International Update

Official in England to Order Teaching of Synthetic Phonics

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England’s education secretary has endorsed a plan that would mandate a more direct method of teaching phonics.

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Read the British consultant's report on literacy instruction.

Ruth Kelly, who took over the Cabinet post a year ago, announced this month that she would implement recommendations outlined in a new report on early reading instruction by Jim Rose, a prominent education consultant. The report recommends using synthetic phonics, which teaches letter sounds in isolation as a way of learning to read words, as opposed to analytic phonics, an approach that prompts pupils to analyze sounds in words they already know and then apply the skill to unfamiliar ones.

The change will be incorporated into the National Literacy Strategy, which was instituted in 1998. The strategy also emphasizes phonics instruction, but does not prescribe how to teach letters and sounds.

British expert Alan Davies, the author of a popular synthetic-phonics program, has criticized the new plan, saying it is too narrowly focused on phonics.

“It is madness to believe that you should start the literacy process by first doing only phonics,” Mr. Davies said in a statement. “It is wrong to believe that synthetic phonics is the ‘best route to becoming skilled readers,’ as stated in [Mr. Rose’s] report.”

While recent policies in the United States have also prescribed phonics instruction, England’s approach is far more prescriptive than what is required under the federal Reading First program, for example.

Research has shown synthetic phonics to be an effective strategy, but it is not necessarily better than the analytic method, according to Timothy Shanahan, a member of the influential National Reading Panel in this country.

There is also some question about whether the synthetic approach helps improve reading comprehension, said Mr. Shanahan, who directs the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Vol. 25, Issue 15, Page 13

Published in Print: December 14, 2005, as Official in England to Order Teaching of Synthetic Phonics

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