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