Inner-city children who are learning English as an additional language and have been given early access to a structured phonics programme finish infant school with reading and spelling ages several months ahead of pupils who experienced a more holistic, big-books approach.
A study of five-year-olds in Tower Hamlets during 1997-1998 showed that early teaching of phoneme awareness and phonics can radically improve reading and spelling standards in these children. During the study, two groups received 12-week interventions in phonics or big books, respectively, at the beginning of being taught to read.
A year after the end of the research, a follow-up study sought to determine whether the gains made by the phonics group had been maintained to the end of key stage 1.
By the time Phase 2 data collection took place, the groupings had changed. One of the teachers of the big books group had switched her children to another structured phonics programme.
There were now three groups: the original phonics group (using Jolly Phonics, a commercially available, structured phonics programme), the second group (using a holistic system based on Holdaway's use o big books), and a third group who had started with the big books system and had then received one year's structured phonics teaching.
In terms of phoneme segmentation (splitting words into sounds) both phonics groups did significantly better than the big book group. This was also true for letter sound relationships.
In reading, the original phonics group maintained a mean difference of eight months over the big books group. The spelling age for the original phonics group showed a mean difference of 11 months over the big books group.
Conclusions from the study showed that the original phonics group had retained its advantage to the end of key stage 1. Children who switched to phonics in Year 2 had caught up on letter sounds and phoneme segmentation but did not show a significant difference in reading and spelling.
Getting Ready for Reading: A follow-up study of inner-city second language learners at the end of key stage 1 by Dr Morag Stuart, senior lecturer in psychology and special needs at the Institute of Education, London University. The follow-up study was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.