Select Committee on Education and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Professor Rhona S Johnston, University of Hull and Dr Joyce Watson, University of St Andrews

Studies of Literacy Skills in Children in England and Scotland, Comparing the Effectiveness of Synthetic Versus Analytic Phonics Teaching


    —  In our studies we have found that children in England perform significantly better when taught by the synthetic phonics method than by the National Literacy Strategy's Progression in Phonics approach (which is an analytic phonics approach).

    —  In our seven year longitudinal study in Scotland, carried out in 13 classes, we have found the same advantage for the synthetic phonics method compared with the analytic phonics method.

    —  The best results were found when the synthetic phonics programme started at the beginning of the first year at school. This led to better spelling at the end of the second year at school for boys and girls, and better word reading for girls.

    —  The synthetic phonics method led to boys reading words better than girls by the end of the third year at school. They were still ahead at the end of the seventh year at school:

    The boys read words 3.9 years ahead of chronological age and were 2.0 years ahead in spelling. The girls were 3.1 years and 1.4 years ahead in word reading and spelling respectively.

    —  At the end of the seventh year at school, only 5.6% of children were more than two years behind chronological age in word reading, 10.1% were behind in spelling, and 14.9% were behind in reading comprehension.

    —  Children from disadvantaged homes read and spelt less well than children from advantaged homes with the analytic phonics approach, but performed as well as these children with the synthetic phonics approach.

    —  Writing skills did not differ between children from advantaged and disadvantaged homes with the synthetic phonics approach, and both groups performed better than would be expected on the basis of verbal ability.


  In analytic phonics, the predominant method in the UK, letter sounds are taught after reading has already begun, children initially learning to read some words by sight, often in the context of meaningful text. In order to teach the letter sounds whole words sharing a common initial letter sound are presented to children, eg "milk", "man", "mother". Attention is drawn to the /m/ sound heard at the beginning of the words. When all of the letter sounds have been taught in this way, attention is then drawn to letters at the ends of words, then in the middle, in consonant-vowel-consonant (CVC) words. Therefore children learn about letter sounds in the context of whole words. At this stage, which is generally at the end of the first year at school, children may also be taught to sound and blend CVC words, eg /c/ /a/ /t/ -> cat, but this is not a feature of all analytic phonics schemes. The method advocated in Progression in Phonics, in the National Literacy Strategy, resembles this approach, but also advocates that children learn early on to hear and manipulate sounds in spoken words without the help of letters. This is called phonemic awareness training.


  This is a very accelerated form of phonics that does not begin by establishing an initial sight vocabulary. With this approach, before children are introduced to books, they are taught letter sounds. After the first few of these have been taught they are shown how these sounds can be blended together to build up words. For example, when taught the letter sounds /t/ /p/ /a/ and /s/ the children can build up the words "tap", "pat", "pats", "taps", "a tap" etc. The children are not told the pronunciation of the new word by the teacher; the children sound each letter in turn and then synthesise the sounds together in order to generate the pronunciation of the word. Thus the children construct the pronunciation for themselves. Most of the letter sound correspondences, including the consonant and vowel digraphs, can be taught in the space of a few months at the start of their first year at school. This means that the children can read many of the unfamiliar words they meet in text for themselves, without the assistance of the teacher. In our synthetic phonics programme, on which we present evidence below, children did not carry out a phonemic awareness programme separated either from the learning of letter sounds, or from reading and spelling activities.


  In analytic phonics, whole words are presented and pronounced by the teacher, and the children's attention is only subsequently drawn to the information given by letter sound correspondences. The National Literacy Strategy's Progression in Phonics uses an analytic phonics approach, supplemented by a substantial phonemic awareness training programme. The sounding and blending element for pronouncing unfamiliar words is only introduced after children have learnt to read words by sight. Typically in the areas of England in which we have carried out studies of the National Literacy Strategy, it would not be until the third term of the first year at school that the most advanced children would be made aware of the importance of letter sound correspondences in all positions of words, which enables sounding and blending to be taught. An analytic phonics scheme such as this is usually not completed until the end of the third year at school. In synthetic phonics programmes sounding and blending is taught at the start of the year, before books are introduced, and the basic programme can be completed in a period of two to four months.

