Holding the phonics: a year wasted

18th May 2007 at 01:00
Publishers report poor sales for schemes after the Government takes 12 months to issue official guidance

A YEAR of phonics teaching has been lost as schools have waited for official guidance.

Jim Rose, the former chief primary inspector who carried out a review into how it was taught in 2005, concluded that, by five, all children should be getting a 20-minute discrete lesson in synthetic phonics. The Government then announced a raft of consultations and training.

The Rose review included a clear guide to what elements made up a good synthetic phonics programme. But Letters and Sounds, the Government's own guidance, was published only a few weeks ago on the internet. All primaries will be sent five printed copies of it.

It is structured in six phases, starting with preparing children for phonics through games and songs. Phase two is when phonics teaching starts with basic consonants. Phase six concentrates on spelling for fluent readers.

The guidance is not being promoted as the preferred phonics programme and teachers can choose which programme to use.

While some may have been waiting for free materials, other schools are ahead in teaching synthetic phonics.

Kathy Rayers, headteacher of Churchdown Village infant school in Gloucester, said: "Since we introduced Jolly Phonics in 2001, it has gone from strength to strength. The Rose review has not made any difference because we were doing it anyway.

"All our pupils are reading, with different degrees of fluency, by the end of reception. They can compile a sentence and some very competent pupils can write two or three pages."

Publishers of the phonics schemes, who may have expected to see an increase in sales, say there has been little impact so far, possibly because schools already have programmes or because they have been waiting for the free government programme.

Kathleen Donovan, managing director of Harcourt, which publishes Fast Phonics First, said: "The effect of saying we are going to publish a document all about phonics is that schools don't buy phonics schemes. There has been a lull in our sales."

Chris Jolly, managing director of Jolly Learning, said: "Although a change to the teaching of reading has been in the air for a long time, Letters and Sounds has just been published. I think from the schools' point of view, it is very much a period of getting to understand what is recommended.

Commercially it is too early to say what the impact will be."

Karen Halliday, head of marketing for publishers Letterland, said: "Our sales are healthy. But teachers are waiting until they have had the phonics training, so there has not been that much impact on sales yet. Although we expect and hope there will be."

Official statistics for 2006 show that 17 per cent of five-year-olds did not know the alphabet and only 29 per cent were at the level expected of being able to read simple words and attempt more complex ones.


Ann Tanner, head of Whitley Park infant and nursery school in Reading, tries many approaches to help her pupils read, but her first priority is books. And it seems to be working, writes Helen Ward.

The Year 2 pupils, including Kane Stocker (right), are thoroughly engrossed in their chosen books. Jasmine Charles, 7, says her favourite lesson is looking at books. Today she has picked one on badgers, saying: "My auntie feeds badgers at night."

When inspectors visited the 322-pupil school last summer, they found high expectations from the enthusiastic staff. Whitley Park is in a deprived area. Children begin with a low level of skills but most had caught up with their peers by seven.

But, said Ofsted, literacy teaching needed to be more rigorous. So Mrs Tanner decreed pupils would have five stories a day and bought Read Write Inc, a phonics scheme devised by Ruth Miskin, former head of Kobi Nazrul primary in Tower Hamlets, east London. "We were already doing Jolly Phonics," says Mrs Tanner, "but Read Write Inc seemed to best meet the needs of the school."

For pupils who need extra support, a speech and language therapist visits once a week and a speech therapist assistant three times a week. Volunteers from the Maiden Erlegh Rotary Club and the charity Assisting Berkshire Children also help.

The school spends pound;3,500 a year on books and Mrs Tanner even scours charity shops. "I'm not too proud," she said. "You can pick up a lot of decent books in Sue Ryder."

Photograph: Tom Pilston

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