The methods used to teach reading

3. UK-style Synthetic Phonics (from the word synthesis meaning 'to blend') / *Linguistic Phonics* / High Quality Phonics (Rose Report 2006) The English Alphabet Code taught ''within a broad and language-rich curriculum'' (Rose Report 2006 p16)

Recommended links for student teachers = X

UK-style systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) is no fad or fleeting fashion and is now a key component in the 2014 National Curriculum (English) for state primary schools in England.

Despite excluding many elements, each one for decades considered essential when teaching the English writing system, all the presently available research data indicates that systematic synthetic phonics is the most efficient and effective method to teach the majority of students of all ages how to decode and spell.

''(T)hose who have an opposing view [to synthetic phonics] have yet to produce any data showing that their favoured approach produces greater long-term benefits'' (Prof.Rhona Johnston)

An alphabet code is the reversible relationship between the phonemes (the smallest discernible sounds in spoken words) and the graphemes (spellings). The English alphabet code consists of the approximately *44 phonemes that we use when we are speaking English and the ways these sounds are represented in our writing using spellings consisting of 1 to 4 letters consecutively or 2 vowel letters 'split' around a consonant spelling (for example: him, photo, catch, dough, late) *The number of phonemes varies between languages; for example, Italian has 25 whilst the South African !Xu language has 141 sounds

Nearly all of the 44 sounds correspond with multiple spellings (for example: common /ee/ spellings include tree, leaf, me, sunny) and some spellings represent more than one sound, called 'code overlap' in linguistic phonics programmes (for example: plastic, paper, watch, water / touch, sound, soup)

''The 44 English phonemes are the basis for the code and never change. These 44 sounds provide a pivot point around which the code can reverse...The 44 sounds will always play fair even if our spelling system does not.'' (D. McGuinness)

Why modern synthetic phonics programmes are rooted in the 44 English sounds.

X An Introduction to the English Alphabet Code.

X English Spelling explained: for kids, but a clear and concise guide for puzzled adults too.

High quality programmes which accurately follow the synthetic/linguistic phonics principles teach pupils all of the common grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) of the English alphabet code explicitly and systematically. No assumption is made that children can discover most of the approximately 175 common letter-sound mappings for themselves whilst working their way book-by-book through the levels of a patterned-text reading scheme (for example: Oxford Reading Tree's Biff, Chip and Kipper books or Scholastic's PM readers) or by reading so-called real books (children's commercial story books).

Programmes which restrict the number of common spellings taught explicitly (for example, the Optima Reading programme teaches just 64 GPCs) will leave children having to self-teach the rest of the common code. Many children can do this, but a significant number need to be explicitly taught all of the code's common letter-sound mappings to ensure long-term reading and spelling success. As Sir Jim Rose put it in his report, ''It cannot be left to chance, or for children to ferret out, on their own, how the alphabetic code works'' (Rose 2006.p19)

“Explicit instruction is instruction that does not leave anything to chance and does not make assumptions about skills and knowledge that children will acquire on their own” (Joseph Torgesen 2004)

EP Dr.Grant's paper 'The Optima Reading Programme by Dr Jonathan Solity: Does it Provide Optimal Results?'

X English Alphabet Code chart - designed for student teachers but suitable for anyone wanting a visual resource to learn about the Code and an outline of synthetic phonics teaching (see chart's side bar).

A 'transparent' basic / simple alphabetic code, which is generally the most common spelling for each sound, is taught first. This strategy of initially, but temporarily, only teaching the first level of complexity of the English alphabet code (with an unmodified orthography, unlike the 1960's initial teaching alphabet: i.t.a) helps to level the playing field between those who are learning to read and write in English and the majority of their counterparts on the European continent.

i.t.a: a great idea but a dismal failure

As soon as the first 3-4 GPCs of a simple / basic code have been taught, children are shown how to sound out and blend the individual GPCs from left to right all-through-the-written-word for reading and to fetch the letter/s-sound correspondences from memory for spelling, encoding all-through-the-spoken-word. 'Common exception words' (DfE NC) (high frequency words containing an unusual correspondence) are drip-fed into lessons systematically and taught using a phonic approach, not as whole shapes to be memorised. Lessons are cumulative with each lesson building on the previous ones.

Teach 100 first spellings, not 100 first words

Spelling and reading are taught in tandem in high-quality UK-style synthetic / linguistic phonics programmes, from the outset of instruction, to make clear the reversibility of the code and to ensure that pupils' encoding and decoding abilities remain as closely as possible in synchrony, avoiding the commonly occuring development of a serious spelling lag.

Multi-sensory mnemonics are used, initially, to help young children remember the letter-sound correspondences of the basic code - for example Jolly Phonics teaches a simple hand action for each of the basic code sounds. At each step, children are provided with plenty of decodable reading material to practise sounding out and blending; first single words, then captions and short sentences, moving rapidly on to decodable books. Phonically decodable books only contain words that can be sounded out based on what the student has already been taught so no guessing or whole word memorising is necessary.

Once children are secure and confident reading and spelling words using a programme's simple/basic code GPCs, the common spellings of the complex / advanced alphabet code are carefully introduced.

''The most efficient and therefore most pleasurable method of teaching decoding is called synthetic phonics'' (E.D. Hirsch p251)

Exemplar commercial synthetic phonics programmes include Phonics International and Read Write Inc..

