Government imposition of synthetic phonics is “damaging able readers” really?
“Government imposition of synthetic phonics is “damaging able readers”” was a press release headline, picked up by the education media, promoting a new pamphlet by Dr Andrew Davis , an Honorary Research Fellow in the school of education at Durham University.
According to the press release, “The government`s insistence all children are taught how to read in the same way may “almost be a form of abuse” against those who are already comfortable with books when they arrive at school.”
In this article for the EMC, Emeritus Professor Morag Stuart of the Department of Psychology and Human Development at the Institute of Education, University of London, asks :
Government imposition of synthetic phonics is “damaging able readers” really?
I will tackle two issues from this article: are able readers being damaged by the imposition of synthetic phonics teaching? And is the government really imposing only synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading?
“Government imposition of synthetic phonics is “damaging able readers” is the title of Mr Davis’s press release, yet he provides no evidence at all to support this position. He simply states:
“A small minority begin their schooling as readers. I do not mean that they can merely decode simple texts, but that they can read for meaning. A larger number are not quite at this stage, but, nevertheless, have made significant progress. Even if they cannot recognise many words, they know some, and have begun to grasp that written text can be transformed into meaning. To subject either the fully-fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons. To require this of students who have already gained some maturity in the rich and nourishing human activity of reading is almost a form of abuse.”
In the absence of evidence that children already reading on school entry are being damaged by the imposition of synthetic phonics teaching, let’s consider how likely this is.
What is known about children who are already reading on school entry?
Rhona Stainthorp and Di Hughes carried out a 3-year longitudinal study of 17 children identified as ‘young early readers’, starting at the beginning of the Reception year. At this point, the children were already fluent readers, with an average word reading age of 8 years 6 months, and an average reading comprehension age of 7 years.
They were matched with children from similar backgrounds and of similar verbal and nonverbal ability, but at younger reading levels: their average word reading age on entry to Reception was 5 years 8 months, and average comprehension age was 6 years.
As they began Year R, Stainthorp and Hughes assessed the children using measures known to predict the successful development of reading. The young early readers, unlike the matched control children, entered school able to identify and manipulate phonemes in spoken words (e.g. to say that ‘cat’ began with /k/, or that if you added a /t/ to the end of the word ‘go’ you would get ‘got’).
The young early readers also knew almost all the letter names and letter sounds of single letters of the alphabet in both upper and lower case; the matched control group knew less than half.
At the age of five, again unlike the matched control children, the young early readers were able to use phonic rules to pronounce nonwords. Nonwords are used to assess ability to use phonic rules because, as they do not exist in the language, no child can have previously seen them. They are equally unfamiliar to all children.
The evidence from Stainthorp and Hughes tells us one of the factors contributing to the young early readers` ability to read fluently and understand what they read (i.e. to read for meaning) was their knowledge of and ability to use phonics.
According to Davis`s argument, these are the kinds of able readers, who, although they may already have a grasp of phonics, are required by the government to be taught phonics and to read ‘decodable’ books consisting largely of words that can be read by applying phonic rules rather than a wider range of more interesting books. This is a teaching practice that Davis describes as likely to put them off reading, approaching “a form of abuse”.
Davis claims this is happening in schools, but provides no supporting evidence. Again, in the absence of evidence, how likely is it that this is so?
Are Year 1 teachers given sufficient information to identify able readers entering their classes?
At the end of Year R there is a statutory requirement that children be assessed against the Early Learning Goals of the Early Years Foundation Stage. For reading, these state:
“Children read and understand simple sentences. They use phonic knowledge to decode regular words and read them aloud accurately. They also read some common irregular words. They demonstrate understanding when talking with others about what they have read.”
“Practitioners must indicate whether children are meeting expected levels of development, or if they are exceeding expected levels, or not yet reaching expected levels (‘emerging’). This is the EYFS Profile.
Year 1 teachers must be given a copy of the Profile and a short commentary on each child’s skills and abilities …. These should inform a dialogue between Reception and Year 1 teachers about each child’s stage of development and learning needs and assist with the planning of activities in Year 1.”
So, according to government policy, Year 1 teachers are to be given information about each new pupil, including an assessment of their ability to use phonic rules, to read frequently occurring and irregular words ‘on sight’ without sounding out, and to understand what they read. Furthermore, teachers should use this knowledge to plan their teaching.
Teachers are therefore expected to know which of their pupils is an “able reader” and to plan learning appropriately, which, on any reasonable interpretation, does not mean a “damaging” strict diet of synthetic phonics and phonically decodable texts.
If there are teachers “damaging” their able readers in this way, as Davis alleges (but without providing any evidence), the blame does not lie at the door of government policy. This point is strongly reinforced by the statutory requirements for year 1 in the new national curriculum.
Statutory requirements of the revised National Curriculum: reading for pleasure, developing vocabulary and motivating readers, not just synthetic phonics.
Ask again: “Is the government really imposing only “a rigid diet of synthetic phonics” in the teaching of reading?” Again the answer is “No!”
As Davis writes, in Year 1 teachers are indeed required to teach children to
- apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words
- respond speedily with the correct sound to graphemes (letters or groups of letters) for all 40+ phonemes, including, where applicable, alternative sounds for graphemes
- read accurately by blending sounds in unfamiliar words containing GPC (letters and their sounds ) that have been taught
- But Davis completely ignores the statutory requirements for reading comprehension (reading for meaning):
Pupils should be taught to develop pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding by:
- listening to and discussing a wide range of poems, stories and non-fiction at a level beyond that at which they can read independently
- being encouraged to link what they read or hear read to their own experiences
- becoming very familiar with key stories, fairy stories and traditional tales,
- retelling them and considering their particular characteristics
- recognising and joining in with predictable phrases
- learning to appreciate rhymes and poems, and to recite some by heart
- discussing word meanings, linking new meanings to those already known
understand both the books they can already read accurately and fluently and those they listen to by:
- drawing on what they already know or on background information and vocabulary provided by the teacher
- checking that the text makes sense to them as they read and correcting inaccurate reading
- discussing the significance of the title and events
- making inferences on the basis of what is being said and done
- predicting what might happen on the basis of what has been read so far
- participate in discussion about what is read to them, taking turns and listening to what others say
- explain clearly their understanding of what is read to them
- That is, to make an ideological point, Davis completely ignores the potential richness of the reading curriculum.
To summarise: the statutory requirements for the teaching of reading go well beyond a requirement to teach synthetic phonics. It’s expected teachers are given sufficient information about the pupils entering their classes in Year 1 to group them appropriately to their learning needs.
If the kinds of teaching practices that Davis describes do exist, and he offers no evidence to support that, a claim they are to be found in government policy is wrong and offers no excuse.