Flagship synthetic phonics council supports ‘transformative change in approaches to teaching reading’

Janet Downs's picture

According to legend, Robert Bruce lost his gauntlets while visiting Clackmannanshire, a tiny local authority nicknamed ‘The Wee County’.   

When schools minister Nick Gibb mentions Clackmannanshire, however, it’s not because of links with Bruce.  It’s because of a phonics intervention study used to justify Gibb’s promotion of synthetic phonics as the best way of teaching reading.

The Clackmannanshire trial has its critics.  These throw doubt on the wisdom of using the study to claim the superiority of synthetic phonics (see here and here).

But leave these criticisms aside.  Do Clackmannanshire schools use synthetic phonics today?

The answer is Yes*.

A council spokesperson told me the county had ‘invested greatly in the teaching of reading throughout recent years’.   In 2015, Clackmannanshire was named as one of Scotland’s ‘Challenge Authorities’ to receive funding from the Attainment Scotland Fund, an initiative aimed at reducing the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.   This prompted Clackmannanshire to support the implementation of a structured synthetic phonics programme in 2015.

In 2017, Clackmannanshire partnered with Professor Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University to teach reading within the ‘3 Domain Model’.    This framework comprises:

1         Cognitive knowledge: includes phonic/alphabetic awareness, decoding cues/strategies and comprehension.

2         Cultural/social: includes home practices, values/beliefs, and texts/resources.

3         Personal/social identity: includes aspirations, friendships, view of self as a reader and how positioned by others.

Phase 1 of implementing the 3 Domain Model included having a ‘literacy champion’ in each school and monthly meetings.  It was designed to develop a ‘shared vision of how things could be (and should be)’.   This vision was ‘NOT based on programmes or resources’.  It highlighted the importance of the ‘mix’ and acknowledged there were ‘different paths to a common outcome’.

The roll-out across all schools involved in the project redefined ‘what matters’:

1         Responsive teaching: ‘meaningful conversations that embrace difference’.

2         Pathways to impact: identifying intervention points.

3         ‘Show don’t tell’ moves ‘purpose’ to, say, ‘relaxation and pleasure’.

4         Understanding where parents were coming from: ‘less judgemental, more realistic’.

5         ‘Reading and writing as part of the social fabric of classrooms’.

The final message from the 3 Domain Model was that it was ‘our duty and our privilege’:

• ‘To make education equally rewarding for all’

• ‘To locate the best research knowledge out there, and develop tools to help professionals use it’

• ‘To explore and use evidence across domains, its relationship to professional knowledge, its capacity to underpin creative teaching and the key role it has in delivering equity’

• ‘To teach literacy in ways that allow young people to navigate their way in the world and in their worlds, not just in school.’

It can be seen that the setting in which Clackmannanshire now works is far more than just phonics.  The Council has chosen a systematic, synthetic phonics programme, yes, but it has embedded this within a wider context. This is not the ‘relentless focus on phonics’ trumpeted by Nick Gibb but an attempt to embed phonics in a far broader framework.


*Emails to author from Clackmannanshire Council, 6 and 7 March 2018.


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