KS1 results cast doubt on phonics

28th August 2009 at 01:00
Critics seize on lack of improvement to launch renewed attack on compulsory use of controversial technique

The latest Key Stage 1 results revealed this week have rekindled the row over mandatory use of synthetic phonics in English 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 2007, after Sir Jim Rose recommended that daily 20-minute phonics sessions should begin in reception as part of a broader English curriculum.

This year, 84 per cent of pupils reached the expected level 2 in reading, the same proportion as in 2008. And some 81 per cent did so in writing, a rise of 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.

Pupils who are well within this level are deemed to be working at level 2b - this year 72 per cent of seven-year-olds were at this level in reading and 60 per cent in writing, an increase of 1 and 2 percentage points, respectively.

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."

The Conservatives have long championed the importance of the technique, and included it in their last general election manifesto.

Nick Gibb, shadow schools minister, said that the results called for a "continued rigorous focus" on the teaching of synthetic phonics.

But David Reedy, president of the UK Literacy Association, said the scores, based on teacher assessments, are 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.

"If there was, we would have discovered it a long time ago.

"It also might be that teachers always were quite good at teaching decoding, and the assertion that they weren't so good so we needed to introduce more systematic phonics, may not be as clear as commentators thought."

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