A small but exciting study was completed recently. Dr Marlynne Grant has been working with a cohort of students learning to read from Reception to Year 2 with her own systematic synthetic phonics programme called ‘Sound Discovery’. She followed a Reception class of 30 students in a catholic primary school designated for travellers of Irish origin. Here are a few of the findings:
- By Year 2 the class were 28 months above their chronological age for reading and 21 months ahead for spelling. The overall achievement range was 7.07 years to 13.09 years for reading and 7.01 years to 14.09 years for spelling.
- By Year 2 children eligible for Free School Meals were on average 24 months above their chronological age for reading and 20 months above for spelling.
- By year 2 the boys in the class were on average 36 months above chronological age for reading and 27 months above for spelling.
So, given the number of times I have read the assertion that there is no evidence in favour of SSP (systematic synthetic phonics) to teach reading, surely SSP proponents might be expected to be crowing? Their ‘method’ finally has some proof.
There is a good reason why this study was greeted with great interest but not a fanfare. We’ve seen it all before. Dr. Grant’s study is actually small scale and not prepared for peer review. However, for those of us only too familiar with the success of SSP the results are unsurprising. They match the vast body of converging evidence that SSP is a better approach than the methods used in most British classrooms. Personally, I don’t leap to implement the latest piece of educational research because individual studies are narrow and classrooms and the children in them are complex. However,
“that direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition, is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioural science” (Stanovich, Progress in Understanding Reading p415.)
“In science it is rare that anything is proved in one defining study. Data is evaluated from dozens of experiments, each containing some flaws but providing part of the answer”
award winning cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovich explains in his fascinating article Using Research and Reason in Education p15-19. He goes on:
“This is a gross misunderstanding of scientific process… one experiment rarely decides an issue…issues are most often decided when the community of scientists gradually begins to agree that the preponderance of evidence supports one alternative theory rather than another… when a conceptual hypothesis survives many potential falsifications based on a different sets of assumptions we have a robust effect…taken collectively, a series of partially diagnostic experiments can lead to a strong conclusion if the data converge…”
He explains that:
“The principle of converging evidence has been well illustrated in the controversies surrounding the teaching of reading…the results of [a variety of] studies have been synthesized in several important research syntheses: (Adams, 1990; Ehri et al., 2001; National Reading Panel, 2000, Pressley, 1998; Rayner et al., 2002; Reading Coherence Initiative, 1999; Share and Stanovich, 1995; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Snowling 2000; Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 2001;Stanovich, 2000). These studies were used in a process of establishing converging evidence, a principle that governs the drawing of a conclusion that a particular educational practice is research-based.”
A research synthesis draws on many studies, for example the National Reading Panel 2000 synthesis draws on the results of 66 comparisons from 38 different studies to indicate:
“… solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.”
So where does Dr Marlynne Grant’s study fit into this body of evidence?
To appreciate its place you need to be aware of some of the main areas where there has been converging evidence in favour of SSP (systematic synthetic phonics). I will only explain some in more detail but do follow the links.
- Evidence to disprove the theories behind the method used in the vast majority of British classrooms (see here and here ).
This approach is confusingly called ‘mixed methods’. It was theorised in the 1960s and 70s that fluent readers used prediction. Therefore in approximately 94% of British classrooms (see p61) although children are taught to recognise how letters correspond to sounds, when actually reading books children are encouraged to guess what words might be. They are taught to look for ‘cues’ such as knowing the initial letter in the word, overall shape of word, context and pictures. In fact the theories were wrong. Fluent readers don’t guess.
The term ‘mixed methods’ is very misleading. It is a method which encourages children to attend to word shape and context, at the expense of attention to all the letters in the word and their order. Saying you support ‘mixed methods’ is rather like telling people they can drive their car on the left and also drive on the right simultaneously. When reading you can teach children so: ‘eyes are darting about for clues’ (mixed methods) or ‘eyes go left to right to decode’ (SSP). A child can’t do both simultaneously…
However, mostly the reading books used in schools aren’t designed to help children practise to read words left to right through decoding with the letter sound correspondences they are familiar with. The books are designed so guessing works. Many children initially learn this easy shortcut in preference to ‘sounding out’. It is those that gradually lose the guessing habit that will become fluent readers. Too many don’t – as the booming dyslexia industry demonstrates.
