In 1972 the Secretary of State for Education and Science appointed a Committee, chaired by Lord Bullock, on Reading and Other Uses of English Language. Its influential 1975 Report, A Language for Life (The Bullock Report) stated: ‘there is no one method, medium, approach, device or philosophy that holds the key to the process of learning to read.’ Nevertheless, the quest to find such a magic key has continued with synthetic phonics its latest manifestation (see Jeff Hynds’ article ‘Picture Books – Real or Synthetic?’ in BfK No. 154).
That children in Clackmannanshire, after a large dose of synthetic phonics, are very good at decoding individual words (three years ahead on standardised tests) is not to be sniffed at and there may be good things here that can incorporated into teachers’ approaches to teaching children to read. It must, however, be noted that the comprehension gains of the Clackmannanshire children were much smaller (three and a half months) and it is surely comprehension that is the real magic key to reading success. Sounding out individual words is of little use if meaning, understanding, reasoning and reflective thinking are not part of the equation.
Despite the politicians’ emphasis on synthetic phonics, it seems that at Clackmannanshire these elements were in fact included. According to Sue Ellis*, a Senior Lecturer at Strathclyde University, as well as phonic instruction the children also had ‘story building activities, listening to stories, talking, reasoning, word and sound play, comprehension, writing and reading, together and individually… a nice mix of ingredients’. And one, we might assume, that tried to cater for the individual learning capacity of each child.
It is a matter of concern that this wider context is being ignored by politicians keen for a quick fix. In Scotland First Minister Jack McConnell has announced the appointment of a development officer attached to Learning and Teaching Scotland whose job will be to share good practice on synthetic phonics while Jim Rose, former Chief Primary HMI, is carrying out a government review of the role of synthetic phonics.
This is all very well, but can we take it that the Clackmannanshire children are now keen readers? For, as Jeff Hynds says, ‘books, along with their enthusiastic advocates, are the real teachers of reading and of much else about the human condition.’
‘Phonics is just the icing on the cake’ by Sue Ellis, Times Educational Supplement (11.10.05)