Not enough evidence for sole use of government approved phonics method, EEF finds

Janet Downs's picture

Schools minister Nick Gibb is a fan of the Education Endowment Fund’s Toolkit, the resource which helps busy teachers decide the efficiency, or otherwise, of teaching methods.

But Gibb only cites the EEF when it gives a favourable opinion about teaching methods which meet his approval.   He ignores EEF conclusions which cast doubt on methods he endorses.

Take synthetic phonics.   Gibb has promoted this method of teaching phonics for years despite the evidence he references saying the systematic teaching of any phonics method is the best way of teaching reading. 

Gibb’s claim that synthetic phonics is superior to other methods of teaching phonics has proved profitable for certain publishers of synthetic phonics material. And funding for training has just been awarded to one of these: RM Literacy Ltd.  

But there’s no definite evidence to support the claim that synthetic phonics is the best method.  That’s the conclusion in the EEF’s publication Improving Literacy in Key Stage One.  

The EEF report contains recommendations covering all aspects of literacy including reading, writing and spelling.  Recommendation three is ‘Effectively Implement a Systematic Phonics Programme’.    It said:

Only a few studies have compared synthetic and analytic phonics, and there is not yet enough evidence to make a confident recommendation to use one approach rather than the other.   Many phonics programmes combine both approaches.

The EEF guidance finishes with ‘several key principles’ for schools to consider when acting on the advice:

  • The recommendations aren’t ‘one size fits all’.
  • Schools should consider how the recommendations fit with their context and ‘the application of sound professional judgement’.
  • The recommendations should be considered as a whole and not put in practice selectively.
  • Schools should note the ‘precise detail’ given under the headline recommendations. 

What the EEF guidance does not recommend is the sole use of synthetic phonics, the government’s preferred method.  It does not say, as Gibb so often does, that synthetic phonics is the only phonics methods which English schools should use.  Rather, it recommends the systematic teaching of any method of teaching phonics.  And it reminds readers that some programmes combine both analytic and synthetic phonics. 

It’s unclear, then, why Nick Gibb should want to enforce just one method, synthetic phonics, onto schools.  It must be said, however, that Gibb himself often seems confused.  He uses systematic phonics, synthetic phonics, systematic synthetic phonics and just plain ‘phonics’ as if these terms mean the same thing.  They don’t. 

The synthetic phonic saga is an example of how ministers, untrained in teaching and with no experience of the classroom, seek to impose their views of teaching onto English schools.  This is not acceptable.  What ministers should do is to allow teachers to apply ‘sound professional judgement’ as recommended by the EEF.  If Gibb really wants teachers to follow the evidence he should be prepared to heed that evidence himself.

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 01/08/2017 - 17:08

It is not just in relation to phonics that the DfE ignores EEF findings.

The following list is my take on what the DfE is repeatedly telling the public and the media about how they believe teaching and learning should be approached in our state funded schools based on what they are publicly praising as ‘good practice’ in existing MATs and their Academies. For each Academy school intervention/priority that it appears to me that the DfE is recommending, I give the EEF rank of its effectiveness.

Setting or streaming (-1)£*** – Damaging to learning, 33rd

Performance pay (0)££* – Ineffective, 31st See my article

School uniform (0)£*- Ineffective, 28th

Extending school time (2)£££*** – 24th

Homework (primary) (2)£** – 21st

Behaviour interventions (4)£££**** – 12th=

Digital technology (4) £££**** – 12th=

In contrast, the approaches found by EEF to be most effective are ignored by the DfE and Academy MATs are listed as follows.

1= Metacognition and self-regulation (8)£****

1= Feedback (8)£***

3= Collaborative learning (5)£****

3= Oral language interventions (5)£****

3= Peer tutoring (5)£****

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