Scots throw down literacy gauntlet

6th November 1998 at 00:00
Is the latest Government-approved strategy for teaching reading really the most effective one available? Robert Mendick reports

A radical way of teaching children to read has easily outperformed the Government's preferred literacy strategy.

The technique, pioneered in Scotland, has produced remarkable results in even the most deprived schools.

The study will be sent to the Department for Education and Employment in the next two weeks. Its supporters say it ought to spark a serious rethink of the Government's National Literacy Strategy in England.

Pupils taught using the new method did far better than those following the one advocated by the Government, according to academics behind the scheme known as "synthetic phonics".

A one-year pilot study of 300 schoolchildren in Scotland showed those taught using "synthetic phonics" were seven months ahead with their reading and nine months ahead with their spelling compared to the Government's preferred strategy.

On average, those children using synthetic phonics - widespread in Austria and Germany - were able to read and spell seven months ahead of their chronological age.

The results were announced at a press conference last week attended by Secretary of State for Scotland Donald Dewar.

A spokeswoman for St Andrews University, which carried out the research, said: "The Government's own strategy was the least effective. It was slightly strange Donald Dewar was there to launch this when it flies in the face of what the Government is recommending."

Dr Rhona Johnston, who with colleague Joyce Watson, pioneered the study, said: "Twenty minutes a day of this method would significantly boost children's reading, spelling and phonemic awareness and would be more effective than the programmes currently being advocated in the National Literacy Strategy and the Literacy Hour."

The academics from St Andrews psychology department, conducted their study at eight primary schools in Clackmannanshire, Scotland.

The new method involves teaching children just six letters at a time, one a day for six days, starting with S,A,T,I,P and N. The children are then shown how those letters can be combined to form words before learning another six letters.

The Government's approach - the traditional "analytic phonics" programme - teaches children to learn whole words and then break them down into component letter sounds, as advocated in the National Literacy Strategy.

A third group combined analy-tic phonics with 10 minutes on awareness of rimes and phonemes in words, as advocated in the Literacy Hour. They had the worst reading scores of all.

Dr Johnston concluded: "Rime training is a waste of time. In fact it is worse than that. It takes time away from phonics teaching."

Anne Pearson, headteacher of Park primary school, Alloa, said: "The children are a year ahead of their chronological age. They have done two years work in one year. It is fantastic.

"This is the most deprived school in Clackmannanshire. The teachers have learned you should not put a ceiling on children's learning abilities. Our kids are now achieving levels above pupils from well-to-do areas. Poverty does not need to hinder learning."

A DFEE spokesman said the different system in place north of the border made comparisons unfair. "We are not sure it is a fair comparison to the English literacy strategy," the spokesman said.

The St Andrews research follows a study by Warwick University, as reported in last week's TES, which suggested the National Literacy Hour would be more effective if it was broken up into three shorter sessions.

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