A government report by former HMI Jim Rose says most children should begin reading using systematic phonic work by age five. Is that right? Two leading literacy experts thrash out the arguments
Say no to phonics before five!" is the current cry from the early-years experts. And as a literacy specialist who has long supported the phonics cause, I have to agree.
While the Rose report in general is informed, balanced and sensible, on the question of when and how synthetic phonics should be taught, its author, Jim Rose, has failed to listen to the experts.
In December a group of professors of early education, psychology, neuroscience and human communication explained the problems. They said that since children enter reception classrooms ever younger, with poorly-developed speech, burgeoning attention deficit and minimal social skills, there is a great deal of groundwork for teachers to do before the child is ready to learn that c-a-t spells cat.
These professors, like other authorities in the field of child development, urged delaying formal teaching until children are six. But Rose persisted in recommending whole-class or large group teaching methods (extremely formal for this age group) before five. Young children - especially boys - find it difficult to sit still at the best of times, but squatting en masse on the mat while the teacher rabbits about c-a-t requires self-control and an ability to focus far beyond most four-year-olds.
Many will be too immature to appreciate the finer points of phonics; others may find the c-a-t thing so self-evident as to be boring. Whatever their ability level, inappropriate experiences like this can turn children off school before their educational career has even begun. And when a young child's enthusiasm for learning is snuffed out, it's difficult to reignite it. Long-term studies show that an over-formal early-years curriculum can result in a lifetime's emotional, social and behavioural problems.
This is, of course, why the national curriculum doesn't kick in till Year 1, why four and five-year-olds are now catered for in the foundation stage, and why the curriculum guidance for that stage (now enshrined in law) is child-centred and developmentally based in direct contrast to the large group lessons described above.
It's also why schools elsewhere in Europe don't start formal education until children are six or even seven. Our early school entrance date is an historical accident, the ill-effects of which British early-years specialists have spent decades trying to alleviate - culminating in the foundation stage guidance. So why this attempt to undermine all that good work?
Rose himself admits that the research evidence for his suggested approach to synthetic phonics is "inconclusive". Much of it comes from commercial companies who have products to sell. And the arguments in support of phonics before five just don't stand up to scrutiny. For instance, some phonics zealots claim we need an early start because the English language is phonetically highly complex. But if something's particularly tough to learn, surely it's better left until children are older and mature enough to understand the task? Others want to crack on early because they fear children might otherwise start "guessing" at words and end up dyslexic. But children only start guessing at words if grown-ups ask them to read before they're up to it, so again the sensible advice is to back off until they're older.
Children who do show an early interest in reading usually manage to figure out phonics for themselves, or with a little informal help at the right time. In this case, of course, teachers should help, and offer lots of encouragement and praise. No early-years professional would suggest holding children back if they want to read - that would be as cruel as forcing them to attempt something developmentally beyond them.
Similarly, there's no reason why teachers shouldn't develop all children's phonemic awareness throughout the foundation stage, through appropriate small group activities when the teacher considers the time is right. It's called exercising professional judgement - something regularly recommended in the Rose report. Unfortunately, Rose lacked the courage of his convictions when it came to the how and when of synthetic phonics. Instead of entrusting these to the professional judgement of people who understand young children's language and learning, he appears to have bowed to pressure from politicians, whose knowledge of child development is nil. As a result, an otherwise excellent report will probably end up doing more harm than good.
Sue Palmer is a literacy consultant and co-author of Foundations of Literacy (Network Press, 2004)