The Adoption and Spread of Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) in Latin America: Argentina and Chile mainly, Uruguay, Brazil, Peru and Mexico
by Grace Vilar
In 2011, I became an independent, full-time Literacy and Phonics Trainer, and Educational and Literacy Consultant, in Latin America. I started providing training events, however, in 2007 whilst I was still working as Head of English Primary at Colegio San Antonio in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
I am the main phonics consultant and trainer developing Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) provision in Latin America. I am not a researcher, however, and I describe my findings based on my experience as teacher, head teacher and teacher-trainer.
Whilst visiting primary schools during a trip to Oxford, England, in September 2006, I discovered systematic synthetic phonics teaching. I was immediately aware that synthetic phonics was the solution to our problems in Latin American schools, as synthetic phonics provides a very easy and effective method to teach our bilingual Spanish/English children how to read and write.
Originally when I was teaching, I had to base my teaching on the whole word and whole language approach. I attended many teacher-training courses and was very much supported by my school and head teacher at that time. With much effort, my pupils did learn – however, I was never very happy with the whole language approach and used ‘decoding’ and ‘encoding’ to support the ‘mixed methods’. In reality I was getting frustrated year after year with mixed methods. In time, I became a head teacher myself, and continued to be very uncomfortable with the prevailing mixed methods. A ‘multi-cueing reading strategies’ approach was also used for struggling readers, and still children were not reading well, and writing… had worsened!
The problem was that our children were using their experience of the ‘transparent’ Spanish alphabetic code to read and write in English resulting in very inaccurate pronunciation and spelling. So once they started to learn the details of the ‘opaque’ (complex) English alphabetic code, together with the core phonics skills of blending (for reading), segmenting (for spelling) and handwriting with the English code rather than the Spanish code, they rapidly started to master the pronunciation and spelling of English with the accuracy I had been seeking. The children soon showed greater confidence in reading and writing and their language and reading comprehension in English grew stronger every day. With knowledge of the English alphabetic code, even the children with special educational needs became successful – such as those with short-term memory, and dyslexic tendencies.
Following my very positive findings of applying synthetic phonics in my own bilingual school, I started to share my experience with other schools – first in Argentina and then in Chile, Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and Brazil. All of these countries learn English as a new foreign language as Spanish is their mother tongue (and Portuguese in the case of Brazil).
Year after year more schools in Latin America are using the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles as their main and only method for teaching reading and writing in English, and a few of them have even started to use England’s statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check at the end of Year One to get an idea of how they are doing compared to schools in England. In Latin America, however, ‘Year One’ is only the first year of formal, structured phonics provision whereas in England’s schools, formal structured phonics provision starts in Reception so children in England have had two years of synthetic phonics by the time they undertake the Year One Phonics Screening Check. Early signs are that the Latin American schools are getting wonderful results, some at least getting better results than the average results of schools in England!
Further information about Latin America, Spanish-speaking countries
Argentina is the pioneering country for adoption of Systematic Synthetic Phonics. Most of the private schools in Argentina teach English for 8 to 15 hours a week. The level of teaching and teachers’ professionalism is very high in general. Chile and Uruguay follow in terms of adoption of synthetic phonics. These two countries in particular look to England as a guide for updating and perfecting their teaching of English. They take the Cambridge international examinations (IGCSE, A and AS levels, and IB programmes). Even state schools in the city of Buenos Aires have adopted some IB subjects for their secondary schools.
State schools in Argentina also teach English as a foreign language for 3 to 5 hours a week, starting from Primary 1 (5 to 6 year olds) or from Preschool (4 to 5 year olds). Others start in Year 4 (8 to 9 year olds) or they may start in secondary schools.
In the province of San Luis, Argentina, in 2013 the Department for Education launched a bilingual and multilingual project in three schools where English is taught two and a half hours daily following an immersion programme such as the ones used in the private schools in the country. These three schools offer Trinity examinations.
In Mexico, English is taught in all of the 32 states from Preschool (5 year olds) for 2 to 3 hours a week. The first state to adopt a Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme (Jolly Phonics) officially is Aguascalientes where I trained 300 teachers.
As I said before, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile are leading countries and they refer mainly to England’s education, so they adopt all the latest teaching practices and methods. When new methodologies appear, all schools send their staff to be trained and organisations such as the ESSARP centre based in Buenos Aires offer a wide range of courses which now include Systematic Synthetic Phonics courses. (ABSCH in Chile delivers an annual conference.)
I devote my whole professional time now to training teachers around Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Mexico and online in Peru – and little by little interest is also growing in Brazil, where I sometimes have to speak in the Portuguese language to train the teachers in the state schools!
Countries that have adopted the Systematic Synthetic Phonics Teaching Principles as their main method to teach how to read and write in English as a foreign language:
|70 % approx.
|San Luis province: 100% City of Buenos Aires: 20%
|2 % approx.
|State of Aguascalientes: 100%
|35 % approx
|40 % approx.
|3 % approx.
|State of Parana: Pinhais and Palotina: 6 municipal schools
|10 % approx
Note: These are not official percentages and these figures are growing daily.
Spreading Systematic Synthetic Phonics
My main objective is to train all teachers in SSP, so wherever they teach, they take along the method!
You can find a list of schools and countries in Latin America using SSP to teach children how to read and write in English on my website (not complete as I cannot control the spread of SSP any more… it is in the hands of the teachers now!)
Year One Phonics Screening Check
This check is statutory in England; it is freely available to all practitioners and IFERI promotes the adoption of this check. Click here to find out more, and to read about the success of the screening check in The British School of Costa Rica.
Examples of Children Reading
Fernando, 6 years old, from Argentina, his mother tongue is Spanish: Fernando has had one year of SSP instruction. We see Fernando reading decodable books at ‘first sight’:
Catalina, 6 years old, from Argentina, her mother tongue is Spanish: We see Catalina reading and writing nonsense words:
Grace Vilar is a Bilingual Literacy and Educational Consultant and Synthetic Phonics Trainer. She is also a member of the IFERI Committee.