The Optima Reading Programme by Dr Jonathan Solity: Does it Provide Optimal Results? A Paper by Dr Marlynne Grant

Recently Dr Jonathan Solity reported on his critical analysis of the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check.1 This has thrown a spotlight on his own programme for teaching reading, which was developed first as ERR (Early Reading Research), later known as KRM, and currently as Optima.

Having watched the video on the Optima website (2016) (2) http://optimapsychology.com/find-out-more/introductory-video/ I was struck by the many similarities to the systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) teaching with which I am familiar:

  • Whole class teaching
  • Results showing no gender differences or vulnerable group differences
  • Key skills of synthesising and segmentation
  • All achieving success from the start i.e. from Reception
  • Successful with low achievers and high achievers who are stretched
  • Pacy
  • Works on writing as well as reading
  • Use of modelling
  • Little and often teaching in daily doses
  • Very similar teaching each day with a little bit extra added (cumulative)
  • Establishes love of books and literature
  • Complete engagement
  • Increases confidence and enjoyment
  • Parents are impressed as they see structure and progress

Optima video from cris on Vimeo.

On the video, Solity stresses that Optima is underpinned by psychological theory. But Optima does not have the monopoly on incorporating psychological learning theory into its teaching:

For example, one of the government approved SSP programmes* (3) lists the following:

  • Whole class teaching
  • Reinforcement and repetition are built in
  • Use of active recall – students are encouraged to make active attempts at recall
  • Oral work
  • Interactive teaching which engages the children rather than them having to work individually on work sheets
  • Lively teaching. The lesson has a good pace, which helps to manage behaviour and focus students’ attention
  • Multisensory teaching. It integrates what you see (letters) with what you hear (sounds) and what you do (articulating sounds and words, clicking fingers, phoneme fingers, robot arms, manipulating sound and syllable cards, writing sounds and words from dictation)
  • Frequent rehearsal on the ‘little and often’ principle
  • Develops fluency and mastery in learning which is vital and will ensure later success with reading comprehension and writing composition
  • Direct instruction (modelling) is used: I do, we do together, you do.

*Sound Discovery Manual, p4 (3)

The Optima video claims that its programme is ‘different from everything else around’ – so what are these differences? It appears to differ from government approved SSP programmes with regard to the following:

  • Lack of decodables
  • Teaching High Frequency Words (HFWs) as sight words
  • Teaching fewer grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs)

Decodable Reading Books

It is not clear whether Solity has conducted research to justify his decision not to use the sort of decodable reading books often used now with SSP programmes. In these books a high percentage of words (average of 81% in the SSP study reported below) embody only the GPCs so far taught, with divergences in the few remaining words being explicitly taught.

One longitudinal study of SSP (4) compared outcomes with and without decodable reading books (http://bit.ly/2coAoKP ). The study showed a gain of an extra 5 months of reading age for a cohort of 85 Reception children when decodable reading books were introduced for the first time, and when other teaching variables remained the same. Subsequently in following years 433 Reception children used decodable reading books as their first experience of reading books for themselves alongside a SSP programme, using the phonics they had been taught. Over time these pupils were able to demonstrate an impressive start and sustained attainments, even those from vulnerable groups.

To give further information on this study: Grant reported on whole cohorts of Reception children being taught synthetic phonics over an eight-year period. At the beginning of the study, during one year, the whole cohort of Reception children was not given decodable reading books, but continued to use the Oxford Reading Tree books employed by the school at that time, which were based largely on look-and-say and whole language principles. The 90 Reception children achieved an average of 12 months ahead of chronological age for reading and 17 months ahead for spelling at the end of Reception. The following year decodable reading books were written and used for the first time. 85 Reception children averaged 17 months above chronological age for reading, a gain of an extra 5 months of reading age compared with the previous year. Averaged over 6 years with SSP and decodable books, 433 children were 16 months ahead for reading and 17 months ahead for spelling. (4, p18) Cohorts of these Reception children were tracked through to their KS1 and KS2 English SATS where comprehension and writing as well as decoding skills were assessed.

There is other supportive evidence for the use of decodable reading books, for example, the work of Juel and Roper/Schneider, 1985 (5) as referenced in: http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=469 (6). In addition there are the summaries of research into decodable text discussed in: http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=554 (7).

Teaching HFWs as Sight Words

Optima proposes teaching the 100 most frequently occurring words in English as whole words by sight, whether or not these words can be read using the GPCs already taught. “These were taught as whole words with no reference to any phonemes within the words …..” (8) (Shapiro and Solity, 2008). The 100 words were based on word lists and “determined as the optimal number by Solity, McNab and Vousden, 2007 (9); Solity and Vousden, 2009 (10); Vousden, 2007 (11).

The practice of learning HFWs by sight is in direct contrast with the view of the psychologist and researcher Professor Diane McGuinness (12) and with the government’s advice (13):

Research has shown, however that even when words are recognised apparently by sight, this recognition is most efficient when it is underpinned by grapheme-phoneme knowledge”. “What counts as ‘decodable’ depends on the grapheme-phoneme correspondences that have been taught up to any given point”. “Even the core of high frequency words which are not transparently decodable using known GPCs usually contain at least one GPC that is familiar. Rather than approach these words as though they were unique entities, it is advisable to start from what is known and register the ‘tricky bit’ in the word.” (13, pp 15-16).

Diane McGuinness (12) has pointed out that introducing multiple strategies (such as learning HFWs by sight) at an early stage of reading instruction will be “mutually contradictory and will confuse rather than assist young readers”. (http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=112&n_issueNumber=51)

The dual system of reading instruction proposed by Optima would not meet the DfE revised core criteria which defined the key features of an effective systematic synthetic phonics teaching programme (13). The Department strongly encouraged heads and teachers to consider the revised core criteria when making decisions about the quality of commercial programmes and the suitability of them for their particular schools and settings. The first of these criteria was ‘phonics first and fast’ as a programme’s prime approach to decoding print.

Optima follows an explicit dual route to reading instruction: teaching phonics along with learning HFWs by sight. Although SSP programmes teach phonics ‘first and fast’ they can also teach ‘tricky’ words but again through phonics as recommended in Letters and Sounds (L&S) (14). In my own programme, common ‘tricky’ words are introduced in a natural drip-fed way through sentence work, right from the very beginning of instruction. (3 and 17)

Shapiro and Solity (15) compared the effectiveness of L&S (“which teaches multiple letter-sound mappings”) implemented in Reception with ERR (“teaches only the most consistent mappings plus frequent words by sight”), and then followed up outcomes at the end of the second and third years of schooling. They found the two programmes equally effective in broad terms with ERR being more effective with children with poor phonological awareness.

In her blog on sight words (http://readoxford.org/guest-blog-are-sight-words-unjustly-slighted) (16), Professor Anne Castles reviewed the Shapiro and Solity 2015 study (15) and agreed with them that teaching frequent words by sight did not appear to interfere with phonics learning in the ERR programme.

