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MPs warned about reading

Traditional phonics is better for children than the literacy strategy, says trio of experts. Jon Slater reports

The National Literacy Strategy is turning children off reading by expecting them to guess difficult words too early, MPs heard this week.

Teachers are "putting the cart before the horse" by expecting children to read without first learning the phonic building blocks which make up words, they said.

Schools which use just phonics to teach children to read outperform those that use the mixture of methods recommended by the Government, the Commons education select committee was told.

Sue Lloyd, co-author of Jolly Phonics, Ruth Miskin, headteacher and author of ReadWrite Inc, a phonics teaching programme, and Rhona Johnston, professor of psychology at Hull university, were giving evidence to the MPs.

Their comments are the latest salvo in a long-running battle over how children should be taught to read.

Supporters of traditional (synthetic) phonics argue children need to be taught to recognise letters and groups of letters that make up common sounds and can then be used to "decode" unknown words before any other methods are introduced.

They point to a 1998 study by Professor Johnston, carried out in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, which found that four and five-year-olds taught synthetic phonics had reading levels seven months ahead of their chronological age.

But other academics have criticised its research methodology. They argue that many children should also be taught to recognise whole words by looking at the context - including accompanying pictures - in which they are presented.

The literacy strategy uses a mixture of methods, including phonics, but critics argue that children are expected to guess words before they have the necessary skills.

Ms Lloyd admitted the strategy was an improvement on previous practice but said: "We are still trying to put the cart before the horse by getting children to read books before they are ready."

She said this could lead to less able children losing confidence and giving up on reading.

Ms Miskin took issue with evidence given by Kevan Collins, director of the National Primary Strategy.

Mr Collins told the committee that the success of schools in Tower Hamlets, east London, in improving literacy proved the national strategy was working.

Ms Miskin, who until recently was a headteacher in the borough, said increased use of phonics was the reason for the improvement.

She said the range of teaching methods promoted by the Government was distracting them from what mattered.

"What we have got is a plethora of messages to teachers. Even when they have decided on the method that will work they feel under pressure to follow the other approaches in the strategy."

Later, Neil McClelland, National Literacy Trust director, defended the literacy strategy.

He told MPs phonics were important but added: "We need a variety of different approaches. Children learn in different ways."


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