Not many years ago the UK government, in its wisdom, decided that all schools had to teach reading through systematic synthetic phonics – in other words children learn to progress through the phonic code by systematically
learning to blend individual phonemes to build words. So C – A – T makes CAT. Educational publishers immediately began rushing out resources to fit in with “Letters and Sounds”, the programme developed and recommended by the Department of Education for delivering phonics in schools. This government is so sold on the theory that it is currently match funding all purchases on “approved ” SSP ( systematic synthetic phonics) in Primary Schools until October.
Rewind to 1990, when I was teaching dyslexic children in a comprehensive school. One child used to get additional support from a peripatetic specialist literacy teacher. She used to spend their sessions concentrating on phonics (yes, it did exist then!!). Very Dyslexic John just didn’t seem to “get it” – he couldn’t blend the letters, just got stuck on the individual sounds. My colleague and I used to say he got “phonic constipation” when he worked with her. He was 13, with a reading age of six.
Around that time a system was being developed, based on the research of Usha Goswami and others, called Phonological Awareness Training – PAT for short. Its premise was that some people, especially dyslexics, found it easier to blend the ONSET (C) with the RIME (AT) to make the word. So C + AT = CAT. For many Very Dyslexic Johns it seemed to be the cure to phonic constipation, and their reading and spelling would progress. Around 1999 I developed a resource called Spingoes (Spinner Bingo), where children progress through a sequence of Bingo games in which they blended onsets and rimes to make words. When we first took it to the Special Needs London exhibition people were queuing up to buy the packs, and we got loads of good feedback on the product. But now that schools have been herded down the SSP trail and Very Dyslexic John has to experience death by a thousand phonemes, we sell about as many copies of Spingoes in a whole year as we did at that first Special Needs London show.
But for today’s Very Dyslexic John, salvation appears to be at hand! The government commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to report on the success of the SSP programme. The initial findings were published last week. They found that the programme was a success, and that teachers had received it very well; but they also stressed that ‘children need a variety of approaches in order to learn to read’. I was at the NASEN (National Assn of Special Educational Needs) exhibition at the time, where I had been speaking and we had a stand, and I have to say I cheered when that was announced. (Apologies to Lorraine, whose keynote I interrupted: she it was who announced the NFER findings during her talk). Another thing that Lorraine mentioned from the NFER report was that newly qualified teachers were not actually teaching young children to read any more; they were just teaching them SSP. Interesting.
So I am pleased: not just because we might start selling more Spingoes again (click on the link if you want to have a look at it), but because, in the teaching of reading, there really is more than one way of skinning a cat.