5th May 2000 at 01:00
FOCUS ON LITERACY: Phonics. FOCUS ON LITERACY: Guiding Literacy Learners. By Susan Hill. Horowitz Martin Education pound;12.95 each

Over the years, it's sometimes seemed as though all new ideas in literacy teaching come from Down Under. Big books, genre theory, Reading Recovery, guided reading, First Steps - antipodean initiatives, every one. So it's strange to read Australian books on literacy and find oneself thinking:

"That's a bit old hat." But I did, several times. Clearly, the world has begun to turn.

Phonics by Susan Hill provides a theoretical overview of the subject and a number of practical teaching suggestions. However, much of this practice is still embedded in a "real book" approach: picking up words from texts and recognising how they are like or unlike other words.

Though most of us were happy with this a few years ago, it now seems an unbelievably haphazard way of introducing the alphabetic code. Teachers will find a greater recognition of the centrality of phonemic awareness in early literacy learning, and a more up-to-date approach to practice, in the national literacy strategy's Progression n Phonics (or the all-action CD-Rom version), circulated last term to all state primary schools in England.

Guiding Literacy Learners includes useful information on day-to-day classroom practice, including guided reading, and takes a developmental approach to teaching reading in the early years which is very welcome. But there is little mention of the teaching of writing, which is an important and pressing issue - perhaps more important in the long-term than reading. The work on teaching writing going on in many English local education authorities, and due to form the basis of an NLS book later this year, is breaking exciting new ground and soon all teachers will have access to it.

The books are well-written and well-designed summaries of thinking over the last decade or so, but the main lesson I learned from them is how far we've come in this country in the past couple of years. So if it's cutting-edge stuff you're after, you're more likely to find it in the nearest primary classroom. On this evidence, British primary teachers are now leading the world in the teaching of literacy skills.

Sue Palmer

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