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.
- Rhyme-based instruction, onset-rime and syllables. Some SSP programmes also deal with syllables. I question the effectiveness of rhyme-based instruction and onset-rime when compared with good SSP teaching (see the paragraph on phonological awareness, rhymes and phonemes here).
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