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August 27, 2003
Jennifer Chew on the need for true Phonics

The following article (headline: "Children of few words") appeared in today's Daily Telegraph, but only in paper form. Its author, Jennifer Chew, is a leading contributor to the work of the Reading Reform Foundation and a vigorous promoter of the Synthetic Phonics method for teaching literacy. I have simply scanned in this article, which is quite short, in its entirety. I hope no one objects.

The results of this year's reading test for seven-year-olds should be of interest to anyone concerned, about education.

Reading is the foundation for all later educational attainment, and a good start in infant school is vital. Reading attainment at seven has been shown to be one of the best predictors of GCSE performance.

Unfortunately, the results are not published in a form that makes their significance easy to grasp. The "expected level" is Level 2, subdivided into 2A, 2B and 2C.

This year, 84 per cent of seven-year-olds reached Level 2C or above not bad, one might think. What is often not realised, however, is that only Level 2B and above represents an adequate standard. Those who reach only Level 2C have little chance of reaching Level 4 the expected level at 11 years old, or of performing adequately at GCSE.

This year, only 69 per cent reached Level 2B or above, which means that nearly a third of seven-year-olds almost 200,000 children will probably not read well enough at 11 to cope with the secondary- school curriculum.

The reading test is a comprehension test based on fiction and non-fiction. passages. Children must read each piece of text and answer questions about it.

About half of the 30 questions are multiple choice and the rest require an answer in the form of a word, phrase or sentence. Comprehension involves reading the words accurately and making sense of them. So we need to know whether the problem is with word-reading or making sense of them or both.

However, the test does not make this distinction and so does not tell us what teachers should focus on to get more children to Level 2B. Other tests, though, show that it is often word-reading that is weak in Level 2C children. Their comprehension is poor because they cannot read enough of the words accurately.

If these children were genuinely incapable of better word-reading, we would be stuck with the current stagnant standards. But there is a type of teaching true Phonics that can greatly improve word-reading and so remove this barrier to comprehension.

With this method, some infant schools are already getting 88 per cent or more of their children to Level 2B. The children are not super-intelligent, but are taught letter-sound correspondences at a much faster pace than is prescribed by the national literacy strategy.

They are taught to use this knowledge to read all words, apart from a few less regular ones that are explicitly taught.

In spite of claims to the contrary, the national literacy strategy does not present letter-sound knowledge as the first strategy children should be taught to use in word-reading. Rather, letter-sound knowledge comes into play after words have been identified: the teacher identifies words and the children then break them down and build them up again, or the children attempt to identify words by sight or from contextual and pictorial clues and then check a letter or two (usually not all letters) to see if they are right. Research and common sense suggest that this is less effective than true phonics.

In one school, the first children to be started off with true phonics, six years ago, have just taken the tests for 11-year-olds. Eighty-nine per cent of them reached the expected Level 4 in English as against the national figure of 74 per cent.

Most worrying of all is the 18 per cent of seven-year-olds who fail to reach even Level 2C. After nearly three years in school, these children are virtually unable to read, making up the "long tail of underachievement" that is a. recurring feature of British performance in international comparisons.

In schools that teach true phonics, the proportion failing to reach 2C is seldom more than three per cent. If all infant schools used this approach, the "long tail" would all but disappear. So, too, would the underachievement of boys, which currently causes concern: boys perform at least as well as girls when using true phonics.

Better infant-school teaching could largely solve literacy problems and many wider education problems throughout the school system. The evidence has been repeatedly presented to the policy-makers, but little changes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:41 PM
Category: Literacy

One begins to wonder if illiteracy isn’t a policy objective, to give social and child services something to do in handling the fall out, years after the school experience.

Comment by: Howard Gray on August 28, 2003 01:35 PM

More dogma and propaganda from those who have been indoctrinated to think they know who to raise my child better than I do.

I have a recent post on a topic related to this on my blog.


Comment by: Joanne aka Happy HSer on August 28, 2003 05:30 PM

I'm utterly puzzled what those who don't teach by so-called synthetic phonics think is the point of the alphabet. Why do they think that not everyone has a wholly symbolic writing system like the Chinese? What do they do themselves when faced with an unfamiliar word? And how did they come to drop quite suddenly the phonetic principle that's built into dozens of alphabetic and syllabic systems used for millenia all over the world?

Comment by: Guy Herbert on August 29, 2003 06:00 PM

Opps! MILLENNIA. If only I had learnt the written word and its pronunciation separately...

Comment by: Guy Herbert on August 30, 2003 07:30 PM
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