*Linguistic phonics* programmes are based on the research and prototype of cognitive-developmental psychologist, Professor Diane McGuinness. She analysed the probability structure of the English spelling code: ''A probability structure is the calculation of the number of spellings used the most to those used the least. This calculation must be based on frequency in print (how often these spellings appear in print)'' (D.McGuinness), Her analysis revealed that, ''Of the 350-400 spellings only 176 are common, and these spellings account for around 90% of the words in print'' (D.McGuinness.Allographs1 p2) These are the spellings that need to be taught directly and systematically in every early reading and spelling programme.

Diane McGuinness also uncovered and set out the 4 'characteristics' of the English alphabet code. These levels of increasing complexity determine the most effective teaching progression through a phonics programme. (D.McGuinness.2011 RRF conference)
1. A phoneme can be spelled using one letter: p-e-t / d-o-g / s-w-i-m / s-p-l-a-t
2. A phoneme can be spelled using 2 to 4 letters: h-i-ll / sh-i-p / l-ear-n / d-augh-t-er
3. A phoneme can be spelled in multiple ways: d-ay / t-r-ai-n / l-a-k-e / b-r-ea-k / s-t-r-aigh-t
4. A spelling can represent more than one phoneme: g-r-ea-t / c-l-ea-n / b-r-ea-d (code overlap)

A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code

Linguistic phonics programmes are closely related to modern synthetic phonics programmes as they also teach the GPCs of the alphabet code directly and explicitly, working from simple to complex. Spelling is integral from the start. They also shun all whole language elements (sight word memorising, multi-clue word-guessing..) and work with phonemes only, not larger units of sound such as onsets and rimes. There are some differences though: letter names aren't taught until application of sounds is secure, they don't use mnemonics or special terms such as silent letter, short / long vowel, magic 'e' or any spelling and syllable division rules.

In linguistic phonics instruction, GPCs are always taught in the context of real words so flash cards showing isolated graphemes such as <ch>, <ea> and <ow> are not used. ''Comparing the spellings in context [of real words] increases the brain's ability to analyse and therefore remember'' (Fiona Nevola) -see Spelling for further explanation of the contextual and statistical nature of English spelling.

Why linguistic phonics teachers don't use flash cards with isolated graphemes.

In linguistic phonics programmes, when the complex/advanced code is being taught, multiple spellings in the context of real words are introduced simultaneously, rather than individually. For example: advanced code lessons with the focus phoneme /f/ would use common words with the spellings fin, sniff, phone and laugh
One sound, different spellings

A hundred or so high frequency words with unusual or unique GPCs (common exception words DfE) are introduced systematically during the appropriate lesson/s ensuring a phonics all-through-the word approach (for example: <many> and <friend> would be taught in lessons with the focus sound /e/ alongside words with the common spellings for /e/ such as <egg> and <head>)
Pupils are explicitly taught how to manage the important, but often neglected, 4th level of the code's complexity, that a spelling can represent more than one phoneme (for example: chip, school, chef) - see
'One spelling, different sounds'

Bomb, Comb, Tomb – why strugglers need to know how English works

*Silent letters? http://www.thereadingcentre.com/2011/11/26/silent-letters/
Albrow, a university lecturer in linguistics, rejected 'silent letters', describing <kn> and <gn>as ''complex consonant symbols''. He added that, ''(T)he concept of silent letter is avoided in this description; since all letters are clearly silent, silence cannot therefore be a distinction. This has already been implied by the treatment of <ie>,<oa> etc. as single symbols'' (Albrow p.19) Educational psychologist Dave Philpot described the concept of silent letters as ''nonsensical for a language that contains no silences, e.g in the word know, the k is silent but the w isn't. Logically, either kn and ow are both digraphs, or else both k AND w are silent!''

''Children have no idea what the teacher means when she says vowels are 'long' and 'short'. They think she is talking about physical size, a long A and a short A'' (D.McGuinness. WCCR. p97)

Avoid the confusing language of 'short' and 'long' vowels.

''To them, long and short describe visual length – so the <ou> in double is long and the <a> in table is short, but they’re not and that’s confusing''

Curly C and Kicking K?

Explaining split vowel spellings avoiding magic or bossy 'e'

Exemplar linguistic phonics programmes include Sounds~Write and the Sound Reading System

X A Journey to the Dark Side: From Phonics Phobic to Phonics Fanatic

''People say that there are no silver bullets in education, but I think systematic synthetic phonics comes pretty close. A method of teaching reading that has scientific backing and is proven to be effective for all children – especially those who are disadvantaged because of socio-economic factors, have English as a second language, or struggle with dyslexic-type difficulties – is one worth fighting for.'' (Anne Glennie)

See this page for details of synthetic / linguistic phonic programmes.

The word 'alphabet' comes from the names of the first two letters in the Greek alphabet, alpha beta. The Greeks created the first 'sound' alphabet when they added vowel sounds to the Phoenicians' consonants-only alphabet. For the next 2,500 years reading was taught by first teaching the alphabet and then the syllables: ba be bi bo bu, da de di do du, fa fe fi fo fu(m!) ...etc. It wasn't until the 8th century that conventions in writing that we take for granted such as spaces between words and the use of lowercase letters appeared, set in place by the English scholar Alcuin. In 1654 the French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal discovered that it was possible to split syllables into smaller sound units - phonemes, and in doing so created synthetic phonics (Rodgers p32) The use of the word 'synthetic' to describe a reading programme is not new; Pollard's Manual of Synthetic Reading and Spelling was published in 1889. Nellie Dale, a teacher at Wimbledon High School for Girls, created a programme in 1898 that was similar to today's modern synthetic phonics programmes.

