Into the phonics warzone

10th June 2005 at 01:00
Jim Rose has an unenviable task advising ministers on the best way to help children with reading difficulties. Diane Hofkins and Helen Ward report

Academics and teachers have argued for decades over the best way to teach reading: Jim Rose has just eight months to provide the Government with the answer.

The former chief primary HMI and director of inspections at Ofsted is heading the independent review of government advice on the teaching of reading, including the role of synthetic phonics, in primary schools.

Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, wants an interim report by November, and final recommendations in January 2006. She wants him to examine reading development from birth to 11, and look at the best support for children with reading difficulties. He will examine both academic research and classroom practice.

Ministers have already highlighted their interest in synthetic phonics programmes - highly systematic approaches that teach reception pupils to build sounds into words. But on the vexed question of phonics, Mr Rose has an open mind. "Whatever it is that makes it more do-able by teachers is what we want," he said.

He hopes to look at broader literacy including writing, speaking and listening, where more children struggle than with reading.

Mr Rose wants to ensure the play-based literacy curriculum for pre-school children and the Government's more formal literacy framework, used from Year 1, are properly joined up.

He is also keen to ensure that all groups of children are equally well-served. He will for instance, look at what can be done so that boys'

writing skills in key stage 2 catch up with girls or how to raise the literacy of poorer pupils.

Mr Rose also plans to look at materials from the primary national strategy and publishers.

In the ongoing phonics wars that have plagued British education for decades, the row today is not over phonics vs real books or whole word teaching, but which type of phonics teaching is best.

The primary national strategy says phonics are essential but not sufficient. Its Playing with Sounds materials offer structured phonics teaching through play and games.

However, inspectors have found many teachers are still not teaching phonics well enough.

The Rose review has been generally welcomed. But MP Barry Sheerman, former chairman of the education select committee, whose report sparked the review, said it did not go far enough: a review of existing research was insufficient, because definitive evidence was not there.

MPs on the committee were struck by a study from Clackmannanshire in Scotland, which appeared to show lasting benefits from synthetic phonics at the start of school. They demanded a new longitudinal study as well as a review of government advice.

"The synthetic phonics movement is evangelical and wants phonics, total phonics and nothing but phonics," Mr Sheerman said. "We didn't go along with that, but if the research from Clackmannanshire is right it could be very interesting."

* diane.hofkins@tes.co.uk

PHONICS: A BRIEF GUIDE

*Synthetic phonics teaches children the "building block" sounds made by letters or groups of letters which, put together, make words. The Government already stresses its usefulness in helping children to read.

*Analytic phonics teaches children to recognise larger chunks within words - particularly rhyming words such as "fight, might, right...". This is thought to be useful in helping children to write.

*The National Literacy Strategy uses both types of phonics. But it also encourages teachers to teach pupils to recognise whole words, to use grammatical structure to identify words and to guess them in context.

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