How ‘sound’ teaching can boost children’s reading

Study claims standards can be improved using phonics. Picture: Contributed
Study claims standards can be improved using phonics. Picture: Contributed
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CHILDREN who are taught to read using “phonics” when they start primary school can end up with a reading age two years above what is expected of them at the age of seven, a study has found.

Phonics teaches pupils to read by using sounds rather than recognising whole words and has been hailed by education experts as the best way to teach young children to read.

The new study, by educational psychologist Dr Marlynne Grant, tracked the reading levels of a class of children who had learned to read using “systematic synthetic phonics” between the ages of four and seven.

The findings show that on average when the class was in primary two their average reading age was 28 months ahead of their actual age.

Dr Grant, a committee member of the Reading Reform Foundation, said: “The message from this research is clear – if you are delivering systematic synthetic phonics in a rigorous way, these are the kind of results you can get.

“Starting children on phonics in reception means many children will become strong readers quickly, and that you can ident-ify those struggling early on, and then ensure they get the help they need to catch up.”

The findings come in the week that six-year-olds in England are due to sit the government’s reading check, which is based on phonics.

The check has proved controversial, with teaching unions arguing it could demotivate children.

They have raised concerns that the check includes made-up or non-words such as “voo”, “terg” and “spron”.

The latest study supports research carried out at St Andrews University which examined the teaching of synthetic phonics in Scotland over a period of seven years.

The government-funded study showed that synthetic phonics was successful in teaching children to read, in particular for boys and disadvantaged pupils. This Scottish report concluded that for most children phonics was the best route to becoming a skilled reader.

There are 44 sounds in the English language which are put together to form words. Some are represented by one letter, such as “t”, and some by two or more, like “ck” in duck and “air” in chair.

Children are taught the sounds first, then how to match them to letters, and finally how to use the letter sounds for reading and spelling.

Synthetic phonics refers to “synthesising”, or blending, the sounds to read words. It is based on the idea that children should sound out unknown words and not rely on their context.

Synthetic phonics is the way most schools in the UK teach children how to read and write. Since the turn of the 20th century, phonics has been widely used in primary education and in teaching literacy throughout the English-speaking world.

The UK government has said “pseudo-words” are an important part of the reading check as they cannot be identified by memory or vocabulary and children have to use their decoding skills to work out the words.

Results for 2013 found that 69 per cent of children reached the expected standard of reading