As the Rose review of the teaching of early reading continues, primary SENCOs will be interested in the latest research findings contributing to the debate on the merits of synthetic phonics teaching

There is no strong evidence that any one form of systematic phonics is more effective than another, according to the conclusions of a systematic review of experimental research on the use of phonics instruction in the teaching of reading and spelling*.

This latest review from British researchers is particularly pertinent in view of the call from various quarters in the UK for synthetic phonics to be taught ‘first, fast and only’, and has been given some support from the interim report of the Rose review into the teaching of early reading.

The review, commissioned by the DfES, is based on identifying studies of different approaches to teaching, which have involved randomised control trials (RCTs). It builds on previous systematic reviews of the teaching of reading in the US. Reported in 2001 and 2003 respectively, these studies sought, retrieved and synthesised experimental research on the teaching of phonics since 1970. Whilst finding a positive effect for systematic phonics teaching, they were not conclusive about the exclusive use of any particular method.

Researchers from the Universities of York and Sheffield identified a total of 20 RCTs of which only one was a UK-based study. This was the research by Johnston and Watson in Clackmannanshire in Scotland, which has received a great deal of attention in the current debate about the merits of synthetic phonics.

Randomised control trials
A randomised control trial, described by the researchers as ‘the most robust method of assessing whether an intervention is effective’, happens where two or more groups of children are formed randomly and each group receives a different form of instruction. If one group makes significantly better progress it can be inferred that the form of teaching they received was more effective, because other factors, which might influence the outcome have been controlled (with the exception of chance).

Randomised allocation avoids factors that might affect results in forming comparison groups with different characteristics. For example, the first of the two Clackmannanshire experiments is excluded from the present review because pupils were assigned to synthetic phonics on the basis of being more ‘deprived’ in order to make it more difficult for any advantage shown by this group to be attributed to having a head start. However, this could imply that progress was due to regression to the mean, the statistical artefact that lowest or highest scorers in a group on a first test are likely to be nearer to the overall average or mean on a second test. As the second experiment children were allocated to synthetic phonics, analytic phonics and no phonics on a randomised basis, this is included.

Support for systematic phonics instruction
The review finds that there is evidence that systematic phonics instruction within a broad literacy curriculum appears to have a greater effect on children’s progress in reading than whole language or whole word approaches. Systematic phonics in the review is defined as teaching letter-sound relationships in an explicit, organised and sequenced fashion, as opposed to incidentally or on a ‘when-needed’ basis.

However, with important implications for the current debate about teaching methods, there is still uncertainty in the RCT evidence as to which phonics approach (synthetic or analytic) is most effective. The defining characteristics of each approach used in the review were for synthetic phonics: sounding-out and blending sounds of printed words to produce a spoken word which the learner should recognise. The classic example is “kuh – a – tuh – ‘cat’”.

For analytic phonics: avoiding sounding-out and inferring sound-symbol relationships from sets of words which share a letter and sound, eg pet, park, push, pen.

The researchers conclude that with regard to the question of whether one approach was more effective than another the weight of evidence on this question was weak (only three randomised controlled trials were found).

Thus, they argue, there is little warrant in these findings for changes to existing practice. However, they call for a large UK-based cluster-randomised controlled trial to further investigate this issue and two other issues where the existing research base is insufficient; whether phonics teaching boosts comprehension and whether phonics teaching should be used to teach spelling.

Recommendations
On the basis of the evidence in this review, the researchers do make the following recommendations:

For teaching

  • systematic phonics instruction should be part of every teacher’s repertoire and a routine part of literacy teaching
  • teachers using systematic phonics should continue to do so
  • teachers not using systematic phonics in their teaching should add it to their routine practice
  • systematic phonics should be used with both normally developing children and those at risk of reading failure.

However, there is currently no strong RCT evidence that any one form of phonics teaching is more effective than any other or how much systematic phonics teaching is needed. Two other areas on which existing research evidence is insufficient are whether or not systematic phonics teaching boosts comprehension and whether phonics should be used to teach spelling as well as reading.

For teacher training
The researchers claim that the evidence that systematic phonics teaching benefits children’s reading accuracy implies that learning to use systematic phonics teaching in a judicious balance with other elements should form part of every literacy teacher’s training.

* A Systematic Review of the Research Literature on the Use of Phonics in the Teaching of Reading and Spelling, Carole J Torgerson and Jill Hall, University of York and Greg Brooks, University of Sheffield.

Copies of the full report (RR711) price £4.95 are available from DfES Publications, PO Box 5050, Sherwood Park, Annesley, Nottingham NG15 0DJ.

The report can also be accessed at www.dfes.gov.uk/research.

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