The following is an assignment I did as part of the requirements for a Diploma in Education at Monash University in 2003. I include it here because it sets out some of my views on the controversy over how reading should be taught.
The assignment brief was to report on a specific curriculum initiative, and I chose to consider an initiative that was taking place in Clackmannanshire, Scotland’s “wee” county.
Introduction: How I Ended Up In Scotland’s “Wee” County
The journey began when I became intrigued by the issue of how children should be taught to read after coming across Melanie Phillips’ book All Must Have Prizes in my local library. Leaving aside the fact that I found the book immensely absorbing because it presented an alternative take on much of what is being taught in the Monash Graduate Diploma in Education, and helped put the ideological underpinnings of some parts of the course in perspective, what I found particularly shocking in the book was the account of how the teaching of reading in the UK from the 60s on came to be dominated by “the belief that meaning must come first and replace the teaching of codes”.  This represented a retreat from any attempt to teach the “mechanics” of reading, with the predictable result that many children were left floundering—a situation that was exacerbated by the concurrent fad for using “real books”, which led to the discarding of structured reading programmes.
I found it difficult to believe that the education establishment in England could have been collectively so stupid as to allow some fashionable ideology to jeopardise the education of so many people, given that, without the ability to read with ease, any child is doomed to a poor education. I was also surprised to learn that how reading should be taught was a matter for dispute. In my ignorance I would have expected something this basic to have been sorted long ago.
I then sought out more books on the topic, and was rewarded with two more polemics: Diane McGuinness’ Why Children Can’t Read And What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution In Reading, and Rudolf Flesch’s Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It. On the issue of reading, both take a similar line. If children are to learn to read properly, they must learn the correspondence between letters and sounds.
Rudolf Flesch’s book appeared in 1955 in the USA and was an exasperated attack on the “look and say” method of teaching reading that has dominated US primary schools since the 30s. Flesch’s book created a stir but did not bring about the widespread change he had hoped for, and he followed it with an even more exasperated sequel in 1981: Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look At The Scandal Of Our Schools. More recently the tide may have turned, at long last. In response to a 1997 congressional directive, a National Reading Panel was established “to review the scientific literature and determine, based on that evidence, the most effective ways to teach children to read”.  The Panel’s conclusions were unequivocal. It found that:
…the research conducted to date strongly supports the concept that explicitly and systematically teaching children to manipulate phonemes significantly improves children’s reading and spelling abilities. The evidence for this is so clear cut that this method should be an important component of classroom reading instruction.
It was also in 1997 in the USA that Diane McGuinness first published Why Children Can’t Read And What We Can Do About It. This was followed in 1998 by a UK edition revised for the UK market. McGuinness’ book is, like Flesch’s, an attack on “look and say” methods of teaching reading, but it also attacks any method that does not systematically teach the correspondence between letters and sounds using as its basis the phonemes of the English language. Phonics programmes are criticised for not teaching “the sounds in English for which the code was written. […] No child is ever told what the alphabet code really is.”
From a linguistic point of view, Diane McGuinness’ approach seems to me very sound. An alphabet is simply a way of representing the phonemes of a language. The first proper alphabet, that of ancient Greek, was entirely phonemic in that it had one letter for each smallest significant unit of sound in the language, i.e., each phoneme. Modern European languages depart from this ideal because of the vagaries of history (and English probably departs from it more than most), but nevertheless, the underlying logic of European alphabet codes including English is phonemic. Letters and, in some cases, combinations of letters represent single phonemes. The phonemes are the sounds in speech which the writing system aims to represent, and no matter how a child is taught to read, it must at some point, if it is to become a good reader, implicitly understand this.
Having found a curriculum topic I was very interested in, I then looked for a curriculum initiative to match, and, via a Google search for the key word “phonics”, chanced upon an intriguing account of a research project in Clackmannanshire.
C-a-t Spells Success In Early Literacy
Primary schools in Clackmannanshire in Scotland are having remarkable success with a way of teaching children to read that goes against the government’s preferred method in England.
The children begin by learning the 42 different sounds of letters and letter groups. This gives them the tools to work out the sound of words they have not met before.
