TEACHING CHILDREN to read has become harder because growing numbers cannot speak clearly or listen to adults, a new report by Estyn suggests.
Inspectors say parents who don't sing to their toddlers or recite nursery rhymes put them at a clear disadvantage on entering school.
They observed reading in 22 primary classes to find best practice in a field. They found that schools with a consistent and structured programme of teaching phonics - the study of how spellings represent the sounds that make up a word - did best.
The report also concluded that the quicker children were taught sounds the better.
Sally Francis, head of Mount Airey nursery and infant school, in Haverfordwest, backs the findings.
She said: "If children can't speak clearly and recognise sounds when they start school they are not going to learn to read. We concentrate on sound recognition as part of a whole-school approach to phonics. It can no longer be taught in isolation because of a decline in the speech of four to five-year-olds."
The report recommends that more emphasis should be placed on developing phonological skills, recognition of the sounds in words we say and hear, and phonemics - the awareness of the smallest unit of sounds in words.
Studies show that children who do well in phoneme awareness are more advanced in reading, says the report. But this awareness is different to phonics, which is concerned with the relationship between letters and sounds in a written word.
According to inspectors, not all schools focused on these two concepts, meaning only some pupils could identify sounds in words, such as the "ay"
in play. In England, schools are about to embark on a new universal phonics programme.
The introduction of Letters and Sounds, announced last week, comes a year after Jim Rose, the Government's primary adviser, concluded that all five-year-olds should be taught to read using synthetic phonics - the ability to sound out each phoneme in a word.
But Estyn claims there is no firm proof that synthetic, or the alternative analytic approach, is best. The report recommends that schools in Wales see the teaching of language, rather than phonics alone, as the way forward.
Susan Lewis, chief inspector, said: "Pupils usually do better at learning to read when schools ensure that listening, speaking, reading and writing reinforce each other."