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Sounds like history about to repeat itself

For the past couple of decades, the major issue relating to early literacy teaching has been the real books versus phonics debate. During that time, experimental research was largely ignored in classroom practice, although at last we have achieved general consensus that phonics should be at the heart of any teaching programme.

Now there is the Government document Summary of the Specific Phonics and Spelling Work to be Covered in Years 1 to 4 which relates to the literary hour.

As I read this document it occurred to me that history was probably about to repeat itself. Once again teaching practice would be ignoring experimental research.

Unfortunately, this document proposes the wrong sort of phonics and the wrong pace of learning. It proposes that phonics should be taught "analytically" and that it will take three years to cover basic phonemes.

In contrast the experimental research indicates that it is much more effective to follow a quick pace of learning where children are shown how to sound and blend letters in order to pronounce words at the start of their reading tuition. This approach is called "synthetic" phonics.

The research of Rhona Johnson and Joyce Watson, from St Andrews University, has demonstrated the effectiveness of synthetic phonics quite impressively in their study over a five-year period ("What Sort of Phonics?", Literacy Learning, autumn 1997).

Matched groups of reception children were taught either by synthetic or analytic phonics. After one term the synthetic group had forged ahead of the analytic group. After two terms the synthetic group showed over one year's advantage in emergent reading, letter sound knowledge and phonemic awareness. After three years the synthetic group was nine months ahead on reading comprehension.

Synthetic phonics is taught in some other European countries such as Austria, and synthetic phonics programmes such as Jolly Phonics (by Sue Lloyd) have been used in English language research studies in Canada, New Zealand and in the UK ("Traditional phonics: What it is and what it is not", Journal of Research in Reading 1997, by Jennifer Chew). Bonnie Macmillan has also endorsed the value of synthetic phonics over analytic phonics in her book, Why School Children Can't Read, IEA, 1997.

According to the St Andrews' research, reception children following an analytic programme (as outlined in the Literacy Hour document), will have fallen behind their chronological age in terms of their emergent reading ability after one term on the programme. Whereas if they had been taught synthetic phonics they could be about one year in advance. Can we not learn from history and get it right this time?


Chartered educational psychologist Bristol

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