Synthetic phonics 'damages' children's love of reading

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The education secretary’s insistence that children should be taught to read using synthetic phonics is almost ‘a form of abuse’, a leading academic claims.

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Children's enjoyment of reading is threatened by this fundamentalist approach to learning to read,  argues Andrew Davis, research fellow at Durham University’s School of Education.

In a new pamphlet, to be launched at the Institute of Education tomorrow, he argues that phonics should not be imposed on children because it can be off-putting for some children who are early readers and already able to read for meaning, and could be ‘seriously inappropriate’ for them.

The system of teaching children to read using synthetic phonics involves set books, specially written to include words that children have been taught through phonetic rules in class, rather than using a wider variety of children’s books.

Dr Davis said, ‘If a child is already reading for pleasure, and enjoying stories and they then get sucked into this idea that reading is essentially about decoding letters, it is potentially demotivating to them.

‘Being forced to move back from reading for meaning to a mechanical exercise of blending and decoding is likely to be off-putting. Phonics can be very useful to children when learning to read, but it should not be imposed rigidly on all.’

The claims re-ignite the debate about synthetic phonics, the method which Michael Gove has advocated as ‘first and foremost’ the way that all children in England should be taught to read.

Many early years experts and primary teachers largely disagree that synthetic phonics is best and teaching unions have campaigned for a ban on the phonics test at six.

A study by the National Federation for Educational Research, published last year and commissioned by the DfE, found that the majority of teachers found the phonics check had 'little or no impact' on children's reading and writing.

'Almost a form of abuse'

In his report, Dr Davis says that a small minority of children start school already able to read for meaning and a larger group know some words.

‘To subject either the fully-fledged readers, or those who are well on their way, to a rigid diet of intensive phonics is an affront to their emerging identities as persons,’ he says.

‘To require this of students who have already gained some maturity in the rich and nourishing human activity of reading is almost a form of abuse.’

Dr Davis, a former primary school teacher, also says that the evidence base ‘for synthetic phonics, or for any other prescriptive method used to teach children to read, is fundamentally flawed’.

He concludes, ‘SP [synthetic phonics] fundamentalism threatens the interests of a minority of children who arrive at school already able to read. The vast majority of early years teachers handle this kind of challenge with their usual professionalism, and will continue to do so if they are not troubled by rigid prescriptions from policy makers.'

Donna Thomson, a literacy specialist and creator of the reading programme Think2Read, which is being piloted in a Barnsley primary school, backed Dr Davis.

‘The Government’s fixation that synthetic phonics is the only way to teach reading in the early years leaves too many children reading without understanding; they simply learn to “de-code”, which causes some who struggle with phonics to shut-down and turn off reading all together,’ she said.

'Crack the code'

However, the founders of Jolly Phonics, a programme used to demonstrate the effectiveness of synthetic phonics in the Clackmannanshire trial report, disputed the claims.

Sue Lloyd, author of the Jolly Phonics programme, who was awarded an MBE in the New Year’s honours list for services to education, said, ‘Synthetic phonics is a system based on common sense; it shows that if you try to read a word by sounding it out then you’ll crack the code.’

Co-founder Chris Jolly, said, ‘A child may well have a basic ability to read when they start school, from having memorised words, or perhaps having had some phonics at home, however their progress will be much greater with a good phonics knowledge. They will be able to read words they have not seen before, and their spelling will be considerably better.’

A DfE spokesperson said, ‘Too many children are not reaching the expected levels of reading at a young age, do not catch up, and then struggle in secondary school and beyond.

‘Research shows overwhelmingly that systematic phonics is the most effective way of teaching reading to children of all abilities, enabling almost all children to become confident and independent readers.

‘Thanks to the phonics check 177,000 six-year-olds will this year get the extra reading help they need to catch up with their peers.’