The BDA with Usha Goswami is campaigning to get the DfE to dilute and undermine the teaching advocated in systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programmes and in the DfE policy paper, the Reading Framework (July
2021). “We are launching a petition calling upon the government to revise their policy on teaching systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) as the sole method to teaching reading”.

I do not recognise the position the BDA is presenting through Sharon Hodgson MP, Usha Goswami, John Stein, Sharon McMurray and in a video by Valerie Muter. These campaigners challenge the official guidance in England (provided, for example, through the English Hubs Initiative and the Reading Framework) suggesting instead that the dyslexia community needs something different.

I believe they are presenting a false narrative. I question whether they know very much about SSP and about specific DfE validated SSP programmes.

There are longitudinal studies of 11 years, with about 700 children, which demonstrate that dyslexia does not develop when children begin with a good SSP programme and when children who fall behind are identified early and given extra practice and teaching with SSP in order to keep up. Not a single child in these studies developed severe literacy difficulties. (See Grant, M (2014) ‘The effects of a systematic synthetic phonics programme on reading, writing and spelling’ , reported in the government DfE policy paper which provides guidance for schools for the teaching of early reading ‘The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy, July 2021’)

I challenge the assertion of these campaigners that there is ‘substantial evidence spanning 35 years which demonstrates that up to 25% of children cannot learn to read just by learning phonics including most children with dyslexia and other specific learning difficulties’. This is just not true.

Also I challenge the phrase ‘just by learning phonics’ which is used in a pejorative sense. This pejorative implication is also reflected in Valerie Muter’s video suggesting alternatives to phonics. Yet, many of these suggestions are already incorporated into some SSP programmes. The campaigners seem unaware of SSP programmes which have been shown to be effective for whole classes of children including vulnerable groups such as SEN and potentially dyslexic children.

To list just a few of Muter’s ‘alternatives to phonics’:

  • Phonemic awareness which she suggests is a prerequisite to start teaching phonics. It is not. Learning to read and write letters develops phonemic awareness early and develops the phonological skills of identifying sounds in words (segmenting) and blending sounds together to read words. This is built in to good SSP programmes.
  • The ‘set for variability’ described in the work of Savage is commonplace in SSP phonics teaching which uses a process called ‘tweaking’ or modifying the final pronunciation of a target word when reading/decoding. This allows for variation of accent, modifying the pronunciation of the final spoken word in order to make it a ‘real’, recognisable word in the person’s oral language.
  • Morphology: some SSP programme (like my own) deal with compound words (e.g. sunset) and two syllable words (e.g. velvet) from the very beginning. Some programmes go on to deal with morphological units and bring this into teaching from the early stages e.g. -ed endings for the past tense and –ing endings. They go on to deal with prefixes, suffixes and root words and give children insights into the etymology of words. They also give insights into endings such as –ian (e.g. as in magician, politician) which indicates that the word refers to a person.

I would urge people (educationalists, parents, etc.) not to sign the BDA petition calling upon the government to revise their policy on teaching SSP, as the sole method to teach reading. This would be a counterproductive step for the dyslexic community. Currently DfE policy guidance is broader and more supportive of early learning than the impression the campaigners are seeking to give. Instead I would urge all interested people to continue to support the government in their guidance for the teaching of early reading through SSP. This is evidence based and the most effective way of teaching all children to learn to read including vulnerable groups such as SEN and dyslexia.

Dr Marlynne Grant
Registered Educational Psychologist
Author of Sound Discovery® and Rapid Phonics
December, 2021

Response to the BDA campaign to reverse government policy on SSP teaching

4 thoughts on “Response to the BDA campaign to reverse government policy on SSP teaching

  • 9th December 2021 at 5:27 pm

    I am glad of this. I dont agree with BDA petition.
    Before SSP phonics children with Dyslexia were much more disadvantaged. Including my dyslexic daughter who missed the introduction of this into reception by two years and failed miserably with the whole word and searchlights approach. When I was a primary school teacher, many years before my training and masters in dyslexia it was sad but many children passed through year one just not getting reading through the old methods of teaching . In hindsight I can think back to individual children and and recognise that they had dyslexia now. I believe in all the research in SSp and support it in early years, but for some children it needs to be at a slower pace with lots of overlearning.

  • 9th December 2021 at 8:48 pm

    This is a brilliant response.
    Even those that don’t believe dyslexia is a thing agree that a proper structured phonics program with no first letter guessing and no ‘guess from the context of the sentence’ will enable learners to read better.

  • 26th October 2022 at 4:10 pm

    It’s extremely concerning that the people championing this challenge to the official guidance for reading and spelling instruction in England have worrying influence for intervention, and even mainstream provision, particularly in official guidance for teachers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    It makes no sense that children in different parts of the UK should require different approaches to reading instruction when there is a wealth of current and historic international research findings into the teaching of reading for all children. This simply means that it is left to ‘chance’ as to the methodology of reading instruction according to the school they attend and the country in which they reside.

    Sir Jim Rose pointed out via his world-renowned, independent national review into reading instruction (Rose Report, 2006) that it is the SAME alphabetic code knowledge and the SAME phonics skills that all children need regardless of the differences and challenges of individual children.

    Some people would like to think the battle of the reading debate is over, and no longer well-founded, but until we achieve truly research-informed reading instruction in all settings teaching the English language, we have some way to go.

  • 5th November 2022 at 7:45 pm

    Having a child with dyslexia led me on a v painful journey. As a parent I was doing all I could to help my child at home; I undertook a level 5 course in supporting children with dyslexia and searched the EA NI website for guidance. The guidance I read, left me more confused. My child had been recognised as having Literacy Difficulties and SEN so I read the SEN Resource File for children with SEN. Yes, working memory was a difficulty, as was processing but did that mean a well implemented SSP programme, including the 5 pillars of literacy would not suffice? And I concluded no. My opinion, I believe the problem does not lie with SSP but rather how teachers are left to implement it, often with little teacher training, insufficient resources funding, time and support staff; and in NI within a balanced literacy curriculum.
    How can a petition like this, that can affect the lives of so many be given ground without first looking very closely at just what is happening within our schools ? What support our teachers and parents are given to ensure no child is left behind…

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