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Reading strategy goes back to basics

A recent inquiry recommends a return to phonics first and fast, report Warwick Mansell and Diane Hofkins

A return to traditional methods of teaching young children to read was unveiled by the Government yesterday.

Every child should be taught synthetic phonics first and fast, a six-month inquiry for ministers concluded. The method is favoured by some advocates of "back-to-basics" teaching approaches.

The technique, in which pupils learn individual letter sounds and then blend them into words, should be the first reading strategy and introduced by the age of five, it recommended.

The findings, which were immediately accepted by ministers, come following an investigation led by Jim Rose, a former director of inspections at Ofsted. They will be seen as a victory for traditionalists and imply some criticism of the national strategy, although virtually no educationists now reject outright the use of synthetic phonics.

Mr Rose's report also called for a stronger emphasis in the early years on developing children's speaking and listening skills, "as an essential precursor to phonics". Teaching, it said, should be set within a "broad and rich language environment".

The report also called for better integration of the mainstream teaching and the catch-up support for children who are struggling with their reading.

It added that good provision did not solely depend on the method by which pupils were taught to read. The commitment of senior staff, effective monitoring of teaching and learning and high-quality pedagogy were central.

Mr Rose's report agrees with phonics lobbyists and other specialists that the national literacy strategy's current approach to early reading is too complicated.

Infants need to learn their basic phonics before embarking on other approaches, such as whole-word recognition, which feature in the strategy, it said. But it was important for pre-school children to be exposed to stories, rhymes and songs, to prepare them for reading.

Mr Rose said that although phonic work was now widely accepted, many teachers differed over how it should be used in teaching. The report was an attempt to answer that question.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, said that before the introduction of the literacy hour in 1998, the debate was about whether or not to introduce phonics. Phonics was now part of every child's development, and the challenge was to learn from evidence about how it should be developed.

Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant, said it would have been better to recommend starting phonics "around five" rather than "by five" to allow for teachers' judgment.

The review was prompted after the House of Commons Education Select Committee expressed concern that as of 2004 one in five 11-year-olds failed to reach expected reading standards. The figure is now one in six.

Barry Sheerman, the committee chairman, said the report went a long way towards meeting the committee's recommendations. But he wanted a more detailed research study carried out into the best way of teaching reading.

The review will influence an update of the national literacy framework, which is due out in draft form by 2007, and will feed into the new early development and learning framework. A second and final report from Mr Rose, due out in the New Year, will look in more detail at how teachers can provide the right early intervention for pupils falling behind.


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