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Politicians start playing with literacy fire

In theory, many of the subjects taught in primary schools could evoke high emotions. History, for instance, can lead to violent mudslinging and even ruined careers in academic circles, but in primaries it's all rather jolly.

Religious education could cause holy staffroom wars, but actually the focus is on moral values and tolerance.

No, it's literacy that turns up the temperature in the primary world. How you teach children to read and write is personal. Now the House of Commons education select committee is jumping into the fire, by holding an inquiry into reading "to consider whether any changes are necessary to improve current guidancepolicy".

The Reading Reform Foundation's representative, Debbie Hepplewhite, was one of the first witnesses last week. Her belief that "changes are necessary to improve current guidancepolicy" is well-known. Official advice does not enshrine the foundation's specific phonics methodology for young children.

Other reading specialists, such as TES writer Sue Palmer, do not take issue with the importance of systematic phonics, but argue that "there's more than one way to teach children to read 'cat'".

No doubt they will all submit screeds of written evidence to the committee.

Meanwhile, the next witness in the short inquiry will be schools minister Stephen Twigg, who will be in the dock along with the National Literacy Strategy. A report is expected around February.

David Lloyd, committee clerk, said that there were a number of reasons for looking at reading from foundation stage to key stage 3. The committee was particularly interested in basic skills, which tied in with its 14-19 inquiry as well as its examination of prison education.

"Fifty per cent of people in prison have a reading age of 11 or lower," said Mr Lloyd. "There are a number of convergences of that kind."

One issue they ought to look at, if they are concerned about early reading development, is the poor speaking skills that many children have when they arrive at school. According to a Basic Skills Agency survey of teachers last year, half of five-year-olds start school without the oracy skills that they need in the classroom.

A study published in the British Educational Research Journal last month looked at the speaking skills of reception children in two multi-cultural urban primaries serving deprived areas.

Pre-test assessments of children's language skills showed that many had trouble with tense and pronouns, particularly his and hers. Simple prepositions such as using "on" rather than "up" also caused problems.

Children also found it difficult to remember sentences containing more than one idea, so that the sentence "I am putting tomato sauce and mustard on my burger" might be shortened to "I am putting some on my burger" or even "on my burger".

A subject like this would give MPs something to chew on.

Developing the spoken language skills of reception class children in two multicultural, inner-city primary schools, by Jeni Riley, Andrew Burrell and Bet McCallum, University of London, BERJ Volume 30 Number 5 October 2004, Carfax Publishing

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