  The new supplement to Progression in Phonics that was issued last May, Playing with Sounds, still emphasises rhyme and phonemic awareness training as a precursor to learning to read and spell. Early on it also emphasises sound-to-letter training for spelling, rather than letter-to-sound training for reading. In fact 16 letters are taught before children are shown how to blend letter sounds for reading. In the study of early synthetic phonics teaching in Scotland described below, sounding and blending for reading was taught after three letter sounds had been learnt in the first few weeks at school. However, a further two groups in Scotland started the synthetic phonics programme after Easter, and in the English school it was introduced at the start of the second term at school. As will be seen, a later start had implications for how well the children did, particularly in spelling.

1.   Study of the performance of Reception children on the Synthetic Phonics programme versus the National Literacy Strategy in a school in England

  The synthetic-phonics-taught children starting the programme in January, at the start of their second term at school. The programme lasted for around 30 minutes a day for 16 weeks, and was taught to the whole class. It can be seen that this class was six months younger than the other class (mean age 4.7 years compared with 5.2 years), but even so when tested in July had somewhat better word reading and spelling skills than the children taught by the National Literacy Strategy. Their reading was seven months above chronological age, and spelling was four months ahead. However, the children taught by the National Literacy Strategy in the same school were nearly three months behind their age in reading, and nearly one month behind in spelling. When the difference in age between the two classes was taken into account, the synthetic phonics taught children were statistically ahead of the National Literacy Strategy taught children in word reading and spelling.

2.   Study of children in primary schools in Clackmannanshire

  This study has just been completed, and covers a sample of around 300 children from the first to the seventh year of primary schooling. Children at the start of their first year in school were taught either by an analytic phonics method, by an analytic phonics programme supplemented by phonemic awareness training, or by the synthetic phonics method. All of the programmes were carried out for 20 minutes a day for 16 weeks, taught to the whole class. This sample was of somewhat below average verbal ability (mean score 92, when the average is 100), and there was a skew towards the children coming from homes of low socio-economic status.

  (a)  Comparison of children in March of the first year at school in three teaching programmes.

  The analytic phonics plus phonemic awareness programme, which the National Literacy Strategy's Progression in Phonics programme most closely resembles, did not lead to better word reading and spelling than the analytic-phonics-only programme. The synthetic phonics programme was the most effective, the children reading words around seven months ahead of the children in the other two groups, and spelling around eight to nine months ahead. This was statistically significant for both reading and spelling.

  After Easter, the children who had initially learnt by an analytic phonics approach then carried out the synthetic phonics programme.

  (b)  Comparison of the children at the end of the second year at school, when all groups had been taught the synthetic phonics programme.

  It can be seen that word reading and spelling are nearly a year above chronological age, and that reading comprehension is around six months above chronological age. However, the question arises as to whether there is an advantage in learning by a synthetic phonics approach right at the start of primary schooling.

  We found that the children who had learnt by the early synthetic phonics programme were significantly better spellers at the end of the second year at school than those who had started after Easter. At this stage, the boys performed equally well in word reading, regardless of which method they had started with. However, the girls (see Figure 4 above) read words significantly less well if they had started with an analytic phonics only programme.

  (c)  Comparison of sample at end of seventh year at school, by sex.

  At the end of the third year at school, we found that the boys were reading words significantly better than the girls. This was found for all subsequent years. At the end of the seventh year at school, see Figure 5 above, the synthetic phonics taught boys were reading words 3.9 years ahead of chronological age, and spelling 2.0 years ahead. The girls were reading 3.1 years ahead of chronological age, and spelling 1.4 years ahead of chronological age. The boys were statistically ahead of the girls in word reading and spelling. Both the boys' and the girls' reading comprehension was 3.5 months above chronological age. At this point we tested vocabulary knowledge as this is a good predictor of educational achievement. Average performance is 100, so as the sample had a mean score of 92, these children were somewhat below average in vocabulary knowledge. As comprehension ability is closely associated with verbal ability, to be performing better than chronological age in reading comprehension with this level of vocabulary knowledge is very creditable.