Shapiro and Solity (15) made some positive comparisons of ERR compared with L&S. However, would these comparisons hold up if ERR were compared with other SSP programmes? Shapiro and Solity suggested that in L&S some children may not have fully grasped the concept of segmentation and blending in the absence of print before moving on to segmentation and blending of letters. They pointed out, in contrast, that ERR continued to teach segmentation and blending in the absence of print in every whole class lesson. Is this true for any government ‘approved’ SSP programme? In at least one other SSP programme (3 and 17) practice with oral segmentation and blending precedes segmentation and blending of letters in every lesson.

Shapiro and Solity (15) also maintained that ERR provided more practice with ‘tricky’ common words and that it might be more beneficial for L&S children simply to learn these by sight and gain regular practice with them, instead of attempting to analyse their sound structure. However, other SSP programmes may provide more explicit teaching and practice for HFWs. For example, in one other SSP programme there are resources (18) provided to support the analysis of sound structure in HFWs. Specially prepared common words, sentences and texts make it easier for children to practise sounding and blending them, so that the children begin to be able to read the words without overt sounding and blending. Thus, they start to experience what it feels like to read some words automatically. In addition, blending and segmenting of common ‘tricky’ words takes place in every lesson alongside more easily decodable words, providing the ongoing regular practice that Shapiro and Solity recommended.

At present there appears to be insufficient evidence to support the Shapiro and Solity view that only ERR has potential benefits for children at risk of developing reading difficulties. They suggest that an optimal programme should explicitly teach children to use two strategies: sight recognition and phonic decoding. However, to date, they have not published data which compares ERR with SSP programmes other than L&S, particularly where those programmes use reading books with a high level of decodability and which explicitly support teaching for HFWs.

The Grant longitudinal study (4) used a ‘phonics first and fast’ approach but also taught HFWs through sentence work and through a phonics route. Impressive results were achieved even with vulnerable groups of pupils who were at risk of developing reading difficulties and with higher achievers who were stretched (0% below Level 3B, 6% Level 3B, 94% Level 4+, 65% Level 5 at KS2 English SATs).

Number of GPCs Taught

I have some sympathy with the Solity view regarding the number of grapheme-phoneme correspondences (GPCs) which should be taught. How extensive should the advanced code be? Solity questions, “whether it is worth teachers spending a great amount of time making sure pupils learn all 85, rather than concentrating on the most frequent ones and then building pupils’ vocabulary.” (1)

Solity is following the ‘principle of optimal information from rational analysis’ and aims to teach the “optimal number of GPCs(8). However these do seem to be quite limited. Children were taught 61 high frequency mappings between graphemes and phonemes (26 letters; 5 vowels modified by ‘e’; 30 letter combinations) and “where multiple mappings exist between phonemes and graphemes – only one GPC was taught”. (8)

Teaching in this way would require more words having to be taught explicitly should they contain a GPC not covered in the 61 high frequency ERR mappings. Would these words also be taught by sight?  Such words would be in addition to the ‘tricky’ common words taught as “unique entities” by sight. In SSP programmes a greater number of words would be decodable as more GPCs would be taught and words with unusual GPCs would be blended from what is known and from registering the ‘tricky’ bit’ in the word as recommended by DfES. (14, pp15-16).

Learning a large number of words by sight in this way could place a strain on memory to which there is a limit. Diane McGuinness reported the average visual-memory limit for whole word units as approximately 2,000 (19). A good English dictionary contains from 250,000 to 500,000 words, which sounds like a huge challenge for those individuals needing to memorise whole words.  Whereas those able to use a more comprehensive alphabetic code would be at an advantage and more able to work out pronunciations using their pre-existing phonics.

In her blog (16), Professor Castles suggested that some pupils in the Shapiro and Solity study (15) were possibly confused by being exposed to the multiple alternative sound mappings (GPCs) in L&S rather than to sight words in ERR.

What about the strain on memory of learning GPCs? Is there a memory limit to the number of GPCs that can be taught explicitly? According to the literature this limit is high. Victor Mair, Professor of Chinese Language and Literature, claims there is a natural upper limit of approximately 2,000-2,500 to the number of sound-symbol units (in our case GPCs) which most individuals can tolerate (20). Also note the reference in http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=173&n_issueNumber=59).  I think we are safe in saying that this limit far exceeds the demands of all SSP programmes. Even those SSP programmes which teach a large and very comprehensive alphabetic code for English are unlikely to be teaching more than 100-200 GPCs. Some SSP programmes will be teaching fewer and a number will be concentrating on even fewer. In Sound Discovery (3) every effort is made to teach the advanced code in the simplest and most straightforward way in order to decrease confusion and minimise overload.

From the perspective of limits to memory, one cannot assume that learning 100 sight words and a reduced set of GPCs as in ERR is less strain on memory than learning more GPCs and constantly rehearsing and practising common ‘tricky’ words through phonics in a SSP programme.

There may be a value in teaching a more comprehensive alphabetic code than Optima in a systematic way as recommended by the Year 1 Phonics Screening check (21), even if, in practice, a greater emphasis is placed on the most frequently occurring GPCs. We simply do not know whether programmes teaching less code are less effective or more effective when there is no comparative research.

Reducing Difficulties

In the Optima video (2), Solity reported that his programme had reduced reading difficulties from 20-25% to 2-3%.

It is perhaps not surprising that such positive results and views have been reported, given the systematic way the Optima programme appears to have been introduced and delivered in schools, the commitment of all staff, including senior management, and the ongoing support from the Optima team. However we do not know whether even better results could have been achieved if they had incorporated some of the features discussed above and which are found in good synthetic phonics teaching (viz. decodables, not teaching HFWs by sight, teaching a more comprehensive alphabetic code – even if then concentrating on the most frequently occurring).

Dr Solity quoted a percentage of remaining ‘difficulties’ as 2-3% with Optima. In the Sound Discovery study (4) we were able to achieve just over 1% of moderate reading difficulties in 2004. Only one child out of the 3 form entry at Year 6 achieved less than Level 4 English. 94% of pupils achieved Level 4+ and 65% achieved Level 5. It is not clear how Solity defines ‘difficulties’ as they relate to his quoted 2-3%. In the Grant study the only pupil who did not achieve Level 4 gained a Level 3B English which is not a severe literacy difficulty. This pupil had complex and severe learning difficulties and he was followed up into his secondary school. He was reported as, “holding his own in mainstream classes in Year 7; he had made good gains in reading and spelling and could understand complex vocabulary in the curriculum. He was able to be de-statemented in Year 9” (4, p19).

Real Books

The Optima video stresses the importance of ‘real’ books in increasing the vocabulary and language comprehension of pupils.  The Optima team did not use the sort of decodable reading books matched to their order of teaching GPCs often used now by SSP programmes.

In contrast SSP schools comply with the Simple View of Reading (22) which identifies two distinct processes in learning to read: ‘word recognition’ and ‘language comprehension’. Many SSP programmes have a strong language comprehension strand using structured, decodable reading materials which aim not only to give practice with decoding but also to develop vocabulary and comprehension.

In addition, in SSP schools, ‘real’ books and rich literature are used alongside decodable books for adults to read to children and to share with them. The aim is to establish a love of books and literature and to increase confidence and enjoyment. Children taught in this way pick up reading quickly. They become enthusiastic and confident about their reading. They are more able and willing to engage in the world of reading around them and take advantage of incidental phonics practice in the environment. They are also more able and willing to access a wide range of texts and literature themselves.

