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Synthetic Phonics: Teaching Children to Read in 2012

    In the tenth of the CPS' 'UK Policy Resolutions for 2012' series, Tom Burkard, a CPS Research Fellow on Education Policy, explains how the Government could improve reading ability for young children. Yesterday, in the ninth in the series , Yorick Wilks looked at reforms to reinforce privacy and identity in 2012.

    UK Policy Resolutions for 2012:

    • Advances in use of Computer Adaptive Tests (CATS) for child reading
    • Utilise outside providers (paid by results) for children falling behind

    In the late 1990s, schools in Clackmannanshire and West Dunbartonshire proved that virtually any child can be taught to read in an ordinary primary school classroom.  They succeeded despite high poverty levels and the learning difficulties that afflict at least 20% of all children.  They used the uncompromising synthetic phonics approach which we have advocated in a series of CPS reports dating from 1996.[1] 

    By 2005, this evidence could no longer be ignored, and Tony Blair decided to knock his officials' heads together. He forced them to abandon the discredited National Literacy Strategy, which was overwhelmingly biased towards the whole-language philosophy advocated by the 'literacy lobby'. In 2006, the Rose Review established synthetic phonics as the approved method of teaching early reading skills. 

    Unfortunately, subsequent gains in reading scores have been modest at best, and possibly non-existent: we just don't know. [2] It would be difficult to devise worse tests than our 11+ English SATs. They are highly subjective, and in any case they are more tests of emotional intelligence than reading ability. In December 2011 only a third of the pupils sitting the Coalition's new 6+ decoding test passed - a damning indictment of government attempts to replicate the success of our Scottish exemplars.

    Ministers aren't entirely to blame for this abject failure.  Many advocates of synthetic phonics have presented the method as a magic bullet, and unfortunately policy-makers have taken this claim at face value.  In truth, at least 20% of all children will have considerable trouble learning to read no matter what method is used. One of the main advantages of synthetic phonics is that these pupils can be identified early and given enough help to keep up. 

    Unfortunately, Letters and Sounds - the synthetic phonics programme developed by the DCSF in 2007 - is a one-speed programme which made no provision for pupils who need extra help.  Unsurprisingly, most teachers appear to have concluded that synthetic phonics is vastly over-rated.  

    Ministers will never be able to do anything about this unless they give up their obsession with top-down reforms.  They should heed the words of George Patton, one of America's greatest generals: “Never tell people how to do things.  Just tell them what to do, and they will surprise you with their ingenuity”. 

    Formal tests are the most effective means of telling teachers what to do.  As we argued in 1999, no progress is possible until we have a reliable system of objective, externally-administered reading and spelling tests.  It is essential that scores be expressed in terms of reading age, so parents and teachers will know when additional help is needed.

    The Government's new 6+ decoding test is a small step in the right direction, but it still doesn't put parents in the driving seat.  If children fail it, many teachers will still just shrug it off as the result of poor parenting, Asperger's syndrome, ADHD, or whatever new excuse the special needs industry has just dreamed up. 



    Advances in Computer Adaptive Tests (CATS) will allow for the development of simple yet objective decoding tests which can be accessed online by parents as well as teachers.  These can be administered in a matter of minutes, and are relatively stress-free.  The great majority of teachers who really care about their pupils' progress will be able to monitor progress easily. Parents who discover that their child is falling behind should be eligible for outside help from providers who are paid by results--Florida's MacKay admendment has established a successful precedent for funding private schooling for pupils whose needs are not being met in state schools.

    I suggest that such tests be developed immediately.[3] Parents would no longer have to wait until their child had experienced humiliating failure - and fallen hopelessly behind - before demanding help.  Needless to say, these policies would be bitterly attacked by the burgeoning 'Special Needs' industry, and by 'Early Years' specialists who believe that children should learn through play.  But the alternative is to continue as we are - with the end result that synthetic phonics will just be another in a long line of top-down education initiatives that are discredited, and then forgotten.


    Tom Burkard is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies and an expert in education delivery. Current Education Secretary Michael Gove said of Burkard in 2009 “[he] has done more than anyone living in the fight against illiteracy in this country”. In 2011, Burkard co-authored the Centre for Policy Studies publication “Something Can Be Done: Troops in our schools will do more than troops on our streets”.

    This article represents the views of the author only and does not necessarily represent the policy outlook of the Centre for Policy Studies, its board, staff or affiliated members.


    [1]    Why phonics must come first (CPS, 1996), The End of Illiteracy? The Holy Grail of Clackmannanshire (CPS, 1999), After the Literacy Hour: may be the best plan win (CPS, 2004), A World First for West Dunbartonshire (CPS, 2006)

    [2]    The number of pupils who 'passed' 11+ English tests increased by 2% between 2006 and 2011. 

    [3]    Durham University's Centre for Evaluation and Management is a world leader in developing CAT tests.

    Tom Burkard is a Visiting Professor of Education Policy at the University of Derby. He is the co-author of the Sound Foundations reading and spelling programmes, which are rapidly gaining recognition as the most cost-effective means of preventing reading failure. In June 2015 he was awarded a DPhil by Published Works by the University of Buckingham.

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    Anonymous - About 3131 days ago

    Dear Mr Burkard,
    I am currently researching 'Why we should teach KS2 phonics', I wondered if I might gain your opinion?e
    I have also come across the following questions:
    Is it taught just to fill the gap in ages? Is it otherwise known as grammar and spelling? Is it only for those who remain at lower abilities?

    Any insight would be greatly appreciated.

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