Rhona Johnston, a lecturer in psychology at St Andrews University, has been studying different ways of teaching reading for 15 years. In 1995, she and research fellow Joyce Watson realised that the way in which phonics was taught could make a huge difference to children's success.
From their observations they developed synthetic phonics - an off-putting name for a simple concept. Children are taught to read and write by starting with the sounds. It is differentiated from analytic phonics, which starts with the word and splits it up into its constituent sounds. With synthetic phonics the sounds come first and are then combined to form words. It may seem a minor variation, but research in Scotland showed a significantly higher level of achievement among children taught using the latter.
Johnston and Watson published a paper on their research. It was picked up by the education department of Clackmannanshire Council, which was looking for a way of improving early literacy in its 19 primary schools. This meeting of theoreticians and practitioners has led to a remarkably successful programme which has transformed the teaching methods and achievement levels in the authority's Primary 1 classrooms.
Rhona Smith, depute head of Deerpark primary school in Sauchie, contrasts the old and new ways of teaching reading. "Before it was group work, with children learning at different rates. I would probably have introduced one new sound a week. By Easter the top group would have been forming simple words, but some of the less bright kids might only have learned five sounds by June." Now, whole-class teaching is the unbendable rule; and six new sounds are introduced every eight days in a programme lasting 16 weeks.
"You can see why teachers had real doubts about this programme," says Sandy Wilson, council head of lifelong learning. He believes that the success of synthetic phonics delivers a clear message about the way ideas are introduced to schools. As a small authority, Clackmannan was able to ensure good liaison between teachers and the executive. "We have easy, immediate communication. We could spend time working with teachers and allowing them the professional satisfaction of a serious input. The crucial message from the success of this project, is that top-down models of curriculum development don't work."
So it was with some doubts, but full of professional curiosity, that Deerpark took part in last year's research project involving eight primaries. The results are frankly amazing. In June 1997 only 48 per cent of Deerpark's Primary 2 class was reading at or above its chronological age. A year later, 93 per cent of the P1 class, taught using synthetic phonics, was reading at or above its chronological age, and the average reading age was almost a year over that. Moreover, the results for girls and boys were identical.
It is this whole-class achievement which means so much to the staff. "Whether you called it the kangaroos or the camels, the wee ones always knew when they were in the bottom group," says Joyce Watson. "Now everyone is learning together. They are all included." Teachers involved in last year's research project did find some pupils falling behind, and queried the advisability of continuing with whole-class teaching. "We were persuaded to stick with it," says class teacher Annette Steele, "and it paid off. Suddenly, it seemed to click, and because all the children were being exposed to the new sounds, it had all filtered in."
Clackmannanshire's next project is to tackle numeracy, using a similar interactive, whole-class teaching method based on a Zurich model. The scheme will start next January. But already, Deerpark Primary has noticed a spin-off into other subjects. "The children are more focused on everything they are doing, not just reading," says Annette Steele. "They seem to take things on board much more quickly."
"The most powerful thing is that the children are experiencing success," says head Lorna Spence. "They see that self-esteem in school comes from being able to read, write and access the curriculum."
IN THE CLASSROOM
Synthetic phonics is taught using a very explicit teaching programme. For 20 minutes every day, the class and teacher work through a five-step model, which involves the whole class at every stage, is multisensory and involves making words from day one.
In Annette Steele's class the lesson starts with the class grouped round a magnetic board with the alphabet, both upper and lower case, set out in coloured plastic letters. They sing their alphabet song with great gusto, then Annette holds up a series of flash-cards with letters and blends on them, and the class shouts them out. She reminds them of the sound they learned the day before: "ch". "Remember, ch, ch, ch, like a train." She makes piston movements with her arms. Then a new sound is introduced. Today it is "sh". Annette holds up a book with "sh" written in large, textured letters, and a picture full of things beginning with the sound. She tells a little story round the picture, getting the children to repeat the sound. The sign for "sh" is to hold the finger up to the lips and say "shhh". Then the class reads simple words such as "ship", "shut", "push" from the blackboard. Individual children come up to circle the "sh" sound and to say whether it is at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the word.
Children trace the shape of the textured letters on the book then try it out on the blackboard. Back at their tables, they form words using "sh" on their own magnetic boards, then do more circling and writing of words on worksheets. The 20 minutes is buzzing with enjoyment and enthusiasm.