The debate on phonics has heated up again with demands for an immediate review of how reading is taught in English primary schools. The calls have been prompted by evidence of gains, particularly among boys, from the Clackmannanshire synthetic phonics experiment.
MPs on the Commons education select committee have recommended that further large-scale research studies should be carried out comparing this success with other methods such as analytical phonics and the searchlight models promoted in England's National Literacy Strategy.
Results of the Clackmannanshire synthetic phonics method impressed MPs, who heard that 11-year-olds were more than three years ahead of peers in other parts of Scotland in reading and that boys were outperforming girls.
The synthetic phonics approach involves an accelerated process of breaking down or decoding words into sounds and blending letters and syllables to make words using magnetic letters on a board. Teachers then move on to give the class reading books.
By the end of primary 7, word reading was 42 months ahead of chronological age, spelling was 20 months ahead and comprehension was 3.5 months ahead.
The committee stated: "It appears to show long-lasting benefits from early synthetic phonics training. However, it does raise a number of additional issues.
"The study showed that, although reading comprehension was still significantly above chronological age at the end of the seventh year at school (3.5 months ahead), the advantage was smaller than it had been at the end of the second year at school (seven months ahead). It would be useful to return to these children again in future to see whether the gains in word recognition and spelling continue to persist."
Shadow education secretary Tim Collins said the National Literacy Strategy was letting down an "alarming proportion" of children and promised that a Conservative government would put synthetic phonics "at the heart of our literacy strategy".
Lesley Robertson, senior quality improvement officer for Clackmannanshire, reported to the authority's learning and leisure committee last week on positive reports from teachers and headteachers involved in the project.
But while it was clear there was little correlation between deprivation and pupils' capacity to gain technical skills, she said, concern remained that there was a causal link between deprivation and comprehension.
"The most important next steps are to continue to address the question of how to meet the needs of pupils who have gained such technical skills but who continue to experience difficulty in converting them into higher order reading skills."
Sue Ellis, senior lecturer in Strathclyde University's primary education department, said: "The kids in Clackmannanshire are very good at reading individual words and they are more than two years ahead of other kids at doing that. But their comprehension is only average - no better than in any other scheme. At the end of the day, the task is to read a piece of text and understand it.
"To some extent the focus on single words encourages teachers to take their eye off the ball because they are looking at one tiny bit of the task and not looking at what sense kids are making of it."
Dr Ellis added: "I am not anti-phonics or synthetic phonics in particular, but I believe you have to look at the whole mix. In England, the real problem is that kids don't want to pick up a book and read for pleasure.
"From Scotland's point of view, we have got quite a different attitude to reading and we don't want to lose that by dropping anything. We have got to keep all the plates spinning. If we concentrate just on one plate, the danger is that others go."
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