Two key, long-term studies into literacy teaching methodologies both started in Scotland in 1997.

The Clackmannanshire study

This study was carried out in an area with high proportion of disadvantaged students called Clackmannanshire, by Rhona S Johnston and Joyce E Watson.

Called “A Seven Year Study of the Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment”, its subjects were about 300 children just starting school, and it compared their literacy skills when taught in three different ways for 16 weeks:

  • Synthetic phonics program (starting from sounds and letters and building words),
  • Typical look and say plus Analytic Phonics program (starting from words and working towards sounds and letters),
  • Phonological awareness training plus typical look and say and Analytic Phonics program.

The Synthetic-Phonics-taught group ended up reading words around 7 months ahead of the other two groups and the expected skill level for their age. Their spelling was 8 to 9 months ahead of the other groups. They could read irregular words better than the other children, and were the only group of children who could read unfamiliar words by analogy.

The two Analytic Phonics groups then completed the Synthetic Phonics program before the end of their first year of schooling, and the whole cohort’s literacy progress was tracked through the rest of primary school (with just under 200 children still in the last phase of the study).

At the end of primary school, the children’s word reading was on average 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age, spelling was 1 year 9 months ahead, and reading comprehension was 3.5 months ahead, with boys slightly ahead of girls but no marked differences between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Just over 5% of students remained more than two years behind on word reading.

Read more about this research by clicking here.

The West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative

At around the same time in neighbouring West Dunbartonshire in Scotland, another area with high levels of disadvantage, researcher Tommy Mackay set out to work with schools across the shire to eradicate illiteracy entirely.

A multiple-component literacy intervention was implemented in schools right across the shire, with about 3000 children per year participating. It included the following strands:

  • Strand 1: Phonological awareness and the alphabet
  • Strand 2: A strong and structured phonics emphasis
  • Strand 3: Extra classroom help in the early years
  • Strand 4: Fostering a ‘literacy environment’ in school and community
  • Strand 5: Raising teacher awareness through focused assessment
  • Strand 6: Increased time spent on key aspects of reading
  • Strand 7: Identification of and support for children who are failing
  • Strand 8: Lessons from research in interactive learning
  • Strand 9: Home support for encouraging literacy
  • Strand 10: Changing attitudes, values and expectations

They compared Synthetic and Analytic Phonics and found that children taught with Synthetic Phonics made greater gains, which were sustained over time. At the end of the 10-year project, only three students remained with Neale Analysis scores below the 9 year 6 month level considered to represent functional literacy.

The full report on this research concludes: “The interventions reported in this study have resulted in raised achievement, have effectively eradicated illiteracy in West Dunbartonshire and have developed a foundation for intergenerational change in attainment levels”.

Don’t you wish you could say that about your own shire or city? Click here for the full West Dunbartonshire Literacy Initiative report.