Synthetic phonics, real results

11th February 2005 at 00:00
Any assessment of new teaching methods should rely heavily on what teachers delivering them have to say. In the case of the Clackmannanshire synthetic phonics programme, now officially seven years old, teachers right through primary are enthusiastic (page one and Scotland Plus). They enjoy delivering this method of reading, writing and spelling because they see it paying dividends. The pupils enjoy it for the same reason, or "instant gratification", as one teacher described it.

Indeed, the results suggest that it is as effective for children from disadvantaged homes as it is for those who grow up with the advantages of being surrounded by books and supportive parents - at least until pupils are nearing the end of their primary education. The programme has shown not only that teachers can make a difference, despite the odds, but that they need reinforcements if progress is to be sustained beyond the primary stages.

At least in primary schools, the evidence after seven years suggests that the synthetic phonics method offers children effective literacy strategies and, most important of all, that the gains measured in the early years have been sustained and even increased as they progress through school. The next key test will be this cohort's attainment in secondary.

Teachers in upper primary report that pupils have more confidence and enthusiasm when it comes to writing longer pieces of prose. Given the recent disappointing verdict by HMI on Scottish pupils' literacy skills, particularly when it comes to extended writing, this can only be encouraging. The finding that boys seem to be the principal beneficiaries of this scheme has come as a welcome surprise, even to the academics who devised it. Perhaps once this conundrum is solved, we may hold the key to more information about how boys and girls learn and hopefully use it to the advantage of both.

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