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Parents shelling out on phonics spelling aids

North America. A craze for phonics games is sweeping across North America as parents vote with their dollars for this method of teaching reading.

In the United States, California legislated to restore phonics in 1996, and Canada's most populous province, Ontario, abandoned "whole-language" teaching last year.

In an effort to stem the tide of "at risk" readers (whose reading is one grade below the expected level), parents and a growing number of schools have been snapping up slickly designed educational supplements with titles such as Fun Phonics, Kid Phonics, Reader Rabbit and The Phonics Game.

Over the past three years, more than 450,000 copies of The Phonics Game - price pound;125 - have been sold, 25,000 of them to schools across Canada and United States. The Reader Rabbit (computer-aided reading) series sold 765,000 copies in North America in 1997.

Dr Ruth Weir, educational historian and former Toronto board of education trustee, is not surprised that parents are spending their money on systems that emphasise phonics.

"They know that when schools taught reading through phonics, literacy rates were near 100 per cent, and that they've tumbled since our schools shifted to whole-language reading."

Each of these products teaches what flashcards and worksheets once did. But their designers have striven to avoid the "drill and kill" aspect of phonics teaching that progressive educators attacked. "Kids learn better when they're playing a game," says Susan Getgood, spokesperson for The Learning Company, which publishes Reader Rabbit.

Kid Phonics is a computer game in which characters "sing, dance and rhyme their way" through different activities. At "World Builder Ranch", they are taught to build words by joining phonetic sounds: eg, "b", "u", "m", "ble", "b" and "ee" are combined into "bumblebee". The Phonics Game is a series of six card games, which introduces children to a subset of phonics rules; for example, to win game two - "Silent Partners" - players must understand the difference between long and short vowels.

The marketing of these programmes makes heavy use of testimonials. Recently, however, The Phonics Game has supplemented these with a controlled study. This concluded that it "resulted in statistically significant gains in word attack (the sounding out of words) long and short vowels, and letter identification skills," said Dr John Martois, a former researcher in educational measurement.

Specialists are divided over the wisdom of parents using these games. Gabriella O'Reilly, curriculum co-ordinator of the Ontario board of education, has concerns about a "child being given a lot of isolated work with sounds and no chance to connect it to a larger context". Others support "anything that can give children a head start".

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