Sounds like a good idea

6th October 2006 at 01:00
Educational psychologists addressed diverse issues at their annual conference in Scotland. Fiona MacLeod reports

Synthetic and analytical phonics do not have to compete, say educational psychologists.

One project has been using both approaches in a pilot scheme, delegates heard at the annual conference of educational psychologists in Scotland.

In North Lanarkshire, the literacy intervention team has been using both sounding-out letters and groups of letters alongside the letter-by-letter method of teaching reading with young pupils.

Laura-Ann Currie, educational psychologist in North Lanarkshire, said: "It has been getting children to think about how they tackle words."

Nancy Ferguson, a fellow educational psychologist in North Lanarkshire, explained that engaging children in an awareness of how they learn helped them read earlier.

As an example, she discussed video footage of children being shown a picture relating to a story and then asked questions such as "what do you think the title will be?" and "what words do you think you will come across when we read this story?"

She said it was about asking the children: "What do you need to do to decode words? It's so they can then untangle those processes for themselves."

There was room, she believed, for analytical phonics alongside synthetic phonics, rather than a universal synthetic approach: "When you ask children, they say reading is about sounds, because that is the way we teach it."

In North Lanarkshire, 16 schools in areas of deprivation adopted the idea as a pilot with P1 and P2 pupils.

Analysis revealed that children using a metacognitive approach (being aware of their processes of learning) had a reading level seven months ahead by P4.

However, a leading educational psychologist suggested phonics could be overused. Rea Reason is co-director of the doctoral programme for practising educational psychologists at Manchester University, specialising in literacy learning and difficulties. She told delegates: "More and more in England people are saying 'phonics, phonics, phonics' - even the Prime Minister.

"This seems to be the fashion, but we don't know what balance produces long-term results. What we do know is that some children learn remarkably easily - in general, people without difficulties needed remarkably few repetitions. Are we over-doing the phonics if they don't need it, and not focusing on systematically prepared phonics for those who need it?"

Dr Reason also warned colleagues not to jump into a "dyslexia diagnosis"

under pressure from parents: "We tend to look for a confirmation of a pattern we have in our heads. Don't jump to dyslexia confirmations too fast. We tend to talk the language of differences when things are not going right.

"If you are an educationalist, your focus in the first instance is on how different children learn at different rates or in different ways.

"It is part of natural development to have teeth drop out. Some children's learning develops more quickly."

Dr Reason urged trust between teachers and educational psychologists. "I struggle very much with the word 'dyslexia'. I would rather we didn't have it, because it behoves us to recognise any child who struggles with print.

Let's not have some elite group of children who have it and those who don't."

She referred to the parental backlash after the Durham University psychologist Julian Elliot cast doubt on the existence of dyslexia.

Stressing she was not denying the existence of dyslexia, Dr Reason added:

"If I see a parent and they say 'I think my child is dyslexic', I am not going to get into an argument because we have been seen as the gatekeepers to resources."

She called for a change to the culture which resulted in parents seeing a dyslexia diagnosis as the password to help for their children: "We need to have interventions in place that don't require the word dyslexia."

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