Does the synthetic phonics model work?

Is there a need for synthetic phonics?

Basic literacy is the cornerstone on which nearly all other educational attainment is built. Learning to read equips an individual with the ability to read to learn and can drastically change people’s lives for the better by increasing their future prospects through all walks of life.

A Department of Education paper entitled “The Importance of Phonics: Securing Confident Reading” states that after seven years of primary school education, one in six 11 year olds struggles to read.  Tests carried out in 2011 also identified that 1 in 10 boys aged eleven are able to read no better than a seven year old. 

Another well-known study (PISA 2009 –“How Big is the Gap?”),  illustrates just how far literacy skills in England and Wales have fallen behind those of other developed countries such as Finland and South Korea.

This lack of basic literacy skills can only have a detrimental impact on the skills of the country’s workforce and employers are increasingly reporting that young entrants to the labour force lack the basic skills necessary to be able to operate effectively in the workplace.  Given today’s high level of youth unemployment, it is increasingly evident that the lack of these basic skills can only lead to the situation becoming ever more challenging, with obvious, detrimental effects for individuals, employers and the economy as a whole.  The Centre for Cities Policy Institute reports “youth unemployment in cities correlates to GCSE attainment. Those cities with high youth unemployment characteristically have significantly lower attainment in GCSE Math and English.” (2011).

There is a marked difference between those students who make a strong start in terms of learning to read and those who don’t, with the former increasingly more likely to make swifter progress in educational attainment.  The Department of Education paper (DFE 00155 – 2011) states that of the children who achieved the high level 2a in Key Stage 1 reading, 98% went on to achieve the expected level 4 or above in Key Stage 2 in 2010 and 66% achieved level 5. By contrast, only 73% of children who achieved the lower level 2c at Key Stage 1 went on to achieve the expected level 4 or above at Key Stage 2, and just 20% achieved level 5. Just 46% of children who achieved the low level 1 in KS1 reading went on to achieve the expected level 4 at Key Stage 2 in 2010.

It is clear that the inability to read effectively or a lack of confidence in reading skills can have a severe impact on children’s social development.  It can prevent children from following lessons at school and leave them feeling isolated and without a sense of engagement, often leading to behavioural problems to disguise the fact they are unable to read as well as some of their peers.  The Centre for Social Justice found there are significant literacy and numeracy problems in 50-75% of children who are permanently excluded from school.

It is for these reasons a different approach is needed in order to tackle these problems and to enrich the lives and improve the prospects of all learners.  Systematic synthetic phonics instruction is one such approach to this increasingly more compelling problem.

What evidence is there in support of synthetic phonics tuition?

There have been a number of studies over the past few years into the effectiveness of synthetic phonics instruction.  A 2010 report by Ofsted (the schools inspection agency) declared that "the best primary schools in England teach virtually every child to read", and claimed that a sample of 12 of these schools demonstrates that their success is based on "a very rigorous and sequential approach to developing speaking and listening and teaching reading, and writing and spelling through systematic phonics" (Ofsted 2010:4).

In the UK, Johnston and Watson (2004) carried out a study into the effects of synthetic phonics instruction on reading and spelling attainment.  The research was carried out in Clackmannanshire in Scotland and is therefore known as the “Clackmannanshire study”. This particular area was often seen as a socially deprived area with many children having significant educational difficulties and coming from homes suffering from poverty related issues. In spite of these challenges, it was found that from pre-school up the age of 11, the pupils observed achieved results in reading and spelling beyond that expected of their age.

 According to the Department of Education paper (DFE 00115 – 2011) the analysis of the results found in Clackmannanshire concluded that using systematic synthetic phonics instruction enabled the children to read and spell better than those taught by traditional methods. At the end of primary school, following the completion of the intervention programme, children in the synthetic phonics group had word reading 3 years and 6 months ahead of chronological age, and their spelling was 1 year and 9 months ahead.

In the final research report of this study published in 2007, the leader of the initiative, Professor Tommy Mackay, stated “Among the individual components of the intervention, the synthetic phonics study has highlighted the benefits of a strong and structured phonics emphasis. The study indicated the superiority of the synthetic over the analytic or traditional approach, and the clearest policy recommendation would be for schools to adopt this approach.”

Further afield, the United States National Reading Panel was created to evaluate the efficacy of varying approaches used to teach children to read.  The panel reported in 2000 and was the most comprehensive and detailed survey of the topic ever produced at that time.  It concluded that systematic phonics instruction achieves significant benefits for pupils in pre-school all the way through to the end of primary school, especially for those pupils having difficulty learning to read.  

The panel reported that the evidence which shows phonics is effective and beneficial is largely based on investigations which used a systematic synthetic phonics approach. The study found that systematic synthetic phonics instruction had “a positive and significant effect on the reading skills of younger children and those at risk of developing reading difficulties” (2000a, 2000b). It was noted that “a majority of programmes in the database used a synthetic approach to teach phonics” and the conclusions therefore offered clear evidence to support that methodology.

From the evidence outlined above and other significant research carried out into the area, it is commonly agreed that a systematic synthetic phonics approach to teaching reading can have great advantages over other methods when forming part of a language rich curriculum.  The results are there to be seen that children learning to read using synthetic phonics invariably exhibit reading ages far superior to that expected of their age group and as a result these learners are far better prepared and equipped to cope with the educational and vocational demands that may be placed upon them in the future.


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