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Thursday, February 25, 1999 Published at 13:48 GMT


C-a-t spells success in early literacy

The synthetic phonics method shows remarkable gains

Primary schools in Clackmannanshire in Scotland are having remarkable success with a way of teaching children to read that goes against the government's preferred method in England.

Education correspondent Mike Baker: "Spectacular results"
It involves a traditional method known as synthetic phonics. The government's literacy hour - strongly recommended in English schools, albeit not compulsory - uses another technique known as analytic phonics.

[ image: Magnetic letters used to build words]
Magnetic letters used to build words
Put simply, in analytic phonics the emphasis is put upon children learning the sounds at the beginning of a word: c in c-at, for instance.

In synthetic phonics children are taught the sounds of all the letters and use them as building blocks which might go anywhere in a word: c-a-t makes "cat".

The children begin by learning the 42 different sounds of letters and letter groups. This gives them the tools to work out the sound of words they have not met before.

Reading fluently

Finally they work with letters to put the sounds together and build words for themselves.

[ image: Experiment was in an economically deprived part of Clackmannanshire]
Experiment was in an economically deprived part of Clackmannanshire
Teacher Annette Steele at Deerpark Primary School said: "The children last year were much further ahead than any class that I had ever had.

"By the end of the session, all the children were reading and spelling above their chronological age. They were all writing short pieces of work."

The inexpensive experiment, devised by Dr Rhona Johnston and Mrs Joyce Watson of the University of St Andrews' School of Psychology, involved 300 children.

One group received the normal phonics programme, as advocated in the National Literacy Strategy.

A second group had their phonics teaching supplemented with what is known as structured phoneme and rhyme training. This group fared worst as a result.

[ image: Researchers Joyce Watson (right) and Rhona Johnston: Recommend it]
Researchers Joyce Watson (right) and Rhona Johnston: Recommend it
A third group received the experimental synthetic phonics programme, which is a method used in Germany and Austria.

Soon after the children started their first term of schooling the teachers spent 20 minutes a day for 16 weeks teaching the whole class according to one of the three methods.

By March of the first year of primary school:

  • the synthetic phonics group were reading and spelling 7 months ahead of chronological age
  • the synthetic phonics group were 7 months ahead in reading compared with the other two groups
  • the synthetic phonics groups were 8 months and 9 months respectively ahead in spelling compared with the other two groups
  • the synthetic phonics group had the best levels of rime and phoneme awareness
Clackmannanshire Council has now extended this method to all schools.

"I think it would be well worthwhile looking in more detail at synthetic phonics," said Dr Johnston.

"It is a method which is not in general use in the UK and I think we might raise the whole level of reading standards in the country."

An informal survey by the National Union Teachers in England suggests that large numbers of primary school teachers are not teaching the literacy hour as prescribed by the government.

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