Phonics fails dyslexics, says head

26th September 2008 at 01:00
Expert says method slows down the progress of special needs pupils

Dr Neville Brown, the maverick founder of the successful Maple Hayes Hall special school in Lichfield, Staffordshire, is to publish a book claiming that the drive for phonics is resulting in "abysmally slow" progress for dyslexics.

The award-winning expert on children with literacy problems has condemned the Government's emphasis on phonics for failing dyslexic pupils.

"There is huge pressure from publishers and pressure groups to put in place a phonics method of teaching that simply does not work for these pupils," he said.

"There's a sense that if a child is deficient, you just keep on teaching them phonics. But they make such slow progress that they end up being taken out of mainstream classes to catch up."

Dr Brown's book, Morphemes, Meaning and Literacy, to be published next year, outlines his theory of language, which led him to develop the alternative, visual literacy method that has been used at his school since 1981.

Dr Brown insists that his "morphological" technique is effective with dyslexic children who have been failed by phonics and multi-sensory techniques because it uses picture icons to attach meaning to morphemes, or word segments.

The system, he said, does not require separate lessons away from the curriculum and allows children to follow a broad range of subjects while they catch up with reading and writing.

Dr Brown, 73, is a controversial figure in the world of special needs education. He recently published a report saying that councils were breaking the law by insisting that such children should attend mainstream schools. His paper, Cheating the Children, lists examples of parents forced to take legal action to get their child the provision they needed.

His latest comments on phonics came as he was presented with the ITV Teacher of the Year award for the Midlands.

He was nominated by the family of Georgia Brown, an 11-year-old whose parents went to a tribunal and the High Court to obtain local authority funding for her place at Maple Hayes Hall.

An Ofsted report rated the school as "highly effective". Its GCSE results in 2007 were 50 per cent five A*-C grades, with 22 per cent including English and maths.

The inspectors that said some of the school's 7- to 17-year-old pupils had previously been reluctant to attend school and began with low self-esteem. Most of them are paid for by their local authorities, although many have to go through tribunals to receive funding.

Dr Brown said his morphological approach was at odds with the current thrust towards phonics, but he has garnered support from leading figures in dyslexia education.

Dr Lindsay Peer, a lecturer, educational psychologist and former head of education at the British Dyslexia Association, said: "Maple Hayes is the only school in the country that does it, and it works, especially for children with problems with auditory processing, or poor memories for letters and letter combinations.

"I've sent children there who have been regarded as failures, and they've come out reading. Neville's work is remarkable."

Dr Brown will attend the Pride of Britain Awards ceremony in London on Tuesday, where the national ITV Teacher of the Year will be announced in the presence of Prince Charles and Gordon Brown.


Using synthetic phonics, children are taught to build up pronunciations for unfamiliar written words by translating letters into sounds and blending the sounds together.

Since 2007, all schools have had to teach phonics in the first year of schooling. If, after that, a child fails to make progress, they could be referred to the Government's Every Child a Reader programme, which uses one-to-one tuition and techniques tailored to the individual.

Under the morphological method (or icon system), instead of focusing on sounds, words are broken down into morphemes (or units of meaning), which are then assigned pictures.

The method is thought to be effective primarily with children who have at least average competence in using and understanding spoken language but find reading and writing extremely difficult.



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