Phonics rivalry sounds nasty

19th February 1999 at 00:00
Debates amongst phonics `experts' were very much to the fore. As the war rages on, are we any clearer today on how sucessful this method is in teaching children to read?

THE LONG-RUNNING war over how to teach reading has entered a new and even more confusing phase.

Proponents of "analytic phonics", commonly associated with the literacy hour, have set up a strategy group to champion their cause.

They are concerned about a rival group of phonics experts' claims for "synthetic phonics" being promoted in schools.

The analytic variety encourages pupils to start with a word and split it into its constituent sounds. The synthetic rival - believed to have the backing of HM chief inspector Chris Woodhead - starts with sounds which are then combined to form words.

Recent research from St Andrews University concluded that a group of pupils taught synthetic phonics outperformed those who learned to read through analytic phonics and a mix of the two advocated in the Literacy Strategy.

Now, to make matters more complicated still, the Department for Education and Employment has distanced itself from analytic phonics, saying the literacy strategy has been synthetic all along.

A spokesman said: "Analytic phonics is different from the so-called synthetic phonics with which the National Literacy Strategy is more clearly associated.

"The strategy has a very clear focus on the explicit and systematic teaching of phonics, that is the segmentation and blending of sounds in words."

The new group, headed by Henrietta Dombey, professor of literacy in primary education at the University of Brighton, and Myra Barrs of the centre for language in primary education in London, are concerned that the synthetic phonic lobby has many powerful allies and that teachers may be pressured to adopt its methods.

Professor David Wray, of Warwick University, who attended the group's first meeting on Friday, has published rival research supporting analytic phonics. His study for the Teacher Training Agency in October showed that the best teachers taught phonics, spelling and grammar in context rather than as separate topics.

He said: "Research has found that teachers are not using phonics effectively within the literacy hour. They earmarked a slot for phonics and did not integrate it into the rest of the hour.

"We met to talk about how we could advise teachers how to embed phonics in real texts. I believe that this, the analytic approach, is more effective."

He said guidance documents should be produced for teachers to counteract research suggesting that "sounds first" phonics was best.

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