Forked road to readers' recovery

No part of the school timetable is more vulnerable to swings of fashion than reading. Real books, look-and-say and various phonics methods have all had their day.

Most recently, the Rose review advocated synthetic phonics as an answer to the difficulties of the 35,000 children in England who leave school each year without even the most basic reading skills. The arguments for this method - already part of the armoury of most infant teachers - are reasonably, though not conclusively, persuasive. A study in Scotland found that a blitz of this type of phonics ensured that struggling readers moved ahead and stayed ahead.

The danger is that we end up trying to provide a single, simple solution to a complex problem and that teachers' professional judgment is trampled underfoot in the headlong rush to orthodoxy.

As ministers, local authorities and heads push ahead with training programmes for teachers, we should remember that the Rose review proposed that synthetic phonics should run alongside real books, play, rhyme and the encouragement of speaking and listening. It also said that the decision about exactly when the formal process of reading should start ought to be left to teachers.

Today we publish a letter from more than 100 early-years specialists (page 24) who fear that inapproriate phonics will be forced on four-year-olds, who will then be turned off reading for life. They point out that formal education already begins earlier here than in most of the rest of the world - to no obvious advantage.

Teaching children to read can transform society. Take a look at the number of non-readers in prison. But that won't happen simply by waving a phonics wand. The most compelling evidence of what works comes from the Reading Recovery programme, which involves tailor-made, one-to-one lessons with struggling six-year-olds. Children advance 21 months in reading age over four or five months and their progress is maintained. It is expensive at between Pounds 2,000 and pound;2,500 per child, but cheap compared with the cost to the taxpayer of young people whose failure to read leads to a lifetime of unemployment or crime.

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