Synthetic phonics is central to government policies. Ray Barker explains why, and the role of ICT
screenphonics1CrickOf course, the critics say synthetic phonics can’t possibly work. English is basically an ‘unphonetic’ language; there are so many exceptions to any rule.

Just think about the opening to a child’s story: ‘Once upon a time there was ...’. How do you teach a child the sound of ‘o’ in once? It’s not the same as the ‘o’ in dog or in blood or in enough. What about the sound of ‘a’ in was? It’s more like an ‘o’ definitely not like the sound of ‘a’ in cat. Because it’s the sound of letters we are concerned with here. It’s about learning the 44 sounds in English and their corresponding letters or letter groups

Synthetic phonics is a method of teaching reading which first teaches the letter sounds and then builds up to blending these sounds to make the pronunciation of whole words (c-a-t). The “synthetic” part comes from the word “synthesise”, which means to put together. There is no initial sight vocabulary. It is not about syllables or onset and rime, for example in analytical phonics you would teach by sounding out ‘c-at’.

But enough of all this boring stuff. It’s easy to see why the past two governments have been so keen on teaching reading through synthetic phonics.

This country does have poor reading levels. Whether you believe them or not, SATs tell us that 20 per cent of children leaving primary schools are poor readers. This means that their access to the rest of the curriculum at secondary level is restricted. Boris Johnston’s recent report on literacy in London, suggested that over a million people in the capital could not read.

"Phonics" also sounds like a science (it’s not); it sounds rigorous; it comes in some kind of package with progression. Most of all, it’s quick to say; it sums up a complicated set of procedures in teaching children to read. But does that make it bad? No. All pupils are entitled to be able to read. What we need to concentrate on is the best way to get them to reach their goal.

Not all children learn in the same way, but research studies all over the world do seem to point to the fact that early phonics teaching produces children who read more accurately and more quickly. It’s not about getting rid of fantastic reading books either. In order to “crack the code’ – Sir Jim Rose’s words - children need a mixed economy, but perhaps the rigour of early phonics teaching is what they need to get them able to learn essential skills. Once they have these, they use them to learn more.

ICT can have a major role in teaching phonic skills and so enable children to read. Many traditionalists have said for many years that this is impossible, but they fail to realise some of the real virtues of ICT. It’s not taking over the role of the teacher; it is making their roles easier and in fact helping them to personalise their teaching.

screenphonics2First of all, young people like using ICT. They do not perceive it as boring, so in fact, you can deliver some very boring material using it. It is not very exciting for education professional to spend an afternoon sounding out the letters in ‘cat’. Some children will just not ‘get it’ – or they will take longer than others. Why not use the software program to do this for you?

These programs will use sound and children can practise until they master a skill. Often programs will use games or a more fun approach. (Believe me, there is nothing fun about sounding out c-a-t all afternoon). Some research shows that children tend to ‘get’ the more difficult words first because they are not boring, e.g. some children fail to read ‘it’ or ‘at’ but may get elephant! And why not ? The word looks complicated, it makes nice noises. Even better if the pictures on screen are colourful and fun.

'Software is multisensory; it involves sound and strong visuals'

Second, ICT environments can be open or closed. Using an interactive whiteboard means that the class or groups can work together with sound and pictures – a multisensory experience. If children are using their own computers, they can work independently and so not be afraid of failure. They are pitting themselves against the machine in a private environment. If they cannot ‘get it’ no-one will laugh at them; no-one will know. Such private environments can be much more motivating.

Software is multisensory; it involves sound and strong visuals to reinforce what is being learned, appealing to a range of different kinds of learners. It often uses games-based technology so learners are required to co-ordinate hand-eyes-brain. Add to this the ability of the teacher to be able to collect data, then you have a really strong way of making sure that all children learn.

In fact, the children are not just working by themselves. The teacher is able, at the click of a button, to see what the children are having difficulty with and to address those issues directly. This is real assessment for learning. Add to this the ability to be able to work with teaching assistants for small groups within class lessons and to easily provide one-to-one daily reading sessions.

screenphonics4ICT packages are not usually just depending on an ICT approach in phonics. Most are ‘blended’; that is they have as a part of their method real books. These are usually specially written to reinforce the phonic patterns being taught. The idea is to concentrate on specific sounds so that the children can become independent word readers and can engage with texts as soon as possible.

Of course, the Labour Government produced its own materials to cover the essentials of synthetic phonics - Letters and Sounds – just in case teachers couldn’t understand what they really wanted them to do. This had the effect that most schools followed this scheme, even though the Government denied that it was being prescriptive. So what teachers tended to buy were add-ons and developments and this tended to restrict the market in larger phonics programmes.

The current schools minister, Nick Gibb MP, is a champion of synthetic phonics – he assures us he does not believe in any one programme - and a literacy review is expected from the Coalition Government in the autumn. Let’s see what the new government comes up with, and whether it’s any different. They’re promising a reading test at six and an Ofsted crackdown on schools not following a programme, so there will be plenty of teachers needing ways of teaching c-a-t.

Synthetic phonics and ICT

  • Children like using ICT. It can bring interest to an activity that they would find a turn-off if using pen and paper.
  • The multimedia aspects of ICT are powerful for readers. Software can be highly visual and on-screen words can be ‘spoken’, even parts of words.
  • There are plenty of ICT materials available and further government advice will probably stimulate more. A Google search on “synthetic phonics” and “software” throws up more that 20,000 results, from specific programs to websites!
  • Synthetic phonics is not a religion. There is no one, true way, so look out for activities, products and services that support and extend your own pedagogy.

So, what’s out there? (This list is not exhaustive)

  • First of all there are the ‘big’ courses or schemes from the major educational publishers, that link reading books, teaching material and computer programs, for example OUP, CUP, Rigby from Pearson, Collins.
  • You’ll also find a whole range of creative add-on products to make the teaching of phonics fun and approachable, e.g. A&C Black’s Singing Phonics or Sherston’s Phonic Clip Art.
  • Then there are other courses from smaller publishers, using ICT in a variety of creative ways as discussed above. Some will use traditional books and link with manipulative resources; others will use ‘talking books’ on screen, eg Crick’s Clicker Phonics, Smart Learning, Rising Stars’ Splash Phonics, Smartkids.
  • There are some ‘e-learning’ programs – mostly subscription services, that will develop phonic skills as a part of a wider programme, e.g. EducationCity and Espresso.
  • Finally, there a few products from companies that may have originally been developed for those with specific learning difficulties, but who have now established themselves firmly as being good for phonics, eg Wordshark from Whitespace and Nessy.
  • Take advice. There are numerous, respected sources of helpful information. These include:

Ray BarkerRay Barker is director of the British Educational Suppliers Association, author of literacy resources and previously worked with the Literacy Strategy and the National Literacy Association.

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