Exam results in England cast new doubt on phonics

4th September 2009 at 01:00

The latest key stage 1 results for five to seven year olds in England, revealed last week, have rekindled the row over the mandatory use of synthetic phonics in primary schools after the same proportion of children reached the expected level in reading as in 2008.

The 2009 cohort is the first to have been exposed to compulsory use of the teaching techniques for a full two years - but the results have shown no significant improvement.

The technique became a legal requirement in English schools two years ago, after Sir Jim Rose recommended that daily 20-minute phonics sessions should begin in reception as part of a broader English curriculum. It was the spectacular gains in reading and spelling made by Clackmannanshire pupils using synthetic phonics which won over Rose and English education ministers.

This year, however, while 84 per cent of pupils reached the expected level 2 in reading, this was the same proportion as in 2008. And although 81 per cent did so in writing, this was a rise of just 1 percentage point.

To reach level 2, pupils must read and understand simple texts, use more than one strategy to read unfamiliar words, spell simple words correctly and write in sentences using interesting vocabulary.

Critics of phonics have seized on the results to launch a new attack on the synthetic phonics teaching method.

Colin Richards, emeritus professor at the University of Cumbria, said: "At the very least, these results cast severe doubt on the claims of the synthetic phonics lobby that their favoured methods would dramatically improve early reading.

"There's clearly far more to early reading than a heavy dose of synthetic phonics, as so many early years teachers realise."

David Reedy, president of the UK Literacy Association, said the scores, based on teacher assessments, were not designed to pick up the changes in phonics teaching.

He said: "A more systematic approach to phonics is a crucial part of learning to read, but not the be-all and end-all.

"If you look at children's capability to decode words, I suspect you would find there has been a significant improvement. But the (KS1) assessment is largely about comprehension. We will probably see phonics having a minor effect over the next few years, but there isn't a magic bullet for reading."

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