Easy as ABC
The row over synthetic versus analytic phonics is now familiar to everyone in education - even though few understand these terms and even experts can't agree on what they mean. "It's one of the most sterile debates I have encountered in my career," says Jim Rose, a former deputy chief inspector of schools and the man the Government appointed to sort out the confusion.
In his Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, the former chief primary HMI and headteacher sought to pinpoint the "key ingredients"
of effective phonics teaching and set them down in a lucid, systematic way.
Systematic is the key word for him, because the problem in many schools is that phonics is taught in a piecemeal way, rather than through a comprehensive, quick and well-structured programme. "You have to teach children how the alphabet works," he says.
There are quite a few good schemes on the market, as well as the national literacy strategy's publications Progression in Phonics and Playing with Sounds, and it's wise to choose one you like and stick with it. "Once you start a systematic programme, fidelity to it is important," says Mr Rose.
But he disagrees with the phonics fundamentalists who say that this approach should be exclusive, and that children should not look at books which contain words they can't read because they will develop bad habits of guessing. Young children need a rich environment, where they are read to, sing rhyming songs, look at and talk about books and come to understand how print works, says Mr Rose.
But he does agree that children shouldn't be asked to guess. "One of the most common problems we saw (visiting schools for the inquiry) was children being invited to guess the words. We saw lots of examples of mis-guessing."
Few teachers actually remember what learning to read feels like, and this may be why there is still some confusion between that process and the way a mature reader functions. "Where we are still getting confused is the difference between comprehension and decoding," he says.
These are distinct skills, needing different kinds of teaching. "The goal of reading is comprehension but this is only achievable by deciphering the words on the page. To do this we have to master one of the most ingenious human constructs - the alphabet. When they're well taught, children can achieve this at quite an early age," he says.
"It's a time-limited activity - then reading becomes automatic and children can read for interest and enjoyment for the rest of their lives."
Another problem is that teachers don't always realise that they have to show children that blending and segmenting are two sides of the same coin.
Children don't automatically see that putting sounds together, as in c-a-t is cat, and deciphering the word "cat" into c-a-t are reversible processes.
This is so obvious to skilled readers that many don't understand that it has to be taught.
The Rose report has faced flak on two fronts. First, it has been accused of telling all teachers to teach all children the same way.
"Phonics is not a strategy," says Jim Rose. "It's content."
The review's remit was to advise ministers on early reading, and he has been impressed not just by research evidence, but by lessons he watched in places such as Clackmannanshire, Scotland, where primaries use a synthetic phonics system. Phonics is taught in short, fun sessions, and children enjoy the feeling of mastery they gain. "I have just been so taken by when a word is read successfully, as soon as you say 'that's great, well done', you get bright smiles," says Mr Rose.
He also feels there's nothing wrong with expecting children to do a bit of hard work. Children are happy to work hard when they want to achieve something.
The second criticism comes mostly from early years experts, who are worried about the statement that the vast majority of children should start learning phonics by five. They are concerned that some children, especially those starting reception class when they have barely turned four, will be force-fed lessons they are not developmentally ready for, and that untrained private nursery staff will believe they are supposed to drill three-year-olds in their letters.
Jim Rose argues that you have to trust people to be sensible and to use their professional judgment about individual pupils in their classes. But he does not see any reason to delay phonic work for most reception children. "They ought to be able to see the wisdom of putting children under reasonable challenge. That's always been the key to good teaching - and good parenting."
He points out that today's fun, multi-sensory lessons are "not like the sort of Gradgrind phonics that perhaps some of us can remember," and he argues that the incremental achievements children gain through a good teaching system are particularly important for the most vulnerable children.
"The kids we are most concerned about need that early success," says Mr Rose. "Believing in yourself is so important."