Phonics: a head's guide to Rose

7th April 2006 at 01:00
The Rose has flowered. The interim report of the reading review was a paltry 28 pages. The final report is a muscular 103 pages long. For all that, it is as interesting for what it does not say, as for what it does.

Led by Jim Rose, the former director of inspection at Ofsted, the group does not present the much-hailed "synthetic" approach as a particular method or programme. You have to work quite hard to realise that the blessed synthetic phonics approach has slipped into a different guise.

What has been hailed as a specific phonics strategy, set against others, is now transformed. Rose has essentially reduced it to one basic value: it is about being systematic.

Rose states: "The systematic approach, which is generally understood as 'synthetic' phonics, offers most young children the most direct route to becoming skilled readers and writers."

He does not say what the difference is between synthetic and analytic approaches, preferring, as he did in the interim report, to point us to other publications that will do this.

The one glimpse we get of the big, bad analytic method is when Rose extols the way in which synthetic (or systematic) instruction delivers clear principles, "whereas other approaches, such as 'analytic' phonics, expect children to deduce them".

There you have it. The synthetic approach equals systematic instruction, analytic approaches leave the kids working it out for themselves.

Rose does not say that we should all adopt one particular, narrow methodology. This is wise for the simple reason that, however much froth is whipped up by passionate advocates of specific methods, no researcher has conclusively shown a particular one is best.

A recent Department for Education and Skills review of research in this area concluded as much. In its submission to the review, the United Kingdom Literacy Association quoted five years of US research that concluded successful literacy involved "teachers explaining to and modelling for students how to co-ordinate multiple strategies (for example, attempt to recognise words by using phonics, word chunks, and semantic context cues such as accompanying pictures)".

Rose identifies certain features of systematic teaching - blending (or synthesising) sounds for reading, and understanding that this tactic can be reversed for spelling - that are vital to good phonic instruction. He also says this teaching should be undertaken in short, daily sessions that are well-paced and stimulating.

It is a useful restatement of good practice and, while I would always advocate teaching a range of cues to help children read, I would go along with the notion that phonics provide the most sure-fire method of accurately decoding new words.

However, I would want to ensure we do not reduce reading to decoding.

Reading is about so much more - and in fairness to the report, there is an acknowledgement of the need for enjoyment and celebration of good books.

Rose also says most children should begin phonic instruction before they are five. I'm sure this will prompt reaction, but in a debate that is not about phonics. Nationally, we still do not know what to do with the foundation stage.

The voices of advice concerning this age group produce mixed messages. If I were to ask a group of them how to introduce phonic instruction to four-year-olds, the responses would range from those who recommend a daily phonic diet to those who would bury me alive in the sand tray.

I welcome Rose's recommendation of phonics "by the age of five, if not before", but reckon we still have far to go before we attain any clarity regarding the early years.

On a subject that has prompted many words, this review says some interesting things and wisely leaves other things unsaid.

If you read nothing else, go for pages 15 to 21. Rose defines best practice as "that which results in the greatest benefit to the learner", and asks: is it replicable across the broad range of settings and schools? Can it be resourced and sustained at reasonable cost? What knowledge, skills and understanding are needed by practitioners, teachers and others who are responsible for securing it?

He says that "Leading-edge practice bears no resemblance to a 'one-size-fits-all' model", calling for a language-rich curriculum, emphasising speaking and listening more. A feature of best practice is that, once begun, high-quality phonics programmes were followed consistently. "Multi-sensory activities featured strongly in high-quality phonic work", he says.

Copies of the Rose Report and the United Kingdom Literacy Association's submission to the review can be found at Any thoughts? Write to

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