Nellie Dale’s Book ‘On the Teaching of English Reading’

Rebecca Pollard's Manual of Synthetic Reading and Spelling
N.B. Pollard's method used diacritic markings, unlike modern synthetic phonics

Phoneme awareness (PA: able to hear, identify and manipulate phonemes) is the subject of much controversy and confusion. Children who enter pre-school with low PA and then fail to acquire sufficient PA 'naturally' alongside conventional (mixed methods) literacy teaching, are deemed to have a constitutional brain weakness; the hallmark of dyslexia. Many 'experts' advocate phonological awareness training (no letter symbols) for all children prior to any teaching of reading, to help overcome this brain 'glitch' that appears to be present in so many. This faulty thinking resulted in the insertion of a harmless (but pointless and time consuming) 'sounds only' stage (Phase One) in the now archived government programme Letters & Sounds. ''(T)he research conclusively proves there is no benefit to phoneme-only training programmes as opposed to instruction using a good synthetic phonics programme from the outset, one which teaches segmenting and blending using letter symbols and lots of writing practice. Phoneme analysis sufficient to be able to decode is acquired much more rapidly in the context of print than in isolation'' (D.McGuinness. Response to Hulme).

''Lots of studies showing kids do better when phonemic awareness tasks are tied to print. Phonemes emerge in part from exposure to print'' (Prof. Mark Seidenberg)

Should we teach phonemic awareness?

Recommended reading: Prof. Julian Elliott's book The Dyslexia Debate p42-> 'The phonological deficit hypothesis' for a comprehensive examination of the evidence.

Phonological awareness versus teaching letter/s-sound links

Researchers Johnston and Watson found that synthetic phonics develops phonemic awareness very well without any prior PA training: The phonemic segmentation of the synthetic phonics group improved far more in 16 weeks than either of the other two groups. At the start of their research in Clackmannanshire, the synthetic phonics group got 4.1% right, while the other two groups got 2.7% and 4.5%. After 16 weeks, the figures (in the same order) were 64.9%, 17.2% and 34.7%. (Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness. Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal 2004)

''Activities that had no impact, positive or negative (correlations at zero), were time spent....on larger phonetic units, such as clapping out syllable beats, and time spent on auditory phoneme awareness tasks (no letters)'' (D.McGuinness. A Prototype for Teaching the English Alphabet Code)

''Scores of developmental studies show that phonemic processing is one of the most “buffered” language skills humans possess, and is least susceptible to disruption and malfunction. Chaney showed that by age three, children are highly sensitive to the phoneme level of speech. Nearly all of the 87 three-year-olds in her study could listen to isolated phonemes (/b/ -- /a/ -- /t/), blend them into a word, and point to a picture representing that word – with nearly 90% scoring well above chance'' (D.McGuinness. RRF messageboard)

Part and parcel of the 'brain glitch' theory is the unsubstantiated belief that, initially, children are biologically programmed to recognise individual written words solely ''through their crude visual features such as shape or size'' (Uta Frith) (a so-called logographic stage) and then, purely as a result of a biologically-driven developmental progression, are able to break words into smaller and smaller units of sound: whole words (logographs) ->syllables ->onset and rime ->phonemes. Early Years academics who hold this belief in a 'biologically determined progression' insist that children need to receive reading instruction following this order too; going directly to the phoneme level is, they suggest, 'developmentally inappropriate', especially if the children are younger than six or seven, and could be 'dangerous'. There is no scientific evidence to back this theory.

Many parents teach their pre-schoolers to read using synthetic phonics with no ill effects reported. Research in Germany (Wimmer/ Hummer) has shown that children do not move through a logographic or an onset-rime stage when they are taught with the synthetic phonics method from the very start of reading instruction (RRF newsletter 45.p6 / D.McGuinness ERI p339-347) As Jenny Chew points out, ''If you teach letter-sound correspondences from the start without assuming an initial logographic stage, children's perception of the sub-units of sound in the spoken words will be determined by the letters they see on the page - they will see the printed word 'cat' as 3 letters and will think of it as having 3 sounds (/c/ - /a/ - /t/) not as having 2 sounds (/c/ -- /at/)''.

PA training (without print) is not a necessary prerequisite to learning to read and spell. Phoneme sensitivity is innate as all babies need it in order to acquire spoken language, but they are not consciously aware of this ability. ''In fact, no one needs to be explicitly aware of phonemes unless they have to learn an alphabetic writing system'' (D McGuinness LDLR p36) . People who have learnt to read using a non-alphabetic script such as Chinese, which is based on the syllable unit of sound, lack phonemic awareness; studies ''show the strong impact of the type of writing system and type of instruction on the development of phonemic awareness -an environmental effect, and restates the point that you do not acquire this aptitude unless you need it'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p135)

The ease with which a child can be taught how to consciously unravel speech in order to hear the individual phonemes appears to be heritable. ''Good/bad phoneme-awareness runs in families, just as musical talent does'' (D.McGuinness WCCR p151) This unraveling is necessary because speech consists of co-articulated sounds blended into a rapidly produced sound stream. Children who find it difficult to unravel the individual phonemes within syllables (due to hearing problems (Peer. Linking glue ear and dyslexia) and/or normal genetic variation, NOT an incurable brain defect) need high quality, whole-class synthetic phonics teaching along with short, daily, one-to-one 'keep-up' sessions, to enable them to learn the knowledge and skills necessary to become good readers.

