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Review - The pleasure and the pain of phonics

"Jane and Peter. Peter and Jane. Jane likes Peter. Peter likes Jane." The reader pauses. "Very unusual for siblings."

Peter and Jane, whose zen-like existence of being, liking and dog-having will be familiar to most readers of a certain age, have been resurrected as part of Reading Between the Lines, a two-part documentary on BBC Radio 4.

This June, all Year 1 children will be tested for the first time on their ability to read words phonetically. The programme, therefore, explores the government's decision to emphasise synthetic phonics as the solution to the country's reading ills.

"My starting point is the nagging sense of a crisis about the standard of children's reading across Britain today," says the presenter, children's author Michael Morpurgo. "Does such a crisis really exist?"

What is gratifying about this programme is that it goes beyond the obvious wheeling out of "20 per cent of pupils starting secondary school are functionally illiterate" shock figures. (Not without wheeling them out first, obviously. But, hey.)

It goes on to take a little jaunt through the practicalities of phonics. Learning to read phonetically allows children to split unfamiliar words into their con-stit-u-ent parts, and thus still read them. Unfortunately, this is no use at all for many words in the English language. Try sounding out "physiognomy" phonically. Or, indeed, "phonically".

Technically, the first programme is an examination of the pros and cons of phonics, and the second a history of literacy teaching. But both programmes quickly come down to the same sticking point: is the point of reading the decoding of words, or is it the ability to access actual stories?

Back to the exciting adventures of Peter and Jane, endlessly looking and liking. Such reading schemes relied on constant repetition to promote word recognition. "Hop hop hop. I can hop. See me hop," children's laureate Julia Donaldson recites monotonously. Phonics, she argues, allows for greater wordplay, even with a limited vocabulary.

"We are very keen, as is the government, to get children to love reading for pleasure," agrees schools minister Nick Gibb, to the relief of anyone worrying that there was a deliberate government strategy to inspire pathological fear of literature among all five-year-olds.

But, after an hour of Morpurgo explaining the issue, there are still no obvious conclusions. Several points, however, do become clear. One: one size does not fit all. But, two: it does not really matter what you do with the middle-class kids because their parents are spending hours reading to them at home. And three: with the introduction of phonics, you at least stand a chance of rescuing the most disadvantaged children from a future of special-needs labels and functional illiteracy.

Can c-a-t-er-ing f-or y-ou-r au-d-i-en-ce be sounded out phonetically?

Reading Between the Lines is available on BBC iPlayer.

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