Conclusion

The Optima video was impressive and I am not surprised that the schools were achieving good results with a programme and teaching which the majority of us could endorse. However, in my view, similar outcomes could be achieved and even surpassed in schools which are committed to following rigorously a good quality systematic synthetic phonics programme, which uses books which are decodable at a high level (in this instance at the 81% level as mentioned on page 2) and teaches HFWs with attention to what is, and is not, decodable in them.

 

Dr Marlynne Grant

Registered Educational Psychologist

Author of the government ‘approved’ systematic synthetic phonics programme Sound Discovery

Committee member of RRF

October 2016

 

References

 

  1. Richardson, H. (2016). National phonics check ‘too basic’. BBC News, 16th September 2016. Education and Family, available online at: http://www.bbc.co.uk?news.education – 37372542 ; and British Education Research Association (BERA) press release, available online at: https://www.bera.ac.uk/bera-in-the-news/press-release-children-can-pass-phonics-test-without-extensive-phonic-knowledge

 

  1. Optima Video (2016). Optima Psychology, available online at http://optimapsychology.com/fi nd-out-more/introductory-video /.

 

  1. Grant, M. (2000). Sound Discovery Manual. Synthetic Phonics Ltd., www.syntheticphonics.net .

 

  1. Grant, M. (2014). Longitudinal Study from Reception to Year 2 (2010-2013) and Summary of an earlier Longitudinal Study from Reception to Year 6 (1997-2004). The Effects of a Systematic Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading, Writing and Spelling. Paper presented to ResearchEd Conference, London, 2014. Available online at http://bit.ly/2coAoKP .

 

  1. Juel, C. & Roper/Schneider, D. (1985). Reading Research Quarterly, 18. Also in Adams, M.J. Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about print, Bradford Books, pp275-280.

 

  1. International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI), 2015. Is there a role for predictable texts in reading instruction? Available online at: http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=469 .

 

  1. International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI), 2015. The multi-cueing reading strategies and ‘Is reading about getting meaning from print’? Available online at: http://www.iferi.org/iferi_forum/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=554 .

 

  1. Shapiro, L. & Solity, J. (2008). Delivering Phonological and Phonics Training within Whole Class Teaching. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 78, part 4, pp 597-620.

 

  1. Solity, J., McNab E. & Vousden, J. (2007). Is there an optimal level of sight vocabulary to teach beginning readers? Unpublished data.

 

  1. Solity, J. & Vousden, J. (2009). Reading schemes vs. real books: A new perspective from instructional psychology. Educational Psychology, Volume 29, Issue 4.

 

  1. Vousden, J. (2007). Units of English spelling-to-sound mapping: a rational approach to reading instruction. Applied Cognitive Psychology, Volume 22, Issue 2.

 

  1. McGuinness, D. (2004). A response to teaching phonics in the National Literacy Strategy. RRF (Reading Reform Foundation) Newsletter 51. Available online at: http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=112&n_issueNumber=51 .

 

  1. Department for Education (DfE) (2010). Phonics teaching materials: core criteria and the self-assessment process. Crown copyright. Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/298420/phonics_core_criteria_and_the_self-assessment_process.pdf .

 

  1. Department for Education and Skills (DfES) (2007). Letters and Sounds: Principles and practice of high quality phonics. Notes of guidance for practitioners and teachers. DfES Publications, pp15-16. Available online at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications .

 

  1. Shapiro, L. & Solity, J. (2015) Differing effects of two synthetic phonics programmes on early reading development. British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 86, Issue 2, pp182-203.

 

  1. Castles, A. (2016). Guest Blog: Are sight words unjustly slighted? Read Oxford, University of Oxford. Available online at: http://readoxford.org/guest-blog-are-sight-words-unjustly-slighted .

 

  1. Grant, M. (2007-2009). Sound Discovery Big Books of Snappy Lesson Plans at Step 1, Step 2, Step 3A, Step 3B and Steps 4-7. Synthetic Phonics Ltd. www.syntheticphonics.net

 

  1. Grant, M. (2014). Sound Discovery High Frequency Words, Version 2. Synthetic Phonics Ltd. www.syntheticphonics.net .

 

  1. McGuinness, D. (2004). Growing a Reader from Birth, W.W. Norton.

 

  1. Daniels, P. and Bright, W. (1996) (Editors). The World’s Writing Systems. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, p 200, and referenced in:

http://www.rrf.org.uk/archive.php?n_ID=173&n_issueNumber=59 .

 

  1. Department for Education (2011). Year 1 Phonics Screening Check.

https://www.gov.uk/government/policies/reforming-qualifications-and-the-curriculum-to-better-prepare-pupils-for-life-after-school/supporting-pages/statutory-phonics-screening-check .

 

  1. National Primary Framework for Literacy and Mathematics (DfES) (2006). Crown Copyright.

“The future doesn’t have to be like the past” by Sir Jim Rose

While England may not top PISA’s international league tables, we almost certainly surpass our international counterparts in the amount and pace of educational reform that governments of all stripes have generated since the Education Reform Act in 1988.* In a nutshell, the aim of these reforms has been ‘to raise standards and narrow gaps’ in pupil performance.

Headline news has recently focused yet again on falling standards of education as national examination results for 16 year-olds this year show that: ‘GCSE grades have seen the biggest ever fall in the overall pass rate in the history of the exams.’ These grades apply to schools in the state sector and stand in sharp contrast, to the independent, private sector where more than a third of the children achieved the highest grade of ‘A’ – nearly five times the national average.

The private sector in England now stands at around 7% of the school population and is way beyond the means of the great majority of parents. Lloyds Bank recently estimated the costs of sending one child to private school from reception to Year 13 as £156,653 – annual fees having nearly doubled from an average of £7,308 in 2003 to £13,341 in 2016.

sir-michael-wilshaw-quote

In a speech, earlier this year, our Chief Inspector of Schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw, delivered a scathing attack on the ideologies of both left and right-wing politics, which he holds responsible for a woeful lack of progress on narrowing the achievement gap between socio-economic groups. He said that, despite a range of initiatives, including the Pupil Premium**, no real difference has been made over the last decade:

‘The needle has barely moved. In 2005, the attainment gap between free school meal and non-FSM pupils in secondary schools was 28 percentage points. It is still 28 percentage points now.’

‘Our failure to improve significantly the educational chances of the poor disfigures our school system. It scars our other achievements. It stands as a reproach to us all.’

It is hardly surprising, that this has prompted a resurgence of fierce debate about the stubborn obstacles in the way of boosting the attainment of children from low income families and narrowing the gap in educational performance between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers.

The debate has been further inflamed by recent government proposals to provide more selective, state grammar schools ‘to give parents a wider choice of schools’ irrespective of their background circumstances.

All of this has coincided with the latest national curriculum assessments for children in the final year of primary school (11yr-olds) showing that fewer pupils reached the expected standard in reading than in writing and mathematics. Moreover, evidence of lasting improvements from numerous targeted interventions to help struggling readers is rare. It seems that hard won, early gains from programmes designed to help them ‘catch-up’ tend to fade out as they fail to keep pace with the overall rate of progress of their year groups.

