A NEW intensive phonics course developed by the National Literacy Centre is expected to dramatically accelerate the rate at which young children learn to read.
It is to be introduced throughout state primaries nationwide by the summer term.
Early indications from schools already using the material with four and five-year-olds in reception classes and six-year-olds in the first year suggest the 15-minutes-a-day of phonics produces a spurt of between three and six months in learning to read.
Teachers of infants will be expected to adopt the schemes of work in phonics which require them to work with the whole class in activities that develop children's grasp of letter sounds. For the very youngest, teachers will concentrate on ensuring they can recognise different sounds and recognise rhymes.
By the age of six, most children are expected to have acquired the phonics that will allow them to move on to independent reading and writing.
Around 4,000 primaries have begun teaching from the phonics course manual this term and the work is likely to be picked up by all schools by the summer term. Local education authorities will get extra finance through the Government's standards fund that will allow them to pay literacy consultants to train teachers in its use.
The success of the project will not impact on national results until 2001, but experts are convinced it is possible to improve the rate of progress made by young children learning to read.
National tests for seven-year-olds show 80 per cent reaching the required standard in reading, but that figure has remained fairly static over the past three years.
According to John Stannard, director of the national literacy strategy, the phonics material has the potential to make a major impact on the acquisition of early reading because it brings together best practice in an active approach for young children.
He said: "We don't see any problem in persuading teachers of the importance of this. In key stage 1 (five to seven-year-olds) teachers are convinced of the role of phonics."
"The video going to schools shows reception teachers working with children in practical ways that are in line with good early-years practice," he added.
By the time six-year-olds reach the final stages of the work they should be able to break simple words into their sounds and read words such as "growl" or "jars".
However, the pre-school lobby may have concerns about structured phonics in schools where young four-year-olds are in reception classes.
Margaret Lochrie, chief executive of the Pre-School Learning Alliance, said:
"Anything that improves literacy standards must be a good thing, but we would be very concerned about the effects on young four-year-olds who go to school early."
Ministers are expected next week to endorse more specific learning targets for children in nursery and pre-school education.