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Last Updated: Friday, 17 March 2006, 18:47 GMT
How phonics became easy as a-b-c
By Angela Harrison
BBC News website education reporter

Joyce Watson
"It has been a roller coaster" says Dr Watson
A report on how young children in England should be taught to read is expected to endorse a phonics-based approach.

As the final touches are put to the government-sponsored Rose review, the women behind a major phonics project talked about their approach - and its movement into the modern electronic world.

When Professor Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson set out to help boost the literacy skills of children starting school in Clackmannanshire, they had little idea that what they were doing would become the foundation of future government policies.

The Scottish Executive decided to spread the word last summer and now England is following suit.

Many children in the study were from quite deprived areas, but the system seems to make a level playing field
Rhona Johnston
Jim Rose's interim review into early reading came out in favour of using synthetic phonics "fast and first". His final report is expected next week.

Current guidance is that phonics should be used alongside other methods.

In short, synthetic phonics means children learn the sounds of letters and of combinations of letters and use them to decode words.

A seven-year study based on schools in Clackmannanshire, carried out by Professor Johnston and Dr Watson, concluded that use of synthetic phonics helped children to learn to read and spell faster than those not on the programme.

What is more, the effects of the programme were maintained throughout a child's time in primary school.

Boys' achievements

In the first phase, in 1997, children in their first year of schooling (Primary 1) who had been taught for 16 weeks using an experimental system of synthetic phonics were seven months ahead of their peers in reading and nine months ahead in spelling.

The study authors realised they were onto something.

"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," Prof Johnston told BBC News seven years ago.

Soon, more children were added to the programme until there were 300 of them, who were all followed to the end of their primary schooling.

The researchers reported that by then, children taught to read by synthetic phonics were:

  • 3.5 years ahead of what was expected for their age in reading words
  • 1.75 years ahead of that expected for their age in spelling
  • 3.5 months ahead of that expected for their age in comprehension

They also said the programme helped to level the playing field for learning to read between children from poor and better-off backgrounds and between boys and girls.

We had every expectation that boys would fall behind so we were very surprised that boys had pulled above girls
Prof Johnston
Professor Johnston said: "Many children in the study were from quite deprived areas, but the system seems to make a level playing field so that whatever children have not picked up at home is counteracted."

She believes this is because the system focuses on intensively teaching the sounds of all the letters and blends of letters, so children quickly learn all the building blocks needed to read.

Therefore pupils who arrive at school not knowing their letters are not at a disadvantage for long.

Something about the system also appeals to boys, the authors say, because their results buck the national trend of boys lagging behind girls in literacy.

Professor Johnston said: "We had every expectation that boys would fall behind so we were very surprised that boys had pulled above girls.

"At the end of the study boys were four years ahead, while girls were three years ahead."

Mary Hamley, senior literacy publisher, Harcourt
The publishers adapted the programme for whiteboards

This, the authors put down to the use of a clear system and the use of physical movement in the learning programme. Children use magnetic letters when learning the sounds and blends and putting them into words.

Dr Watson said she had to double check the figures on boys' and girls' achievement because she could not believe them at first.

As the experiment progressed, funded by Clackmannanshire Council and the Scottish Executive, Dr Watson and Professor Johnston worked on improving the programme they were asking teachers to follow.

Teachers fed their experiences back to the pair, who adapted the programme as they went along.

Once the early results were out, they were asked to prepare and pilot a guide for other teachers who wanted to follow the programme and this became known as Fast Phonics First.

The authors self-published the material. The guides were stacked in Dr Watson's garage and she used to send them out from her local post office.


As interest in the study grew, educational publishers Heinemann got in touch and agreed a deal which would bring their guide to a wider audience.

It now distributes the learning scheme and is about to launch an interactive version designed to run on school whiteboards.

Mary Hamley, from Heinemann's parent company, Harcourt, has been helping to design this program.

She says it is faithful to the written version, but with added whiteboard thrills, so children can not only hear the letter sounds as they see them highlighted, but can also drag them around to make words.

Dr Watson says the journey from a small-scale study, to a large one, to the present day, has been breathtaking.

A one-time primary school teacher, she retired as a lecturer in the Northern College of Education, Dundee, in 1994.

By that time she had already started on a self-funded PhD at St Andrew's University into different teaching methods and their effects on children's reading and spelling.

"The Clackmannanshire study was ground-breaking and it's been a whirlwind," she said.

"All credit to the teachers who walked behind us and 'jumped off the cliff'."

Research questions phonics policy
31 Jan 06 |  Education
The debate about phonics teaching
01 Dec 05 |  Education
Primary reading set for overhaul
01 Dec 05 |  Education
Phonics alive and well in schools
01 Dec 05 |  Education
Head to head: Synthetic phonics?
01 Dec 05 |  Education

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