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Talking Phonics - Rethinking the Role of Systematic Synthetic Phonics in the UK

Talking Phonics

Does the role of Systematic Synthetic Phonics need rethinking within the UK?

Let's Talk Phonics!

Cognitive scientists have shown beyond doubt that fluent, accurate decoding is a hallmark of skilled reading. Automatic word recognition, which is dependent on phonic knowledge, allows the reader to attend to meaning. Slow decoding overloads short-term memory and impedes comprehension.


There is an expectation by the DfE that if a validated SSP programme is used the phonics will offer 'sufficient support for children in reception and key stage 1 to become fluent readers’
A complete programme is one that provides all that is essential to teach SSP to children in reception and key stage 1  years of mainstream primary schools, up to or beyond the standards expected by the national curriculum and provides sufficient support for them to become fluent readers. Although it may cover other aspects of reading, writing and spelling, or extend beyond key stage 1, these elements will not be included in the assessment or validation

According to 2019 National Curriculum Assessment data just over 1 in 4 (27%) of 10- to 11-year-olds did not meet the expected standard in reading in the 2018 to 2019 school year (DofE 2019). So what's going on?

Let's talk about that within this blog! What do children need, to become fluent readers? How do they develop fluent, accurate decoding skills? 

Reading is a multifaceted process involving phonemic awareness, phonics word recognition, orthography, vocabulary, comprehension, fluency, self-regulation and motivation and more. In simple terms, a 'reader' is able to make sense of the symbols used to record language in written form. Reading in its fullest sense involves weaving together word recognition and comprehension in a fluent manner. These three processes are complex, and each is important. How complex?
Are all of these elements included and assessed? If not, why not? How do they achieve reading fluency? 

The SVR (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990) posits that reading is the product of two independent
components: decoding and listening comprehension. The model is captured in the equation D × C = R, where D = decoding, which Gough and Tunmer (1986) viewed as the ability to “read isolated words quickly, accurately, and silently,” fundamentally through “the use of letter-sound correspondence rules” (p. 7); C = comprehension, specifically listening comprehension (the term they used nine times in the article) or linguistic comprehension (the term they used two times); and R = reading.
These components were believed to occur independently and sequentially: “The simple view presumes that, once the printed matter is decoded, the reader applies to the text exactly the same mechanisms which he or she would bring to bear on its spoken equivalent” (p. 9). The authors used the term reading to mean comprehension of written text (Gough & Tunmer, 1986; Hoover & Gough, 1990), not just word reading, as the term is sometimes used today. (Source

Is this why the DfE currently places such heavy emphasis on the phonics element?
The research is clear; systematic phonics instruction is significantly more effective than non-systematic or no phonics instruction in helping to prevent reading difficulties among at-risk students and in helping children overcome reading difficulties.
But why 'synthetic' phonics? 


What did the National Reading Panel conclude about synthetic and analytic phonics instruction? That they both conferred a learning advantage on young readers. The average effect size was somewhat higher for synthetic than analytic approaches, but not significantly so (it was so small a difference that one can’t say one is really higher than the other). In other words, synthetic and analytic phonics are equally good.

It is certainly possible that with more studies and with the same pattern of results that we’d eventually conclude that synthetic phonics is best, but that is a surmise, not a research finding. Read on

I graduated with a BEd Hons in 1992 and was told (as a Reception/ Year 1 teacher) to 'immerse the children in rich literature' and use 'real books'. I did that, but I also taught phonics and used 'One, Two, Three and Away!' as I had seen it used so successfully in my Mum's reception classroom. Although I knew, even then, that something was 'missing' I knew that this 'real book' system wasn't something I could embrace. So even then I secretly 'did my own thing' and focused on my students. I found it difficult however - I was being told to do something that just didn't feel right - and I realised, even then, how powerless teachers can be. The vision of changing lives becomes tainted when you realise how many cooks there are in your kitchen. Teaching wasn't as I had anticipated - one of the children was obviously gifted, mathematically, and I was reprimanded for giving him challenging work (what will he do when he moves up, and he's already covered the curriculum?) Even then I knew that I wanted to be able to teach children, not follow a curriculum as if all learn at the same time and in the same way. 

