The "new phonickers" now come armed with a battery of research. Sue Palmer reports. The reading wars are not over. Things may have gone quiet after the Battle of the Real Books (1990-1992), but it looks as if it was merely a period of regrouping and repositioning for the next offensive.
This autumn a special issue of the Journal of Research in Reading, edited by Jane Oakhill, Roger Beard and Denis Vincent, fires off a positive battery of research findings to prove that "recent orthodoxies in the teaching of literacy in both the UK and the USA have in some ways been misinformed".
The orthodoxies at which they are firing are the whole language approach and its offshoot, the real books movement, which are based on the belief that children learn to process written language in the same way as spoken language - soaking it in through frequent exposure and gradually sorting out the rules for themselves.
One of the major exponents of real books, Margaret Meek, has famously said that children learn to read "when there is something they want to read and an adult who takes time and trouble to help them". Whole language enthusiasts suggest that structured teaching to develop reading skills is not only unnecessary, it may be positively harmful.
The collection of papers in the Journal sets out to prove the opposite: that specific and structured help in acquiring the skills of reading is for many children essential to success. A paper by American researchers Stanovich and Stanovich argues convincingly that the psychological processes involved in learning to read are quite different from those involved in learning to talk, and provides an impressive six-and-a-half pages of research references to prove it.
Morag Stuart from the University of London admits that while some children do learn to read in whole language classrooms, apparently cracking the code for themselves, it depends on the extent to which they are aware of the sounds of language, and of the significance of sound, from an early age. Many children do not have this sort of "phonological awareness" when they come to school, and will not learn to read without help.
Margaret Snowling, of the University of York, reviews the evidence that children who are later labelled dyslexic often have significantly poor levels of phonological awareness when they start school.
The importance of children's basic awareness of sound, and their developing knowledge about the way words are structured and the letter-sound correspondences within them, is at the heart of all this research. As far as theses researchers are concerned, phonics is definitely back on the agenda.
Even the old "look and say" approach now appears to depend on phonological skills. Linnae Ehri of the City University of New York defines four stages in children's ability to build up a sight vocabulary (that is, words they can read automatically on sight). To start with they simply remember the visual features of words, like the two round eyes in the word look; next they begin to recognise significant letters in a word, usually the first one, and relate these to their sounds; then once they can decode whole words from sounds, they rapidly build up their vocabulary with words they regularly decode; and finally they have enough data to recognise a wide variety of letter-patterns within words (for example, meaningful units like "ed" or sound units like "ight"). This speeds up their reading by reducing the load on their memory, and allows them to put more and more words into their personal mental bank.
There is emphasis throughout the research on the importance of patterning and analogy in children's acquisition of reading skills, which underlines the importance of system and structure in teaching.
Usha Goswami contends that children first come to understand that patterns of letters in words mirror patterns of sound through recognising "onsets and rimes" in single-syllable words. The onset of a word is the sound before the vowel (for example, the c of cat, the sh of shark) and the rime is the vowel and the rest of the word (the at of cat, and the ark of shark). She therefore suggests that teaching about phonics should be tackled in the following sequence: onsets, rimes and, lastly, bits of rimes (for example, the ar of shark).
This edition of the Journal is, in fact, the first concerted attack on whole language by the forces of new phonics, as opposed to the old brigade of hysterical back to basics enthusiasts who have represented phonics in the reading wars of the past. New phonics has a new agenda, with the emphasis on phonological awareness, the importance of knowledge of the alphabet (letter names as well as letter sounds), practice in building words from phonic data, and onset and rime.
And new phonickers are prepared to acknowledge that the opposition has many strengths: Morag Stuart lists "welcoming book corners and libraries with a good choice of well-kept books; strong home-school links with children encouraged to take home books to read with their parents; opportunities for universal sustained silent reading; sharing of big books; story times every day; group and paired reading; book making; book salesI" It's just that the new phonics researchers insist that structured skills teaching must run alongside.
Will the exponents of whole language still insist that unstructured incidental coverage is the only true way? If so, they will find themselves at war this time not with a rabble of back to basics diehards, but with a highly organised battalion of distinguished researchers, armed with some exceedingly smart weapons. In fact, it could all be over by Christmas.
* Journal of Research in Reading, vol 18, number 2, Blackwell Publishers.
Sue Palmer is general editor of the Longman Book Project