Welcome to the NEW ParenTeacher ezine
What Now?
Volume No: 7
New Year, 2001
In The Minds Of The Experts
An Interview Perspective
Written by: John Walker

John Walker

Ever wonder what a school official or committee puts into the important decision of what literacy scheme to use; or what happens after that critical decision is made? Phono-Graphix trainer John Walker did. In this interview he gets the scoop from one such school official.

For the past twenty-five years David Philpot has worked as an educational psychologist for Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, near Manchester, in the UK. As his brief includes responsibility for children with special educational needs, a nursery and a group of primary and secondary schools, he has long wrestled with the problem of how to teach reading quickly and efficiently.

In May of this year, David attended one of the five-day certification courses run by UK Phono-Graphix trainers John Walker and Susan Case. At David's instigation, John and Susan have since visited Wigan on two other occasions to train teachers and learning support staff and are shortly to run a further three one-day trainings before the end of the year.

At their most recent training, John interviewed David to find out how things are going and how they might develop in the future.

John Walker: So, Dave, how many schools are currently using Phono-Graphix in the Wigan area, and how enthusiastically are they embracing the method?

David Philpot: We've now got at least 14 or 15 primary schools and one high school trying it. So far, the more each school tries it the more success they have with their teaching of reading and the more enthusiastic they become about using the method.

J.W.:To what do you attribute Phono-Graphix's success?

D.P.: Phono-Graphix is the first reading method that has been put together in the light of modern knowledge of child development, learning theory and motivational theory. The whole teaching process has been put together to match the knowledge and skills that pupils require in order to become fluent readers. This has never happened before. The only two main approaches to the tuition of reading are Look & Say/Real Books and Traditional Phonics. Both of these were initially developed getting on for a hundred years ago at a time before there were any training colleges in education or anyone understood much about child development. And those two methods, despite their considerable failures, have gone on being used ever since without coming under really critical examination until quite recently.

J.W.: In your experience what differences are there between Phono-Graphix and other methods of teaching reading?

D.P.: There are a number of specific differences. At all stages the Phono-Graphix programme starts from whole words. In fact the actual letters are even introduced via appropriate sets of three letter cvc words (consonant-vowel-consonant) such as mop and cat. My initial impression is that this appears to significantly reduce the numbers of pupils writing reflections of letters and confusing b - d, etc. Very careful attention is paid to accurate pronunciation of letter sounds, particularly the consonants where we all tend to add an undifferentiated vowel sound, saying things like d-ah and p-uh instead of d and p (This causes some of the strange truncated spellings that we sometimes see in children's writing such as bt for butter!) Another essential difference is that Phono-Graphix teaches the skill of phoneme manipulation (ie, inserting / removing / replacing phonemes from whole words). This is an essential skill for reading any language that contains code overlaps in its spelling (eg, meat, steak and bread). Not only is Phono-Graphix the only reading tuition method I know that teaches and practises the skill of phoneme manipulation, but it does so from the very beginning in order that pupils develop fluency in this skill before they actually need to use it in their reading.

J.W.: Since the introduction of the Literacy Hour many schools have reintroduced a variety of phonics programmes into the curriculum. What do you think are the main differences between Phono-Graphix and traditional phonics programmes?

D.P.: A particular difference compared to traditional phonics is that Phono-Graphix always works from sound to written text, which is the way that writing developed, whereas the traditional phonic approaches, beyond the introduction of the basic letter sounds, is actually a spelling programme that is being used to teach reading backwards from written text. Within the Phono-Graphix programme, after the basic code introduction of the letter sounds, each new sound is introduced and dealt with via groups of words containing a variety of different ways that the sound may be spelled, eg, great / bake / they / tray etc. This means that when pupils meet the advanced alphabet code they are immediately faced with sets of words spelled differently but containing the same new sound. By using sorting and matching processes the pupils discover for themselves which groups of words are similarly spelled. Traditional phonics introduces groups of words that are similarly spelled. So, for a sound such as o-e (voiced o) that is spelled in eight different ways, eight different word lists can be used to demonstrate those spellings; these may be used at different times and interspersed with the introduction of various lists for all the other sounds, ie, a far more complex approach to the teaching process

J.W.: Dave, how is Phono-Graphix being used in the schools in your area and do you have any evidence for how well it works yet?