Before starting this introduction I went through old albums. I remember most of their names, and all of their personalities. No prizes for guessing which is Ricky - the class clown. Always in trouble. Loved that kid. I also know which 2 children I failed - they didn't go up to the next year level as confident readers - or learners. My babies will have just turned 30. (yikes)


I also understood that what happened before they even started reception was a HUGE factor in their success, and left teaching to set up a nursery school in Nottingham. 
This photo was of Faye, my first 'Officer in Charge' on day 1! We had 2 children enrolled. A bit scary! But I was young and was fearless. I wanted to create a wonderful 'home from home' type environment, where children could learn through play - and I wasn't told what I could do - or not- with them. At the time I knew I thought differently, was 'wired' differently. but the phrase 'neurodivergent' wasn't something many of us knew about at the time. 

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Word soon spread and we were full (with a long waiting list) Phew! 

Two years later we opened the second, and had a fabulous staff team of 35. 

Both nurseries were given the highest OFSTED rating when inspected. By then we were doing some pretty innovative things - because the children were at the heart of every decision made, as were our 
'family' of part and full time staff. Staff turnover was low, as everyone was happy - and so we offered consistency to children (win win all round)  

We ended up caring for babies from 6 weeks, and ran fabulous before and after school clubs! I loved it. 

Then in 99 I had my own little miracle. 
And how wonderful that he could come to work with me!


So what was happening in schools while I was busy playing with little ones every day?

In 1998 around 30% of nine-year-olds were reading below competency and the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) was introduced (as a mandate) and teachers were told to teach children to use four searchlights for reading, i.e. ‘Knowledge of context’, ‘Phonics (sounds and spelling)’, ‘grammatical knowledge’, and ‘word recognition and graphic knowledge’. The ‘Phonics’ searchlight in the NLS followed the ‘analytic’ approach (as in ‘words to letters’ above). It was acknowledged that many words cannot be analysed reliably in this way, and these are taught in other ways, including 'by sight'. The contextual searchlight remained important-not only for decoding an individual word but for making sense of the text, and text-based teaching - often with a ‘big’ book. This approach is called 'three-cueing' in other countries.  

In 2000 in Britain, if you taught reading, phonics was either described as Analytic Phonics or Synthetic Phonics ( but what about Linguistic Phonics?) 
Jim Rose, in 2005, in response to a report by the Education and Skills Committee, was appointed to carry out a review - 84% of eleven year-olds were reaching Level 4, i.e. 16% failing to meet national standards – transcript of oral evidence to Education and Skills Committee, January 2005). 
In 2005 the Rose Interim Review was published. In appendix 1, Rose examined a range of research, returning to his original conclusion (Para 12) that the two components of reading are ‘decoding’ and ‘comprehension’ – the ‘simple view of reading’.

His adoption of the simple view of reading lead Rose to conclude (18c) that using it as a ‘conceptual framework’, ‘makes explicit to teachers that different kinds of teaching are needed to develop word recognition skills from those which are needed to foster the comprehension of written and spoken language’ . He made reference to a language-rich environment, to the use of real books, (see Para. 104) to analytic as well as synthetic approaches to the teaching of phonics, and to the vital importance of a rich early years curriculum. He recommended the discrete teaching of phonics for short periods each day by the child’s fifth birthday, emphasizing that none of the teaching should compromise good early years practice. Sounds good, right?

But how did 'synthetic phonics' become the focus, and not just 'systematic' (adding in the word was a smart move, but even so....)
Without this, would teachers have been able to be more flexible - as Dr Shanahan suggests? 

I found this. Useful reading?

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That was over a decade ago. 

The aim of this blog is to consider what synthetic phonics is TODAY, and whether the recently validated Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes are likely to shift literacy levels. Do they offer 'sufficient support' , as is the claim, or should we shift our expectations? Do they simply offer a 'kickstart' to orthographic learning - and are all as likely to do this well - for example if children are neurodivergent?

And should this be revised, if phonics is not enough? 
Although it may cover other aspects of reading, writing and spelling, or extend beyond key stage 1, these elements will not be included in the assessment or validation

And what of 'speech to print' v 'print to speech' phonics?

We can pick everything apart?!  

Does Synthetic Phonics meet the needs of children with phonemic awareness deficits? eg dyslexic learners?
I recently discussed this in a lecture for Patoss. 
Phase 1 was removed - the focus on 'sounds' preceding phonics. Does synthetic phonics instruction adequately ensure the development of phonemic awareness? Even if children are dyslexic?

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What should we talk about? At the heart of every discussion will be our learners. Not politics, or a desire to 'be right'- which can be really difficult. Because I do like to be right:-)


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