An Old Post on Synthetic Phonics

Is your child that 1 in 5? Studies show that only 84% of 11 year olds achieve a Level 4 in Reading. That means that 16% of Britain’s children will have difficulty recognising relatively simple words on a page and even when they are able to pronounce these words, they might misunderstand what they have read. Is there any wonder then when these same children express a hatred for reading? How much pleasure do you experience when something that seems so effortless to others is a struggle for you? Yet everyday these children struggle to understand these words around them and often times, they fail.

In response to this, the UK Government has embraced the teaching of synthetic phonics. This is a method of teaching reading whereby children learn the sounds of letters and letter combinations before being taught how to combine them to form words. The reliance on this method came about through a study of 300 students in Scotland who were taught using this method and as a result obtained a reading age up to 3 years above their peers. It must also be noted that these students did not show a significant improvement in comprehension and perhaps there lies one of the key concerns about this method. It must also be said that the UK government chose to base its entire approach to Reading on a study that happened only in Scotland rather than throughout the UK. Is it right to have a one size fits all approach to reading? Do we all learn in the same way?

Of course there are other approaches to reading such as analytical phonics where children are taught whole words and then later analyse their constituent parts. It must be said that students are taught to read these words within the context of meaningful text. The reading of a word is therefore not done in isolation, it is immediately connected to the other images or words around it. As a result, there is an implication that this method fosters the development of children’s comprehension skills as it is asking children to use clues in order to arrive at an understanding of the text. For many, this type of phonics is seen as a method that has failed even more of Britain’s children due to the fact that in 2001 when it was blazing in its glory, 25% of students were not achieving a Level 4. Therefore, regardless of our reservations, synthetic phonics seems to be reaping better results. Many would even go further to highlight that even boys tend to do better when using this system of reading. For once, they are not lagging dreadfully behind the girls.

Yet even then, reservations abound. This is not because synthetic phonics doesn’t work but because Ofsted now sees it as the be all and end all of teaching reading. Ofsted has made it crystal clear that primary teachers ‘must’ demonstrate a clear understanding of this process. The government is so serious about this approach that six year olds now have to sit a systematic synthetic phonics test. Already some of these youngsters are being labelled as failures when it comes to reading. Or rather, they are already feeling the pressure of preparing for reading exams at a time when they should be enjoying the journey of reading. It is this one size fits all approach which bothers me. Surely analytical phonics still has a place. Surely some students flourished through this method. If not, 75% of the Nation’s children in 2001 would not have been a level 4 or above in English. Therefore, the government must recognise that individuals learn in different ways; that the same approach does not work for everyone. Yet, I must admit that if every teacher is aware of this approach and uses it well, it is less likely that a child will fall behind if they have to move to a new school. There is also a sense of consistency, the idea that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet which makes the playing ground of Literacy Education, a fair one.





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