If schools minister knows that phonics alone is not enough, why does he push the synthetic method so vehemently?

Janet Downs's picture
“Systematic synthetic phonics instruction had a positive and significant effect on disabled readers’ reading skills,” said a recent Department for Education (DfE) press release which quoted American research that such instruction improved the reading ability of readers with learning difficulties.

The cited report, however, did not just consider “synthetic phonics” – teaching pupils to blend sounds to form recognisable words – but other methods of teaching phonics which together formed Phonics Awareness (PA) Instruction. And the report had an important caveat which was missing from the DfE press release: “PA training does not constitute a complete reading program.” It also stressed the importance of teachers evaluating the methods used against their pupils’ success.

So, phonics alone is not enough. And the research endorsed the professionalism and independence of teachers in deciding which methods were most successful.

The American research confirmed that explicit, systematic phonics instruction is essential but then gave a second warning: “there is a need to be cautious in giving a blanket endorsement of all kinds of phonics instruction” because “phonics teaching is a means to an end.” Pupils need to apply the skills accurately and fluently in daily reading and writing.

Nick Gibb knows this. He said in a DfE report, “Phonics is a prerequisite for children to become effective readers, but it is not an end in itself. Children should always be taught phonics as part of a language rich curriculum, so that they develop their wider reading skills at the same time.”

Mr Gibb’s own report found that the American research cited by Mr Gibb in his press release “may have resulted in an artificially high estimate of the effect of phonics” because some of the children tested “may also have received elements of whole-language approaches.” Later, more evidence given in the same DfE report found that “phonics should be accompanied by innovative teaching practices that engage pupils in exciting lessons… or co-operative learning methods where pupils work in groups.”

So Mr Gibb has ignored many of the findings in his own department’s report. He even overlooks his own advice that phonics instruction is only one part of a wider teaching programme by continuing to promote synthetic phonics as the “best possible teaching of reading”. He even criticises schools that don’t purchase the materials on the government-approved list by saying that children are “missing out”. Woe betide any school that would prefer to buy “Songbirds”, the phonics scheme written by Julia Donaldson, Children’s Laureate and author of the best-selling “Gruffalo” – sorry, it's not on the list. And if schools would like the match-funding to buy library books – sorry, they’re not on the list.

Perhaps Mr Gibb should return to the DfE report and digest what it actually says. Then, instead of highlighting only one aspect of teaching reading, albeit an important one, he could support the wide-ranging teaching programme recommended in his own report. Then the professionals, the ones best-placed to know what materials are needed, can buy the resources that they need for the pupils they teach without being named-and-shamed as heretics.

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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/02/2012 - 17:28

Michael Rosen has written about the policy of literacy on his blog:


Andrew Old's picture
Fri, 02/03/2012 - 20:38

Even for you this one's pretty extreme in its selectivity. You appear to have pulled out lots of unimportant qualifying statements as though they were enough to undermine synthetic phonics, then (in your comment) linked to a post that has no evidence base whatsoever.

You do get that when you do this sort of stuff, you just show that you don't care about the facts, only about attacking Gibb and backing Rosen, regardless of what the evidence shows about who is actually right on the issue in question? Your indifference to the truth still astounds me. Either post opinionated rants, or post factual analysis. But don't post opinion disguised as fact. That's just not honest.

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