These studies with Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 children demonstrate that teaching with a government
approved systematic synthetic phonics programme can be an excellent opportunity to drive up literacy
standards. There is no evidence to indicate that such phonics teaching is a “straightjacket” or that it will
“switch off” children from a love of reading books. Nor is there any evidence that such teaching damages
On the contrary, children taught in this way pick up reading quickly. They become enthusiastic and
confident in their reading and are more able and willing to engage in the world of reading around them.
Teaching in this way also appears to be more powerful than potential barriers to learning experienced by
vulnerable groups such as boys, children eligible for Pupil Premium and for free school meals, children
whose ethnicity is non-white British, children whose first language is not English, children with special
educational needs, children with summer birthdays and children with challenging behaviour. Children
who are slow-to-start, for a variety of possible reasons, can be identified early and are responsive to
catch-up intervention in small groups, also using synthetic phonics teaching. These early strugglers were
shown to close the gap and to keep up with both reading and spelling.
Longitudinal studies showed that the children did not lose their early advantage. This study (2010-2013)
reported on a whole class of children after their first, second and third years at school. In Reception the
children made a strong start with reading and spelling (14 months ahead for reading and 12 months
ahead for spelling). They built on this in Year 1 (22 months ahead for reading and 21 months ahead for
spelling) and in Year 2 (28 months ahead for reading and 21 months ahead for spelling). They achieved
above average national expectations for reading and writing at the end of Key Stage 1 in standardised
assessment tests (KS1 SATs). The other Grant study (1997-2004) reported that children who started with
synthetic phonics in Reception went on to achieve above national expectations for reading and writing
throughout their primary schooling to the end of Key Stage 2, in their KS1 and KS2 SATs, equipping them
for a more successful secondary transfer. Boys’ writing was found to be particularly successful.
The aims of these studies have been realised. They have demonstrated how all children can make a
very good start with reading, writing and spelling at infant level (aged four to seven years) and can leave
primary school (aged eleven years) well equipped for the literacy demands of their secondary education.
They have demonstrated how children from low-income and other disadvantaged families and struggling
learners can overcome their difficulties and how literacy teaching and targeted interventions can be
effective and have a long-lasting impact, without being expensive.
Longitudinal Studies with Synthetic Phonics from Reception to Year 2 and to Year 6
May 2014 Marlynne Grant Page 23
Crucially, these studies have demonstrated how an early grounding in synthetic phonics can make it
possible for all children to leave primary school better able to access the secondary-school curriculum.
By the age of seven years, children can be reading accurately and fluently. They can have made a good
start with writing and handwriting. They can understand the logic of spelling in a way that underpins the
learning of harder words which needs to continue throughout primary and secondary school.
Phonics teaching is not an end in itself. Phonics is the key which unlocks the literacy engine so that
children are more able to access a wide range of texts thus contributing to their educational achievement.
Some critics of synthetic phonics point to the complexity of written English saying that children have to go
further than being able to sound out words phonemically. But good synthetic phonics programmes, such
as those approved by the government, take the complexity of the English written code seriously. They
systematically, cumulatively and explicitly teach both the advanced as well as the basic alphabetic codes
and they teach morphological units which develop vocabulary and oral language as well as literacy.
Likewise some critics of synthetic phonics point out that phonic recognition, although important, is only a
part of learning to read English. However again good synthetic phonics programmes include strands
which develop vocabulary and reading comprehension and they will provide structured decodable texts
and structured writing practice.
Other critics point to the importance in the early years of outdoor and indoor play which is active,
stimulating and exploratory. Children need to enjoy running, skipping, climbing, singing, dancing and
messy play with sand, mud and sticks. They need opportunities to play socially with other children.
Some critics have said that it is more important to read stories to children and enjoy stories with them
than to teach them to read. The author agrees wholeheartedly that all these activities are important for
young children’s development but she believes that they can be taught phonics as well, in a simple and
enjoyable way. In the studies reported here, all these activities were recognised as being vitally important
and could be incorporated into the children’s lives and daily curriculum but alongside that, they were
given a flying start with their literacy.
Children’s expressive language and understanding of language are crucially important. Schools will be
developing speaking and listening skills in the classroom and putting interventions in place, following the
advice of speech and language therapists as necessary. Children with delayed or disordered speech
articulation are often helped when they start phonics and begin working with sounds which can be
represented by visual symbols.
Everything should be done at preschool level to develop children’s oral language following the
recommendations of Hart and Risley (15, 16, 17, 18). Parents, families, health visitors, child minders,
early years staff and others are likely to be involved. However, even if children start from a low baseline
on school entry, these studies have demonstrated that schools in England can still give children the very
best start to their learning. This is a positive message which means that UK schools, starting with four
and five year olds, have the potential to contribute to social mobility and to alleviate the ‘cycle of poverty’.
Some critics believe that formal teaching of literacy should be postponed until children are older. In the
studies reported here all the children benefited from synthetic phonics in their early years of school,
including children in potentially vulnerable groups and those with learning difficulties.
Another government initiative, the Year 1 phonics screening check (37), should assist in the process of
raising standards. It will focus schools’ efforts on teaching children to read early in their schooling when
they are most receptive. The phonics screening check will assist in identifying children who are
struggling, so that they can receive extra help to keep up or to catch up at an early stage.