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Still not so jolly about phonics

MPs told literacy lessons damaged by Frank Smith who holds sway over many teachers. Dorothy Lepkowska reports

Methods of teaching reading that date back to the 1970s are continuing to fail thousands of primary pupils, MPs were told this week.

Reading experts told the House of Commons education select committee that phonics - the relationship between sounds and letters - was not being taught as part of the national literacy strategy, as teachers remain ideologically opposed to this approach.

Morag Stuart, reader in psychology at London university's institute of education, blamed the "charismatic" Frank Smith, whose books on reading, published in the 1970s, were being reprinted and read by teachers.

Dr Stuart told MPs that Professor Smith "is attractive to teachers because he tells them phonics and teaching words on flash cards is bad.

"(Teachers) find it boring. If you did this day in day out, year after year, it might be, but it isn't boring for children.

"I have seen him at conferences and it is like a Billy Graham meeting. He talks of them as keepers of the imagination and flatters them about their important role in society. He has made (phonics) a political and ideological thing and created a perception of phonics as a right-wing affair."

The select committee is examining government policy and guidance on the teaching of reading, up to key stage 3. Its conclusions are expected early next year.

Dr Stuart said there was "continuing disquiet" about learning phonics and the way teachers were being taught about reading in their initial teacher training.

She said the national literacy strategy had made a significant impact on teaching reading, as previously "in many schools reading was not taught systematically at all".

Dr Stuart added: "The strategy produced a framework which showed reading has to be taught.

"Previously, it was thought that reading was a natural human activity. The feeling was that we do not teach children how to talk, so we do not need to teach them to read."

She said that the "hearts and minds" of teachers had not been persuaded of the importance of phonics, and that many continued to reject the method.

According to Dr Stuart, one headteacher who was asked to help in research into teaching phonics told her that she was "ideologically opposed to a study that showed that phonics worked".

Debbie Hepplewhite, of the Reading Reform Foundation, criticised some materials provided in schools to teach reading because they encouraged children to guess at words from the context or by looking at pictures.

Sue Palmer, a literacy consultant, said Dr Stuart's criticism had "some justification".

"Because of Frank Smith, hardly any phonics was taught for a generation," she said. "He was in many ways quite damaging."

John Coe, of the National Association for Primary Education, said: "I cannot imagine there are many practitioners who are influenced by Frank Smith. Teachers are far too busy keeping up with initiatives and resources available from the Department for Education and Skills. No one is mentioning Frank Smith."

A spokeswoman for the Office for Standards in Education said that in the most effective schools phonics teaching was taking place alongside other reading strategies "to ensure pupils understand what they are reading as well as being able to decode words themselves.

"However, we recognise that in some schools there is still scope for phonics to be given greater pace and for the teaching of phonics to be more closely aligned to the needs of individual pupils, particularly those who struggle with decoding."

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