NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 5, 2005

Beginning in September next year, grammar school children in England will again learn to read using "synthetic phonics," requiring they be taught the sounds and letters of the alphabet within the first 16 weeks of school. In recent years, teachers were instructed to encourage children to memorize words by their shape and guess at them by their context. The results proved disastrous, says columnist Cal Thomas.

As in America, phonics in England was abandoned in the 1960s in favor of "look and say." That this approach produced kids who couldn't read, or read up to their grade levels, did not seem to bother education "experts" and bureaucrats who refused all appeals for returning to the old, successful method.

In a recent Scottish study, researchers found children achieved well above what would be expected for the chronological age according to standardized tests.

  • At the end of 7th grade, students' word reading skills were 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age, spelling was 1 year 8 months ahead and reading comprehension was 3.5 months ahead.
  • Socioeconomic differences in literacy skills were nonexistent in the early years of the study, only emerging in the upper primary years.
  • The boys' reading comprehension was significantly ahead of the girls? from third grade onward but by the end of the study, they were 11 months ahead of the girls; however, although the boys read better than the girls, they nevertheless reported a less favorable attitude toward reading.

Overall, researchers concluded a phonics program, as part of the reading curriculum, has a major and long lasting effect on children's reading and spelling attainment. They found these skills increased many years after the end of the program, evidence that the children learned a self teaching technique.

Source: Cal Thomas, "Schools Need to Go Back to Basics,", June 8, 2005; based upon: Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson, "The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment: A Seven Year Longitudinal Study," Scottish Executive, February 11, 2005.


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