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C-a-t spells compulsion

Government will force every teacher of reading to use 'synthetic phonics' method. Helen Ward reports on the effects of Jim Rose's landmark inquiry

Primary schools will be required by law to teach children to read using a traditional approach known as "synthetic phonics" from September.

The change has been recommended after a nine-month inquiry by Jim Rose, a former head of primary at Ofsted, and accepted by the Government.

Lord Adonis, education minister, told The TES: "I think teachers will welcome this because it brings greater clarity in teaching of reading.

Being prescriptive about what is right is not a mistake."

He said that making synthetic phonics the "prime" approach meant it would be the normal approach. But the Rose review also makes clear pupils should also be allowed to read real books at every stage. It recommends:

* 20-minute daily sessions of synthetic phonics.

* far more concentration on speaking and listening skills.

* using real books at all stages.

* learning letter names as well as sounds.

* introducing phonics by the age of five.

The Rose review was prompted by the House of Commons education and skills select committee last year, which called on the Government to look at whether teaching synthetic phonics would cut the number of children who were struggling to read.

Debate over how to teach reading has raged for decades. Now Mr Rose has come down on the side of synthetic phonics, where children are taught to blend the 44 or so sounds in the English language to make words (see box, on opposite page). But it is not quite that simple. Mr Rose skirts around the debate about which programme is best.

Around 68 per cent of primary schools are said to already use Jolly Phonics, which is perhaps the most well-known of the commercial packages.

The pound;154 scheme uses an action, picture, story and song to represent each letter sound.

The national curriculum requires children to be taught to use a range of strategies, including phonics, to make sense of what they read.

Ms Kelly said: "I am clear that synthetic phonics should be the first strategy in teaching all children to read."

She said that a rigorous programme of in-service and initial teacher training in synthetic phonics would be put in place.

Paul Wagstaff, director of the primary national strategy, is responsible for drawing up the framework which will spell out what teachers must do.

"We will be running training events and producing information for schools.

Consultants and materials for self-study will be there to help them," he said.

Mr Wagstaff said as teachers' skills in using phonics vary widely, there will be no universal five-day course of the type used to train teachers when the national literacy strategy was introduced.

Schools will be expected to pay the cost of phonics courses from existing budgets.

The Rose review prescribes four core elements of reading (see box above) which all teachers should ensure children learn, but how lessons are planned and exactly when to start is a matter for teachers.

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said:

"Teachers will be bemused by the government proposal to promote synthetic phonics. Phonics is already at the heart of early-years teaching.

"All teachers know that understanding words and sentences is not simply achieved by decoding text. Teachers need the flexibility and trust in their professional judgement to be able to respond to children's individual needs."

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Phonics should be just one part of learning to read along with play, talking, and enjoying books."

Phonics was used to teach children to read in the 1960s but fell out of favour. More recently, there has been a movement to improve phonics teaching in primaries.

The debate which culminated in the Rose review was sparked by a study in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, which found that six years after children had received a 16-week blitz of phonics in their first year of school, their reading skills were three-and-a-half years ahead of what could be expected.

This week, Professor Rhona Johnston, of Hull university, who ran the study with Dr Joyce Watson, said that she was pleased to see their work being recognised.

She said: "We started this in 1997 and there was a lot of attention when we had the first results, but things had gone quite quiet. It is surprising after all this time it has come to such prominence.

"I think it is the best thing for young children starting school, particularly for children from areas of deprivation and for boys." The Clackmannanshire method is published by Harcourt as Fast Phonics First.

Headteachers have predicted that the Government's target of 85 per cent of children reaching the expected level 4 in English by the age of 11 will not be met this year, or next. Last year, 79 per cent of 11-year-olds reached the expected grade.

Primary forum 24, Letters 26 See the full report on the web at rosereview READING THE ROSE WAY...

The Rose review concludes that synthetic phonics offers "the vast majority of beginners the best route to becoming skilled readers". But rather than advocate one or more of the phonics programmes on the market, the report sets out common features of all good synthetic phonics programmes. It says children should be taught:

* the links between sounds and letters in a clearly defined, incremental sequence, for example S, M, C, T, G, P, A, O

* the skill of blending sounds all through the word in order to read it, for example S-T-R-EE-T

* to split words into sounds in order to spell them

* that blending and splitting are reversible processes Once a programme is chosen, teachers should not "pick and mix" but stick with it. The report says that phonics should be included in a broad English curriculum and calls for more attention to speaking and listening skills.

When they start school, children should learn to listen attentively and speak clearly.

Play, stories, songs, rhymes and drama are all vital as well as pre-reading activities such as sharing stories with adults.

When teachers think children are ready - for most children this will be by age five but could be earlier - phonics should be taught in relatively short, usually 20-minute, discrete daily sessions.

Multi-sensory methods, such as copying letter shapes with arms, should be used and letter names taught as well as sounds.

"Decodable" books designed to use text children can read, can boost confidence.

But children should not be denied access to favourite books at any stage.

Systematic teaching should continue once links between main letters and sounds are learned and there should be some direct teaching of irregular words such as "the" and "was". Children should not be taught to infer words from context or pictures.

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