'Synthetic' phonics seen as real reading McCoy

Julie Henry

THE long-running war over how best to teach reading is hotting up as the Government's new literacy guru meets those who insist children should "start with the sound" and George Bush reveals he is a phonics fan.

Last week the Reading Reform Foundation put its case to Stephen Anwyll, the new national literacy strategy director who took over five months ago. The foundation claims research shows that almost all children would be reading within weeks if "synthetic phonics" were used in the classroom. This involves teaching letter sounds first and then showing children how these are built up into words.

One of the technique's most famous exponents is Ruth Miskin, former head of Kobi Nazrul school in Tower Hamlets, east London, and former partner of ex-chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead. Her method was praised by the Department for Education and Skills and she was consulted on the phonics element of the literacy strategy.

Although phonics is ingrained in the literacy hour, the foundation says schools more often employ "analytic" phonics, which starts with the word and breaks it down into its constituent sounds. This method has its supporters, including Professor David Wray, of Warwick University, who thinks synthetic phonics can baffle children.

Mr Anwyll replaces John Stannard, the driving force behind the strategy, who was indifferent to the relative strengths of either method, dismissing the argument as a "theoretical debate". The foundation hopes change at the top will allow a fresh look at its favoured method.

Spokesman Debbie Hepplewhite said: "Synthetic phonics is particularly successful with boys, less advantaged children, dyslexic and ethnic- minority children.

"This meeting is a recognition that the success of our method is well-evidenced and would support the Government's move towards social inclusion."

President George Bush's appointment of urban school superintendent Rod Paige as education secretary has also put phonics at the top of the US agenda.

Mr Paige, a former university football coach, is in the synthetic phonics camp and claims test scores in Houston, Texas, have seen a dramatic rise because of it.

Mr Bush wants to make a nationwide effort to teach phonics in the US, where nearly 70 per cent of inner-city 10-year-olds cannot read at even a basic level.

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Julie Henry

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