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Phonics fundamentalists in danger of whipping up a frenzy

Primary teachers are rushing to defend the use of synthetic phonics after a letter condemning the reading system was published in 'The TES'. But opponents of the scheme still clamour for a less-prescriptive approach, comparing phonics fundamentalists to the Taliban.

Earlier this month, 100 early-years experts signed a letter which expressed serious concern at the Government's imposition of approved synthetic phonics courses on four-year-olds.

The letter, written by Wendy Scott, of the Early Years Curriculum Group, responded to the Government's decision, implemented this September, to make synthetic phonics mandatory.

But, writing on 'The TES' website, teachers eagerly defended the phonics system. Commenting on the Scott letter, one teacher wrote: "So many people not quite at the coalface. Lecturers, advisers, professors... as an early-years teacher and a tutor to older children who can't read, I say to you all, you are wrong. Quite unmistakably wrong."

Another contributor wrote: "If you really want the nation's children to be able to read Shakespeare, Dickens, Jane Austen, the message is to give them a good-quality phonics programme right from the start, practise it every day, and watch them grow into great readers."

Many teachers drew on personal experience, citing examples from their own classrooms or their own families.

One teacher said: "My empirical evidence is of children who tell me, no, they can't read back what they have just written, because they can't remember what it says. Who thinks adults read books because they have gradually and steadily learnt them off by heart? Teaching them how our writing system works can only empower them."

Another stated: "It is blindingly obvious to anyone in the secondary sector that something is terribly wrong when large numbers of children, not all from disadvantaged backgrounds, haven't learnt to read after seven years of primary education."

But the signatories of the Scott letter defended their stance.

Jane Murray, senior lecturer at Northampton university, wrote on the website: "The Literacy Mechanic's Phonix Manual for One-Size-Fits-All is no substitute for contextualised, high-quality knowledge, understanding and skills."

But, above all, the anti-phonics teachers preached caution. One contributor said: "There is nothing worse than groups of phonics fundamentalists whipping each other into a frenzy, and hanging other strategies from the trees, like the Taliban did with the televisions. Let's hope the synthetic-phonics crusaders are mostly right, and don't perpetrate as much damage as the last lot of crusaders."

* www.tes.co.uk

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