The political debate about the bottom-up/top-down differences in approaches to policy on teaching literacy between Scotland and England centring on synthetic phonics rumbles on.

England introduced synthetic phonics lessons for primary schools in 2007 following a review by Sir Jim Rose  which was prompted by the spectacular successes in Clackmannanshire. More than a decade on, the Clackmannanshire programme is still in use. West Dunbartonshire claims it has fulfilled the aim of eradicating pupil illiteracy within a decade.  Many other authorities in Scotland have introduced synthetic phonics as part of their literacy strategy.

In England the concept has been put at the heart of primary education. It was a controversial move, not least because it was required rather than optional. But critics say this has been done in such a way in England that many of the benefits have been lost.

Scotland, meanwhile, has taken a more hands-off approach. Guidance from Learning and Teaching Scotland simply says it is “now accepted that phonics is one of the essential components of a balanced approach to the teaching of reading”

When synthetic phonics is only one strand in a programme that includes extra time in the curriculum for reading, home support for parents, and the fostering of a “literacy environment” in the community, it seems to be most effective. ‘Synthetic phonics is not an end in itself, rather a key building block in a more comprehensive literacy strategy. You adapt it to the children you are working with and the area where you are. ’ (Spokesperson from West Dumbartonshire).

I have no desire to fuel nationalistic flames. The point is we’re still not managing – north or south of the border – to teach all our youngsters to read as well as we would like. Just last month, a study by the Literacy Commission found that 18.5% of children in Scotland left primary school functionally illiterate.

Phonics alone cannot enable all children to read with current English spelling conventions. Learning to sound out single or combined letters, is undoubtedly an essential part of learning to read English, but only a minor one.  (See here lists of irregular words ). The number of common words with tricky spellings (leave, sleeve, even, believe, police) is at least 3700.

In an interesting article, ‘Our changing understanding of what learning to read is about’, Professor Henrietta Dombey concludes:

  • Reading is not a ‘bottom-up’ process.
  • Reading builds on children’s experience of spoken language.  
  • Children’s home experiences contribute significantly to the effectiveness of literacy teaching.
  • Reading aloud to children plays an important part in helping them learn to read.
  • Skilled reading operates as a “simultaneous, multilevel, interactive” process.
  • Learning to read and write can also be a social activity.
  • Close familiarity with rich literary texts empowers children as readers, writers and thinkers

Dombey concludes that we ‘need to avoid unquestioning orthodoxy and to take proper account of work in this vast and varied field if we are to improve the learning of children in school’.

I couldn’t agree more.