A new ABC of education challenges orthodoxy of how we teach reading

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The Independent Online
A QUESTION-MARK over the most basic part of every child's education will be posed this week. The issue is how we teach our children to read and write, and the results of a study in a small area of Scotland suggest that the methods being promoted by the Government may not be the best.

The findings will embarrass ministers, who are preparing to release research today showing that their new national literacy strategy is raising reading standards. The strategy, spearheaded by David Blunkett, Secretary of State for Education, recommends use of a method known as "analytic phonics".

But the Scottish study, to be published soon, concludes that a different technique may be far more effective. The technique, "synthetic phonics", has been used in just eight schools in Clackmannanshire but has produced what researchers at St Andrews University described as "staggering" results.

After just one year, children taught by this method were a year ahead of their age in reading and 14 months ahead in spelling. The results suggest that a fundamental issue that has divided educationalists over the years is still a long way from being resolved.

The Government's recommended methods are not compulsory, but schools will be reprimanded by inspectors for not using them in the literacy hour if their results do not come up to scratch.

The study commissioned by Clackmannanshire council, and funded partly by the Scottish Office, involved 300 children and 13 classes in eight schools who were divided into three groups by the researchers, Dr Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson. The group taught with synthetic phonics rather than methods advocated in the national literacy strategy far outperformed the other two.

After 16 weeks, the former had reading ages which were, on average, seven months ahead of their chronological age while both the latter had fallen slightly behind their chronological age. By the end of the first year, those in the synthetic phonics group were a year ahead of their age in reading and 14 months ahead in spelling.

In analytic phonics children start with a word and break it down into letter sounds - "cat" becomes c-a-t - and they concentrate at first on the initial letters of words.

In synthetic phonics, they move much faster. They are taught the 42 letter sounds at six a day over eight days. At the same time, they are taught to identify letters in the initial, middle and final position in words and to sound and blend words using magnetic letters.

Dr Johnston said: "Synthetic phonics is staggeringly effective. We have been using the methods of the national literacy strategy in Scotland for three years. Three years ago we would have said that we were very pleased with it. Now we are saying that you can do much better.

"The results were best in the most deprived schools and boys benefit just as much as girls."

She said the project had used the schools' own teachers who received two days' training, and had involved no extra resources.

Lorna Spence, head of Deerpark primary school in Clackmannanshire, one of the trial schools, said that the percentage of children reading at or above their chronological age had risen from under half to more than 93 per cent.

Her school is in a mining village and nearly a third of the children come from a household where no one has a job; 45 per cent are on free school meals. "The results were quite astounding," she said. "We have no doubt whatsoever that the programme works." All Clackmannanshire primary schools are now using synthetic phonics.

In England, some primary schools used a commercial scheme called Jolly Phonics which uses similar methods.

Experts have been arguing for decades about the best way to teach reading, so the Government's decision to tell the nation's teachers how to raise reading standards was a brave step. To tell them what to do in detail was even braver.

Favoured ways of teaching reading have come in and gone out since the end of the Second World War. Phonics gave way to "look and say" which led on to "real books". As time went on, a mix of methods was promoted by school inspectors.

None of it worked. Research by the National Foundation for Educational Research suggested that while reading standards have fluctuated from time to time, they had scarcely improved since 1945.

That is changing, and today the first evidence is expected that the national literacy strategy, which has been piloted in some schools for a couple of years and was devised by reading experts with the help of teachers, is improving reading. Findings from places such as Bristol have already shown that the gains are measurable.

But doubts about the strategy have been voiced from the start. In June, a controversial book by Diane McGuinness, a developmental psychologist at the University of South Florida, suggested that every method tried in the past 400 years was wrong and that two recent American programmes: Lindamood auditory discrimination in depth and Phono- GraphixTM were the clue to teaching reading.

She argued that the key to reading was the ability to hear individual sounds - the 43 phonemes. Her thinking is similar to that of the Clackmannanshire project but critics say that the programmes lack "fun and games" and have not been fully proven with the youngest children.

Then came the St Andrews University study emphasising the advantages of synthetic phonics, a method which has been used with good results in a few English schools for several years.

Phonetics of some kind is now the order of the day. The debate is about the type of phonics which should be used and how it should be taught.

Rival

methods

Phonics: Crudely, the sounding out of words, as in C-A-T.

In analytic phonics, children start with a word and break it down into letter sounds, and they concentrate at first on the initial letters of words.

In synthetic phonics, they move much faster. They are taught the 42 letter sounds at six a day over eight days. At the same time, they are taught to identify letters in the initial, middle and final position in words and to sound and blend words, using magnetic letters.

Look and say: Involves learning to read by memorising whole words.

Real books: Children learn to read simply by being exposed to books.

Phono-Graphix TM: An American programme, it bases reading on the ability to hear individual sounds - phonemes. Children learn to map each sound to its most probable spelling and to master alternative spellings for the 43 phonemes.

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