The sound and the fury of the phonic boom

Astonishing results are being claimed for phonics teaching. But two schools of thought are at war.
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A teaching war is raging in Britain's infant classes between two new kinds of phonic systems being used to help children learn to read. Each is claiming astonishing results both with low and high achievers - one producing a six-year-old in Scotland with a reading age of 14.

Parents of today's five-year-olds were mostly educated when phonics teaching was deeply unfashionable but that has all changed. Today the controversy is about which kind of phonics children should be taught - since it is now generally accepted that phonics, of some description, there must be. Do you start with the word "cat", break it into "c" and "at", and point out how it rhymes with mat, pat and bat? Or do you take the three sounds separately and hope the children can blend them to get the word "cat"?

That, rather crudely, is the substance of an increasingly heated debate between proponents of "analytic" phonics and "synthetic" phonics, although these are slippery terms, which some phonics advocates prefer not to use.

The "synthetic" phonics method, essentially a more old-fashioned approach, is the easier to define: children, away from the context of books, are introduced to the 44 phonemes - letter sounds - in English. They learn to identify letters in the initial, middle and final position in words, and then to blend letters into words. This approach recently grabbed the limelight in much-publicised research in Clackmannanshire in Scotland, where after just one year of being taught by this method, children were a year above their age in reading and 14 months ahead in spelling.

The "analytic" phonics system, by contrast, is more grounded in children's experience of books. Instead of starting with letters and sounds in isolation, children begin with a word in a familiar text, look at its initial letter and then break the word down. But instead of reducing a word to phonemes - which advocates of analytic phonics claim is too difficult and unnecessarily complex for young children - they are encouraged instead to break it into what is known as onset and rime [sic], in other words, the opening letter or letters and then the rhyming family the rest of the word belongs to.

An "analytic" phonics research project with five-year-olds in north Lanarkshire, drawing heavily on rhyme and ignoring phonemes in the early stages, is claiming average improvements in reading age of nine months, with the brightest accelerated to reading ages of nine to 14. The National Literacy Strategy, which recommends what children should be taught in their daily literacy hour, contains elements of both synthetic and analytic phonics, though not by name. Some specialists argue this mixture is unclear and unsatisfactory, and needs resolving. But John Stannard, director of the Literacy Strategy, says no one need take the rivalry between the two approaches seriously. A far greater problem is that, in his estimation, half of all teachers of five-to-seven-year-olds are not equipped to teach phonics - of any kind - properly, and urgently need more instruction themselves.

An inspectors' report published yesterday said new teachers were still not receiving proper instruction in how to teach phonics.

But the academics in the phonics war are not so easily pacified. The Office for Standards in Education recently conducted a seminar with phonics specialists, and is known to be interested in giving substantially more weight to the "synthetic" phonics strand in the National Literacy Strategy, especially in the light of the recent research support for it. Those opposed to an exclusively synthetic approach have formed a group to attempt to counter its rise.

It only adds to the concerns of this group that Ruth Miskin, partner of Ofsted's Chief Inspector, Chris Woodhead, and headteacher of Kobi Nazrul Primary School in Tower Hamlets, is a supreme champion of synthetic phonics, and getting good results with pupils without English as a first language.

Other schools have bought into a commercial synthetic phonics scheme, "Jolly Phonics", which formed the basis for the Clackmannanshire research. About 5,000 UK schools teach synthetic phonics according to another commercial programme, Thrass (teaching handwriting, reading and spelling skills), which presents children as young as three or four with the 120 spelling choices in English via a system of grids, key images and chants.

What all these synthetic systems have in common is the speed at which they move with young children. This, proponents argue, is particularly beneficial for the lower-achievers, who might otherwise have a very slow start in reading. Whereas the National Literacy Strategy spreads learning about the 44 phonemes over the first three years in school, Ruth Miskin, for instance, has it all over by the first term of the second year, and all her pupils reading well by the end of that year. Dr Rhona Johnston, on the Clackmannanshire project, has children introduced to all phonemes in eight weeks.

Both she and Ruth Miskin claim that children do not need to spend time on rhyme - a former bedrock of learning to read - and that they can learn their phonemes in isolation from books. But what the "synthetic" lobby believes is a supremely logical way of learning to read, its "analytic" rivals regard as an overly didactic and controlling approach, which omits the range of reading strategies - such as picture and context clues, letter patterns and analogies with rhyming words - that children need to be able to draw on.

Henrietta Dombey, Professor of Literacy in Primary Education at Brighton University, a member of the newly formed group backing analytic phonics, is sceptical of the Clackmannanshire research claims until more detail is made available. She argues that what is needed is a balanced approach to phonics, not excluding onset and rime, and encouraging children to look for patterns in words.

