Scots children top of the class

Wednesday 19 December 2007

A ground-breaking study testing an innovative method of teaching primary children to read and spell has shown that Scots children are the top of the class.

Professor Rhona Johnston and Dr Joyce Watson of the University of St Andrews have demonstrated that the method known as “synthetic phonics”, studied in schools in Clackmannanshire, greatly improves word reading, spelling and reading comprehension.

The study compared the Clackmannanshire children, who were taught via a synthetic phonics programme, with children taught in England via the National Literacy Strategy Scheme Progression in Phonics. The children following the synthetic phonics method learnt very early on to blend letter sounds throughout words.

A comparison of the reading comprehension of children from the Clackmannanshire Study showed that they comprehended what they read at around the level that would be expected for their chronological age, whilst children from similar socio-economic backgrounds in England, learning by the National Literacy Strategy approach, were 7 months behind age level.

The 10 year-olds in the Clackmannanshire study had better word reading, spelling and reading comprehension than 10 year olds in England, who learnt to read by the National Literacy Strategy programme. A substantial number of the children in the Clackmannanshire sample came from areas of deprivation so the classes in England were matched on socio-economic background.

Professor Johnston, an honorary Professor at St Andrews who is based at the University of Hull, said, “The children in the Clackmannanshire study were reading words about 2 years ahead of what would be expected for their age.  Their spelling was 6 months ahead of what you would expect for age, and their reading comprehension was about right for age.

“However, although the pupils in England from similar backgrounds were reading words about right for their age, their spelling was 4.5 months below what is expected for age, and reading comprehension was about 7 months behind.

“Criticisms of the gains in reading comprehension for the Clackmannanshire Study failed to take into account that many of the children in the study came from areas of deprivation.”

In the first year of the study in Clackmannanshire, the researchers demonstrated that the children who learnt by synthetic phonics read and spelt better than the children who learnt by analytic phonics.

In England, children learning by the programme Progression in Phonics fundamentally followed an analytic phonics approach.  They began to sound and blend words at the end of their first year at school or at the start of their second year. However, in the Clackmannanshire Study, the children learnt to sound and blend within a few weeks of starting school.  The evidence suggests that it is the early sounding and blending in synthetic phonics that makes the technique so successful.  Both groups also carried out activities designed to develop reading for meaning.

Dr Joyce Watson, an honorary research fellow at the University of St Andrews explained, “We carried out an intervention study in Clackmannanshire in Scotland and found that synthetic phonics teaching greatly boosted reading and spelling skills.  The children in the Clackmannanshire Study learnt by synthetic phonics, and in England the children used the National Literacy Strategy approach Progression in Phonics, which closely resembles analytic phonics.

“This study has been very influential in guiding advice given to primary school teachers in England on how to teach reading.  The House of Commons Education and Skills Select Committee in 2005 recommended that a similar study be carried out in England, and in 2006 the Rose Review recommended that all children should learn to read by a systematic synthetic phonics approach. The Primary National Strategy has now introduced a new programme called Letters and Sounds, which uses the approach we used in Clackmannanshire.”



Professor Johnstone is available for interview on 01482 465595 / 01482 869246 or [email protected] until 2.30pm today.

Dr Joyce Watson is available for interview on 01333 310622 or [email protected]

Issued by the Press Office, University of St Andrews
Contact Fiona Armstrong, Press Officer on 01334 462530 / 462529, email [email protected]
Ref:  synthetic phonics 171207
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