  (d)  Underachievers.

  It can be seen that the percentage of low achievers is small, especially considering that this is a fairly low ability sample that comes predominantly from a poor socio-economic background. Even at the end of the seventh year at primary school (which translates to the first year of secondary school in England age-wise) only 5.6% of the children were more than two years behind chronological age in word reading, 10.1% were behind in spelling, and 14.9% were behind in reading comprehension.

3.   Disadvantaged children  (a)  Comparison of reading and spelling by social background at end of second year at school

  As stated above, many of the children in the study came from rather poor socio-economic backgrounds. Most came from very to moderately deprived homes, with less than half coming from moderately advantaged areas. We examined whether the synthetic phonics approach just gave a boost in literacy skills to children from advantaged backgrounds, or whether those from disadvantaged backgrounds also showed improved literacy skills.

  It can be seen in this comparison of 196 children that with analytic phonics teaching children from disadvantaged backgrounds showed word reading and spelling skills at much lower levels than the more advantaged children. With synthetic phonics teaching, this deficit no longer existed. The disadvantaged children were actually somewhat ahead of the advantaged children, but this may have been due to the fact that they had had the synthetic phonics programme right at the start of the school year, whereas the advantaged children had started the programme after Easter of the first year at school.

  (b)  Writing skills at the end of the sixth year at school.

  Advanced writing skills were not trained in the synthetic phonics programme, but we decided to examine whether the early boost in word reading and spelling skills had implications for later writing skills. On the basis of the level of vocabulary knowledge found for this sample, these scores could be expected to be around 92. In an examination of the children's ability to write text, it was found that they performed over 5 points above what would be expected from their levels of vocabulary knowledge. With mean writing scores of 97 and 98 respectively, the disadvantaged and moderately advantaged groups were performing close to the average of 100. Furthermore, the scores for the children from the poorest homes were only 1 point behind the more advantaged, which was not statistically significant.


    —  It can be seen that the synthetic phonics programme led to very advanced word reading and spelling skills, even for children of somewhat below average verbal ability who came from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. In fact, there was evidence for six year olds that the programme had eradicated the deficit in literacy skills normally found for children from poorer homes.

    —  There was also evidence that the earlier the synthetic phonics programme started the better this was for spelling ability, and that for girls this led to better word reading skills.

Does policy/guidance have a sound base in research evidence?

  The Progression in Phonics and Playing with Sounds programmes have a significant rhyme and phonemic awareness training element, often without reference to letters and printed words. Our research has shown this teaching to be unnecessary. We believe it is claimed that these programmes are synthetic phonics ones, and therefore incorporate current research evidence on effective phonics programmes. We argue, however, that these are not synthetic phonics programmes because of the late start in teaching children to sound and blend.

  If they are synthetic phonics programmes, then children learning by the National Literacy Strategy should do as well as children in the synthetic phonics programme used in our studies. We have found this not to be the case with Progression in Phonics.

  The newly introduced Playing with Sounds programme brings in sounding and blending earlier than Progression in Phonics. It would be interesting to know if this programme was tested in schools using standardised tests of reading and spelling before and after the programme started, and whether comparisons were made with performance in schools not carrying out the programme. Our research suggests that although Playing with Sounds makes a move towards a synthetic phonics approach, it is unlikely to be as effective for children as an early start synthetic phonics programme, implemented soon after entering school.


  We have so far successfully introduced the synthetic phonics programme to children of average age 4.7 years, and have had no difficulty in enabling such children to make an excellent start in learning to read and spell. This programme is very interactive, with a lot of pupil involvement, but it does not contain the play element found in the National Literacy Strategy, nor does it seek to develop phonemic awareness skills prior to learning to read.

February 2005

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