ESF leads phonics revival

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 June, 2011, 12:00am


I barely recall how I was taught to read. But as I grew up in Britain in the 1970s, it is likely to have been by what is called the 'whole-language' approach. An image that sticks is the teacher holding up cards with letters on as we repeated, 'A for apple, B for boy', working through the alphabet.

The whole-language approach uses thematic texts and stories and some traditional phonics, known as analytical phonics, to teach children to read and write. The aim is to learn the context of the sentences and stories to help master the nuts and bolts of literacy.

For decades, it was the preferred method for teaching children to read in Britain. But in 2005, research was carried out there on impressive results from a trial in Scotland of a new method for teaching children to read. The Scottish children, who were doing far better than counterparts in England, had learned to read through 'synthetic phonics', which involved learning 'the English code' of 44 phonemes, before mastering the alphabet. The findings were so positive that within two years Britain had introduced mandatory synthetic phonics across all state primary schools.

In Hong Kong, the whole-language approach is still used across the majority of government and aided schools, along with learning vocabulary through reading, listening to dictation, and memorisation. There is a smattering of phonics involved, but it is not a systematic approach.

But six primaries in the English Schools Foundation have switched to synthetic phonics, after getting their teachers trained in the method by global consultancy Get Reading Right.

Anne Ross, literacy trainer at the company, which was co-founded by a former vice-principal of the ESF's Clearwater Bay School, says the whole-language approach was responsible for a generation of people around the world with poor spelling ability.

'In the whole-language approach, they learned to read by reading and learned to write by writing,' she said. 'And the more they did, the better they got. But the kids who got it would have got it anyway, and there were many who didn't. And consequently, around the world, we have so many people who can't spell well. Yes, they learned to read, but the lack of spelling compromises their writing - careless errors because they don't know the English code. We also had what was called 'invented spelling'.

'As long as the child had a go and got it more or less correct, the teachers as a whole were happy. Because the idea was that if they were not too constrained by spelling, it freed up their writing.'

Synthetic phonics involves teaching children to sound out each phonetic element of a word individually or in pairs before blending them to together to say the whole word. It is meant to help pupils grasp the links between spelling and pronunciation in English and blend their phonemes automatically.

The ideal age for a child to learn synthetic phonics is five. The child sounds out the phonemes: 'c-a-t' for 'cat' has three phonemes, as does 'chat', with the c and h together as one sound. After learning an initial eight or so phonemes, children are typically able to read whole words within a week and gain functional literacy within two years.

It is open day for parents at Clearwater Bay School. Sophie Hall, five, plays a game of Twister on a mat illustrated with eight letters as her teacher Sally McKay looks on. McKay asks Sophie to spell a word, and the Form One pupil puts a leg on one letter, an arm on another and so on. Sophie is reading well after just two terms.

In the classroom, McKay uses a whiteboard on which she projects words. Children sound out the different phonemes, then spell the word after it has disappeared.

McKay says synthetic phonics make it possible to teach small groups of children within the same class at different speeds and at varying levels using different games and exercises.

Clearwater Bay School has been using synthetic phonics since 2006, and principal David Fitzgerald is a convert.

The results compare very well with those of British schools, and the method appears to work for those of Clearwater Bay's pupils learning English as their second or third language as well as it does for native-English speakers, he says.

At local schools in 2009, Dr Paul Sze Man-man, of Chinese University's department of curriculum and instruction, carried out a study on using synthetic phonics to teach English to pupils of Chinese-speaking families. The study, of 300 pupils at three primary schools, aimed to find out whether the method would work in a setting where English was a second language.

Sze says the study showed that teaching with synthetic phonics led to higher levels of attainment in English among second-language learners.

The advantage of synthetic phonics over other methods for second-language learners is that 'when they come across a [written] word that is new to them, they can sound it out, and when they hear one, they can spell it out', Sze says. But he adds that very few local schools are trying out the method.

Teacher Kevin McNamara introduced synthetic phonics into one such school, HK and Macau Lutheran Church Primary School, in Tiu Keng Leng, in 2009.

McNamara says other teachers, though they already had a heavy workload, were willing to try the new method, and he has convinced them of its worth by carrying out tests on pupils in Primary One, Two and Three. The results showed that younger children taught using synthetic phonics were actually producing better results in reading - and writing - than older pupils, and the challenge now was to get more time in the timetable to use the method.

Synthetic phonics needs to be 'practised and practised', so preferably pupils should have at least 20 minutes of tuition per day in English reading for it to be effective, McNamara adds.

The 'explicit teaching of phonics' is now the central tenet of the British government's literacy strategy for primary schools. It has also been viewed favourably in Australia and the United States. Boys, who typically learn to read more slowly than girls, have been found to benefit.

But the system is not without its detractors, which even included one political party - at least until it got into power. Britain's Liberal Democrats, now partners in the country's coalition government, lambasted the wholesale switch of state primary schools to synthetic phonics as 'overly prescriptive' when it was in opposition.

The method should only be one component in a more comprehensive approach to teaching children to read, the party claimed.