The role of phonics in teaching early-years children to read should be downgraded, according to a major Government-commissioned review.
In contrast to the Government's promotion of phonics, reception teachers should use a wide range of approaches when preparing children to read, a review of the early-years foundation stage (EYFS) published this week recommended.
Dame Clare Tickell, who led the review, has recommended that assessing five-year-olds on their ability with phonics should be scrapped. Instead, children should be tested only on how good they are at reading.
The proposals appear to be a stark contradiction of Government plans to introduce a test of children's phonics skills in Year 1 as a stand-alone skill. Ministers are pressing ahead with the plans, despite opposition from teaching unions.
Bernadette Duffy, head of Thomas Coram Early Childhood Centre in London and a member of the review panel, said phonics - the linking of sounds and letters - had been a successful strategy, but improvements in reading had lagged behind.
"If you look at the early-years foundation stage profile results, linking sounds to letters has gone up, but that has not necessarily been matched by a similar increase in children's reading," she said.
"This change will help practitioners remember there is more to reading than simply encoding and decoding the letters and sounds."
In the past three years, the percentage of children at the expected phonics level has risen from 76 per cent to 81 per cent, while the corresponding rise in reading has been from 85 per cent to 87 per cent.
Phonics remains in the new early-learning goals recommended by the review, including using phonic knowledge to "decode" words, but there is an explicit recognition that other strategies are important.
Evidence to the review said that phonics alone is not the best way to develop reading skills for all children.
Phonics consultant and trainer Debbie Hepplewhite said she was worried the recommendations would "muddy the waters". "It would be a sad thing if it was an underhand endorsement of searchlights (using several strategies at once to teach reading) in any way," she said. "That would be a backwards step.
"Teachers should be doing a linking sounds and letters assessment because it comes before reading."
David Fann, head of Sherwood Primary in Preston, said: "This worry that if you don't test for phonics it won't be taught well is not going to happen. I demand phonic skills are taught but I also demand other reading skills are taught as well."
Elsewhere, the Tickell Review recommended a number of other significant reforms in a bid to simplify the EYFS. The profile completed at the end of the Reception year, criticised as a tick-box exercise, would be shrunk from 117 to 20 points and the early learning goals slashed from 69 to 17.
Independent schools will also be allowed to opt out of the EYFS, which has been compulsory in all state and private schools and nurseries since 2008.
The Government has yet to respond to the review's recommendations and a formal response is not expected before the end of April. Any changes made will be brought in from September 2012.
Children's minister Sarah Teather said: "It will take some time to go through the detail of the recommendations and how we are going to respond to them but the broad thrust of everything Clare has said is very much in keeping with what the Government wants."