To be clear an approach to reading based on an entirely debunked theory is still the basis for reading instruction in possibly 94% of British schools. Ignoring all the evidence Reading Recovery, the National Literacy Trust, International Literacy Centre and United Kingdom Literacy Association still advocate ‘mixed methods’. It is this bizarre state of affairs that provoked Stanovich’s whole article above and Stanovich is a good starting point if you are interested in the research in this particular area.
2. Evidence that fluent readers need to recognise that words are composed of sounds and match letters, or groups of letters, to sounds. See here
3. Evidence that “the vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level difficulties” (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002).
This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179). [Links and more detail here]
4. Some evidence that reading is accomplished with letter-by-letter processing of the word. See here p26.
‘Fluent readers do perceive each and every letter of print. Thus, we can distinguish casual from causal, grill from girl, and primeval from prime evil.’
5. Evidence that learning to recognise whole words is ineffective. See here
“The evidence against such an account of reading behaviour is by now incontrovertible. Accurate and fluent word decoding is a pre-requisite for efficient reading for interest and information” ‘Dyslexia, literacy and psychological assessment‘, the British Psychological Society 2005 p26
6. Evidence showing that countries with ‘shallow orthographies’ (words are easy to decode) do not have a problem with ‘dyslexia’ as we know it. See here
Those opposing SSP criticise it for focusing on children’s ability to decode the text rather than comprehend the text’s meaning. These criticisms again ignore the overwhelming evidence regarding decoding and comprehension.
a. It seems perverse to criticise a method that nearly eliminates dyslexia type problems (see links in part 7) because it doesn’t also solve children’s comprehension problems.
b. There is lots of research showing children will comprehend writing if it is within their spoken vocabulary and understanding. This is known as ‘the Simple View of Reading’. There is little difference in comprehension whether a passage is read to you, or you read it yourself but you can only lift the meaning from the words if you are able to decode them. Therefore to improve comprehension it is essential that children have broad and rich exposure to written literature, much of it at the higher level of children’s oral comprehension, to enrich their vocabulary and knowledge of the world.
Critics of SSP suggest it leads to children decoding without attending to the meaning of the words because they are not using ‘prediction’ to read. However, fluent readers don’t guess and it is simply incorrect to suggest SSP leads to poorer comprehension than other methods. In fact comprehension is generally better than average with SSP (see studies in next section) because children read more books so learn more about the world. All children should have exposure to plenty of good literature to improve comprehension then the choice is between a method leading to most children decoding effectively or one where too many struggle to decode and thus comprehension is a real challenge.
So the research on phonics is by no means minimal…
However, all this does not prove that specific SSP approaches do actually work better. So finally we have:
8. Evidence that in the classroom SSP leads to results that are startlingly better than is generally expected.
Marilyn Jager Adams’s writes in her 1990 book synthesizing research to that date, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about print:
‘Perhaps the most influential arguments for teaching phonics are based on studies comparing the relative effectiveness of different approaches to teaching beginning reading. Collectively these studies suggest, with impressive consistency, that programs including systematic instruction in letter-to -sound correspondences lead to higher achievement in both word recognition and spelling, at least in the early grades and especially for slower or economically students.’ (p. 31)
Studies that leap to mind are the enormous ‘Project Follow Through’ and the Clackmannanshire longitudinal study but there are many others, see here and here. Dr Grant’s study is interesting because it breaks down the performance of different at-risk groups. Her findings suggest a full study would be fruitful. What does she say led to those results? Simply good SSP from the beginning of Reception (waiting until the phonics screening check in year 1 leaves many behind). Children that struggled were not given ‘other methods to use’ (because they don’t work) they had extra time in catch up groups with the same programme to consolidate their learning.
When SSP approaches are taught faithfully, systematically, and without guessing from contextual cues or an emphasis on learning some words by sight, the results can be astounding. Surely things have to change? Can those blinded by ideological bias, misinformation and habit really continue to ignore the weight of evidence and stop others from finding out? Can children be deprived of that most vital skill and precious gift by those unwilling to even look into more successful methods?
Thanks to Anna Worthington and others at the Reading Reform Foundation for links and helpful comments.