Here then was my curriculum initiative: an apparently phonemic-based method of teaching reading very like the one proposed by Diane McGuinness.
The Clackmannanshire Initiative
The initiative began in 1992/93 as a research project which set out to study the methods of teaching reading and spelling in twelve schools in Clackmannanshire. The researchers discovered that at the start of Primary 1 children were taught to read whole words using pictures and captions in order to build up a basic sight vocabulary of key words and words related to the reading scheme being used. Phonics teaching was introduced in the second half of Term 1, with the teaching of “the 26 initial letter sounds” being completed at the start of Term 3. In Term 3 they were taught consonant-vowel-consonant words. However, the children were not taught to sound and blend the letters of unfamiliar words in order to pronounce them.
In contrast to the dominant practise, one teacher was using an accelerated analytic phonics programme which s/he introduced at the beginning of Primary 1. As a result the teaching of “the 26 initial letter sounds” was completed by January of Term 2. S/he also encouraged her class to use sounding and blending when confronted with an unknown word in their oral reading practice.
When the children’s reading ability was measured after a two-year period, the researchers discovered from the data that:
Excited by the gains shown by the class with an accelerated phonics programme—offered on the teacher’s own initiative apparently—the research team wanted to know which aspects of this teacher’s approach were enhancing reading attainment. Accordingly, they conducted a second study in order to “examine the impact of analytic and synthetic phonics teaching on reading, spelling and phonemic awareness”. In this second study the teaching of reading proceeded as usual in class and additional teaching was provided outside the classroom. The children were divided into three groups each of which received a different additional teaching programme. The programme started early in Term 1 and continued for ten weeks. It consisted of two 15-minute sessions a week, in which all three groups were “exposed to the same print vocabulary”.
The control group received no extra phonics training: the list of new print words was taught using the look-and-say method. The two experimental groups received accelerated teaching of letter sounds at the rate of two per week. Both groups were taught using the list of new print words shown to the control group. The attention of one of the experimental groups was drawn only to letters in the initial position of words (analytic phonics approach). The other group received synthetic phonics teaching, their attention being drawn to letters in initial, middle and final position of words. This group was also taught to sound and blend the letters and shown how to use magnetic letters to build up the words for themselves.
After ten weeks the additional classes ceased and the children’s “word reading, spelling and phoneme awareness” were assessed. The researchers concluded from the results of this assessment that:
Armed with these conclusions, the researchers embarked on a third study (part-funded by Clackmannanshire Education Authority and the Scottish Office Educational Research Unit), the aim of which was to compare “the effects of phonemic awareness training versus synthetic phonics teaching on reading, spelling and phonemic awareness in Primary 1 classes”. The researchers also wanted to find out whether synthetic phonics would be just as effective taught on a whole-class basis, since in the second study it had been taught to small groups outside the classroom.
Thirteen Primary 1 classes were chosen for the third study, and these were allocated to one of three groups (analytic phonics, phonemic awareness, synthetic phonics). Using Clackmannanshire Council’s Indices of Disadvantage, the classes comprising the synthetic phonics group were purposefully selected to be “slightly more disadvantaged than the other groups”, because the researchers considered it “important to establish that children of all socio-economic backgrounds benefit from synthetic phonics teaching”.
In the third study the normal class teachers were trained by the researchers to teach the researcher-designed programmes instead of their usual reading programme over 16 weeks from mid-September 1997 until mid-March 1998 for twenty minutes a day. Again all of the children were exposed to the same print vocabulary during the programme. Actual reading from reading-scheme books was introduced in November.
The analytic phonics control group (four classes) was taught using a “systematic but gradual analytic method, whereby one letter sound per week was introduced in the initial position of words.”
The phonemic awareness group (four classes) was given ten minutes a day of systematic analytic phonics teaching (like the control group, except that the control group got twenty minutes), and a separate ten minutes a day of analysing and synthesising the sounds in spoken words (without reference to print).
