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New benchmark for readers

Sue Palmer's article on the "new phonickers" (TES, November 10) alludes to recent research which has proved beyond doubt that good readers have good phonological skills.

How they get them is still open to lively controversy, but in general most reading specialists are now striving for consensus.

"Phonickers" quite happily admit the truth of the "real books" concept that "children learn to read by reading" - but they politely point out that the process cannot even begin until a pupil has mastered basic phonological skills.

Given that pupils cannot acquire fluency if they read books containing less than 90 per cent "sight" words, they concede that reading schemes are an essential tool for reinforcing phonological knowledge.

The "new phonickers" believe that learning phonological skill is easier if pupils are taught to recognise onset (initial letter sound) and rhyme. The value of analytic phonics (identifying component sounds in words) is well established, and pupils cannot employ invented spellings effectively without them.

However, analytic activities on their own do not assure the development of synthetic skills - blending sounds into words. Unless these skills are taught at the very outset of a reading programme, poor readers generally reject them in favour of word-guessing strategies which can even be counter-productive.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Woods Loke primary school in Lowestoft uses a variety of approaches, but its pupils are not introduced to books at all until they can readily identify all letters and basic diagraphs, and blend their sounds into words. The results are most impressive.

Between 1991 and 1995, only 2.7 per cent of pupils attending this school for at least the past two years have scored below 90 on the Suffolk 8-plus Reading Test. County-wide averages for 1991 showed 31 per cent of all pupils scoring below 90 - a failure rate 1,148 per cent higher than at Woods Loke.

Woods Loke has a working-class catchment, average class size, and no additional funding. Until other approaches have proved more successful in the everyday, state-school classrooms, I think Woods Loke has set a standard by which all research must be judged.

TOM BURKARD The Promethean Trust Riverside Farm Ringland Lane Easton Norwich

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