The case for phonics-based reading curriculum

Does the phonics approach to reading work? It is all big news at the moment in the UK since the UK Government announced that all primary schools would be expected to teach reading using specific Government-approved phonics schemes. Commercial phonics programmes would be submitted to a panel of experts to ensure they meet standards being drawn up by the Government, based on the findings of the Rose Review which examined methods for teaching reading.

According to think-tank Civitas’ study, primary school pupils increased their reading ages by nearly two years in as many weeks when they were given intensive “synthetic phonics” lessons. Its pupils were 15 children between six and eight, all from disadvantaged areas. Read the news article “here.Children Taught Synthetic Phonics Can See Their Reading Improve in Just Two Weeks

In case, you are new to the decades’ old debate between the “Phonics vs. Whole Language” war over which approach works best, the phonics (or more properly, phonetics) camp argues that instructing and helping kids to decode words will improve reading skills while advocates for the whole language approach argue that we learn language naturally the way we speak, one word at a time, and so our reading programs ought to reflect that natural way of learning. The latter camp also argues that an overly formal approach at the start risks switching children off reading and school.

In particular, the debate has been fiercest in the UK and the US, where educational systems have come under fire in the past for having produced recent generations of school children with the dismal reading and literacy skills , and that failure is being attributed to the systems having jettisoned the phonics reading programs.

The experts seem to have come to a consensus that phonics instruction is necessary, but the debate has shifted to whether “synthetic phonics” or “analytic phonics” are best or whether a mixed approach is best.

Synthetic phonics involves learning to pronounce the sounds (phonemes) associated with letters “in isolation”. These individual sounds, once learnt, are then blended together (synthesised) to form words. Analytic phonics, does not involve learning the sounds of letters in isolation. Instead children are taught to recognise the beginning and ending sounds of words, without breaking these down into the smallest constituent sounds. analytic phonics, does not involve learning the sounds of letters in isolation. To see a summary of this debate, read Mike Baker, BBC education correspondent’s article and see National Literacy Trust’s website’s articles.

In 2005, it was reported that a study found that children in Clackmannanshire in Scotland who were taught to read using synthetic phonics were more than three years ahead of their peers by the end of primary school.

In December 2005, Henrietta Dombey, Professor Emeritus of Literacy in Primary Education, University of Brighton, wrote a letter to the Independent:

“Sir: Our knowledge of the best way to teach reading has moved on since 1997, thanks to the insight that successful teachers and schools might have something to teach us. But what large studies on both sides of the Atlantic have shown is not that synthetic phonics is the golden gateway. They tell a rather different story.

The most effective teachers use a variety of approaches, with a clear focus from the start on both the technical aspects and the making of meaning. They put a high premium on engaging their pupils, helping them to see reading as a way of enlarging their experience, not just as a set of exercises to be carried out to please the teacher. Effective teachers recognise that children need to read large amounts of engaging text to become better at it.

They certainly teach phonics, but many use a combination of synthetic and analytic phonics, so that children learn to spot patterns and draw analogies. In this way they are enabled to tackle words such as “fall” and “fast”, where, although the spelling is regular, the vowels are not readily amenable to “sounding out”. In addition, effective teachers teach essential but annoyingly irregular words such as “was” and “you” as sight words.” — from an article by Helen Bromley in Nursery World, 16 June 2005

Some educational psychologists say synthetic and analytical phonics do not have to compete. One project in Scotland has been using both approaches in a pilot scheme, see this TES article from October 2006 in full.

The Rose Report has tried to bring a resolution to the phonics wars, read another TES article from June 2006 in full. Diane McGuinness, a guru on remedial reading, has taken a clear stand on all this, she asserts

“When the data are assessed appropriately, the reading programmes that best fit the prototype, that fall most clearly within the ideal of the synthetic phonics programme that focus exclusively at the level of the phoneme and no other, larger units, is highly successful for beginning readers. The evidence is clear, robust, and comprehensive enough for this fact to be recognized.” And she pronounces “Linguistic phonics programmes produce phenomenal (and consistent) results in the classroom as well as in the clinic.”

In addition, based on her own research and book Early Reading Instruction” she gives tips for success in reading:

  • “Success on standardized reading tests (both decoding accuracy and reading
    comprehension) at the end of the school year are directly correlated to the time spent on the following tasks:
  • learning the phoneme-symbol relationships of our alphabet code
    time spent learning to sound out words phonemically and blending
    these sounds into words
  • time spent writing letters, words, sentences, and stories
  • time spent reading text which can be sounded out and blended

Other tasks, by contrast, had a strong negative impact on learning to read, so much so that
the amount of time spent on these tasks produced declining reading test scores compared
to test norms. The correlations between time on task and reading test scores were minus
.80 or even higher. These are the tasks that require either 1) memorizing words by sight
or guessing words in context, or 2) time spent on vocabulary lessons and listening to the
teacher read. The first activity is strongly detrimental to learning to read, and the second
two activities are simply neutral (have no effect other than to delay learning how to
master the code).”

Some examples of synthetic phonics curriculum used and applied in the studies mentioned above include Synthetics Phonics & Wordaloud Programs and Sound Discovery.

Sound Discovery® is a high quality synthetic phonics literacy programme developed by Ridgehill Publishing for the teaching of reading, spelling and writing. It is suitable for first-time learners, slow-to-start learners and dyslexic learners of all ages, including adults. It is also suitable for first time teaching of children and adults when English is being taught as an additional language.

For a listing of our peer-reviewed curricula, see the next post.

If you think taking on phonics instruction to help your child to read seems like a real challenge, read Towards Better Reading, it will assure you it’s worth it and not as hard as it seems.

2 thoughts on “The case for phonics-based reading curriculum”

  1. Reading Horizons and Discover Intensive Phonics is another great phonics program. Here’s the website, I know quite a handful of students that wouldn’t have been able to read without using phonics. Students without disabilities learn to read faster if they are taught phonics. Great article!

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