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Phonics knocked off perch by official review

News | Published in TES Newspaper on 1 April, 2011 | By: Helen Ward

Findings contradict ministers’ policy

The role of phonics in teaching early-years children to read should be downgraded, according to a major Government-commissioned review.

In contrast to the Government’s promotion of phonics, reception teachers should use a wide range of approaches when preparing children to read, a review of the early-years foundation stage (EYFS) published this week recommended.

Dame Clare Tickell, who led the review, has recommended that assessing five-year-olds on their ability with phonics should be scrapped. Instead, children should be tested only on how good they are at reading.

The proposals appear to be a stark contradiction of Government plans to introduce a test of children’s phonics skills in Year 1 as a stand-alone skill. Ministers are pressing ahead with the plans, despite opposition from teaching unions.

Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre in London and a member of the review panel, said phonics - the linking of sounds and letters - had been a successful strategy, but improvements in reading had lagged behind.

“If you look at the early-years foundation stage profile results, linking sounds to letters has gone up, but that has not necessarily been matched by a similar increase in children’s reading,” she said.

“This change will help practitioners remember there is more to reading than simply encoding and decoding the letters and sounds.”

In the past three years, the percentage of children at the expected phonics level has risen from 76 per cent to 81 per cent, while the corresponding rise in reading has been from 85 per cent to 87 per cent.

Phonics remains in the new early-learning goals recommended by the review, including using phonic knowledge to “decode” words, but there is an explicit recognition that other strategies are important.

Evidence to the review said that phonics alone is not the best way to develop reading skills for all children.

Phonics consultant and trainer Debbie Hepplewhite said she was worried the recommendations would “muddy the waters”. “It would be a sad thing if it was an underhand endorsement of searchlights (using several strategies at once to teach reading) in any way,” she said. “That would be a backwards step.

“Teachers should be doing a linking sounds and letters assessment because it comes before reading.”

David Fann, head of Sherwood Primary in Preston, said: “This worry that if you don’t test for phonics it won’t be taught well is not going to happen. I demand phonic skills are taught but I also demand other reading skills are taught as well.”

Elsewhere, the Tickell Review recommended a number of other significant reforms in a bid to simplify the EYFS. The profile completed at the end of the Reception year, criticised as a tick-box exercise, would be shrunk from 117 to 20 points and the early learning goals slashed from 69 to 17.

Independent schools will also be allowed to opt out of the EYFS, which has been compulsory in all state and private schools and nurseries since 2008.

The Government has yet to respond to the review’s recommendations and a formal response is not expected before the end of April. Any changes made will be brought in from September 2012.

Children’s minister Sarah Teather said: “It will take some time to go through the detail of the recommendations and how we are going to respond to them but the broad thrust of everything Clare has said is very much in keeping with what the Government wants.”

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Comment (20)

  • Well that´s a new one, i´n´it ?

    "Research to inform gut political instincts". Though post-facto only, let it be noted.

    Whatever next for objective study?

    Free schools from Scandinavia ?

    Troops to teachers ?

    Effects of classroomChaos on pupil achievement ? ...on teacher health ? ...on national economic performance ?

    Me ? I´m still waiting for the demolition job on brylcreemKen´s 1988 back-of-a-fag-packet National Curriculum (sic).

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    1 April, 2011


  • The jury was always out on Phonics anyway.

    Once again Gove jumped on a bandwagon for political not educational reasons..........LLLLLLLL...Loser!

    C U L8'er as one would say!

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    1 April, 2011

    Brooke Bond

  • Children’s minister Sarah Teather said: “It will take some time to go through the detail of the recommendations and how we are going to respond to them but the broad thrust of everything Clare has said is very much in keeping with what the Government wants.”

    Eh? No it isn't! Ms Teather really.' means, I suppose, 'Ooer! We jumped on a bandwagon and it's a pile of old tosh. We'd better fall in smartish with what THE RESEARCH ACTUALLY TELLS US

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    1 April, 2011


  • Dame Tickell has now gone back on this, backed up by a DfE spokesperson:

    This gives the green light to the government's shoehorning of phonics into the early years, and to the phonics test at key stage 1, which if you look at the government's own consultation paper response - - page 12 - shows that of the 1,000+ consultation responses, the majority didn't think it was appropriate, or needed, or that it would help.

    In fact the review states that synthetic phonics should be used as part of a wider, meaning and context led approach - so why the change? Perhaps the phonics lobby has called up Mr Gove to apply the pressure?!

    Calling the pre-trial pilot a success is a bit rich as well, it involved 16 schools, most of which said they rushed it because of time pressures, and with a minority strongly opposed to it. That's not what I would call a resounding success!

    I thought most of the review was positive, but these latest comments are rather worrying.

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    1 April, 2011


  • What about the commerical interests? See:

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    1 April, 2011


  • As someone who has trained teachers in phonics for 10 years, why does not this surprise me. Reading has never been about just phonics. It is a balance between exposure to good quality text and the teaching of phonic/reading habits. Guided reading rather than the teaching of phonics has failed many of the children in our schools. Bring back reading for the pleasure,rather than it being an activity to 'keep the children quiet whilst I take the register'; encourage children to read books other than Captain Underpants and J Wilson; read to them at the end of the day and stop relying on parent helpers to hear our children read and maybe reading might just improve!