Phoneme awareness occurs as a direct result of the teaching methods found in synthetic phonics programmes; it is the process of learning the letter-sound correspondences, translating the letters into sounds in words and vice-versa, which makes the phonemes explicit. ''(T)he ability to manipulate speech sounds is a taught skill, not an outcome of cognitive maturation or exposure to language'' (Rice/Brooks p54) ''(A)s their literacy improves it should again become an automatic process for literacy purposes and drop below consciousness unless it is actually needed to deal with an unfamiliar written word.''(Philpot. RRF messageboard)

March 2006: The Rose Review recommended that the NLS 'Searchlight' multi-cueing strategies for decoding should be dropped and replaced by the 'simple view of reading' and that all children should be taught to read using 'high quality phonics' [synthetic phonics] taught directly and discretely. (Rose Review 2006 p70). Ruth Kelly, Education Secretary at the time, agreed and said, ''I accept all your recommendations and will ensure that they are implemented (Kelly response to interim report 30/11/05) ''I am clear that synthetic phonics should be the first strategy in teaching all children to read'' (Kelly. Times 21/03/06)

''(S)ynthetic' phonics is the form of systematic phonic work that offers the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers. Among other strengths, this is because it teaches children directly what they need to know...whereas other approaches, such as 'analytic' phonics, expect children to deduce them'' (Rose Review. 2006 para 47) ‘'Having considered a wide range of evidence the review concluded that the case for systematic phonic work is overwhelming and much strengthened by a synthetic approach’' (Rose Review 2006. para 51)

''Synthetic phonics gives all children the greatest chance of becoming literate and loving books''
(Dr. Marlynne Grant EP)

Both the 2006 Rose report and the government's own generic framework for teaching synthetic phonics, Letters and Sounds, state clearly that the NLS Searchlight word-guessing strategies should no longer be used: ''(A)ttention should be focused on decoding rather than on the use of unreliable strategies such as looking at the illustrations, rereading the sentence, saying the first sounds and guessing what might fit ... Children who routinely adopt alternative cues for reading unknown words, instead of learning to decode them, find themselves stranded when texts become more demanding and meanings less predictable'' (L&S Guidance notes p.12)

Clear evidence that the majority (90%) of teachers are still using multi-cueing word-guessing strategies came in NFER's 2014 report on the phonics screening check http://goo.gl/MpNsl1 p28 ''However, 90 per cent also ‘agreed’ or ‘agreed somewhat’ with the statement that a variety of different methods should be used to teach children to decode words. These percentages mirror almost exactly last year’s findings, and indicate that most teachers do not see a commitment to systematic synthetic phonics as incompatible with the teaching of other decoding strategies''

The gender gap disappears when a high quality synthetic phonics programme is used and taught well. In the Clackmannanshire study, boys and girls in the synthetic phonics programme read well above expected levels, but the boys were ahead of the girls. (Johnston and Watson. 2005) When Sir Jim Rose closely examined synthetic phonics teaching, he found that, ''A common feature of the best work was that boys' progress and achievement did not lag behind girls: an important outcome given the generally weaker performance of boys, especially in writing.'' (Rose Review.2006 para 57)

''If we really want boys to read voraciously, first we need to teach them to read. On a properly normed & standardised spelling test, of the 1607 boys & girls we followed through KS1, there was no statistical difference between them'' tinyurl.com/yce55pcz (John Walker. Twitter)

''I still can’t help but be concerned about the fact that only 44% of disadvantaged, white working class males achieve an acceptable outcome by the end of reception year'' (Quirky Teacher. Twitter 06/03/18)

Gough and Tunmer first proposed the Simple Model of Reading in 1986. In their paper the authors wrote, ''To clarify the role of decoding in reading and reading disability, a simple model of reading is proposed, which holds that reading equals the product of decoding and comprehension.... we are reluctant to equate decoding with word recognition, for the term decoding surely connotes, if not denotes, the use of letter-sound correspondence rules'' (italics added. 1986, Remedial & Special Education, Vol 7, No.1, 6-10).

"The ability to decode is at the core of reading ability, such that learning to decode is tantamount to learning to read." (Gough and Tunmer '86)

Morag Stuart and Rhona Stainthorp re-presented Gough and Tunmer's Simple Model of Reading in an annex to the 2006 Rose report, re-titled it the Simple View of Reading and described it as ''a useful conceptual framework''. They explained that, ''When trying to understand something as complex and multifaceted as reading, it is helpful first to simplify –in this case, by delineating two major, essential, interacting but different components of reading''.

Reading ability is based on two major, essential, interacting but different components: phonics decoding ability x language comprehension (vocabulary and background knowledge).

A useful illustration of the necessity for reading of both components and the insufficiency for reading of each component on its own is the story of Milton in his blindness. Wishing to read ancient Greek texts, but unable to do so because he could no longer see the words, Milton encouraged his daughters to learn to pronounce each alphabetic symbol of the ancient Greek alphabet. His daughters then used these phonic skills to read aloud the texts to their father. Their father could understand what they uncomprehendingly read aloud to him. The daughters possessed word decoding skills, which did not enable them to understand the text; Milton, despite his ability to understand the Greek language, was no longer able to use his word decoding skills and so was no longer able to understand Greek text without harnessing his daughters’ skills (Rose report 2006)

Listening comprehension & word decoding explains 96% of variation in early reading comprehension

''The hallmark of skilled reading is fast context-free word identification. And rich context-dependent text understanding.'' (Italics in original. Dr.Charles Perfetti)

Synthetic phonics is not taught in isolation. The need to ''develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding'' is specifically mentioned in the statutory requirements of the new National Curriculum - see for example p11.

