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The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment





1.1 There has been much debate in recent years about just how children should be taught to read. The phonic approach, whereby children are shown that letter sounds are a guide to the pronunciation of words, has a long history, starting to develop in the nineteenth century (Morris, 1984). In this approach, the sounds of the letters of the alphabet are taught, and children learn the correspondences between letters and groups of letters and their pronunciations (Adams, 1990).


1.2 In analytic phonics, the predominant method in the UK, letter sounds are taught after reading has already begun, children initially learning to read some words by sight, often in the context of meaningful text. However, we have found that the analytic phonics component of the reading programme in Scotland was generally taught in a separate lesson devoted to word study (Watson, 1998). In order to teach the letter sounds whole words sharing a common initial letter sound are presented to children, e.g. 'milk', 'man', 'mother' (Harris and Smith, 1976). Attention is drawn to the /m/ sound heard at the beginning of the words. When all of the letter sounds have been taught in this way, attention is then drawn to letters at the ends of words, then in the middle, in consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words. Therefore children learn about letter sounds in the context of whole words. At this stage, which can be at the end of the first year at school, children may also be taught to sound and blend CVC words, e.g. /c/ /a/ /t/ -> cat, but this is not a feature of all analytic phonics schemes, although it used to be in Scotland. After mastering consonant-vowel-consonant words, children are taught about vowel and consonant digraphs and shown word families of similarly spelt words, e.g. 'cake', 'bake', 'make', 'lake'; 'coat', 'boat', 'float' etc. These spelling patterns used to be learnt by rote, with children chanting the words in unison in class, although this approach is not used now. Phonic readers also used to be widely available, some of which used very stilted text to reinforce phonic spelling patterns.

1.3 The analytic phonics method fell foul of the growing move towards child-centred education, which sought to introduce a greater emphasis on meaning and purpose in educational activities. Piaget, in a philosophical tradition stemming back to Kant and Rousseau, theorised that children were active learners, who constructed knowledge for themselves. Piaget did not specifically address learning to read, but his work encouraged teachers to tailor the teaching of reading and writing to the individual child's learning rate. At its extreme all structured lessons were abandoned, as at the William Tyndale School in London, where it was believed that child-centred education implies standing back from direct teaching in order to avoid interfering with natural growth (Blenkin and Kelly, 1987). However, many children failed to learn to read and write at this school.

1.4 Analytic phonics fell into disfavour because it was often implemented in a rote manner, and because it was usually carried out without reference to the reading of meaningful text. As part of the emphasis on children learning for themselves and carrying out meaningful activities, the whole language approach to reading developed. It was felt that it was of paramount importance that children read meaningful material; it was thought that they could learn for themselves the relationship between letters and sounds. Unfamiliar words were to be identified by using context, rather than the 'bottom up' approach of looking at individual words and applying phonic knowledge to decode the words. Added to this was the view that as some words in the English language are irregularly spelt, the phonic approach is ineffective and leads to inaccurate pronunciation, the word 'yacht' being an extreme example of a word not amenable to being read by a such an approach.

1.5 We have carried out a number of studies to examine the effects of different types of teaching programmes on children's progress in learning to read. Watson (1998) carried out a study of 228 children learning to read in Scotland, where an analytic phonics scheme was a core component of the reading programme. The children started to learn to read by sight, but also had phonics lessons where they learnt about letter sounds at the beginning of words. This phase was completed around March of the first year at school. When tested at this stage, the children were reading 5 months below chronological age on the British Abilities Word Reading Test (Elliott, 1977). The children were then taught about CVC words, e.g. 'cat', 'sun', 'pen', with attention being drawn to letters in all position of words. Near the end of the summer term, around 2 months after the previous test phase, the children were reading only 1 month below chronological age. Towards the end of the third year at school, the girls were reading words 6.6 months above chronological age and were age appropriate in spelling. However, there was a much poorer outcome for boys, who although they read words 3 months above chronological age, were 4 months behind for their age in spelling (Schonell and Schonell, 1952). When comprehension was measured at the end of the year, the girls were reading text appropriately for chronological age, but the boys were 5 months behind. At this point, nearly 10% of the children were reading 12 or more months behind chronological age, 9.4% of the girls and 10.4% of the boys.

1.6 However, in carrying out this study Joyce Watson noticed that one class was making better progress than the others. The pace of analytic phonics teaching was accelerated in this class; the children were learning about letters in all positions of CVC words several months earlier than the other classes, and were taught to sound and blend letters to pronounce unfamiliar words. The gains these children made compared to the other classes were still apparent at the end of the third year at school.


1.7 This led us to look at synthetic phonics, which is a very accelerated form of phonics that does not begin by establishing an initial sight vocabulary. With this approach, before children are introduced to books, they are taught letter sounds. After the first few of these have been taught they are shown how these sounds can be blended together to build up words (Feitelson, 1988). For example, when taught the letter sounds /t/ /p/ /a/ and /s/ the children can build up the words 'tap', 'pat', 'pats', 'taps', 'a tap' etc. The children are not told the pronunciation of the new word by the teacher either before it is constructed with magnetic letters or indeed afterwards; the children sound each letter in turn and then synthesise the sounds together in order to generate the pronunciation of the word. Thus the children construct the pronunciation for themselves. Most of the letter sound correspondences, including the consonant and vowel digraphs, can be taught in the space of a few months at the start of their first year at school. This means that the children can read many of the unfamiliar words they meet in text for themselves, without the assistance of the teacher. By contrast in analytic phonics, whole words are presented and pronounced by the teacher, and the children's attention is only subsequently drawn to the information given by letter sound correspondences. Typically in Scotland with the analytic phonics approach, it would not be until the third term of the first year at school that children would be made aware of the importance of letter sound correspondences in all positions of words, whereas in synthetic phonics this is done at the start of the year. The full analytic phonics scheme is usually not completed until the end of the third year at school.


1.8 In this report we present the findings of a 7 year study in which we examined the effects of teaching synthetic phonics on literacy attainment. In an earlier study we had found that 5 year old children getting a supplementary synthetic phonics programme had better word reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills than children getting a supplementary analytic phonics programme (Johnston and Watson, 2004).

1.9 In the new study we first of all wanted to examine whether children made better progress in reading and spelling when taught by the synthetic phonics approach, compared with the analytic phonics approach, when the programmes were carried out by the class teachers. Secondly, a key part of our study was to examine whether training in hearing sounds in spoken words, without showing the children print or letters, is an effective part of the school curriculum.

1.10 In the first year of the study we therefore carried out an experiment comparing synthetic phonics teaching with a) a standard analytic phonics programme, and b) an analytic phonics programme supplemented by a phonemic awareness training programme ( see Chapter 3). An attempt was made to assign the classes to groups so that social class background was equated between the 3 teaching programmes. A complete match proved impossible, and one programme had to contain more children from less well off backgrounds than the other two programmes. It is well known that children from poorer backgrounds do less well in literacy attainment, so it was decided to make a rigorous test of synthetic phonics teaching by giving this programme to the group that had the preponderance of children from less well off backgrounds. After two terms in these programmes, all of the children were taught by the synthetic phonics method, completing the programme by the end of Primary 1. Testing before the study started and after it finished was carried out by researchers blind to the programmes by which the children were being taught.

1.11 We have now followed the progress of these children until the end of their primary schooling (Chapters 4 to 8). These years relate to Primaries 1 to 7 in Scotland. The equivalent years in England and Wales are Reception Class followed by Years 2 to 6 and in Northern Ireland Years 1 to 7.