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And then there was phonics

The bible for teachers of reading is likely to be rewritten again. Diane Hofkins explores the background

In the beginning was the word. Then children had to be taught to read it.

And lo it came to pass that phonics was created.

Phonics has had many disciples who believed with evangelic fervour that it was the one-and-only method, eschewing all others in reception classes such as real books and look-say. A schism divided believers in synthetic phonics from those who espoused a mixture of methods.

And so a great summit has been called by the Department for Education and Skills to be held on March 17. It will be the start of an inquiry to discover the best way to set young children on the path to reading.

Evidence has been mounting that inadequate phonics teaching in the infants and lower juniors has been halting children's progress. Late last year an Office for Standards in Education report highlighted the problem, a finding reflected in January's Fullan Report on the literacy and numeracy strategies. Canadian researchers said that many teachers had not yet fully understood how best to improve their literacy teaching.

At the summit, academics and researchers will present evidence on phonics to policy-makers. This is then expected to lead to new guidance for teachers.

The argument is about how phonics should be taught in the National Literacy Strategy, the government bible primary schools follow for reading and writing, and teachers fear yet more change may be on the way.

The importance of early sound awareness and phonics is not in doubt. Morag Stuart in a study in Tower Hamlets showed that children given a 12-week programme at the start of learning to read were significantly ahead in reading and spelling at the end of key stage 1 compared with a group which did not do phonics until Year 2.

There is widespread agreement, too, about the importance of synthetic phonics (see above) which teaches children the letter sounds, including digraphs (two letters expressing a single sound), and how to blend them into simple words. Most specialists now agree that the basic sound-letter correspondences need to be introduced early, systematically and rapidly - in the first term of reception class - if more children are to become good readers and writers by the end of primary school. Analytic phonics (see box) which helps children with more difficult decoding, reading longer words and writing, can come later.

Among the differences which will be aired at the summit are between the "traditionalists" who say the literacy strategy introduces methods other than synthetic phonics too soon and those who back a mix of techniques. The former say children should not move on to whole texts until synthetic phonics has been mastered, usually by the end of reception. They should not be distracted by other techniques such as visual or context cues, or by standard NLS activities such as shared reading.

First school teacher Sue Lloyd, one of the developers of the popular phonics scheme Jolly Phonics, believes children should not move on to books until they are fluent decoders. About 70 to 75 per cent of Sue Lloyd's pupils can "write what they want" at the end of reception.

The NLS also calls for phonics first, but says phonics should not be the only approach. John Stannard, its former director, says children at this age need a richer offering and a chance to enjoy the books they are reading. "If you have a child sounding out a word it helps if they know what the word means," he says.

While experts debate the best method of teaching reading, teachers remain the key to the strategy's success. If, as the Fullan and Ofsted reports have suggested, literacy teaching is not good enough, that may be partly because of confusion about changes already made to the strategy.

Since its introduction five years ago, for instance, it has altered its view of the speed at which phonics should be taught. Many are still teaching it too slowly and ponderously. "Teachers should be getting through the whole of the basic code before the end of Year 1 and substantially in reception," says Mr Stannard. The strategy's Progression in Phonics guidance contains advice, games and activities, but not everyone has taken them on board.

"Some teachers are not sufficiently skilled," he says. "They fall back on more traditional approaches, such as teaching a letter a day or doing it when it crops up." He agrees with the Fullan report that more professional development is needed. If phonics teaching improved, not only in the infants, but in Years 3 and 4 as well, pupils would sail past the Government's targets, he believes. Still other experts favour breadth, but criticise the strategy's methodology. For instance, Jonathan Solity of Warwick University says it fails adequately to link phonics activities with real reading.

Apart from speed, what does the good phonics teaching involve? Most specialists agree it must be done little and often and must be fun. Ten minutes, twice a day every day is thought to be about right.

"It must be done in a very lighthearted manner," says Sue Huxford of the NLS. "We're talking playing all the way through." Sue Lloyd of Jolly Phonics says children should start playing with language as early as possible, and have fun.

Children whose parents have not spoken and read to them much will lack the listening skills to learn letter blends when they start school so they need to play with sounds and learn nursery rhymes. It is the first step in phonics teaching. "Children don't need a massive amount of language to do phonics," Sue Huxford says.

Phonics has edged in from the cold repeatedly over the past few decades.

The original national curriculum for English in 1989 advocated a wide range of methods, including phonics. Then the re-write in 1992 brought phonics more to the fore. In 1998, the National Literacy Strategy gave it an even more strategic place. Now, the summit will look at it again. Those who favour the more "catholic" mixture of methods fear that the phonics phundamentalists are set for victory and that teachers will be presented with yet another version of the gospel on how to teach reading.

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