RRF Conference, 3rd November 2006 OVERCOMING PREJUDICE -Sue Lloyd
Synthetic phonics teaches children the code before getting them to read books. Her own school used to use the look-and-say approach. They were doing quite nicely, but the Head of Department, Joan Dorr, noticed that the older strugglers could not blend and did not know digraphs. In order to help these children, it was decided that this should be concentrated on in the first term, before expecting them to read books for themselves. This emphasis brought significant improvements and the average reading quotient went from 102 to 108. From this experience the teachers realised that most reading problems had been caused by asking children to memorise whole words by their shape and giving them books to read too early. Then Dr Pidgeon asked the school to implement his research programme – children needed to be able to hear all the sounds in words. The school made the programme more teacher-friendly. This brought about another jump in standards – the bottom children became ‘average’ [according to national norms], but the authorities just did not want to know.
Sue Lloyd realised two things:
1. the teaching method counts enormously, and
2. people in authority have been following fashion and fads.
Literate adults are able to read and write words they have never seen before. For reading, they turn the letters into sounds, blend them, and quickly come up with the pronunciation. Writing is the other way round. The adult hears the spoken words, identifies the sounds, and writes letters to represent the sounds. This is how the alphabetic code works.
Sue demonstrated the difficulty of whole-word memorisation by showing the Arabic words for ‘garden’ and ‘fairy’, which look very similar, especially at the beginning. To most of us adults, the Arabic words look just like squiggles – to young children, English words also look like squiggles. The English writing system is opaque for a number of reasons. This means that learning to read and write in English is much harder than in languages with more transparent writing systems. Teaching sight words is a very bad way to start children off. In a class, 25% will learn whatever we do, 50% will jog along on a whole-word start and a bit of phonics. But the bottom 25% cannot cope. They have to go through the blending route and they need to start with a transparent code.
There are two necessary skills: decoding and aural comprehension. If children understand something when you say it to them, they will understand it when they read it, provided that they can get the words off the page. The main problem in schools is poor decoding.
There are several pieces of research on synthetic phonics. They all show similar results, namely that children score roughly one year ahead of chronological age on standardised reading tests after one year at school. Comparisons show that when decoding is well taught, children do better in the long term, too. For example, by the end of primary school Clackmannanshire children were 3.5 years above national norms in word-reading, 20 months above in spelling, and 3.5 months above in comprehension.
Political parties are united in wanting a higher percentage of children achieving Level 4 or above in their Key Stage 2 tests. In one large synthetic phonics school in an economically disadvantaged area, 94% of 11-year-olds are at Level 4 and above in the Key Stage 2 English test as compared with 77% in England as a whole; 65% are above Level 5 as compared with 27% in England as a whole. If this school can achieve these results, then it should be possible for other schools to do so. This particular school used synthetic phonics, decodable reading books, and an intervention programme for the children who had problems with reading and writing. Synthetic phonics is also fun.
Jolly Phonics teaches five basic skills:
2. letter formation
4. identifying sounds in words
5. ‘tricky’ words.
The first four of these occupy the first six weeks. Teachers also read aloud to children and discuss the stories. The letter-sounds are taught in seven groups. The ‘ai’ digraph comes in before all the single-letter sounds are finished. Reading is a step-by-step progression. Within the first few days, children understand that they can work words out. The first 18 letter-sounds give access to over 1000 words. We cannot teach everything at once, so we add on gradually. If we give children books that they cannot decode, they give up blending and start guessing. Decodable books are sensible, but we need more research on whether they produce better results.
Writing is taught at the same time as reading and is just as important. We can start by asking children, for example, ‘Is there a /s/ in sun?’ or ‘Is there a /s/ in dog?’ This quickly progresses to listening for all the sounds in words. Then we can start calling out sounds and asking children to write down the letters. Then we move on to calling out words for the children to write down. Then we move on to sentences. Many children can write whatever they want to by the end of Reception. It is unfair, however, to ask children to write if we have not taught them how to do it. Reading is easier than spelling: in reading you can get close to a word’s pronunciation by blending, and then ‘tweak’. Good spellers use their ears when spelling, know the alternative spellings and read a lot. One typical child, at the end of one term, was able to write ‘I went hors ridin. That wos fun.’
A first year check-list would include 42 sounds, lower-and upper-case alphabet letters, alphabetical order, the ability to read and spell tricky words. Letter-names are introduced towards the end of the first six weeks. Jolly Phonics recommends not teaching ‘sight words’ as words simply to be memorised (even ‘tricky’ words should be blended, as far as possible), not teaching children to guess from initial letters, pictures or context, not teaching letter-names in the first few weeks, and not spending time on phonemic awareness without letters.
There remains a need to do something about the advisers: programmes are still being recommended without being tested, and teachers feel under pressure to follow them.
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