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A brief history of the reading wars

Has Jim Rose halted the reading wars once and for all? You can bet he hasn't. They have raged for decades, and seem unlikely to stop now.

Of all the methods used down the years, the looniest by far was the Initial Teaching Alphabet (ITA). Invented by Sir James Pitman, grandson of the shorthand man, the ITA, first used in 1961, was strictly phonetic. There were a few problems. Spellings were based on received pronunciation, so if you had the wrong accent you were likely to misspell anyway; and some children had trouble switching to the normal alphabet.

The bible of common sense in literacy teaching for years was the 1975 Bullock report. "There is no one method, medium, device, approach or philosophy that holds the key to the process of learning to read", it said.

Recommendations included lending books to parents of pre-school children and establishing in children's minds the notion that "reading is primarily a thinking process not just an exercise in identifying shapes and sounds."

It said schemes should not rely exclusively on "look and say" or on phonics.

During the 1960s, 70s and 80s so-called "progressive" ideas took hold among a minority of teachers. One guru was Frank Smith, who argued children learn to read by doing it, the way they learn to speak. Brain research has now discredited this idea; speech is a natural function, but reading isn't.

The right-wing Black Papers denounced "progressive" methods in 1969, but 20 years later, one of their leaders, Brian Cox, went native. He led the group which wrote the first national curriculum English order, which now looks quaintly progressive. Its guidance is the opposite of Jim Rose's advice to teach phonics discretely. Infants should "build up in the context of reading" a vocabulary recognised on sight, using word shapes, pictures, context, phonic cues and meaning to help them. They should be ready to make informed guesses, and to correct them, it said.

After fierce rows, the English curriculum was revised in the 1994 Dearing review to slim down the whole curriculum, and again in 2000 to fit with the literacy strategy, which in 1998 told teachers for the first time how to structure lessons.

The current curriculum, which will need slight revision to take in Rose's recommendations, calls for a range of strategies.

Diane Hofkins is TES primary editor

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