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June 1999

Phonics Works

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But Some Programs Work Better Than Others

Scottish and American research indicates that not all reading programs that include phonics produce comparable results. Children learning with synthetic phonics learned remarkably faster than students learning with other phonics programs.

By Malkin Dare

Grade 1 teachers have an awesome responsibility. Each year, they hold in their hands the fate of 20-plus children, vulnerable kids whose future well-being may well depend on whether or not they succeed in learning to read by the end of the year.

According to Marilyn Jager Adams, reading ability at the end of Grade 1 is an enormously powerful predictor of future academic success in all subjects, future income, indeed the probability of leading long, contented lives. This is particularly true for disadvantaged children, since their parents are less likely to be in a position to overcome any learning deficits.

Some teachers believe that it is not particularly important for children to learn to read by the end of Grade 1. They may be afraid to put pressure on kids to learn to read before they demonstrate their readiness. Others are convinced that some students are impossible to teach because they are, for example, dyslexic or upset by a turbulent home environment or not native English speakers.

But there’s powerful evidence that virtually all children can learn to read fluently by the end of Grade 1. This is demonstrated year after year by a few special schools like Wesley Elementary in Houston, Texas, which draws its students from Houston’s inner city. Most of the kids are from disadvantaged homes and 80 per cent qualify for free lunches. Nevertheless, they all learn to read and many are reading at a Grade 3 or 4 level by the end of Grade 1.


How do the Wesley teachers do it? Well, according to an article in the May/June 1997 issue of American Teacher, the official publication of the American Federation of Teachers, "There is no great mystery about how the school manages consistently to score above the state and district average … First, both students and staff work long and hard at academics, preferably beginning at the pre-K level. Second, kids know from day one they must obey the rules. The school also makes sure that teachers and paraprofessionals have the materials and training they need to get the job done. And one other thing: Wesley teaches kids to read, write, spell and do math using a teaching program that is built around a clinically-proven research base ... The method they use is direct instruction."

For teaching beginning reading, all Wesley teachers use a synthetic phonics program called Reading Mastery.

Of course, most Ontario Grade 1 teachers teach phonics. However, the results of two comparative studies of different types of phonics programs show that some phonics programs are clearly better than others.

The first one, "Accelerating Reading Achievement: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics," was conducted by psychologists Joyce E. Watson and Rhona S. Johnston of Scotland’s University of St. Andrews and was funded by the Scottish government. It involved mostly disadvantaged students in Clackmannanshire, Scotland.


In the process of examining how phonics was taught in Scottish schools, the researchers discovered that one particular teacher, using "synthetic phonics" to teach beginning reading, was achieving superior results. This type of phonics starts out by teaching the letter sounds very rapidly – six letter sounds in eight days – and then gives the children practice in sounding and blending the letters to read words. Synthetic phonics – also known as systematic phonics – seeks to develop rapid and automatic word recognition so that skilled readers need not rely on context. Its central premise is that children should invariably sound out unknown words.

Their discovery prompted the researchers to look at what happened when other classes received 10 weeks of synthetic phonics teaching. They discovered that these classes also achieved superior results.

In the final phase of the study, 13 classes were divided into three groups. Four classes were taught using "analytic phonics." This type of phonics starts at the whole word level and typically introduces one letter sound per week, followed by consonant blends and vowel digraphs. Analytic phonics views phonological knowledge as one of several strategies that children can use to identify unknown words. Another four classes were taught using analytic phonics augmented by 10 minutes a day of phoneme-and-rime awareness (word families) training. The last five classes were taught using synthetic phonics. By March of Primary 1, the synthetic phonics group was found to be reading eight months ahead of the other two groups, while their spelling was eight months ahead of the first group and nine months ahead of the second group.

The program used was Jolly Phonics, a program that is
currently being used to good advantage in a number of Toronto-area schools. Here in Ontario, the effectiveness of Jolly Phonics has been evaluated by Dale Willows of OISE/UT, and in a series of papers presented at various reading conferences, she reports truly remarkable achievement. The program’s success at one Etobicoke school was written up in the Federation of Women Teachers’ Associations of Ontario (FWTAO) May/June 1996 newsletter.


The second study involved 285 disadvantaged children, the most at-risk 18 per cent of children in eight inner city schools in Houston, Texas. This study, "The Role of Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Failure in At-Risk Children" by Barbara R. Foorman et al, is described in the Journal of Educational Psychology, 1998, Vol. 90, No. 1, 37-55.

Group A received intensive synthetic phonics instruction, Group B received "embedded" phonics instruction – similar to analytic phonics in the Scottish study – and Group C received only "implicit" phonics instruction. At the end of the year, Group A approached the national average on decoding (43rd percentile) and passage comprehension (45th percentile), compared with Group B’s 29th and 35th percentiles and Group C’s 27th and 33rd percentiles.

Group A used Open Court, a program that is currently being used with good success in more than 200 Ontario schools.

One of these Ontario schools is Holy Cross, a highly-
multicultural school in Mississauga. Brenda Vassallo, a primary resource teacher at Holy Cross, says, "I finally found what I was searching for in the Open Court resource: everything required for a first-class, high-quality program is included." She and her colleagues at Holy Cross like Open Court, because:

  • children enjoy the program and they become excellent readers
  • parents are thrilled by their children’s enthusiasm and competence
  • program features a rich literature base and a print-rich environment
  • children’s spelling and writing skills soar
  • teachers’ prep time is cut in half.

Ontario children will need to be extremely competent readers and writers to survive in the 21st century. Synthetic phonics offers them the best chance of making the grade.

For more information, you can learn about the Scottish study, Accelerating Reading Achievement: The Effectiveness of Synthetic Phonics, at

"The Role of Instruction in Learning to Read: Preventing Failure in At-Risk Children" by Barbara R. Foorman et al is in the Journal of Educational Psychology, 1998, Vol. 90, No. 1, 37-55.

To order a Science Research Associates (SRA) catalogue, which contains information about both Reading Mastery and Open Court, call 1-800-565-5758. Jolly Phonics materials are available from Scholar’s Choice and Louise Kool & Galt at 1-800-268-4011.

Malkin Dare is the newsletter editor of the Organization for Quality Education and the author of How To Get The Right Education For Your Child. She can be reached at