Literacy: the f-word strikes back

Were The TES to run a picture of a cuddly pooch on our front page with the muzzle of a gun pressed to one of its soft, floppy ears, we could hardly expect to receive more outraged post than drops through the office letter box any time the word "phonics" appears anywhere in the paper.

The reading debate brings out people's inner tub-thumper. It also plays to teachers' deepest insecurities. Literacy is personal, and criticising the way someone teaches reading is like picking holes in the way they bring up their children. Not surprisingly, then, the debate has spawned more phonic Dr Spocks than the number of toes on a brace of babies.

If there's anyone who can bring peace to the warring world of early literacy, it's the rational Jim Rose, so it's a good thing he is on hand to advise the Government. But even he can't avoid rippling the waters. He has worried the early-years lobby by leaving loopholes in last term's interim report through which pushy parents and inexperienced daycare staff could push phonics drills at three-year-olds. And now his suggestion that infant teachers should be trained in how to use phonics has agitated the unions.

They have a point. Eight years ago a massive national literacy strategy training programme was imposed on primary schools. The Government was emphatic that it would work, and that the prescribed literacy hour would reverse an alleged crisis in standards. Sat scores went up, but according to a rigorous study by academics, reading levels have hardly shifted in decades. Will the same thing happen again?

There is more solid research evidence to support the use of phonics at the start of young children's reading instruction than there ever was to back up the literacy hour. It seems right that teachers should be entitled to appropriate training - as long as no one holds a gun to their heads. But the Government mustn't forget that literacy is much broader than decoding, and that, measurable reading levels aside, the strategy has widened teachers' knowledge and children's experience of language and literature.

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