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Synthetic phonics — learning by the letter

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
The hype over synthetic phonics overlooks the fact that children learn to read using a variety of methods and skills, writes Terry Wrigley
Issue 1956
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

Seven years ago government officials turned England’s primary schools upside down by insisting that there was only one way to teach reading. Every class had to follow the same pattern — the stereotyped “literacy hour”.

Teachers were given a blast of quick-fix training and expected to obediently deliver the set pattern. Their existing expertise was ignored — this “reform” effectively de-skilled them.

Officials have struggled to justify the literacy hour ever since. Tests for 11 year olds were simplified to make them appear a success. Even this measure only reduced the number missing the target level from 35 percent to 25 percent, where it remained stuck.

Negative side effects included teaching to the test, too little time for writing within the fixed compartments of the literacy hour, and time stolen from other learning in order to hit literacy targets. Successful older methods for teaching reading were neglected, including sending books home and listening to children read individually.

Now we may be on the edge of another quick-fix reform. Professional teaching skills once again look set to be overlooked as primary teachers are ordered to follow a new but equally rigid pattern.

The latest panacea is called synthetic phonics. “Phonics” means studying the relationship between letters and sounds. “Synthetic” means building up a word from its separate letters.

The teacher concentrates on a few letters (typically AINPST, which make the largest number of three-letter words). Using magnetic letters on a board, the children pronounce them and join them together to make words.

This technique has some clear advantages. It is an active method and children quickly get to compose words. Twenty minute daily doses in the first year at school can be very effective.

But there are also disadvantages, including the nonsense sentences made from just these six letters. Nevertheless, the most fanatical supporters of synthetic phonics insist on abandoning other methods, such as reading for pleasure or making intelligent guesses at a word by using the context.

Supporters of synthetic phonics base their claims on an experiment in a few schools in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, involving less than 300 pupils. The children made rapid progress and, unexpectedly, boys did better than girls.

The research showed a lasting impact — at the end of primary school, these pupils were about three years ahead of average children.

But that advance was only in single word tests, where you have to decipher and pronounce separate words, but not make sense of them. When given comprehension tests — complete passages to make sense of — the Clackmannanshire children were only three months ahead.

There is a problem with research based on such artificial tests. If you present words in isolation, children have nothing else to go on but phonics. It is not surprising that children who have learnt reading entirely through phonics do best at these tests.

The educationalist Frank Smith has compared this to “tying children’s feet together to prove they must jump before walking”. In both teaching and testing, the situation has been constrained so that children are forced to use limited means to accomplish the task of reading.

In fact, reading involves a complex mixture of skills. You need to connect letters to sounds — but also to recognise whole words when the spelling doesn’t match the sound. How else could you distinguish between “has” and “was”, “rough” and “through”?

Skilful readers make predictions and don’t need to decode every single word. They interpret texts in terms of their own life experience and wider knowledge. They learn to be critical and to spot bias.

Teaching phonics is important in the early stages to give beginners confidence, but even then it is not the whole story. Some children come to school after enjoying hundreds of stories and fantastic picture books — they already see themselves as readers.

We need to give this excitement to all children, through nurseries which are not obsessed with targets, which fully involve parents and lend books to those families that can’t afford them. The fanatics who say “phonics and only phonics” wouldn’t deprive their own children of reading for pleasure.

Above all, reading is about learning to make sense of the world. Books carry messages from far away and long ago. They give us different perspectives and experiences. Some books help us deal with complex ideas. Fantasy stories open our minds to lots of possible futures.

Our children need a rich education from teachers with real expertise, not mechanical drilling in accordance with the latest government orders. It’s time this government learned to respect teachers rather than treating them like robots.

Terry Wrigley is a lecturer in education at the University of Edinburgh.

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