Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Commons Select Committee: Invitation to comment on strength of evidence for phonics instruction

Last week I was directed to this by Susan Godsland (thank you Susan).  Deadline is 12th December if you’d like to submit a comment, my contribution is below (note: maximum 5000 characters):

The Education Committee invites views on the strength of the evidence in relation to the current policy on Phonics and various methods of learning to read.   http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/education-committee/dfe-evidence-check-forum/phonics/

My comment:

In terms of additional research focusing on synthetic phonics instruction in UK schools, I would like to direct the Education Committee to the following papers (see below).  I believe the strength of evidence for synthetic phonics instruction is increasing; however we need to be critical of the evidence, impartial and ensure we rely on high quality research to inform this debate.  In response to the paper produced by the UK Parliament, I’ve also commented on a couple of points:  

The following papers may be of interest to inform the discussion of phonics in UK schools:

Papers A and B below examine synthetic phonics in depth and show that this is a particularly effective method for children starting school with weak reading readiness skills (e.g., poor letter-sound knowledge) and also for children with weak language (i.e., vocabulary) skills.  Therefore it is important to consider individual differences (see point below) when considering the effectiveness of phonics instruction. In addition, for schools implementing a systematic synthetic phonics method of instruction, these papers show the skills children are relying upon as they learn to read by this approach:

A) McGeown, S. P., & Medford, E.  (2013). Using method of instruction to predict the skills supporting initial reading development: insight from a synthetic phonics approach.  Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 27, 591-608.

B) McGeown, S., Johnston, R., & Medford, E.  (2012).  Reading instruction affects the cognitive skills supporting early reading development.  Learning and Individual Differences, 22, 360-264.

Paper C compares the long term effects of synthetic phonics vs analytic phonics instruction in UK schools. 

C) Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S., & Watson, J. E. (2012).  Long term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10 year old boys and girls.   Reading and Writing: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 25, 1365-1384. 

Papers D and E deal specifically with concerns regarding the irregular nature of the English orthography and show that use of decoding skills/a phonological approach is actually beneficial, not detrimental, to irregular word reading.  This is evidence against the idea that the English writing system is too irregular for a phonics focused approach to be effective:

D) McGeown, S. P., Johnston, R. S., & Moxon, G.  (2013).  Toward an understanding of how children read and spell irregular words: the role of nonword and orthographic processing skills.  Journal  of Research in Reading, 37, 51-64.

E) McGeown, S. P., Medford, E., & Moxon, G. (2013).  Individual differences in children’s reading and spelling strategies and the skills supporting strategy use.  Learning and Individual Differences, 28, 75-81. 

Copies of papers can be accessed via: https://edinburgh.academia.edu/SarahMcGeown

Comments on points within the UK Parliament document specifically:

“UK and international research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics teaching,
in a language-rich curriculum….”. 

I think it is critical that you continue to highlight that phonics is an effective way to teach children to read new/unfamiliar words, but is not a method to teach children the meaning of these words.  I think this distinction is often confused (i.e., phonics is criticised because children don’t learn word meanings through this approach; however that is not the function of phonics).  Therefore phonics needs to be presented to teachers within a context; phonics is an effective method to teach children to read new words; however children should also be exposed to literature and a rich linguistic environment to develop their language and reading comprehension skills (e.g., via story book activities etc). 

“Sound evidence that systematic synthetic phonics programmes produce greater growth in reading than other reading programmes, and this is especially effective for younger, at-risk readers (National Reading Panel, 2000b)”

Again, I think this point is crucial.  There is huge variation among children in the reading-related and cognitive skills that they start school with and a systematic synthetic phonics method of instruction is potentially most effective for children starting school knowing very few letter-sounds and with weak language skills (see Papers A and B above).  However, teachers are experiencing very different student intakes and this may explain the differing views regarding the effectiveness of phonics instruction.  We need to appreciate that the effectiveness of a synthetic phonics approach may differ based on student cohort.  The argument that ‘one size does not fit all’ does not mean that we should be teaching children a range of strategies to read new words (e.g., former ‘searchlight’ model), but rather that we should be finding the most effective method to teach children based on their cognitive profiles (i.e., reading and language skills).

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