HOW do human beings learn to read? Does the answer lie in Letterland or in the cosy world of Biff and Chip?
Should our children recognise 26 letters at 36 months, or be adept with syllables at the age of five? Or would we be better following in European footsteps and delaying the whole reading thing until the kids are seven?
It is a critical question. Reading, after all, is the key to education, the skill that unlocks understanding.
In North Lanarkshire, an area where poverty and deprivation are widespread, an early-years reading initiative has become a cornerstone of the education department's commitment to raising achievement.
This is not a small deal: money, time and a great amount of thought have been invested in this scheme. An annual Scottish Office grant of pound;377,000 has been made available for an initial three years. The council is putting in pound;99,000 annually, and on top of that, has found pound;576,000, mainly to fund the year-long secondment of teachers.
"The council were persuaded by the argument of significant long-term benefit to the people of North Lanarkshire," says Jim McGuinness, head of support for learning, and chair of the initiative's steering group.
North Lanarkshire is building its own policy to suit its requirements. The initiative is multi-faceted and on a grand scale. About half the authority's 134 primary schools are involved in some way, and the aim is to produce a strategy that will be workable across the whole of North Lanarkshire and beyond.
The initiative approaches reading from several directions. A pilot project involving 16 schools has introduced nursery nurses into Primary 1 classrooms to work on rhyming skills, syllable segmentation and many other reading strategies.
A smaller pilot is going on with pre-school children in three schools with attached nurseries looking at ways of linking literacy work across the divide.
Homeschool links are being strengthened and parents advised on good reading practice.
All this work is being formally recorded and assessed by depute principal psychologist Dr Laura-Ann Currie, and the results are to be published both as a strategy for the authority, and as a manual for use in the classroom and in staff development.
Initial results suggest pupils and teachers now have a firmer grasp of how children learn, and the graph of reading ability at the end of P1 has been pushed up the scale, with some children reading at the level of a 14-year-old.
Sitting round a table with staff involved in all these different facets of the initiative, it quickly becomes clear that as much as the children, the teachers have been transformed, and in many cases liberated, by the past year of change and development.
Two teaching staff have qualified at the Institute of Education in London, and, as Reading Recovery tutors, are now in the process of showing 24 staff how to become Reading Recovery teachers.
Reading Recovery is being used over 12 to 20 weeks with 150 children in P2 whose reading is particularly weak (see panel). An intensive programme requiring special training and involving one-to-one attention, its main reported benefits are for children in deprived social circumstances who are unable to read by the age of six.
Anne Neil is one of the two teachers who flew down to London every Thursday last year to gain a Reading Recovery qualification. Prior to that she taught P5 and P6 classes and was all too familiar with children whose self-esteem was at rock-bottom because they were still struggling with reading.
"That's why I changed my emphasis," she says. "I did a one-year post-grad teaching qualification. We weren't taught to teach reading, we were taught how to manage a reading scheme. It was all about being a good manager.
"Reading Recovery is about using my professionalism, actually using teaching skills."
She refers to recent research which found that children weaned off their reading scheme and presented with books of a similar level and with a similar vocabulary, were left floundering. "It collapsed like a house of cards," says Neil.
Moira McLaren, pre-fiveprimary adviser, agrees. "Class teachers can feel constrained by 5-14 and the formal structure of the classroom, and are prevented from responding on the run to what pupils need.
"They have got everything planned for the month ahead, the week ahead, the day ahead. We're always being told to look for the value in what we are teaching, but if we go completely down that path we'll find ourselves in prescriptive, curriculum-based 'teaching."
In fact, those assessing the whole initiative have found that class teachers are spreading their wings. "Our teachers are becoming much more reflective and critical," says Neil, brandishing a Heinemann book on phonics.
"They found there was a problem with this series further up the school. There was too big a leap, too much new information for the children to assimilate. They seem more able to take a mass-produced reading scheme and adapt it to fit in with what is right for their particular child or class."
Ideas fly around the table.
"Libraries shouldn't be somewhere at the end of a corridor that you get into for half an hour a week. We need cosy book corners with different sorts of books: poems, children's own stories."
"We need to work very hard at developing links between pre-school and P1, so we do value what each other does."
"It's really challenging our way of thinking. It's not, today I'll teach 'bl' and tomorrow I'll teach 'fl', it's today I teach what the child wants to know and tomorrow I build on that'."
"We need the continuity between home and school, so that it isn't just a flash-in-the-pan, it becomes a community thing."
The project has got teachers and education staff talking, thinking and sharing. What Anne Neil calls "a new collegiality" has taken hold, partly by design.
The nursery nurses who have joined classes to help implement the early literacy programme went on development courses alongside the class teacher, so from the very beginning the twosomes were disposed to work and learn together.
Having, as Reading Recovery tutors, two familiar faces who know the situation on the ground in North Lanarkshire must have made the introduction of ideas and techniques a great deal easier. Yet, it seems the real secret of success in North Lanarkshire is the enthusiasm and openness of the staff. They are convinced they have got hold of something good, and they are not going to let it get away.