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OFSTED's reading verdict challenged

New research in inner London primary schools casts doubt findings in the survey of the teaching of reading carried out by the Office for Standards in Education.

The report on English, maths and science results is most at variance with the OFSTED study in finding that the practice of teachers listening to pupils reading aloud was a factor in improving results.

The OFSTED survey of the teaching of reading in three London boroughs reports that while listening to pupils read was the principal strategy used by most teachers of seven-year-olds, in many cases this was an unproductive routine of such short duration that very little actual teaching took place.

Researchers at the International School Effectiveness Centre at the Institute of Education and the Centre for Educational Research at the London School of Economics compared national curriculum test results of seven-year-olds in 62 schools in four inner London boroughs against classroom practice. Information on teaching policies was provided by headteachers.

The central finding that effective schools tend to have a clear policy on reading is in line with the OFSTED report. Most schools in the research study used a mix of either learning letter sounds (phonics) and learning new whole words.

However, the research stresses that the important factor is that schools have a clear policy, whereas the OFSTED report concludes that schools need to teach phonics in a systematic way.

According to Anne West, director of research at the Centre for Educational Research, around 10 per cent of primaries in the study used only phonics and around 5per cent used learning whole new words.

"The direction in which the research appears to be pointing is that the more effective schools have a predominant method. Of those schools, the majority were teaching using phonics," she says.

The two studies are not directly comparable. The OFSTED findings are based on observing lessons. Reading ages were calculated using a reading test administered by the National Foundation for Educational Research.

The London University research used results from the 1992 standard assessment tests, and heads provided information on school policies and classroom practice. The research also finds that schools varied in their impact on pupils' performance after adjustments are made for the differences in intake.

The differences in performance attributable to schools were larger for maths and science, suggesting that schools have a stronger influence in those subjects. Background factors such as age within the year group, gender and fluency in English have a greater influence on attainment in English.

Teaching and Learning Processes in Inner City Infant Schools is reported in two academic papers, one of which is to be submitted to the British Educational Research Journal . The other was presented at last month's American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New York.

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