This blog by Kieran Cooke from the Universal Learning Solutions, explains how a synthetic phonics approach can be taken to literacy education that can mean governments don’t have to choose between either instruction in English, or in their local language; children can learn in both. The approach aims to support governments in ensuring all children learn the basics by the time they reach Primary 4.
Education research from across the globe has demonstrated that it is ineffective for pupils to learn to read and write by memorising, due to the limited brain capacity to memorise whole words. Instead extensive research such as that by the US National Reading Panel has shown that teaching using synthetic phonics is a highly successful alternative. This approach teaches pupils letter sounds (for example, mmm not em, sss not es) and how to blend those sounds together to read words (so d-o-g makes ʻdogʼ). At the same time they learn how to write words by segmenting a word into its sounds, and then forming letters for those sounds.
Universal Learning Solutions (ULS) delivers literacy programmes using this synthetic phonics approach in Nigeria and elsewhere. So far, over 8,000 teachers in Nigeria have been trained in teaching the synthetic phonics approach in English and over 500,000 pupils have been provided with synthetic phonics teaching and learning materials. These programmes have shown that pupils using this approach, regardless of their mother tongue language, have made significantly faster progress than those taught using whole word approaches.
For example, in Akwa Ibom state in Nigeria, children taught using synthetic phonics in English were on average 17 months ahead in their chronological reading age in English than pupils taught using conventional methods after just 36 weeks.
In Cross River State in Nigeria, pupils for whom English was not their mother tongue made significantly better progress in reading and writing in English using the synthetic phonics approach than those pupils who had English as their mother tongue. These programmes demonstrate how schools should not have to choose whether to teach in mother tongue or English, as is being suggested in the two former blogs on this site about Malawi and Pakistan, but instead that a synthetic phonics approach would allow for both languages to be taught where the mother tongue has similar orthography to English.
One study using this approach with Kannada-speaking children in India shows that synthetic phonics in English is more effective if it is introduced in the mother tongue first. Teaching in the mother tongue for one term gives the pupils enough time to learn the letter sounds of their mother tongue and read simple words. It provides enough time for pupils to read and write confidently before the language of instruction changes to English, often in upper primary or lower secondary. This is why ULS now aims to trial introducing synthetic phonics in Hausa, the local language, in Zamfara State in Nigeria for one school term before then moving to instruction in English.
An alternative approach is to teach English and the local language from the outset simultaneously every day. This is particularly appropriate for languages which have similar orthography to English. In such cases, pupils can be taught the letter sounds at the same time as learning how to blend these letters together to form words and segment words into sounds. They then use these skills to read and write both in their local language and in English.
Having worked with communities in Nigeria and elsewhere for 9 years, ULS has found there is a large demand by parents and caregivers for their pupils to learn English as they see this as a crucial skill for the future. Furthermore in many countries the language of instruction changes to English during the latter stages of education in some countries. This leaves those who did not learn English in early primary being held back when they make the transition. English can also appear a viable solution to the problem many countries face when there are children with multiple home languages in the same class.
It is clear, therefore, that there is need for children to read and write confidently in both English and their local language. However perhaps we need not have to choose between whether pupils should learn to read and write in English or their local language. Instead pupils can use synthetic phonics in both English and their local language as this blog suggests. Currently there is not the required research evidence to indicate whether teaching with synthetic phonics has stronger education outcomes when taught in the mother tongue from the start, or simultaneously with English. Having this research would make a significant contribution to furthering discussions on this topic.