Phonics left out of literacy hour

11th December 1998 at 00:00
Studies found reading improved and pupils making progress - but also discovered weak teaching. Karen Thornton reports

Half OF England's primary teachers are failing to teach phonics, a key part of the Literacy Hour, according to government inspectors.

One third of the rest teach phonics badly, say HM Inspectorate which has surveyed 200 primary schools and 400 literacy hours in the past month in order to monitor the National Literacy Strategy, introduced this term.

The findings were announced at a hastily arranged conference in London this week, at which both HM Chief Inspector and Prime Minister Tony Blair insisted that phonic strategies are key to helping children learn to read.

But the conference heard better news from two separate research reports published this week, which found that the literacy hour could have major benefits for standards of reading and of teaching.

Struggling pupils made dramatic improvements in their reading under the pilot for the literacy hour, the National Literacy Project, according to analysis by the National Foundation for Educational Research. Pupils' reading improved by eight to 12 months more than expected in only five terms.

Chris Woodhead said an evaluation by HMI of the literacy project showed that teachers were teaching in a more systematic way and had increased their expectations of pupils, who were doing better than expected.

But weak leadership from headteachers and poor classroom teaching of phonics were key factors in the failure of some of the pilot schools to make a success of the project, introduced in October 1996.

Mr Woodhead said: "The schools where progress is being made are schools where headteachers are driving the literacy project in a dynamic way. It is very, very clear that the schools making the best progress are those where phonics is being taught in the most systematic, structured way it can be."

He also said that support for schools from education authorities was sometimes inadequate. Four out of 10 schools were unhappy with the support they received, and the inspectorate wants authorities to say what they are doing to support heads and improve teachers' phonics teaching, by next month.

A summary report, from the National Foundation for Educational Research, also endorses the crucial role of the headteacher in the successful introduction of the literacy hour and strategy.

The pilot schools - in 18 authorities including Portsmouth, Sandwell, Liverpool, and Bristol - were generally ones already identified as having weaknesses in literacy, and had higher than average levels of special educational needs, free school meals, bilingual and ethnic-minority pupils.

Headteachers rated education authority support the least satisfactory of the help their schools received, but the NFER found no statistically significant variations between the levels of progress in different education authorities.

Using standardised before-and-after tests, it found that there had been a "significant and substantial improvement" in children's scores, with the results still below - but much closer to - national averages.

All groups of pupils showed better-than-expected gains in achievement, but higher achievers did better, while boys did less well than girls. Children with special educational needs improved less than their classmates, in proportion to the severity of their difficulties.

Fluent bilingual pupils outperformed English-only speakers, but children still learning English as an additional language made less progress. Black African, Indian and Chinese children had significantly higher scores relative to other ethnic groups.

The NFER also surveyed pupils on their attitudes towards reading and how much help they needed with their work. Children gained in reading confidence in the course of the project, and by the end said they needed less help with their reading than they had initially. They also said they enjoyed reading.

The inspectorate report was based on three visits to 55 of the initial 250 schools involved in the literacy project, whereas the NFER collated test results for all pupils involved.

Free copies of the NFER report can be ordered from 0845 6022260 or by fax on 0845 603 3360. The OFSTED report is available free from 0171 510 0180.

The findingsthe good and the bad.

The HMI evaluation of the national literacy project found that:

* The quality of literacy teaching improved

* Teachers' expectations of pupils increased

* Lessons were better structured and planned

* Most children made better than expected progress

* Pupils enjoyed the structure and pace of the literacy hour

* Headteacher support was satisfactory in eight out of 10 schools

* Project support from English co-ordinators and key teachers was at least satisfactory 80 per cent of schools

* Local authority consultants provided good support to schools

BUT * Half the lessons given by specially- trained key teachers were unsatisfactory

* Headteacher support was weak in one in five schools - heads often lacked skills in managing change

* Monitoring and evaluation were weak in four-fifths of schools

* Support from key teachers and English co-ordinators was unsatisfactory in one in six schools

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