The Scottish phonics miracle: myths and evidence

A major trigger for politicians insisting that synthetic phonics is the only good way to teach reading came from an experiment in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. The work of Sue Ellis at Strathclyde University reveals serious exaggeration by politicians and the press. Gains in reading for understanding were limited, and the improvement was caused by more than just synthetic phonics.  


The importance of phonics

Phonics is useful, and there are particular benefits for children from low literacy backgrounds to explaining the alphabetic code in ways that are upfront and clear. The debate is how much phonics, and what sort of mix is required. There is no proven advantage to synthetic phonics over analytic, or a mixture of both, provided that children have enough and it is done well. Too much time spent on phonics can also reduce real reading.

The context

Clackmannanshire is Scotland’s smallest local authority, with just 19 primary schools, many of them small. Building on two earlier studies, two researchers Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston of St Andrews University carried out an extended study from 1997-2005 in 8 schools. They ran a synthetic phonics experiment in Primary 1, with control groups taught by analytic phonics or a mixed method, and then tracked children’s progress to the end of primary school (Primary 7).

By this stage the children were on average 3 years 6 months ahead of their chronological age in decoding words, and 1 year 9 months ahead in spelling. This hit the headlines. However the media overlooked that they were just 3.5 months ahead in comprehension, and with no evidence of pupils becoming more engaged in reading, especially boys.

This is particularly important for literacy and also for attainment generally. Avid readers develop a better vocabulary, a wider general knowledge and better verbal reasoning skills. This literally makes them smarter. They “punch above their weight” across the whole curriculum. High reading engagement mitigates 30% of the effect of social class on attainment generally, and 70% of the effect of gender.

What else was happening in these schools?

The first message is – they did not just do phonics. In other words, the gains cannot simply be attributed to synthetic phonics.

Specific phonic instruction was accompanied by story-building activities, listening to stories, talking, reasoning, word and sound-play, comprehension, writing and reading, together and individually.

clackmannanshire tiger

Clackmannanshire celebrating World Book Day

Clackmannshire used a major Scottish government early intervention grant on new reading schemes and library books. It developed a Primary 2 literacy programme in the 8 schools focusing on thinking and comprehension skills.

It also provided home-liaison teachers in 4 of the schools. These teachers gave classroom support and made home visits. They set up story clubs, library visits, homework clubs, nurture groups, parent groups, and school libraries.

Project planning and management were excellent. Approaches to reading and writing were explained first to the headteachers and senior management teams, ensuring high commitment.

A well designed staff development programme helped shift expectations and provided specific knowledge about phonics and literacy, as well as practical advice about using the resources, making learning purposeful, motivating children and the importance of noticing and building on success.

The authority’s development officer Lesley Robertson was highly knowledgeable about the teaching of reading. One head said, ‘It was great to have someone on the end of a phone who you could ring up with any questions – even questions about an individual child, and you knew you could have a sensible discussion with someone who was knowledgable and could give you good advice about what to try.’

Policy formation in England and Scotland

The discussion was more sober in Scotland, where the Minister sets priorities but then works with the local authorities. This means that parliamentary politicians – who often have better knowledge about soundbites and capturing media attention than literacy teaching or interpreting statistics – cannot make political capital by aligning themselves with a particular teaching approach.

Directors of Education, answerable to locally elected councillors, determine how the literacy guidelines are interpreted and delivered. In England the Conservative MP Nick Gibb, while in opposition, could use parliamentary questions about Clackmannanshire to challenge Labour’s education policy; in Scotland he would have been told that control lies more at local level.

Secondly, there was more considered discussion among teachers in Scotland about what could be learnt and how ideas could be adapted for their own, parallel innovations.

Other Scottish initiatives

Other areas tried to introduce synthetic phonics but with less success. West Dunbartonshire, the second poorest area in Scotland, was possibly even more successful than Clackmannanshire. Phonics was an important part of the West Dunbartonshire early literacy programme but teachers drew on both analytic and synthetic approaches.

West Dunbartonshire actually began by engaging carers of two-year-olds – nursery staff, parents, children’s librarians – to provide a rich literacy environment and experience. Children who did not learn to read at first were given one-to-one support through primary school by over 100 trained staff and volunteers. Strangely, English politicians don’t mention this.

The real issues

We should be asking not what works but for whom and in what circumstances. We need a better understanding of the mix that works. Too much time on synthetic phonics means neglecting other aspects of reading. Literacy needs to be embedded in an intellectually rich curriculum for all.

Experiments in word decoding may be important for psychologists, but parents expect more than just sounding out individual words. The real challenge is to create readers who are better at reading for meaning; people who can visualize as they read, infer meaning, recognize key ideas, new knowledge and contradictions and who are able to use and apply what they read to real life situations.

The next post in this series will look at how the Rose Report distorted the evidence.

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