The synthetic phonics group (five classes) was taught “letter sounds” in initial, middle and final positions in words “at the rate of six letter sounds in eight days”. At the same time it was taught the “formation of letters”. In addition:
Children were taught to sound and blend letters to read words. They were also shown how to spell words by pushing magnetic letters together, and to pronounce words by blending together the sounds of the letters. 
From the third study the researchers concluded that teaching synthetic phonics accelerates reading, spelling and phonemic awareness “more rapidly than any other teaching method”, and that the synthetic phonics approach is therefore more effective than the “gradual analytic phonics method”. They also concluded that phonemic awareness training did not help, since it “did not increase reading or spelling skills beyond the level of the control group”. It did however increase “phoneme segmentation ability”. In other words, although the children in the phonemic awareness group learnt to analyse spoken words into their phoneme components, this skill did not improve their reading and spelling ability.
Following completion of the study, the Clackmannanshire Council adopted the synthetic phonics approach in all nineteen of its primary schools, with impressive results, according to a follow up investigation by the two main researchers, Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston.
The testimony of two of the teachers involved is also very encouraging
I now know that there is no ceiling on what my pupils can achieve: throughout the year my expectations for reading and writing attainment have become higher and higher.
Although we felt we already had high standards and expectations, the work on synthetic phonics has led us to review our assumptions regarding the ways in which children learn. This has led us to alter some of the ways we work and how we organise the teaching day. The opportunity to reflect on our practice has been very refreshing and will have an influence on the rest of our staff. We feel that because we have experienced the success in language, we are very positive about early intervention in numeracy and hope it is as user/whole-class friendly.
I am rather surprised at the level of generality and lack of detail in the write-up for the studies. I would have expected much less certainty in the conclusions, given that in such a large project there are so many variables. If the articles by Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston are representative, I can only wonder at what constitutes proof in psychology/education research.
It is not clear to me that the researchers were comparing like with like in the second and third studies. The technique of getting children to actively make written words using magnetic letters and then to sound them out is obviously a good teaching strategy in that it constitutes active learning. I would have thought analysing words into their component phonemes would also have its place in the teacher’s arsenal, but it is not at all clear from the write-ups that this was what was done in the analytic-phonics groups. On the contrary these groups seems to have been taught using a non- or semi-phonemic method (i.e., picking out a mixture of phonemes and syllables, such as c-at, t-in, etc.). It is not surprising therefore that the synthetic method of teaching came out ahead.
The fact that Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston have turned their “discoveries” into a commercial enterprise, Fast Phonics First, is also rather worrying, since it gives them a vested interest in promoting their version of synthetic phonics, and perhaps detracts from the credibility of their follow-up study “Accelerating Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics: A Five Year Follow Up”, which was published by the Scottish Executive Education Department, and distributed by the Department to all Scottish primary schools.
It is noteworthy that in the Fast Phonics First package, Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston have modified their programme to fit the Literacy Hour prescriptions of the National Literacy Strategy, which recommends that twenty minutes of the Hour be devoted to group and individual work. Their third study used whole-class teaching only.
I would have liked to have seen somewhere in the write-ups a reference to the necessity of making it clear to children that the spoken language is primary, and that writing is simply a way of representing with letters what we speak. This perspective should always be implicit in teachers’ phrasing. The letters do not “make sounds”, for example.
I have thought long and hard about how most children manage to learn to read without being taught phonemes and graphemes systematically. I do not agree with either the proponents of “whole word” and “look and say” teaching, or those who think reading can be learnt by “osmosis” from “real books”. These methods cannot work, and I am convinced that students learn to read despite them rather than because of them. They do this only insofar as they are able to work out for themselves how the alphabet code works. It is not possible to read without this knowledge. We can either teach it to children or let them work it out for themselves, but if we choose the latter course, many will not become good readers.
The following extract from an interview with Sally Shaywitz, which I discovered after coming to the conclusions outlined in the previous paragraph, seems to confirm what I am saying.
Are you saying that in order to read, we have to adapt, or train, our brain to perform in ways it wasn’t naturally designed to work?