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    2 April, 2011


  • Hear,Hear!

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    2 April, 2011


  • I recommend that you all read John Walker's blog posting about the article, with its masterly turn of phrase:

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    3 April, 2011


  • Yes, it sounds like the Phonics Mafia has got into a panic over this and made the Dame recant, lest she be burned at the stake as a phonics heretic.

    Interesting to read Dame Tickell's biography on the DfE website. Seems she's had a career running voluntary organisations, including a housing association, which hardly makes her qualified to lead a consultation on education.

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    3 April, 2011


  • Dame Clare ran a call for evidence between July and September 2010 which generated over 3300 responses.

    3300 responses!

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    3 April, 2011


  • Phonics? What's this?
    It's amazing how strong the drive to follow any modern fable is, no matter proven or not, effective or not. It's important to sound modern and 'phonics' with its fresh final 'x' has this feature. Change it to 'phonix' or better 'phonixx' and it will become a world hit!

    But I am asking: have people been illiterate so far? Haven't children been able to connect the sounds of English without phonics? Has there been a major metamorphosis in human brain which necessitates a new teaching method? And what is so revolutionary about the new method? Phonics is just another delusion and in a couple of years it will prove its total uselessness.

    I am new to phonics revolution, but presently I am teaching phonics to young learners in China and I can say this - phonics is crap. English has too many exceptions and any attempt to impose a man-made structure has failed and will fail. Phonics is not an exception - just another misconception like 'the deep structure' and the existing plethora of useless teaching methods and approaches.

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    4 April, 2011


  • Clearly 'academica' is dismissing 'phonics' through lack of knowledge and has not been trained in synthetic phonics. Otherwise, you would know that there are not actually that many exceptions, merely a basic code and an advanced code which is made up of the less common spellings for a sound (phoneme).

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    5 April, 2011

    tilly tops

  • I totally agree with jogawne. Synthetic phonics if well taught makes an astonishing difference . Learning the pure sounds of individual letters and phonemes is straight forward and children know they are making progress. They move straight from sounds to blending into words - there is no middle step. It is not necessary and indeed makes reading more difficult. Pupils learn from an early stage that there are common words that are very difficult to sound - such as "the" but they practise this along with other "red" words. A structured approach ensures that comprehension and writing skills are taught in parallel.

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    5 April, 2011


  • really good

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    6 April, 2011


  • And it is exactly that ability to make the whole system sound so convincing that gets ministers excited. It sounds so logical and plausible when put like that. But many children learn to read as successfully using purely the shapes of words. Any system also which is followed rigorously is a cause for concern as it lacks flexibility or individuality. So much of understanding a child's problems with reading comes from listening to the pupils and assessing them individually. My mother (old school retired primary teacher) is appalled to find teachers don't hear every child read every day as she did, alongside using a variety of teaching methods. I teach secondary and, when it comes to writing, pupils who are too used to sounding out words will have real trouble spelling as they don't know which spelling of the sound for which word.

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    Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    6 April, 2011


  • Has the rise in tv viewing hours and the explosion of gaming consoles as competition for childrens' interest in, or indeed time for, reading been taken into account in the less than expected 'corresponding rise in reading ....... from 85 per cent to 87 per cent'?

    Lies, damned lies and ............

    Same old story, just think about what financial benefit this might bring to the department, financial..savings...NOT educational benefit!!

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    6 April, 2011


  • I hope the TES puts Clare Tickell's comments prominently on the front page rather than tucked away inside.

    Commenting on the Times Educational Supplement front page today (1 April 2011) on phonics, Dame Clare Tickell said:

    I have not recommended that phonics should be downgraded. Phonics is one of the most robust and recognised ways of helping children to learn to read and write. My report clearly highlights the importance of children starting school ready and able to learn, and I set out in the reading and writing goals the phonic development children should have reached by the age of five. The fact there is no longer a separate section labelled 'linking sounds and letters' does not mean I have deprioritised phonics - merging this section into 'reading' and 'writing' is one of the ways I have slimmed down and simplified the EYFS.

    A Department for Education spokesman said:

    There is compelling and comprehensive international evidence that systematic synthetic phonics is the best method for teaching reading. That’s why we are going to give every school support and training to teach it – and introduce a simple reading check at age six to guarantee children have based the basic skills of early reading. Test pre-trialling has been popular and successful with schools - and we are launching a full pilot later this year.

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    7 April, 2011


  • Nothing new in this story. Been saying this all along.

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    7 April, 2011


  • there is nothing wrong with phonics what are they trying to do ruin education. phonics help children to learn to read better than any other strategy, it helps them to break up difficult words while reading. i wasn't taught phonics in my reception so it took me 3 months longer than the children did to learn it with them . and only now have i learnt all the actions to the sounds. why can't they just leave education as it is and just get more funding for it instead of trying to find ways to gie it less.
    they need to have a hard think about what impact making phonics less important!!

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    11 April, 2011


  • If age related phonics are taught effectively the issue about over use of sounding out is not the norm as Phase 6/Support for Spelling is about the teaching of spelling. Phonics is only part of that.

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    11 May, 2011


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