Using synthetic phonics to teach children how to read can have considerable long-term benefits for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who do not have English as a first language, according to a new study by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP).
Synthetic phonics is a technique that teaches children how to identify and pronounce sounds, rather than individual letters.
Understanding the research
Researchers at the CEP, which is based at the London School of Economics (LSE), tracked the progress of more than 270,000 children in 150 local authorities. They found that children taught to read using phonics made better progress by age seven than those taught using other methods. However, those lagging behind would catch up later.
The synthetic phonics programme was first launched as a pilot in 18 local authorities in 2005, but was expanded to a further 32 local authorities, after a small-scale study found that the technique can offer benefits to some pupils.
CEP’s research paper compares the progress of the pupils in those 50 local authorities with that of children in the 100 other local authorities that introduced phonics in 2008/09 and 2009/10.
Effect of synthetic phonics
The CEP is the first to do a large-scale analysis of the effects that using the synthetic phonics technique had on children at ages five, seven, and 11.
It found that children in schools using phonics showed positive effects at the ages of five and seven, but that the benefit had all but disappeared by 11 years. It’s thought that this is because the vast majority of children will learn to read eventually, just at different rates.
However, children at risk of falling behind – namely children claiming free school meals and non-native English speakers – were found to enjoy significant long-term benefits from learning to read using the technique.
Therefore, the change in policy does help raise national literacy levels and close the attainment gap.
Researchers Matina Viarengo, Stephen Machin, and Sandra McNally, said that the impact phonics has on children at risk of struggling to learn to read is impressive and strong enough to justify the cost of intensive training for teachers.
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