It is little comfort to know that some of these problems are not unique to England. However, some would say that we are the product of a historical past that has led to a more stratified society than many of our international counterparts, and that divisions between state and private education are at the root of these problems. One of our most visionary and dynamic erstwhile school ministers – now Lord Andrew Adonis – commented on the divide between state and private education:

‘Over the entire second half of the 20th century, these prejudices made it exceptionally hard to do more than fiddle around at the margins of state-private partnership. This, in turn, bred a deep fatalism which is with us still. Everyone knows that the status quo is terrible – rigid separation between most of the nation’s most privileged and powerful schools and the rest. Yet no-one has a credible plan or will to do much about it except say how bad it is, why it’s someone else’s fault, and why it will never change because, well, this is England, it’s deep and cultural, and it all began with Henry VIII. It’s the same fatalism which greeted gridlock in central London before the congestion charge, hospital waiting lists before patients’ rights, and rain stopping play at Wimbledon before the roof.

The call now is for activists not fatalists. The future doesn’t have to be like the past.’

In a bold attempt to achieve a strong ‘state-private partnership’, he paved the way for academising the school system – a major reform in England which, though not without criticism, remains a firm commitment of the present administration.

However, progress has been patchy. These radical systemic/organisational changes have yet to make the looked for impact on helping less well-off children scale the rock face of disadvantage. For them it is much like bicycling a ‘penny farthing’ uphill – the higher they get the harder it becomes. Well-off parents, it seems, are able to equip their children with an Olympic class bike in the shape of private schooling that boosts their rate of progress. So what might we do, or do differently to make sure all children have an educational super bike?

It is of first importance, not to lower our educational expectations for disadvantaged youngsters. There are some telling examples of those from the most unpromising background circumstances succeeding against the odds. Moreover, by no means all privately educated youngsters from prestigious schools ‘make it big’ – so caveat emptor.

Secondly, school inspections show that schools of all types vary in quality ranging, in OFSTED terms, from ‘outstanding’ to ‘in need of improvement’. This suggests that systemic change alone is unlikely to be the tide that lifts all boats. It is trite but true to say that to be successful such change must secure high quality teaching irrespective of school type or location – hence, we would do well to curb our appetite for systemic reform and put more effort into the professional development of teachers and training those who support them in the classroom.

While it ought to be a given that every school should endow all of its children with the advantage of high quality teaching, inspection reports show this not to be the case. Rather, the picture remains one of too much variation in the quality of teaching within and between schools. The well-worn mantra that no school can be better than its teachers needs more that a facelift. It needs a change of heart.

This part of the forest might also benefit from a clearer definition of what ‘high quality’ looks like. In other words, establish a common language for a discourse on optimal teaching (and learning). Some promising developments worth close attention have ‘moved the needle’ by encouraging schools to be ‘self-improving’. One recent piece of research points to a positive impact on narrowing the gap in the reading performance of disadvantaged primary children by means of cost effective, well-taught phonic programmes (Centre for Economic Performance Paper No.1425 April 2016).

We do not yet know how well these gains are sustained for example, when children move from primary to secondary education. However, OFSTED Annual Reports show that, in this respect at least, the primary sector is doing rather better than the secondary sector in narrowing the literacy gap – much to the credit of primary teachers. Given that we know far more about how to teach children to read and write than ever before there should be no excuses for poor teaching in this territory.

The future does not have to be like the past, nor ought the best we can do now be the best that we should hope for. All that said, if we are to secure high quality teaching for all children in England, reformers and policy makers would do well to heed the words of Alvin Toffler: “Future shock [is] the shattering stress and disorientation that we induce in individuals by subjecting them to too much change in too short a time.”

*The Education Reform Act 1988 is widely regarded as the most important single piece of education legislation in EnglandWales and Northern Ireland since the ‘Butler’ Education Act 1944. (Wikipaedia).

**The pupil premium is additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils of all abilities and to close the gaps between them and their peers.

Jim Rose

9th September 2016

Tackling Inequality Through Teaching: A Letter to the Prime Minister by Dr Marlynne Grant

We are delighted to be able to post this letter from Dr Marlynne Grant, to the Prime Minister, on the subject of tackling inequality through education.

 

rrf-logoThe Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Prime Minister
10 Downing Street
London
SW1A 2AA

Dear Prime Minister

Tackling Inequality Through Teaching

While the debate about grammar schools hits the headlines, I would urge the government not to take its eye off beginning learners and the primary schools, which are key to ensuring that EVERY child learns to read and write well enough to take advantage of their future secondary schooling.  The real priority is to ensure that all children (including the socially disadvantaged) become properly literate in the early stages, because that opens the way for them to become decently educated, regardless of the type of secondary school they go to.

In our experience some clever children are still struggling to learn to read and write well.  They will never fulfil their potential.  Even excellent secondary schools will not be able to compensate.

We in the RRF (Reading Reform Foundation UK) aim to promote synthetic phonics, now statutory in primary schools, but this teaching is often diluted in schools which do not teach it systematically nor rigorously.  Instead they mix it with other methods of teaching reading (e.g. whole word memorising, guessing from context, Reading Recovery).  Now in Scotland a play-based approach for beginning learners is being promoted (Upstart programme – Sue Palmer).

Of course play is important but cutting out direct teaching will not help those from a disadvantaged background – it will fail them.  Children love to learn from adults and teachers love to teach children.  Not only is it important and good for all children but it is natural.  It is adults avoiding teaching which is unnatural.

I saw evidence of this ‘child-centred’ approach with High Scope and whole language teaching in the 1980’s both as an educational psychologist and as a mother and I know it failed countless children who did not pick up reading naturally.  Please, we must not go back to this position.  It sounds lovely and caring but it failed and frustrated so many children.  It was at this time that reading failure was thought to be attributable to within-child learning difficulties called dyslexia.  Dyslexia centres blossomed and tried to undo the damage that mainstreams schools were doing by their lack of direct teaching.

I attach a paper I wrote and delivered to the ResearchEd conference in London in 2014 of longitudinal research showing how rigorous synthetic phonics teaching from the very beginning delivers effective teaching for ALL children, even and especially for vulnerable groups like Free Schools Meals, Pupil Premium, summer birthdays, boys, English as a Second Language, slow learners etc.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Marlynne Grant

The Reading Reform Foundation

www.rrf.org.uk

@ReadingReform

Click below to download Dr Marlynne Grant’s Longitudinal Research on Synthetic Phonics

When Phonics Falls on Deaf Ears by Diane Philipson

I began teaching in NSW, Australia, in 1964 and always used phonics, though at that time systematic synthetic phonics had not been thought of. In those days, it seemed that children simply learnt to read and whole classes of older children with reading problems were something for the future. In the mid 70s, we were told by the Department of Education, to no longer use phonics. To my knowledge, we all continued, behind closed doors. That no doubt skewed results, as children were learning to read with phonics, while the powers-that-be thought they were learning without phonics.