D.P.: Introducing Phono-Graphix is not easy in an educational climate which contains a rather prescriptive, constrained and densely packed Literacy Hour. The content of this Literacy Hour is eclectic in nature, containing a whole raft of ideas about the teaching of reading, basically because there seems to be no clear underlying coherent philosophy of what is required to efficiently teach the skill of reading. It's not easy for hard-pressed teachers, snowed under by many years of educational initiatives and excessive documentation to try something new. Fortunately, however, the DfEE (Department for Education and Employment) have agreed that Phono-Graphix can be used to deliver the Word Level work of the Literacy Hour; so teachers can use it without having to prepare any special justification when their schools are due for inspection. Initially and quite rightly, teachers need to see that the programme actually works before introducing it to whole classes. I've therefore started by introducing it as a remedial method for some pupils who have had considerable additional support to follow traditional remedial programmes, but who have failed to make any significant progress. Basically, by doing that schools have had the chance to try it out with a few pupils. When they find it works they naturally extend its use to even more pupils and it then becomes much easier to suggest that if the Phono-Graphix method was the first one used in the reception class then it wouldn't need to be used as a remedial programme further up the school. Over the first 18 months Phono-Graphix was used in Wigan Metropolitan Borough Council, it was therefore used almost totally as a remedial programme. But having seen how effective the programme is, we now have a number of schools (at least five) who are currently working to introduce it in their reception class(es). As they do so we will develop a pool of schools that teachers from other schools can visit to see how Phono-Graphix works in practice and judge its usefulness. I anticipate that increasing numbers of primary schools will incorporate the method into their curriculum over the next few years.

As to the question of evidence, I haven't yet tried to set up a scientific study, for several reasons. In particular, modern studies on literacy in the UK indicate that only 48% of adults are properly literate. Initial studies on Phono-Graphix suggest that at least 96% of pupils should become literate if taught by the method. If this is the case, and I see no reason to doubt it, then the differences in average attainment levels of pupils will be raised by so much that even the limited information provided by the UK SATS (Standard Assessment Tests) data will establish the success of the programme. Also, in the short time that we have been trying it, our teachers have still been learning how to teach the programme effectively and efficiently. It is still only six months since the very first few Wigan teachers attended one of the Five-Day Phono-Graphix Certification courses you ran. Even now we have only 16 teachers in primary schools who have had training in teaching the method - and it is only quite recently that schools started buying copies of the Word Work programme designed to be used in classrooms rather than using Reading Reflex. I think it would be very unfair, even now, to attempt a scientific validation. But I can offer a few pieces of information to show some of the initial success of the method in our schools. In the first primary school to really test it out (between February and June 1999), 15 pupils, 5 each from the year groups Y2 (7 year-olds), Y4 (9 year-olds) and Y6 (11 year-olds), all of whose reading ages were over two years below their chronological ages, were put on a simplified Phono-Graphix programme involving the introduction of the advanced alphabet code only. Four months of tuition (3 lessons/week lasting 45-60 minutes each) resulted in the average reading age of these pupils increasing by 14 months; the lowest gain made being one of 12 months. This tends to confirm Geoffrey's (McGuinness) comment to the effect that, even if you teach Phono-Graphix badly it will still do better than any other method! I also have some specific results showing significant gains being made by several pupils previously diagnosed dyslexic and who were making no gains at all on Dyslexia Institute approved programmes.

J.W.: Thanks very much, Dave. Susan and I are going to continue doing our bit in making sure children learn to read by training as many teachers as possible!

About the Author:
John Walker is a licensed Phono-Graphix trainer and lecturer at the University of Buckingham. John owns and operates the Reading Centre in Buckingham.

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