Primary schools are not rushing to buy phonics material – perhaps because they’re doing it already

Janet Downs's picture
“Thousands of schools sign up for phonics funding”, says schools minister, Nick Gibb. Over 3,000 schools have taken up the offer of matched-funding of up to £3,000 to buy government-approved phonics materials for the teaching of reading. Schools can spend more if they wish, but the Government will grant no more than £3,000.

Mr Gibb singles out certain local authorities who are leading the way. Quite why he should praise local authorities is unclear because all schools have the freedom to choose which resources to buy. The Government constantly stresses the importance of schools being autonomous but in this instance it seems to be suggesting that LAs lean on schools to buy the recommended products. So keen is he for this to happen that he has “named and shamed” authorities where the take-up is low.

Mr Gibb cites research evidence that backs up the effectiveness of phonics teaching: the Clackmannanshire study of 300 children which found they made more progress in reading and spelling than their peers; an Australian enquiry which found that “systematic instruction in phonics” was an “essential foundation for teaching children to read”; and a US survey which reported on the “positive and significant effect” of systematic synthetic phonics teacher on the reading skills of pupils with disabilities.

One major piece of research not mentioned by Mr Gibb was the European study “Teaching Reading in Europe” undertaken by Eurydice. It found that teaching phonics was crucial and discovered that its use was already extensive. Unfortunately, Mr Gibb promotes the idea that teaching phonics is under-used in England and children are being let down as a result. This ignores the evidence from Eurydice about the prevalence of phonics teaching in Europe. The report praised England for being one of just eight countries to have a system of reading specialists in schools. Unfortunately, government funding for this has ended and schools must decide themselves whether to keep funding the scheme. Eurydice also found that what was needed was not more phonics, because that was already embedded, but work on encouraging comprehension.

Perhaps the money that Mr Gibb has allocated to schools to buy government-approved phonics materials would be taken up more enthusiastically if the match-funding were available for any reading materials. And Mr Gibb’s undoubted energy in promoting synthetic phonics – a system which is already prevalent – would be invaluable to kick start a national scheme which would champion reading, encourage the use of libraries and give a boost to parents and carers who are crucially important in inspiring their children with a love of reading.

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Katherine's picture
Wed, 25/01/2012 - 17:34

Yes, don't pretty much all school use phonics already? And is it controversial in any way? I have found it invaluable in supporting my children's reading.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/01/2012 - 10:54

Katharine - the use of synthetic phonics does cause controversy (see link below to heated discussion on this site). Perhaps the controversy surrounds the promotion of phonics as the preferred method of teaching reading to the extent of neglecting other methods rather than the method itself. As Eurydice points out, the use of phonics is already widespread - what is needed is work on comprehension. Decoding alone is not enough.

The evidence from the Progress in International Literacy Study (PIRLS) tests in 2006 showed that "the majority of students (57%), on average across countries, were taught reading by teachers whose studies emphasized a combination of pedagogy, language, and literature." This has been confirmed by Eurydice. PIRLS, Eurydice and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) have found that one of the most important factors in reading competence is the home environment of the child - a child surrounded by books and whose carers love reading tend to reach a higher score than one who does not have these advantages. (note link to TES article is no longer working) (re PIRLS 2006)

Katherine's picture
Thu, 26/01/2012 - 11:25

Thank you -- some interesting material to read. And yes, of course encouraging reading and an enjoyment of books is crucial. It would be great if the government did more to fund school libraries. Our school has recently set up a wonderful library, which has made a great difference to children from all backgrounds. However, it is largely funded by the PTA and very reliant on parental help. Not all schools have the parental support network for an undertaking such as this. Of course one big advantage of school libraries is that the children get to use them even if they have parents who would never think of buying books or taking them to a public library.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/02/2012 - 11:36

TES article confirms that "almost every primary in the country is already dedicated to phonics" and this explains the "lukewarm" reception of DfE match-funding scheme.

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