Is synthetic phonics really the holy grail of reading?

13th May 2005 at 01:00
What is it about elections and learning to read? Of all the important educational issues, politicians and the media always return to their favourites at election time. Top of the list is phonics.

The House of Commons education select committee's investigation into reading was published just before the election was called. According to many of the contributors, the problems of learning to read have finally been solved... again. The holy grail is synthetic phonics.

Unfortunately, the committee was unduly influenced by people who were committed to this method. They included the Reading Reform Foundation, Jolly Phonics author Sue Lloyd, and Rhona Johnston, one of the authors of the much-touted Clackmannanshire study that looked at synthetic phonics teaching (TES, April 29).

Why were these people, who are all synthetic phonics evangelists, invited to give evidence, while others with a more critical view of phonics teaching were not? What about authors of reading programmes that have been just as successful as Jolly Phonics and headteachers who have been effective in the teaching of reading without using systematic phonics programmes?

Why wasn't a single academic with a main specialism in education and the teaching of English, rather than in psychology, invited to contribute?

The result is a lack of proper critical attention to the important issue of teaching and learning.

The committee was "extremely interested" in the claim by Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson that "the synthetic phonics approach, as part of the reading curriculum, is more effective than the analytic phonics approach".

The TES and the select committee have both rightly raised queries about the study's methodology.

One thing that I would add is that the review of other research at the beginning of the report is inadequate and in particular makes misleading claims about the influence of child-centred education on reading methods.

The committee concluded that we need more research to look at the effectiveness of synthetic phonics and analytic phonics.

Perhaps, before we waste public money, we should look at evidence that has already been published. In a comprehensive report, the American Reading Panel reviewed hundreds of studies, and found that synthetic phonics was no better than other phonics approaches. Despite a lot of research, we do not know how children's brains work.

One of the most questionable requirements of popular synthetic phonics programmes is that children do not read books for the first two or three months while they are learning their phonemes. Nearly all reading researchers agree that reading a range of texts is vital to consolidate reading skills. This is also essential to properly assess reading development and to stimulate motivation for reading.

Another question that the committee raised was the extent to which the National Literacy Strategy Framework is informed by research. In relation to phonics, I concluded in a research paper in 2000 that the evidence was finely balanced but showed that phonics work should be concentrated on children aged five and six; that the phonics objectives for Years 3 and 4 should be removed; and that the NLS needed to be changed.

I have consistently argued since then in books and papers that the NLS needs to be subject to a thorough review, something which the committee has belatedly confirmed.

If more government-funded research is needed, it should be in relation to writing, which has suffered more than reading under the NLS. Perhaps even more importantly, shouldn't we be looking at the bigger picture?

A recent Royal Society of Arts conference, "What's so special about subjects?", opened up questions about the purpose and scope of the national curriculum which could usefully be followed up by the select committee.

The aims of the curriculum need rethinking and rewriting. We need a curriculum that seeks to build on the motivation of pupils and encourages them to develop interests and preferences and to study these in depth from a very early age.

Dr Dominic Wyse is a lecturer in primary and early-years education at the University of Cambridge

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