5 Vocabulary Teaching Myths - we need to dispel myths about vocabulary learning and development if we are to be successful in the classroom and beyond

The importance of storytelling: ''Research has shown that the vocabulary of general conversation is surprisingly impoverished, compared to the vocabulary we find in written material''

''An important point is that reading to kids DOES matter. It's a very, very good idea. It helps kids build vocabulary, background knowledge, comprehension skills, awareness of syntactic complexity, understanding of how language works. But it's not the same as teaching kids to read'' (Emily Hanford. Twitter)

''More rare words are used when reading a children's book than in a conversation between college graduates: reading to kids matters'' (Nick Gibb. Minister of State. DfE)

What reading does for the mind: Cunningham&Stanovich

Read non-fiction books to your late talkers and preschoolers: here's why

Leaping the Lexical Bar

X This flowchart is based on The Simple View of Reading. It will help you identify whether a child is struggling with decoding, comprehension - or with both.

Stuart and Stainthorp substituted the phrase ''word recognition processes'' for the word 'decoding' in the Rose report diagram illustrating the simple view of reading. This phrase was reduced to 'word recognition' in the following text. Unfortunately, this change of wording gave out the misleading and potentially damaging message that reading can be taught by giving children lists of words to memorise by sight. It also fed the commonly held myth that fluent readers have ''moved past phonics''.

Rose Report 2006 -see pages 75-85 for coverage of the 'simple view of reading' https://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationDetail/Page1/DFES-0201-2006

The Simple Model of Reading: R = DxC: Reading = Decoding grapheme-phoneme correspondence by GPC all-through-the-word (either consciously or sub-consciously sounding out) x language Comprehension. This sounds 'simple' and straightforward (it is), but the academics who oppose synthetic phonics, and continue to lobby for a range of decoding strategies, have taken the model and put forward an interpretation that fits with their view of reading. They insist that decoding English words must involve using different sizes of sound units, not just GPCs, along with the use of ''careful guessing from context'' (Dombey. Guardian Comment 30/04/08): "Decoding must be seen to denote the identification of words typical of English texts, including irregular words such as ‘said’ and ‘island’. It should not be equated with synthetic phonics, which is inadequate as a decoding system for English. So it should be taken to involve ‘flexible unit size strategies’ (Brown and Deavers, 1999), and also morphology and semantics" (Dombey. p9)

The Committee on Science & Technology examined the evidence base of the Rose Report 2006.

Six activities that make no difference whatsoever to reading and spelling success, and two activities that are actually related to worse reading and spelling achievement.

There are three main ways of organising classes to provide differentiation in phonics instruction:

1. The Read Write Inc. way with fluid ability groupings+ a few children receive 10 mins.of 1-1 practice before each lesson.
2. Whole class teaching with slower children receiving extra help (1-1) at some other time during the day.
3. Whole class teaching followed by whole class practice materials with the children accessing the practice materials at their own level. This is the form of differentiation used by the Phonics International programme.

Teacher and phonics trainer Elizabeth Nonweiler says that follow up time to the daily synthetic phonics lesson should include:

  • activities to reinforce what was in the lesson
  • handwriting practice
  • reading texts (school readers or other texts they can be expected to decode)
  • catch-up for those who are falling behind
  • extension activities for those who are learning easily, e.g. independent writing activities
It has been established that knowledge of the alphabet letter names is one of the best predictors of later reading attainment, but those who, as a consequence of this information, advocate the early teaching of the names, are confusing correlation with causation. Letter name knowledge is just an indirect marker of high print exposure, literate household, good paired-associate memory etc.

''Letter names can be hazardous to your spelling'' Early Reading Instruction p275 ->278 ''The message is clear: Discourage & eliminate the use of letter names & encourage the teaching of phoneme-grapheme correspondences'' (D.McGuinness)

Researchers Treiman & Tincoff found that letter name learning focused children's attention on the syllable rather than the phoneme, blocking their understanding of the alphabetic principle. In Dr.Solity's opinion, ''Teaching both [letter sounds and names] potentially confuses children and doubles the amount of information they are required to learn. Letter names are best introduced after children have gained fluency in their application of letter sounds and can distinguish between letter names and sounds with fluency. Teaching names is a redundant skill in both early reading and spelling and takes instructional time which could more usefully be devoted to other activities'' (Solity p20)

Experienced remedial tutors find that struggling readers, in particular, tend to use a strategy of mixing sounds and letter names when they try to decode. Do not teach the alphabet letter names (ay, bee, see, dee etc.) in the first stages of teaching reading to avoid any confusion between the names and sounds and adding unnecessarily to your child's memory load.

The Fragility of the Alphabetic Principle

Let's not sing our ABCs

Letter names ''far from being helpful, may even delay the acquisition of reading''
(Dehaene. Reading in the brain. p200)

Letter names or sounds?

''In a study of 3000 Australian students..[30%] of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds''

When and how to use letter names.
''We don’t use letter names until well into Y1 after 1.5+ yrs of Phonics'' (C.Mackechnie. Y1 teacher)

The Letters and Sounds programme recommends “around 20 minutes” of daily discrete teaching of phonics (L&S Notes of Guidance p10). Synthetic phonics experts recommend at least half-an-hour of daily discrete phonics teaching. Children should then apply (practise) that knowledge in all their reading and writing throughout the day.

