead of children's real ages in P2 to 3.5 years ahead in P7 (Year 6). In spelling it increased from a year ahead to a year and nine months. Reading comprehension, though, dropped from seven months ahead in P2 to 3.5 months in P7. This figure has been seized on by critics, who claim this is no better than the average 11-year-old in England and that comprehension is the most important measure.

Boys pulled well ahead of girls by the end of primary school in spelling and word reading, and slightly in comprehension. This is important, because girls outshone boys in all 35 countries in the 2003 PIRLS international reading comparisons.

Not every child could succeed. In P7, 5.6 per cent were two years behind in word reading, 10.1 per cent in spelling and 14 per cent in reading comprehension. In England last year, 17 per cent of children did not reach the government standard in national curriculum reading tests, but this is not directly comparable.

The research methodology has been criticised by other academics. Dominic Wyse of Cambridge notes that it has not been subject to a rigorous "peer review", and many variables have not been properly controlled. These include class size, quality of teaching, and children's natural ability.

There is no control group at all after P2, apart from national norms.

Other research has shown that children taught phonics systematically did better than those who learnt it unsystematically or not at all. America's prestigious National Reading Panel found no significant difference between synthetic and analytic methods.

Professor Roger Beard of London university's institute of education says:

"The long-term value of synthetic phonics may be in building capacity in decoding visually unfamiliar words in fluent reading, but this itself involves analytic phonics processes." But he adds, "Level 4 involves a good deal more than phonic processes and it is important not to lose sight of the comprehension demands of this level of reading attainment."

It seems that the MPs' call for more research is the way forward.

Meanwhile, teachers wanting speedier phonics teaching than the NLS offers are free to supplement it with the many commercially available programmes.

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