Do I have to spell it out? Synthetic phonics works

8th December 2017 at 00:00
Despite the ‘disturbing’ social media backlash, this former teacher is going to carry on her literacy crusade

I gave evidence last month at the Scottish Parliament on my petition to improve literacy standards in schools through researchinformed reading instruction. It calls for national guidance, support, and professional learning for teachers – and trainee teachers – specifically in systematic synthetic phonics.

I have been trying to raise awareness about this for the past three years, through blogs, opinion pieces and letters to various MSPs, including education secretary John Swinney, and to the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Responses from those in positions of power and influence have generally been: “Thanks, but no thanks” – and I suppose I was expecting the same in the petition process.

I was delighted, however, when the committee responded positively to the evidence (watch at, ultimately deciding to follow-up with the Scottish government and other education bodies. But I am in no doubt that the road ahead will be rocky. I am challenging the government, Education Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence and our teacher education practices.

The inevitable Twitter backlash has begun with the usual tropes being trotted out:

  • “English isn’t phonetic.” (It is – English is built out of phonemes.)
  • “One size doesn’t fit all.” (This is a misguided notion because, regardless of children’s individuality, it is the same alphabetic code and phonics skills that all children need to get to grips with.)
  • “There’s more to phonics than reading.” (Of course there is. Phonics advocates subscribe to “the simple view of reading” – that reading involves decoding and comprehension. Good decoding is a prerequisite to good comprehension.)
  • “The research is mixed on phonics.” (While opinions may be mixed on phonics, the research is not. Analytic phonics is known to be much less effective than systematic phonics. It was in Scotland that this was first confirmed, with the internationally-renowned Clackmannanshire research.)


What’s disturbing is that some of these comments come from educators. A government spokesperson also had some interesting thoughts in response to the hearing: “Improving education and raising standards for all is this government’s number one priority. That is why our education reforms have a relentless focus on literacy and we are making a significant investment, through the Attainment Challenge and Pupil Equity Funding (PEF), to close the literacy attainment gap.”

None of the measures introduced so far will have any impact on literacy scores – anyone waiting for literacy standards to change because of “standardised testing” and “literacy benchmarks” will be sorely disappointed.

PEF promises much, but, depending on your local arrangements, you may be prevented from implementing systematic phonics as a whole-school initiative to raise attainment because it is not an “intervention” for “specific” children. Surely, helping all children by providing systematic, explicit and direct instruction in reading and spelling would go a long way towards closing the gap?

Teachers unaware

The government also said: “While teaching phonics is clearly an important part of learning to read, systematic synthetic phonics is only one of a range of approaches. We have empowered teachers to use the most appropriate approach to meet the needs of individual children, based on the best available evidence.”

Simply repeating that teachers are “empowered” does not make it true. The reality is that many teachers are entirely unaware of how to teach through systematic synthetic phonics, and that explicit, practical advice on research-informed reading instruction is hard to come by in Scotland.

Most concerning of all though, is the assertion that their plans are based on the “best available evidence”. I don’t know where they’ve been looking, but the research data behind systematic phonics is overwhelming. Three major international enquiries into the teaching of reading all concluded that systematic phonics is the most effective way to teach children to read. (See The National Reading Panel, 2000, USA; National Inquiry into the Teaching of Literacy, 2005, Australia; Independent review of the teaching of early reading: final report, Jim Rose, 2006, England.)

They also state that synthetic phonics is “only one of a range of approaches”. The other main approach to teaching reading is whole-language, which prioritises meaning and uses other strategies such as memorisation of sight words, or the use of context or picture clues to guess what words might be. The phonics part in whole language is usually analytic – it focuses on the first letter in a whole word – and is more of a last resort. Neither whole language, nor analytic phonics, have research to support their effectiveness. And if you can’t produce data to back-up your assertions, then I’m afraid all you’ve got is an opinion.

Educationally speaking, Scotland is a small place – and it’s quite alarming to see how misinformation about phonics has perforated the collective consciousness and negatively affected our perceptions of it. Historically, many university education faculties and academics have preferred to promote a whole-language methodology, which is now well past its sell-by-date.

Now, however, there is nowhere to hide. Our attainment results are a stain on our historical report card. We used to be ahead of the international average in reading, but now we’re behind England and Northern Ireland. Nothing – not a philosophy, not a curriculum, nor politics – should stand in the way of improving life chances and choices, especially for our most disadvantaged children.

The good news is that almost every child can be taught to read, given the right instruction, knowledge and skills, as Gordon Askew, of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction, and the University of Edinburgh’s Dr Sarah McGeown described so well during the petition hearing. This could be a wonderful solution for Scotland – but only if we can be open-minded enough to let go of what we’ve been doing for the last 50 years. Scotland’s children shouldn’t need to wait any longer.

Anne Glennie is a literacy consultant and former primary teacher who has lodged a petition at the Scottish Parliament on improving literacy standards in schools through research-informed reading instruction

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