UK-style synthetic phonics programmes recommend that the basic code GPCs should be introduced at the rate of about 3-5 a week. The initial sound-letter correspondences taught are those (commonly, s, a, t, i, p and n) that make up plenty of two or three letter words for early reading and spelling practice and most easily avoid the 'schwa'. This is the extra 'uh' sound that it is difficult to avoid adding when saying the consonant sounds individually (consonant means 'together with') e.g. r'uh, 'b'uh, 'j'uh (Macmillan p29). Do try to make individual sounds as 'pure' as possible when teaching them to your child. Note, that ''the sounds we model for the children are stylised versions of phonemes and not the phonemes as they actually occur in normally-spoken words'' (Chew.RRF message board 12/11/09)

There will always be a few children who, from the commencement of reading instruction, for a variety of reasons and for varying periods of time, will need very careful synthetic phonics one-to-one tutoring (in addition to whole class instruction) to enable them to learn how to read; prevention rather than intervention being the aim. If a child finds it difficult to hear the individual phonemes in words (due to normal brain variation -see D.McGuinness WCCR p151 or hearing difficulties), finds blending difficult or has problems remembering which sounds and graphemes go together (paired-associate memory), then plenty of practice and revision will be needed.

''Synthetic phonics is not a simple panacea'' (Ruth Miskin)

''It is important that pressure is not put on children too early to stop sounding and blending. Many Y1 pupils who sound and blend words still need to do this in order to read accurately. If they are encouraged to say words quickly, they may resort to guessing from pictures and context'', warns Elizabeth Nonweiler.

Reading Fluently Does Not Mean Reading Fast

If your child has difficulties with blending then follow John Walker's (Sounds-Write) practical advice:

Children need to practise reading and spelling newly taught graphemes in different positions in words, not just in the 'initial letter' position. This is to teach them transitivity- the understanding that there is a consistent relationship between a phoneme and a grapheme across all positions in a word and across all words e.g. the letter t stands for the phoneme /t/ in the words ' top', ‘bit', 'strap', 'tent'...

All children need to crack the English Alphabet Code in order to read and spell accurately. Synthetic Phonics provides 'The Key to the Code'.

The alphabet is used as a letter code for the individual sounds in our speech and, like all codes, it is difficult to decipher without the correct and complete 'key'. The English alphabet spelling code is particularly difficult to learn. It is the most 'opaque' in the world, due to the Norman-French, Danish, Latin and Greek spelling systems which, over time, were mixed in with the original (635 A.D) transparent, Anglo-Saxon system. ''For example, ch is used to spell /ch/ in Anglo-Saxon words such as chair; is used to spell /k/ in Greek derived words such as chorus; and spells /sh/ in French-derived words such as charade and Charlotte'' (Moats).

The English Alphabet Code 'Key': a limited overview -includes examples of words with unusual spellings to show how they fit into the code. Note that there are no 'silent' letters.

/a/ mat, salmon, plait   /g/ gate, egg, ghost, guest, vague
/ae/ ape, baby, rain, steak, eight   /h/ hat, whole
/air/ hair, square, bear, prayer   /j/ jet, giant, cage, bridge
/ar/ jar, fast, aunt, heart, palm   /l/schwa+l/ lip, bell, sample, pupil
/e/ peg, bread, said, friend, any   /m/ man, hammer, comb, some
/ee/ sweet, me, beach, pony, people   /n/ nut, dinner, knee, gnat, gone
/i/ pig, wanted, gym, busy, women   /ng/ ring, sink, tongue
/ie/ kite, wild, light, fly, height, island   /p/ pan, happy
/o/ log, want, cough, because   /k-w/ queen acquaint
/oe/ bone, soul, boat, snow, dough   /r/ rat, cherry, write, rhyme
/oi/ coin, toy   /s/ sun, science, city, castle, psyche
/oo/ book, should, put, wolf   /sh/ ship, mission, station, chef, sugar
/oo/ moon, soup, do, shoe, through   /t/ tap, letter, debt, waste, pterosaur
/or/ fork, ball, sauce, law, door, bought   /th/ thin
/ow/ down, house, bough   /th/ that, soothe
/u/ plug, thoroughly, tough, money, flood   /v/ vet, have, of
/ur/ turn, her, work, first, ogre, earth   /w/ (/oo/) wet, wheel, penguin
/ue/ (/ee-oo/) unit, due, you, cube, mew   /k-s/g-z/ box, exist
/b/ bat, rabbit, build   /y/ (/ee/) yes, onion
/k/ cat, key, quick, school, unique   /z/ zip, fizz, is, cheese, xylophone
/ch/ chip, watch, question, tube   /zh/ treasure, television, beige
/d/ dog, ladder, rubbed   /uh/ (*schwa) button, about, picture, doctor
/f/ fish, coffee, photo, rough, giraffe   Colours indicate examples of code overlap / one spelling->different sounds.

*The dreaded schwa.

N.B. the spellings in the chart above are placed according to a Received Pronunciation accent, but synthetic phonics programmes recommend teaching to the accent of the children. For example, in a Lancashire accent the <au> spelling in aunt and laugh will move from /ar/ to /a/. ''(I)f someone in Lancashire says /s/ /t/ /er/ /z/ instead of /s/ /t/ air/ /z/, we put the spelling in the /er/ categories'' (John Walker) The phoneme /x/, which represents the final sound in words such as 'loch' and 'lough' and is common in Scottish and Irish accents, may need to be added to charts.

There are no 'un-phonetic' words. English spelling is 100% phonetic but many of the most commonly used words (High Frequency Words/ HFWs) such as <straight>, <their> and <people>, contain an unusual or unique spelling correspondence that is hard to decode initially without direct instruction. These are called common exception words in the new National Curriculum.