I retired from teaching in 1999, studied linguistics and developed a reading scheme of my own. In the following years, hundreds of children came to me and other teachers I trained, for private lessons.List-4-Sight-Word-Bingo-Card-5

Recently, my grandson’s kinder teacher issued the following instructions: “Do not allow children to sound out the regular lists of sight words sent home.” This was all the more galling as, when his sister was in kinder four years ago with the same teacher, who was Reading Recovery trained, I had already spoken to her about the teaching of reading and offered her free use of synthetic phonics apps that a friend has developed. She showed no interest in the apps and there was no change in her method of teaching reading. (Fortunately, I had taught my granddaughter to read before she went to school, using my own systematic synthetic phonics method.) I am currently teaching my grandson at home and judge his reading to be outstanding for his age, yet the school half-yearly report shows him at a Basic level. (Basic at sight word reading, that is.)

logo55-140x461I have had an interview with the principal to explain my involvement with the teaching of reading, but he showed no interest, either. I attended the ‘Five from Five’ launch and emailed the report, as well as sending a hard copy to him. No response.

Yesterday, I received this from my friend who has a son in kinder in a Sydney school, closely associated with Sydney University:

“Home reading has started back from today. Please encourage your son or daughter to look at the whole word, “chunk” the word, reread from the start of the sentence and use the picture to support meaning-making. Just a reminder that ‘sounding out’ will be difficult now that the students are beyond lower level readers.”

Ironically, this friend is the developer of the synthetic phonics apps, which he would gladly supply free of charge.

It is unbelievable that the battle for the correct way to teach reading has been going on for more than half a century!

Diane Philipson

The Dyslexia Debate and a Response by Sir Jim Rose

IFERI is pleased to present a new paper by Sir Jim Rose, which was written as a response to Professor Julian Elliott’s recent presentation at Macquarie University, Australia.

Please click here to watch the presentation: The Dyslexia Debate

Sir Jim Rose

The Dyslexia Debate: A Response by Sir Jim Rose

The range and depth of enlightened thinking that DDOLL (Developmental Disorders of Language and Literacy Network) colleagues have brought to this discussion is riveting. It transcends historic wrangles over the term dyslexia that have done little to take us forward. Belatedly, I should like to add a couple of wild cards to this captivating exchange of views. The purpose in so doing is to explore further what might done to make sure far more of the children within the frame of so-called ‘instructional casualties’ receive consistently high quality teaching of reading and related aspects of literacy. Arguably, if schools could achieve this the benefits to children would be enormous and the need for costly intervention programmes reduced.

First, given that the education profession has access to a vastly greater knowledge of reading development than ever before, why is it that we continue to see confusion, not to say dissent, in schools and teacher training, about the teaching of reading, particularly in respect of phonics and dyslexia?

In the UK, although there has been considerable progress over the last decade, we still suffer from outbreaks of phonic phobia and tiresome tensions between fake opposites, such as, phonics v ‘reading for meaning’. Despite the enactment of a National Curriculum which makes such teaching mandatory, we have not yet achieved universal agreement in schools that teaching children how the alphabet works for reading and writing is crucially important.

The mantra ‘one size does not fit all’ is often chanted against phonics. This suggests that some continue to regard phonics as one of several ‘methods’ from which to select and match to discredited notions of ‘learning styles’, rather than a body of core knowledge and skills that has to be taught and practised. In the case of phonic work, if teachers are not convinced of the value of a regularly applied systematic approach it is hardly surprising that mediocre and poor practice persist. What more might be done to make plain what high quality teaching looks like in this domain?

As Alison Wolf (Review of Vocational Education 2011) said, ‘If assessing learning is hard, assessing the quality of teaching is harder’. Because the latter assessment brings with it concerns about ‘blaming teachers’ for children’s failures in reading it leads to reluctance to tackle what are often straightforward, improvable aspects of practice within the control of the teacher and the school.

England may not top the international league tables of pupil performance but we must be among world leaders in the amount of inspection and testing that takes place in our schools, starting in the primary years. Many years spent as a school inspector observing teaching in England and elsewhere convinced me that there is far more variation in the quality of teaching literacy, including reading, between and within schools than there ought to be. Further, we know the distance between leading and trailing edge teaching is associated with unacceptable variations in pupil performance, and that the impact of poor teaching on children who enter school already behind their peers amplifies their difficulties.

Is it beyond our capabilities to assess the quality teaching without blaming teachers?

My second wild card is to ask what we might learn from other professions. Anecdotes are sometimes useful so here goes…

Last year an unfriendly tree wrote off my car. I survived the crash due to the incredible expertise of the medical profession. This unwelcome event had an upside, however, in that it gave me an opportunity to compare the performance of two life changing professions: medicine and education. I had lots of time to catch up on reading about reading while experiencing our National Health Service at its best. Further, I was able to listen to the 2014 Reith lectures by the acclaimed surgeon Atul Gawande. He declared that he was in ‘the disturbance business’ and explored thorny issues, such as, ‘Why doctors fail’. I then read his book: ‘The Checklist Manifesto – How to get things right’ and watched with his TED talk: ‘How do we heal medicine?checklist-6-319x479Many of Gawande’s insights apply to getting things right in education. As a frontline surgeon, he drew upon keenly observed and detailed analyses of medical practice. His concept of our ‘necessary infallibility’ has much to commend it should we dare to explore more forensically why teaching fails while making sure teachers know that the purpose of so doing is to work with them to improve the quality of teaching and achieve better outcomes for children.

Medicine and education are ‘person-to–person’ services subject to human fallibility and to human ingenuity for solving problems: success is won by learning from our mistakes. Both professions look to research for solutions. They also rely on knowledgeable and skilled practitioners to make sure that as far as possible decisions are ‘evidence-based’ and ‘proven’ in practice. Equally important, they must be capable of making sound judgements when faced with the hard question: ‘what should we do when research is inconclusive, evidence is lacking and doing nothing is not an option?’

Among other things, Gawande suggests that doctors fail through lack of knowledge and, or, ineptitude, that is to say, insufficient skill in applying knowledge. He counts himself among them in these respects. He sees mistakes as opportunities: ’we have an opportunity before us, not just in medicine but in virtually any endeavour. Even the most expert among us can gain from searching out the patterns of mistakes and failures and putting a few checks in place. But will we do it? Are we ready to grab onto the idea? It is far from clear’.

The notion that we should actively build a school and classroom culture that enables teachers and, equally important, enables children as learners, to learn from patterns of mistakes is an idea worth grabbing. Moreover, his ‘Manifesto’ embraces a set of ethical principles and expectations worth taking on board:

“First is an expectation of selflessness: that we who accept responsibility for others – whether we are doctors, lawyers, teachers, public authorities, soldiers or pilots – will place the needs and concerns of those who depend on us above our own. Second is an expectation of skill: that we will aim for excellence in our knowledge and expertise. Third is an expectation of trust-worthiness: that we will be responsible in our personal behaviour toward our charges.

Aviators, however, add a fourth dimension, discipline: discipline in following prudent procedure and in functioning with others.”

For Gawande professional ‘discipline’ is aided by a ‘checklist’ which transforms ‘cowboys into pit crews’. That is indeed a powerful idea – but you must Google his short TED talk to understand it. (Or click at the end of this post to watch it.)

