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The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment




The authors would like to acknowledge the support of the SEED and Clackmannanshire Council, who do not necessarily support the views expressed in this report. They would also like to thank the children, parents and teachers who took part in this study. They would particularly like to thank Lesley Robertson, Senior QIO/Adviser for the generous co-operation and help she provided throughout the years.


1. We report here a study of the effectiveness of a synthetic phonics programme in teaching reading and spelling. Around 300 children in Primary 1 were divided into three groups. One group learnt by the synthetic phonics method, one by the standard analytic phonics method, and one by an analytic phonics programme that included systematic phonemic awareness teaching without reference to print. At the end of the programme, the synthetic phonics taught group were reading and spelling 7 months ahead of chronological age. They read words around 7 months ahead of the other two groups, and were 8 to 9 months ahead in spelling. The other two groups then carried out the synthetic phonics programme, completing it by the end of Primary 1.

2. We have followed the progress of all of these children for 7 years, examining their performance in word reading, spelling and reading comprehension. At the end of Primary 2, the boys performed equally well in word reading, regardless of which method they had started with in Primary 1. However, the girls read words significantly less well if they had started with the standard analytic phonics programme. Furthermore, both boys and girls were behind in spelling if they had started with the standard analytic phonics programme, even if it had been supplemented with systematic phonemic awareness training.

3. At the end of Primary 7, word reading was 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age, spelling was 1 year 8 months ahead, and reading comprehension was 3.5 months ahead. However, as mean receptive vocabulary knowledge (an index of verbal ability where the average is 100) was 93 at the start of the study, this is a group of children for whom normal performance might be expected to be below average for chronological age on standardised tests. Therefore this may be an underestimate of the gains with this method.

4. In all 35 countries surveyed in an international study, including Scotland, it was found that the boys' reading comprehension was significantly behind that of the girls'. In the present study, the boys' word reading was significantly ahead of that of the girls' from Primary 3 onwards; by the end of the study in Primary 7 they were 11 months ahead of the girls. In spelling, the boys were significantly ahead of the girls in Primaries 4, 6 and 7, being 8.6 months ahead by the end of the study. They were also 3 months ahead of girls in reading comprehension, but this difference was not statistically significant. However although the boys read better than the girls, they nevertheless reported a less favourable attitude to reading.

5. It had been expected that children from disadvantaged homes would perform less well than those from advantaged homes. However, this was not statistically significant for word reading and spelling until Primary 7 (and only marginally so for reading) and was only significant for reading comprehension in Primaries 5 and 7.

6. In the early years of the study, the level of underachievement was very low. For example, in Primary 3, only 0.8% of the children were more than two years behind chronological age in word reading, with 0.4% being behind in spelling, and 1.2% being behind in reading comprehension. However, by Primary 7 this had increased to 5.6% behind in word reading, 10.1% behind in spelling, and 14.0% behind in reading comprehension. It is possible that these levels of underachievement are quite moderate for children with a somewhat below average level of receptive vocabulary knowledge. This could be established by carrying out a study of a control sample learning to read by the standard analytic phonics approach.

7. Teachers and Head Teachers have responded very favourably to the programme, having found that the children's reading and spelling skills are very accelerated, that underachievers can be detected earlier and that the children are very motivated.

8. Overall we conclude that the synthetic phonics approach, as part of the reading curriculum, is more effective than the analytic phonics approach, even when it is supplemented with phonemic awareness training. It also led boys to reading words significantly better than girls, and there was a trend towards better spelling and reading comprehension. There is evidence that synthetic phonics is best taught at the beginning of Primary 1, as even by the end of the second year at school the children in the early synthetic phonics programme had better spelling ability, and the girls had significantly better reading ability.