X Sight Words.

''Let’s look at two of the most common, short-cut approaches to teaching so-called ‘sight words’. The first is the use of flash cards. If a child cannot decode a word on a flash card, they are being asked to remember the word as a whole, something that is very difficult to do given that thousands of words contain the same number of letters and often begin and end with the same letters. The words ‘house’ and ‘horse’ spring to mind here...''

''Any teaching using flash cards, where the children are expected to read words visually, seriously undermines the synthetic phonics method'' (Prof.Johnston& Dr.Watson. Teaching Synthetic Phonics p36)

<One> is a common exception word, often held up as a word that can't be phonically decoded. It has two GPCs; the single letter 'o' represents two sounds /w-u/ (just as the letter 'x' represents two sounds /k-s/ in the word <fox> ) and the digraph 'ne' represents the sound /n/ as in the word <gone>. The common words with 'grotty graphemes' (Ruth Miskin) need to be taught directly and systematically in every early reading programme using a phonics all-through-the word approach - See http://www.dyslexics.org.uk/spelling_resources.htm

How to respond to the 'But some words can't be sounded-out' objection to phonics

No English word is completely phonologically opaque. ''Even the core of high frequency words which are not transparently decodable using known grapheme–phoneme correspondences usually contain at least one GPC that is familiar. Rather than approach these words as though they were unique entities, it is advisable to start from what is known and register the ‘tricky bit’ in the word. Even the word yacht, often considered one of the most irregular of English words, has two of the three phonemes represented with regular graphemes'' (L&S Notes of Guidance p16) .

When people unthinkingly quip that the word fish could be re-spelled as ghoti they are revealing their lack of knowledge of the English spelling code. As John Walker explains, ''There are NO examples of <gh> representing the sound /f/ at the beginning of an English word. Traditional spelling 'rules' tend to be very unhelpful because exceptions to them often occur more frequently than the 'rules' themselves. However, in this case, we could construct a perfect rule: within English words that begin with the sound /f/, that sound /f/ is NEVER represented by the spelling <gh> at the beginning of the word! The single letter spelling <o> can represent several vowel sounds in English, but it only represents the sound / i / in one word, women The two-letter spelling <ti> represents the sound /sh/ at the beginning of several English suffixes, for example <-tion>, <-tious> and <-tial>. There are no examples of the digraph <ti> representing the sound /sh/ at the end of an English word. ''There are, of course, words that end in <ti>, such as yeti, but in all those words the <t> and <i> are single-letter spellings, each of them representing one sound'' (Sounds-Write Lexicon)

A myth, disseminated by the whole language advocates, is that using synthetic phonics to teach reading leads to lower comprehension levels. This is absolutely not the case. The Clackmannanshire researchers Johnston and Watson say, ''Much is made of the fact that the synthetic phonics programme in Clackmannanshire led to much greater increases in word reading and spelling skill than in reading comprehension, implying that reading comprehension did not benefit from the intervention. However, it should be noted that at the end of the seventh year at school, reading comprehension in the study was significantly above age level, in a sample that had a below average SES (socio-economic status) profile'' (RRF newsletter 59. p3)
A follow up study by Johnston and Watson found that, ''The children in the Clackmannanshire study (taught by the synthetic phonics method) were reading words about two years ahead of what would be expected for their age. Their spelling was six months ahead of what you would expect for their age, and their reading comprehension was about right for their age. However, although the pupils in England (taught by the NLS analytic method) from similar backgrounds were reading words about right for their age, their spelling was 4.5 months below what is expected for age, and reading comprehension was about seven months behind'' (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/7147813.stm)  

When students struggle with word decoding, their comprehension also suffers. ''One way we overcome this limitation of working memory while reading is by learning how to make a rapid, automatic deployment of underlying reading processes so that they become fast and unconscious, leaving the conscious mind (i.e. the working memory) free to think about what a text means. This is why fast and accurate decoding is important. Experiments show that a child who can sound out nonsense words quickly and accurately has mastered the decoding process and is on the road to freeing up her working memory to concentrate on comprehension of meaning''

X http://www.thereadingcentre.com/2015/04/01/decoding-comprehension-and-muddled-thinking/
Decoding, comprehension and muddled thinking.

Does phonics help or hinder comprehension?

Phonics: The Holy Grail of Reading? Jenny Chew explains the relationship between Decoding and Comprehension.

Another widely circulated piece of mis-information is that synthetic phonics teachers engage in the ''rather cruel'' (Goouch/Lambirth p39) practice of withholding 'real' books from children until they have ''cracked the phonic code'' (Hileryjane blog 27/01/10). Certainly, as the synthetic phonics method positively excludes the use of whole word memorisation and multi-cue word-guessing, beginning readers are not expected to use the early levels of whole language banded scheme books (Book Bands: pink, red, yellow, blue and green), or 'real' books, for independent reading practice. As Debbie Hepplewhite says, ''There is a myth that children who get synthetic phonics teaching are totally deprived of real books. The reality is that children who get true synthetic phonics teaching are not expected to read independently a book which they cannot decode so that they are forced to guess the words or memorise the sentences by heart''. Fortunately, there are plenty of attractive and well written decodable book schemes available nowadays. These schemes are written using cumulative phonics text, making them suitable for beginning readers (or those having reading intervention) from the very earliest stages.

