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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 56 back to contents
Australian inquiry into the teaching of readingJennifer Chew

In Newsletter 56, we included edited extracts from the submission of Celeste Musgrave and Santina DiMauro to the above inquiry (the ‘Nelson’ inquiry). The committee’s report was published just a few days after Jim Rose’s interim report, and starts with the following two recommendations:

1.      The Committee recommends that teachers be equipped with teaching strategies based on findings from rigorous, evidence-based research that are shown to be effective in enhancing the literacy development of all children.

2.      The Committee recommends that teachers provide systematic, direct and explicit phonics instruction so that children master the essential alphabetic code-breaking skills required for foundational reading proficiency. Equally, that teachers provide an inte­grated approach to reading that supports the development of oral language, vocab­u­lary, grammar, reading fluency, comprehension and the literacies of new techno­logies.

There are also recommendations on testing and on teacher-training. In Australia as in Britain, there seems to be a realization that phonics teaching has not been nearly systematic enough. Predictably, however, not everyone agrees. In his response, Brian Cambourne, of the Faculty of Education at the University of Wollongong, writes the following under the heading ‘Extreme Phonics Is The Thalidomide of Literacy Instruction’:

‘We should be wary of the kind of phonics that Dr Nelson’s Teaching Reading report recommends. There are (at least) three positions on phonics: One position is “intensive (explicit) systematic phonics”, an extremist view that insists that all the major rules of phonics be explicitly taught in a strict order. This seems to be the position taken in the Report. The writers of the report seem to have ignored the multitude of studies which show that children taught by Extreme Phonics score highly on tests of pronouncing words in isolation, but fail miserably on tests which test their understanding of texts. They also develop negative attitudes toward reading.’

We suspect that Mr Cambourne would regard ‘synthetic phonics’ as ‘extreme phonics’. The evidence known to the RRF, however, is that children who are started off on synthetic phonics do not develop ‘negative attitudes toward reading’ and that they show an ‘understanding of texts’ which is if anything rather good. We have recently heard of an as yet unfinished study which is comparing the performance, towards the end of primary school, of children who were started off on synthetic phonics and children taught by the National Literacy Strategy. Preliminary findings show the synthetic-phonics children scoring better not only at word-reading and spelling but also at comprehension, despite the fact that the NLS regards itself as putting great emphasis on comprehension. These findings would fit in well with the Key Stage 2 results obtained at schools known to give beginners a thorough synthetic-phonics start. Good performance in the Key Stage 2 reading test is good performance at comprehension, as comprehension is what is measured by this test, and test results in synthetic-phonics schools tend to be well above the national average.

Mr Cambourne goes on to say that he knows of no teacher or scholar who believes in teaching ‘Zero Phonics’ and that what is found in most Australian schools is ‘Basic Phonics, the direct teaching of those straightforward rules that students can learn, remember, and apply while reading to help make texts more comprehensible. Basic phonics claims that our knowledge of the complex rules of phonics is the result
of reading, not its cause’. Many of us would agree that most children deduce the more ‘complex rules of phonics’ as a result of reading rather than needing to be taught them explicitly, but the question of how much needs to be explicitly taught remains an important one. The evidence in Australia, as in Britain, is that standards of reading and spelling are not what they should be and this is arguably because the ‘basic phonics’ that children are taught is not enough for many or even most of them: they need to be taught considerably more about the way that the alphabetic code works before they will deduce the rest for themselves.




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