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Inspectors spell out bigger role for phonics

Advocates of traditional techniques for teaching reading seem to be winning the argument. Helen Ward reports

THE push for more phonics in infant classes is to be stepped up as the Government battles to reach its English targets. A solid literacy grounding at infant level is seen as vital in the drive to raise standards.

Government statistics show more than 95 per cent of the schools with the highest key stage 1 results in 1998, did better than average in 2002. In contrast, only around 5 per cent of schools with the lowest KS1 results, managed this.

The Office for Standards in Education has praised reception teachers for their teaching of phonics, but says the approach of their Year 1 and 2 colleagues is not systematic enough for pupils who are falling behind, and the problem gets worse in Year 3. It found teaching of phonics to be good in only one in four schools in 20001.

David Hopkins, director of the Government's standards unit, which oversees the literacy strategy, has pledged to look at the teaching of phonics in the early years.

Traditional phonics dates from the 19th century. Pupils start by learning to recognise letters and their sounds individually and when combined with other letters.

But in the 1960s, phonics lost out to "look and say", where children learn to recognise the shape of a whole word which they memorise and "read" with the help of picture clues. The literacy strategy has been seen as helping bring phonics back to the classroom, but is now believed to be out-of-date.

Last year Ofsted suggested it was time to review the strategy's expectations for the use of phonics. The strategy includes both "synthetic" phonics - where letter sounds are taught first and then built into words - and "analytic" phonics - which starts with the word set in context and breaks it up into its constituent parts.

But advocates of synthetic phonics in particular argue that the strategy confuses children by mixing phonics with other methods.

Debbie Hepplewhite of the Reading Reform Foundation said: "Synthetic phonics is the key to success in literacy in this country. The National Literacy Strategy has got it wrong all these years."

After failing to reach the English target of 80 per cent of 11-year-olds at level 4 by 2002, many feel that the target of 85 per cent by 2004 is unobtainable.

A DfES spokeswoman said: "Ofsted still identifies phonics as a weak area. We will continue to ensure that schools which need it receive consultant and other support to strengthen phonics teaching, including the Progression in Phonics materials, which we have no plans to revise at present."

She said the National Literacy Strategy believes children need analytic and synthetic phonics.

Professor Rhona Johnston, of the University of Hull, oversaw a research project in eight Clackmannanshire primary schools which found children taught by a synthetic phonics method could read and spell better than expected for their age.

She said: "A really intensive dose of phonics early on is effective."

American phonics guru Marilyn Jager Adams has said that the use of analytic phonics is important in learning to write.

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