I have rambled on long enough save to ask: is there anything to be said for embracing some of these ideas, including, perhaps, developing a ‘checklist’ for teaching systematic, synthetic phonics?

With special thanks to Macquarie University for allowing us to distribute and use the link to Professor Julian Elliott’s presentation.

Why we use the Phonics Screening Check in Australia

Students at the school at which I work learn to decode systematically and explicitly. We believe that, given the balance of evidence, a good grounding in phonics, taught systematically, will provide them with the best opportunity to improve their reading comprehension. A key part of our teaching strategy is using assessment evidence to pinpoint what a student can decode and what they still need to work on.

As an Australian school we don’t have access to an Australian national or state-wide assessment for decoding skills or early reading comprehension. In the absence of such an assessment we have decided to use the UK Phonics Screening Check to help inform our instruction. We use the Phonics Screening Check because:

It provides a standard

One of the most common questions students, staff and parents have is whether a child is “doing ok” – are they at the standard for their age? The Phonics Screening Check gives us a standard that we can measure between year levels and across years. We know that students are at standard for their age when they can pass the Phonics Screening Check. It gives a definitive anchor for our work and helps guide what we do. Instead of having an individual feel for what an appropriate level of decoding might be, we have an agreed standard. This aids conversation: we all know exactly what it means to say a student is above or below that standard and we know what instruction and learning is required to get them there. We are able to detect much earlier when a student is in danger of not making the required level and can intervene earlier and with more of a sense of what is required.

Another feature of the earlier Screening Checks that is useful is the published item difficulties for each of the words and non-words in the 2012 and 2013 pilots. This gives a good indication of what words or non-words were more difficult than others for the UK students. We can then compare that to how difficult our students found those items and investigate when differences arise. What items are we comparatively strong at? Are there aspects of our instruction around the use of that grapheme that we need to record and make sure we are all include in our practice?

There may be other words/non-words our students unexpectedly find difficult to decode. Why can’t our students decode the word? What part of the word is proving to be the stumbling block? What do we currently do to teach the decoding of that grapheme and why is not working? What parts of our instruction need to be revised in order for students to improve?

It builds a bridge between classrooms

In our school the Prep (5 year old) classes are fluid – the groups are altered every six weeks and teachers change between classes. This results in a shared responsibility for the progress of all students in Prep. Fantastic conversations are had between teachers as they realise that kids who have been in one class are much better at something than students who have been in another class. It might be as simple as noticing children from class A always construct sentences with a capital letter at the start and a full stop at the end, something that doesn’t happen in class B. What is happening in this class that allows students to do this consistently and how can I teach my kids to do the same?

Sometimes, though, the differences in student learning between classes are not so obvious and it takes a specific assessment to reveal them. On the UK Phonics Screening Check there are times when students who are notionally in an earlier phase of their phonics work that have greater success in decoding a non-word than a class that should have done better. Why did that happen? What instruction around that grapheme phoneme correspondence in that class was so effective and how is best implemented in the other classes? How can we learn from each other in order to improve the instruction for all students?

The sharing of demonstrably effective practice results in teaching that is more successful. It doesn’t necessarily mean that all classes are exactly the same but it does allow the gap in effectiveness of instruction to be decreased. This is an equity issue: a student’s progress should not be based on a lottery depending on whether or not they get an effective teacher when classes are allocated. When the instructional quality of the team is growing, both as a whole and as individuals, all students benefit.

The Phonics Screening Check is an important component of the process of instructional improvement and allows a sense of what an appropriate level of decoding looks like. As such, I would heartily recommend it to all schools teaching phonics.

IFERI would like to thank Reid Smith, who is a teacher in Australia, for allowing us to re-blog this post. You can subscribe to his blog here:

https://notquitetabularasa.wordpress.com/

And you’ll find him on Twitter here: @Smithre5

IFERI supports and promotes the use of the Phonics Screening Check internationally. It is a free, easy to use, light-touch assessment. For more information, or to download the check, click here.

Please Help: Get Ghana Reading with Phonics by Phone

Created by the charity Educators International, Phonics by Phone is an ambitious and innovative project which aims to train teachers in remote parts of Ghana. Using the basic mobile that is already in their pocket, teachers will be trained how to teach reading from the beginning, with a specially written phonics course and resources.Ghana Movement

This ingenious solution works by providing 100 Phonics Lessons, specially written by IFERI’s Debbie Hepplewhite and recorded by Sheena Campbell, which are available to download as audio files that teachers can easily access and listen to on their phone. To access or listen to these modules simply click here.project_1273_body_50629_chart_pic_00263

In addition, there is also a very clever assessment project to support and sustain the Phonics by Phone network.  It works from an android phone app which then prints to a tiny micro-printer! Each time the app is used a new assessment is generated – watch the video below to see it in action. Amazing!

A crowd-funding initiative has been established to support this innovative, low-cost project which is already having a huge impact. On an ‘all-or-nothing’ basis the charity has until 7th August to raise the £15k target. They are already more than halfway there – but with only days to go – every donation counts. And if they don’t hit their target – the project will receive no financial help at all.

If you feel that you could support this worthwhile initiative please visit: https://www.launchgood.com/project/help_get_ghana_reading__by_phone#/

Educators International is also keen to connect educators from around the world with some of the teachers in Ghana who are close to qualifying. If you would like to find out more about being a pen-pal mentor to one of the highly committed, volunteer teachers in Ghana please click here to find out more.Ghana boys reading

Michael Stark, one of Educators International’s directors and trustees, urges all those who value literacy and reading to make a difference:

‘If properly taught using phonics, all these children will learn to read and write well, rather than drop out of school early. Help us achieve a miracle – reading success for huge numbers of children in Ghana.’

Educators_International

Please help spread the word and share this blog post with friends and colleagues. Thank you.

The Reading Reform Foundation Conference, March 2015 *updated*

‘From the Rose Review to the New Curriculum. A growing number of schools successfully teach every child to read; the majority still don’t. Why?’

The theme of the Reading Reform Foundation conference (above) drew attention to the fact that some schools achieve very highly despite complex and challenging circumstances. Indeed, London schools, despite being ‘inner city’ schools, are gaining a reputation in England for nationally high standards and some commentators attribute this to the rise in standards particularly in primary schools. Many primary headteachers would attribute their rise in standards to getting the foundations of literacy right by ensuring high-quality Systematic Synthetic Phonics provision within enriched language and literature settings.

The conference was very well-received and attendees included people from America, Spain, Ireland, Scotland and Australia.

Most of the talks were filmed and will be added to this blog posting as the footage becomes available.

Debbie Hepplewhite gave the opening talk, ‘Does it really matter if teachers do not share a common understanding about phonics and reading instruction?’ Having watched the talk via youtube, a number of ‘tweeters’ recommended this video for INSET (In-service training) suggesting that ‘all teachers’ would benefit from watching it!

Debbie’s PowerPoint – click here

Next, Anne Glennie talked about the lack of ambition and lack of phonics training in Scotland with her talk, ‘The Attainment Gap? What about the Teaching Gap?’ – and this is despite the fact that England and other countries internationally paid heed to the Clackmannanshire research (Johnston and Watson) conducted in Scottish schools.

