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Sounds like a winner

Synthetic phonics has officially been declared the best way to start learning to read. Carolyn O'Grady visits two schools where it's had dramatic results

It may or may not be a defining moment in what some see as the reading wars, but it certainly feels like it. While stopping short of backing any particular programme, Jim Rose, former director of inspections at Ofsted, has plumped for synthetic phonics. Done systematically, and "fast and first", it's the best way of setting five-years-olds on the path to becoming competent readers and writers, he concludes in his interim report.

And his final report, due out any day, is expected to repeat the message.

No slow working through word families and rhyming words, says Rose. The basic skills should be in place at the end of the first term so children can get on with the real business of reading texts and writing their own material. Synthetic phonics is defined in the report as "learning to pronounce the sounds (phonemes) associated with letters 'in isolation'.

These individual sounds, once learnt, are then blended together (synthesised) to form words." The other key skill is segmenting (sounding out a word to help write it down).

Some schools are already convinced of the benefits of this course. Two Gloucester primaries which have been immersing children in reception and beyond in phonics for years are Churchdown Village Infants School and St Michael's CE VC Primary, Stoke Gifford. Their pupils are expected to have 42 phonemes (two come later), as well s the key skills of segmenting and blending, under their belts by the end of the first term. They are also expected to be reading phonetically regular texts and writing words and simple dictated sentences by then.

On the surface, it can sound dull and joyless - a million miles from the freewheeling "searchlights" or mix of methods approach, with its range of strategies. But it doesn't look it. At Churchdown, deputy head Sheila Johnson is using the Jolly Phonics programme with her reception class.

Children are seated on the floor, eyes fixed on their teacher and on Inky, the puppet. They are focused and excited. Hands and bodies are moving and senses are on the go.

"Are we ready to go? Fingers ready." And the children are off. They start with an oral review of alphabet phonemes. Sheila shows them a sound on a card and they say it. Every sound is accompanied by a song or story, for example "a-a-a-ants on my arm; they're causing me alarm" has its own action, usually done with fingers. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes not.

For example, "s" is a snake movement. "What's this?" she asks, showing them "oa".

"It's a diagraph," comes the reply.

Two letters making one sound. She writes the phoneme on a flip-chart, says itm and asks them to "sky-write" with their fingers, and then to do the same on the carpet and on their hands. Later she sounds out a word and they have to tell her what it is: "s-u-n". She writes it and they say it again.

There is a lot of finger-folding to count out phonemes: b-oa-t, for example, demands three fingers.

At this school about seven sounds a week are taught in the first term, in 10 to 15-minute sessions, along with blending and segmenting. In the second term, pupils will be reading simple books and beginning to learn "tricky words" - ones which don't obey the rules, such as "the" and "was" - and will start on alternative spellings, sounds that are made from a variety of letters, as in "night", "fly" and "bite". Dictation features a lot.

At St Michael's, lessons are also meant to be exciting, but don't require a battery of different methods. "Synthetic phonics is multi-sensory, not multi-strategy," says Trudy Wainwright.

Here, the essential building block is the "snappy lesson", 20 minutes a day of fast-paced lively teaching, which carries on through key stage 1 and is then used as a tool for intervention. Six phonemes are taught a week, but the lessons are more streamlined than those at Churchdown. They don't feature music and they focus on one phoneme at a time or one alternative spelling, taught in a specific order as dictated by the scheme the school uses. The package, developed from Jolly Phonics by Trudy Wainwright and Dr Marlene Grant, is called Sound Discovery. Trudy says it teaches the phonemes in a slightly different order from Jolly Phonics, and takes alternative spellings a little further. However, most of the ingredients are the same - lots of variety, making sure children say the sounds correctly, actions, finger counting of phonemes, careful modelling of written letters by the teacher, sky-writing, "tricky words" introduced as a challenge, blending and segmenting taught early. There's also lots of interaction and dictation.

At both schools children are exposed to books and stories immediately.

There is a lot of storytelling and parents are encouraged to read to children. However, children only read books that contain groups of sounds they have learned.

"After learning to blend individual words on a card, children go on to read books with phonetically regular text," says Trudy. "The idea is that children first practise the blending skills with words, learn some tricky words, and then read books at a level where they will achieve success."

At Churchdown, children are given textless books in the first term and boxes of about 10 words to practise sounding with their parents. Different approaches, but similar results. Trudy says: "By the end of reception, children who, before the introduction of synthetic phonics, used to be below-average attainment, are now at least a year ahead, chronologically, in reading and spelling."

In 2004, at KS2, 94 per cent got level 4 and 64 per cent got level 5 for reading and spelling. Children with English as an additional language (EAL) learned as quickly as the others and there was no difference in the achievement of children with summer birthdays. Moreover, the proportion of pupils on the special needs register has fallen each year since 1998, even though the proportion available for free school meals has remained fairly constant. And there was no significant gender gap.

Churchdown headteacher Kathy Rayers says: "The comparison between the pre-synthetic phonics results and those after we introduced the scheme was phenomenal. In fact, the first time we saw the results we thought it must be a fluke."

A 2003 Ofsted report commented that by Year 2 pupils' reading and writing were well above average: "Pupils have secure phonic skills, which are systematically developed from an early age."

Such results have continued. Again, there is no significant gender gap and EAL children learn as quickly as the others. Some, however, do struggle. At St Michael's these children are identified at intervals and taught in groups two or three times a week. At Churchdown, with fewer special needs children, "repetition has lessened the number of strugglers," says Sheila.

They, too, have seen a marked reduction in the number of special needs children. But what really enthuses the teachers is how easily and enthusiastically pupils take to writing.

They pull out trays of examples. "They don't stop to ask you how to write something, they just write it," says Sheila. During one writing session, she overheard Laura (age five), saying: "I don't know how I've got to be so clever. I think I'll write a book now."

Trudy says: "The way we teach it everyone can achieve and if you can do something well you want to do more of it and off you go. Children love it because they are empowered, and can then access the rest of the curriculum."

* Jolly Phonics

Sound Discovery is published by Ridgehill

Teaching ideas

* Start early and have high expectations. Children can learn all the sounds very quickly.

* Make sure children pronounce the sounds correctly.

* Use fast-paced progression, a fun-and-games-style approach with lots of interaction.

* Don't ask children to write independently until they've been taught the correct way to write each letter.

* Include lots of repetition. Approach the same concepts in different ways.

* Follow the programme closely, teaching sounds in the order given.

* Do a lot of blending and segmenting.

* Identify strugglers and put in small groups for extra help.

* Integrate reading and writing from the start.

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