"Too much emphasis on synthetic phonics could end up with children being proficient in three-letter words out of context, but not trained to tackle longer and more complex words," she says.

Professor David Wray of Warwick University, another group member, is suspicious of the synthetic approach "because it is not based on what children do naturally when faced with a text, which is try and make sense of it. Unless you start from that point, you are cutting them off from an experience they already have, and you risk alienating a lot of them."

Calum reads the dictionary as a game

WHEN SIX-YEAR-OLD Calum Donald goes to the local library, he can easily tackle books meant for children twice his age. Although he is only in his second year at Keir Hardie Memorial Primary School, which serves a deprived part of Motherwell, not far from the defunct Ravenscraig steelworks, he has achieved a reading age of 14, thanks to the dramatic success of a new approach to the teaching of reading.

Calum is an ordinary little boy, the second in a family of three children, who loves cars and motor-racing. But, unlike many little boys, he likes nothing better than to search for new words in his new dictionary and thesaurus and play games with his mum, looking things up and finding new words. He loves to flick through the local newspapers his dad, a prison officer, brings home and pores over the articles on Formula One in the latest copy of Autosport magazine.

"Calum reads everything," says his mother, Ann, who works in a bank. "He has come on in leaps and bounds. His language is tremendous. If he doesn't know the meaning of a word, he will look it up in the dictionary or the thesaurus. I'm really proud of him.

"He has a tremendous love of books, which has come since he started school. It's fun. He will read the dictionary as a game."

Mrs Donald says that her son's enthusiasm for reading and writing was changed completely when teachers at Keir Hardie school started using a new way of teaching children to read, drawing heavily on analytic phonics. Calum, like his 24 classmates, loves the magnetic letters, word games and small group work, which are at the centre of north Lanarkshire's remarkable experiment.

"Calum was a bit reluctant to come to school at the beginning," says Mrs Donald. "Sometimes he didn't want to come at all. But since this started it has really clicked. During the summer he was wanting books to read. He wants something new and something interesting. He was very anxious to come back to school because he was so keen on the new teaching methods."

Teachers at the 200-pupil school have been amazed at the success of the new reading schemes. They first tried it with year-two pupils last year, but have extended it to the five-year-olds since September. Calum is one of the high-flyers at Keir Hardie, but many six- and seven-year-olds have reading ages of nine, 10 or better after going through the scheme.

"We are quite amazed by the results," says the headteacher, Jean McClean. "We now have Primary One children, that's children who have been in school since August, who can write their own stories and spell the first 25 common words. That's absolutely amazing from our point of view."

Liz Watson, a teacher at the school, who has been in the profession for 27 years, was sceptical about the effectiveness of teaching sounds rather than the tried-and-tested "C-A-T makes CAT" when she was introduced to the new scheme a year ago.

Now she has changed her mind. She has brought class tests forward by three months compared with last year, and has had to order fresh books for her classroom; her children in Primary Two said all the books were too easy.

She said the children were delighted with the scheme's mix of teaching sounds, games and small-group work, which was helped by bringing a nursery nurse into the classroom.

"The children just seemed to be able to do it," she says. "They can cope with lots of sounds. Now I notice a great degree of confidence from them. They will try a lot of words on their own rather than coming for help."

Ben Russell

Synthetic phonics at Grendon Underwood County Combined School, near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire

IT'S LITERACY hour, and the five-year-olds are sitting on the mat for their dose of phonics with Clarence, the bird puppet. Today he has a story about going to the doctor with a sore throat and being made to say "ar".

"What do you notice about today's sound?" asks Marilyn Gool, their teacher, pointing to it on the board.

"It's got two letters," says Jake.

The children practise saying "ar"; find it in a list of words (card, bark, part, farm), and practise writing it, one at a time on the board. This group has almost covered all the phonemes (some go more slowly), and they round off the session with a lively run-through of the sounds and the actions that go with them (snaking movements for "s", chopping for "ch", calling through their hands for "oi", etc).

This is synthetic phonics in action, according to the commercial scheme, Jolly Phonics, that the headteacher, Ian Elkington, introduced when he joined the school three years ago. Most reception children absorb two new sounds a week.

For each new sound, the children take home a worksheet, and parents are instructed on the way the scheme works and how they should pronounce the letter sounds.

The school is giving considerably more emphasis to synthetic phonics than outlined in the National Literacy Strategy, but Mrs Gool is not prepared to go "synthetic" to the exclusion of all other approaches.

"Some children learn very well by the phonic method; some struggle with it; some are better at learning whole words by sight than others."

Diana Hinds