Following Anne was Josie Mingay with her talk, ‘Phonics in the Secondary Classroom’. This talk generated a great deal of interest and Josie had more questions from the audience than anyone else. Clearly we still have weak literacy in many of our secondary schools – and this is surely why ALL teachers need to be trained in reading and spelling instruction, not just infant and primary teachers. In any event, a ‘beginner’ for whom English is a ‘new’ language, isn’t necessarily a five year old.

Sam Bailey was appointed headteacher of a struggling school with results well below national expectations. The theme of her talk was, ‘Transforming the life chances of our children – simple methods, great results’.She described in detail the rapid improvements with the adoption of Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes (Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters and Phonics International) in a climate of support, expectation, challenge, and rigour.

Gordon Askew brought his wealth of knowledge and experience to bear for his excellent talk, ‘Assessment, including the Phonics Screening Check and assessing reading at the end of Key Stage One’. To be honest, his talk was not what one might have expected and it turned out to be quite inspirational considering the topic!

Marj Newbury is a retired Early Years teacher with 37 years experience, She has also delivered synthetic phonics training extensively in schools both in the UK and worldwide – including as guest lecturer in her local universities. Marj’s talk, ‘Teacher Training’ not only described her work, but also voiced her concern about changes to the way we are training teachers in England.

Angela Westington HMI CV (Her Majesty’s Inspector) was invited to talk about her very important Ofsted report, ‘How a sample of schools in Stoke-on-Trent teach pupils to read’. Angela has considerable experience of leading and participating in national surveys and what is so important about Angela’s report is the clear description of strong phonics and reading practice and weak practice. Angela was not filmed but her ‘Stoke-on-Trent’ report is a must read and you can find it via the link below:

Stoke-on-Trent report – click here

Finally, the RRF was very appreciative that Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Reform, rounded off the conference with his final ministerial speech prior to the general election in the UK, Nick Gibb has been at the forefront at looking closely at the findings of international research to inform reading instruction and championing changes in the statutory National Curriculum to incorporate Systematic Synthetic Phonics. The theme of his talk was, ‘The Importance of Phonics’:

Nick Gibb’s speech – click here

 

A New Paper by Professors James W. Chapman and William E. Tunmer on Reading Recovery

IFERI is delighted to be able to share with you a brand new paper by Professors James W. Chapman and William E. Tunmer, from the Institute of Education at Massey University, New Zealand.

This paper was presented, by invitation, at the 39th Annual Conference of the International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities (IARLD), Vancouver, Canada, July 8, 2015. Professor James Chapman has been a Fellow of IARLD since 1983.

IARLD (International Academy for Research in Learning Disabilities) is an international professional organization dedicated to conducting and sharing research about individuals who have learning disabilities. Fellows of IARLD include premier scientists, educators and clinicians in the field of learning disabilities throughout the world.

For convenience, some extracts and conclusions from the paper are published as part of this blog post. To open or download the complete paper, simply click the title below.

The Literacy Performance of ex-Reading Recovery Students Between Two and Four Years Following Participation on the Program: Is this Intervention Effective for Students with Early Reading Difficulties?

 James W. Chapman and William E. Tunmer

Sustainability of Gains Made in Reading Recovery

Considered together, the PIRLS results for 9-year-old children who had received RR in Year 2, the enrolment data for students receiving support from RT:Lits, and the two New Zealand studies on the sustainability of RR outcomes for discontinued children, show that RR simply has not achieved its primary goals in New Zealand. Clay’s avowal that RR would “clear out of the remedial education system all children who do not learn to read” (Clay, 1987, p. 169), and the RR New Zealand’s website claim that RR operates as an “effective prevention strategy against later literacy difficulties” and, therefore, “may be characterised as an insurance against low literacy levels” (www.readingrecovery.ac.nz/reading_recovery), are without foundation.

Why Does Reading Recovery Fail to Result in Sustainable Gains?

We have argued elsewhere (Chapman et al., 2015) that the effectiveness of RR interacts with where children are located on the developmental progression from pre-reader to skilled reader. Because of limited knowledge of print at the outset of learning to read, and/or developmental delay in acquiring the phonological awareness skills that are essential for learning to read successfully (e.g., Pressley, 2006; Snow & Juel, 2005; Tunmer, Greaney & Prochnow, 2015), a large proportion of young struggling readers operate at low developmental phases of word learning, which Ehri (2005) described as pre-alphabetic and partial-alphabetic phases. Delayed readers who are still in these phases, typically those students who struggle the most with learning to read, will not be able to grasp the alphabetic principle and discover spelling-to-sound relationships on their own or in a program that emphasizes text rather than word level instructional approaches. These students will require more intensive and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonemically based decoding skills than what is provided in typical RR lessons.

What Should be Done to Improve the Effectiveness of Reading Recovery?

There are serious shortcomings and much-needed improvements in several aspects of RR, including the theoretical underpinnings of the program, the assessment battery which fails to include measures of phonological processing skills, the specific instructional strategies emphasized in the program (e.g., the multiple cues approach to word identification), the manner of program delivery (one-to-one versus instruction in pairs), and the congruence between classroom literacy instruction and the RR program.

Regarding the issue of congruence between classroom literacy instruction and RR, the program was originally developed to complement regular whole language classroom literacy instruction in New Zealand. Clay (1993), nevertheless, claimed that RR was compatible with all types of classroom literacy programs, but she offered no evidence in support of this claim. To test this belief, Center et al. (2001) investigated whether the efficacy of RR varied as a function of the regular classroom literacy program. They compared the effects of RR in “meaning oriented” (i.e., whole language) classrooms and “code-oriented” classrooms (i.e., those that included explicit and systematic instruction in phonological awareness and alphabetic coding skills). Their results indicated that at the end of the second year of schooling, children in the code-oriented classrooms (regular and RR students combined) significantly outperformed children in the meaning-oriented classrooms on measures of phonological recoding, reading connected text, and invented spelling, as well as on a standardized measure of reading comprehension. Overall, however, Center et al. (2001) reported that the RR students in both types of classrooms failed to reach the average level of their peers on any of the literacy measures. These findings clearly contradict Clay’s (1993) claim that the regular classroom context does not differentially affect the literacy performance of RR children.

Although regular classroom literacy instruction influences the effectiveness of RR, the most serious shortcoming of the program is the differential benefit at the individual level. The program may be useful in the short term for some struggling readers but not others, especially those struggling readers who need help the most. More intensive and systematic instruction in phonemic awareness and phonemically-based decoding skills is likely to be required than what is normally provided in RR lessons for those who struggle most with learning to read, and for any gains made in RR to have a lasting effect (Iversen, Tunmer & Chapman, 2005; Tunmer & Greaney, 2010).

Slavin et al. (2011) found reading programs for younger children that had less emphasis on phonics, including RR, showed smaller effect sizes than those programs that included phonics. They noted that RR is the most extensively researched and used reading intervention program in the world, but that the outcomes were less than might be expected. Further, Slavin et al. observed that the overall effect size for 18 studies involving paraprofessional or volunteer tutors using structured and intensive programs was about the same as the effect size for RR studies (+0.24 vs. +0.23), despite the very intensive training that RR teachers receive.