''My book area has two or three hundred books that the children can choose freely''
(Y1 teacher who uses linguistic phonics)

As Sir Jim Rose wrote in his 2006 review, “The findings of this review argue strongly for the inclusion of a vigorous programme of phonic work to be securely embedded within a broad and rich language curriculum”. Beginning readers in high quality synthetic phonics classrooms will have plenty of access to real books (fiction and non-fiction) with freedom to browse the text if they want to do so. When doing shared reading of a real book, the teacher (or parent if it is a home book) takes responsibility for reading any as yet untaught GPCs or words with tricky spellings so no multi-cueing (guessing) or whole word memorisation is necessary.

See - 3) ''I’m just saying phonics is not the only part of reading''

X 13 myths about synthetic phonics.

It's also a myth that children taught through synthetic phonics and decodable books will never be able to read 'real' books (commercial storybooks) independently. Jenny Chew notes that, ''mixed methods' children do more independent reading of 'rich' literature in the early stages because they aren't limited to words that they can decode - they also know lots of 'sight' words and can guess from pictures and context''. Their rapid start into reading 'real' books can be compared to that of the Hare in 'The Hare & the Tortoise' fable; 'Tortoise' children, taught to decode using phonics only, are slower to begin reading 'real' books independently but soon catch up and then overtake the the majority of the memorising and guessing 'Hares'.

Moving from decodable books into leveled or 'real' books (with support) at the end of KS1.

Only phonics?

Phonics AND the love of reading

Maggie Downie, a secondary school reading intervention tutor, explains why it is important that beginning readers are not asked to read real books or whole language texts independently. She says, ''There is a world of difference between 'looking' at books and reading them. Synthetic phonics practitioners are just as concerned that children should enjoy a 'literature rich environment' as any of the balanced literacy/whole language advocates. All that they say is that children should not be expected to READ books which are beyond their current state of phonic knowledge. Giving children words to decode which are beyond their capability is something akin to expecting a beginning pianist to play a piano sonata before they have mastered the scales. Systematic phonics instruction is scaffolded learning; give the child words to read which it hasn't learnt the code for and you pull the scaffold away from under them, leaving them dangling helplessly with no option but to guess at the word. This confuses and scares children, and turns them off reading. I can't understand why anyone would want to do that.''

In his 2006 review Sir Jim Rose wrote, ''There is some force in the view that, as they learn to master the alphabetic code, children should be given reading material that is well within their reach in the form of 'decodable books'... Using such books as part of the phonic programme does not preclude other reading. Indeed it can be shown that such books help children develop confidence and an appetite for reading more widely.'' (Rose Review.2006 para 82)

Oct 2010: The DfE's revised set of criteria for synthetic phonics programmes included new advice on early texts to practise reading: ''(E)nsure that as pupils move through the early stages of acquiring phonics, they are invited to practise by reading texts which are entirely decodable for them, so that they experience success and learn to rely on phonemic strategies. It is important that texts are of the appropriate level for children to apply and practise the phonic knowledge and skills that they have learnt. Children should not be expected to use strategies such as whole-word recognition and/or cues from context, grammar, or pictures.''

''It doesn’t matter how many wonderful books you surround children with, or how engaging and exciting you make reading – if they can’t decode the words on the page, then they will fail. No one can read for pleasure if they can’t read'' (Anne Glennie)

X An alternative to Book Bands for beginner readers

Too bound by Book Bands

X Video: Alison Clarke illustrates why predictable or repetitive texts are harmful for beginning readers.

''Some schools believe that the work of teaching explicit phonics is completed by the end of Y1. However, there is much to be gained by continuing to teach and reinforce phonics throughout Key Stages 1 and 2 and by continuing to apply phonemic strategies throughout the whole curriculum during the school day'' (Dr.Grant Follow-up study p8)

Dr. Marlynne Grant's recommendations: What to do in Year 2 and beyond
• Check basic code knowledge and advanced code knowledge for all children moving to Year 2
• Ensure that there is phonics catch-up in place with identified children as often as possible
• Whole class and targeted practice, preferably daily, with the alphabetic code, particularly basic
code digraphs and the advanced code.
• Reinforce letter formation, particularly start points of letters. Errors such as reversals are most
often orthographic errors
• Continue applying phonics throughout the whole curriculum and throughout the school day.
Simple phonics walls charts of the basic and advanced codes can hugely support both staff and
children with this. More unusual graphemes can also be identified and their virtual position
located on the advanced code chart
• Incidental phonics teaching can continue with words that crop up in the course of the school day
• Continue beyond phonics to polysyllabic words, ensuring children can break down longer words
into smaller chunks, are aware of prefixes, root words, suffixes and syllables. Phonics is then
used within smaller chunks for reading and spelling.
• Continue to tackle ‘tricky’ words and high frequency words phonemically, identifying any ‘tricky’
grapheme-phoneme correspondence(s). Do not learn these by sight as whole words.
• Remind children to continue using their phonics and not to guess at words when reading
• Remind children to vocalise words clearly when spelling and identify all the sounds in the word or
chunk of a word
• Continue with decodable storybooks and texts to reinforce specific weak areas and extend skills
• Continue with structured handwriting and writing practice, making a plan of key paragraphs and
using a ‘talk for writing’/modelled writing approach which includes verbal rehearsal of sentences,
adult moderation, accurate writing of sentences, one at a time, and reading back to check what
was written.
• Set negotiated written expectations for those children who are struggling most with pieces of
written work. Aim for accuracy rather than quantity with clear paragraphs, coherent English
sentences, accurate punctuation and spelling. (Dr.Grant Follow-up study p8-9)