In essence, yes. We acquire the ability to do many things that we aren’t born knowing how to do. Children have to develop the awareness that words are made up of sounds. And that print represents these sounds, or phonemes. For example, the word bat really has three phonemes, b, a, and t, so children have to develop this awareness. And then they have to develop the understanding that the letters on the page—the b, the a, and the t—represent these units of sound. When children reach this level of awareness, they’re ready to learn to read. For some children, it’s easy; for others, it’s very difficult.
Sally Shaywitz is a paediatrician at the Yale School of Medicine and an expert on dyslexia. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging of the brain, she discovered that there was a difference in the brain activation patterns of good and bad readers “when the task made increasing demands to break up words into their underlying phonologic structure or sound pattern”. She has concluded from this that there is a biological basis for reading difficulty, and that it has something to do with phonemic awareness. However, I wonder to what extent she isn’t just seeing the physical results of poor teaching practices.
Bettelheim, Bruno & Zelan, Karen
On Learning To Read: The Child’s Fascination With Meaning (London: Thames & Hudson, 1982).
Clay, Marie M.
Becoming Literate: The Construction Of Inner Control (New Zealand: Heinemann, 1991).
“Learning About Learning to Read: A Conversation with Sally Shaywitz.” Redefining Literacy vol. 57, no. 2 (October 1999), pp. 26-31. [Available on the internet at: http://www.ascd.org/publications/ed_lead/199910/darcangelo.html]
Why Johnny Can’t Read: And What You Can Do About It. (New York: Harper & Row, 1986). First published in 1955.
Why Johnny Still Can’t Read: A New Look At The Scandal Of Our Schools. (New York: Harper & Row, 1981).
Itzkoff, Seymour W.
Children Learning To Read: A Guide For Parents And Teachers. (Westport, Connecticut: Praeger, 1996).
Johnston, Rhona S. & Watson, Joyce E.
“Accelerating Reading Attainment: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics.” Interchange 57, SOEID, Edinburgh, 1998. [Article available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/edru/Pdf/ers/interchange_57.pdf]
Johnston, Rhona S. & Watson, Joyce E.
“Accelerating Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics: A Five Year Follow Up”. Insight 4 (Published by the Research, Economic & Corporate Strategy Unit of the Information, Analysis and Communication Division, of the Scottish Executive Education Department.) [Article available on the internet at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library5/education/ins4-00.asp]
A History of Reading. (London: Harper Collins, 1996).
Why Children Can’t Read And What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution In Reading. (London: Penguin, 1998).
National Reading Panel
Report of the National Reading Panel. (Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Clearinghouse, 2000). [Available on the internet at: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/smallbook.pdf]
National Reading Panel
Reports of the Subgroups. (Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Clearinghouse, 2000). [Available on the internet at: http://www.nichd.nih.gov/publications/nrp/report.pdf]
All Must Have Prizes. (London: Little, Brown & Co., 1996).
Interestingly, there is no copy of Diane McGuinness’ book (the most useful and practical of the three) in the Monash libraries, and Melanie Phillips’ book can only be found in the Gippsland General Collection. Only Why Johnny Can't Read and Why Johnny Still Can't Read are to be found at both Clayton (Faculty of Education library) and Gippsland. None of these books is available in the Peninsula General Collection where primary teaching is also taught.
Presumably the “26 initial letter sounds” are the following initial phonemes: /a-z/ minus c, q, x and y, plus /ch/, /sh/, /th/, and /th/. The letter c sometimes represents /k/ and sometimes /s/. The sound represented by y is a “glide” (/i/ + vowel). The letter x represents /ks/, and q represents /kw/.
The Early Intervention Programme: Raising Standards in Literacy and Numeracy. The Scottish Office, 1998. See the “Annex: Responses from Local Authorities: Clackmannanshire.” Available at http://www.scotland.gov.uk/library/documents-w/eip-07.htm
“The results have so impressed the Scottish Executive, buffeted this week by bad news on pupils’ progress in English language, that ministers have decided to dispatch a research report on the subject to every primary school in Scotland.” (TES, 7 March 2003)
Some of the links may no longer be current. An internet search for the title should bring up the current address if the source is still available.