Conclusion

The RR program remains largely un-revised in its instructional approach despite clear evidence showing that claims about RR being an insurance against on-going literacy difficulties are without foundation. The New Zealand Reading Recovery website continues to assert the effectiveness of RR; assertions that are not supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Education’s own data (national monitoring reports and PIRLS), or by the two independent studies undertaken in New Zealand on students two to four years following successful completion of the program. If the RR program is not changed to reflect contemporary scientific research on reading interventions, it should be dropped and replaced by a more contemporary, research-based, reading intervention approach, together with more effective literacy instruction in children’s first year of schooling.

See also:

Excellence and equity in literacy education: the case of New Zealand. W.E. Tunmer & J.W. Chapman (eds.) (June, 2015). Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/excellence-and-equity-in-literacy-education-william-e-tunmer/?K=9781137415561

The Adoption and Spread of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) in Latin America

The Adoption and Spread of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) in Latin America: Argentina and Chile mainly, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru and Mexico

by Grace Vilar

In 2011, I became an independent, full-time Literacy and Phonics Trainer, and Educational and Literacy Consultant, in Latin America. I started providing training events, however, in 2007 whilst I was still working as Head of English Primary at Colegio San Antonio in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

I am the main phonics consultant and trainer developing Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) provision in Latin America. I am not a researcher, however, and I describe my findings based on my experience as teacher, head teacher and teacher-trainer.

Whilst visiting primary schools during a trip to Oxford, England, in September 2006, I discovered systematic synthetic phonics teaching. I was immediately aware that synthetic phonics was the solution to our problems in Latin American schools, as synthetic phonics provides a very easy and effective method to teach our bilingual Spanish/English children how to read and write.

Originally when I was teaching, I had to base my teaching on the whole word and whole language approach. I attended many teacher-training courses and was very much supported by my school and head teacher at that time. With much effort, my pupils did learn – however, I was never very happy with the whole language approach and used ‘decoding’ and ‘encoding’ to support the ‘mixed methods’. In reality I was getting frustrated year after year with mixed methods. In time, I became a head teacher myself, and continued to be very uncomfortable with the prevailing mixed methods. A ‘multi-cueing reading strategies’ approach was also used for struggling readers, and still children were not reading well, and writing… had worsened!

The problem was that our children were using their experience of the ‘transparent’ Spanish alphabetic code to read and write in English resulting in very inaccurate pronunciation and spelling. So once they started to learn the details of the ‘opaque’ (complex) English alphabetic code, together with the core phonics skills of blending (for reading), segmenting (for spelling) and handwriting with the English code rather than the Spanish code, they rapidly started to master the pronunciation and spelling of English with the accuracy I had been seeking. The children soon showed greater confidence in reading and writing and their language and reading comprehension in English grew stronger every day. With knowledge of the English alphabetic code, even the children with special educational needs became successful – such as those with short-term memory, and dyslexic tendencies.

Following my very positive findings of applying synthetic phonics in my own bilingual school, I started to share my experience with other schools – first in Argentina and then in Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and Brazil. All of these countries learn English as a new foreign language as Spanish is their mother tongue (and Portuguese in the case of Brazil).

Year after year more schools in Latin America are using the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles as their main and only method for teaching reading and writing in English, and a few of them have even started to use England’s statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check at the end of Year One to get an idea of how they are doing compared to schools in England. In Latin America, however, ‘Year One’ is only the first year of formal, structured phonics provision whereas in England’s schools, formal structured phonics provision starts in Reception so children in England have had two years of synthetic phonics by the time they undertake the Year One Phonics Screening Check. Early signs are that the Latin American schools are getting wonderful results, some at least getting better results than the average results of schools in England!

Further information about Latin America, Spanish-speaking countries

Argentina is the pioneering country for adoption of Systematic Synthetic Phonics. Most of the private schools in Argentina teach English for 8 to 15 hours a week. The level of teaching and teachers’ professionalism is very high in general. Chile and Uruguay follow in terms of adoption of synthetic phonics. These two countries in particular look to England as a guide for updating and perfecting their teaching of English. They take the Cambridge international examinations (IGCSE, A and AS levels, and IB programmes). Even state schools in the city of Buenos Aires have adopted some IB subjects for their secondary schools.

State schools in Argentina also teach English as a foreign language for 3 to 5 hours a week, starting from Primary 1 (5 to 6 year olds) or from Preschool (4 to 5 year olds). Others start in Year 4 (8 to 9 year olds) or they may start in secondary schools.

In the province of San Luis, Argentina, in 2013 the Department for Education launched a bilingual and multilingual project in three schools where English is taught two and a half hours daily following an immersion programme such as the ones used in the private schools in the country. These three schools offer Trinity examinations.

In Mexico, English is taught in all of the 32 states from Preschool (5 year olds) for 2 to 3 hours a week. The first state to adopt a Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme (Jolly Phonics) officially is Aguascalientes where I trained 300 teachers.

As I said before, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile are leading countries and they refer mainly to England’s education, so they adopt all the latest teaching practices and methods. When new methodologies appear, all schools send their staff to be trained and organisations such as the ESSARP centre based in Buenos Aires offer a wide range of courses which now include Systematic Synthetic Phonics courses.  (ABSCH in Chile delivers an annual conference.)

Click here to see an example of SSP course content

I devote my whole professional time now to training teachers around Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and online in Peru – and little by little interest is also growing in Brazil, where I sometimes have to speak in the Portuguese language to train the teachers in the state schools!

Countries that have adopted the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles as their main method to teach how to read and write in English as a foreign language:

Countries Private state
Argentina 70 % approx. San Luis province: 100% City of Buenos Aires: 20%
Mexico 2 % approx. State of Aguascalientes: 100%
Chile 35 % approx
Uruguay 40 % approx.
Brazil 3 % approx. State of Parana: Pinhais and Palotina: 6 municipal schools
Peru 10 % approx

Note: These are not official percentages and these figures are growing daily.

Spreading Systematic Synthetic Phonics

My main objective is to train all teachers in SSP, so wherever they teach, they take along the method!

You can find a list of schools and countries in Latin America using SSP to teach children how to read and write in English on my website (not complete as I cannot control the spread of SSP any more… it is in the hands of the teachers now!)

http://gracevilarphonics.weebly.com/schools.html

Year One Phonics Screening Check

This check is statutory in England; it is freely available to all practitioners and IFERI promotes the adoption of this check.  Click here to find out more, and to read about the success of the screening check in The British School of Costa Rica.

Examples of Children Reading

Fernando, 6 years old, from Argentina, his mother tongue is Spanish: Fernando has had one year of SSP instruction. We see Fernando reading decodable books at ‘first sight’:

Catalina, 6 years old, from Argentina, her mother tongue is Spanish: We see Catalina reading and writing nonsense words:

Grace Vilar is a Bilingual Literacy and Educational Consultant and Synthetic Phonics Trainer. She is also a member of the IFERI Committee.