Reading between the battle lines

9th December 2005 at 00:00
Amid the shrill voices of ideologues and phonics scheme salesmen, Jim Rose's calm analysis is just what we need

With the wisdom of Solomon, Jim Rose has sliced through the conflicting claims and evidence of the phonics brigade and other experts.

While concluding that synthetic phonics "first and fast" is the best way to initiate five-year-olds into the mysteries of decoding English print, his interim report, published last week, nimbly sidesteps the evangelical certainty of those who want to sell their schemes for profit and those who simply want to spread the gospel according to them.

He does so with subtle understatement. "Virtually all of the developers of commercially produced programmes provided data that claimed substantial, sometimes spectacular, gains in the performance of beginner readers...

Since a wide array of different tests was used to measure these gains, it is not possible to compare the value added by each programme with any accuracy.

"What is clear, however, is that some of the seemingly deep differences that divide advocates of such programmes, for example, the teaching of letter names or the use of "decodable books" (using only letter combinations the children have learned) appeared to make little difference to the claimed success rate."

There are only a few elements that really make a difference, he concludes.

Phonic work needs to be systematic and teach children how to apply letter-sound correspondences through the key skills of blending and segmenting.

Most schemes have been carefully constructed and should be effective for most children, if schools closely follow the directions on the box.

However, because of their different ways of building up knowledge, it's wiser not to pick and mix, he says.

But the intense rows over whether, for instance, you must teach the "oo"

before the "ow" sound are irrelevant. Pick the high road or the low road; they'll both get you there.

And here's another metaphor, from teachers frustrated with the debate:

"Some felt they were 'at the mercy of rows of back seat drivers pointing in different directions'," says the report. It demands"consistent guidance that offers them structure, simplicity and some flexibility".

Mr Rose found that the best practice entailed spending about 20 minutes a day following good systematic phonic programmes "consistently and carefully".

Such learning is multisensory, he emphasises, including, for example, physical movement to mimic letter shapes and solid letters to work with.

Both boys and girls gained from and enjoyed such an approach.

Jim Rose says schools "are more than capable" of teaching phonics well but there is still "unacceptable variation" in teaching quality. Teacher training must cover phonics properly, he says.

He concludes that the "searchlights" model enshrined in the literacy strategy has got to go when the literacy framework is rewritten next year.

This sets out four strategies used by successful readers, phonics, grammatical knowledge, word recognition and context.

But, Rose implies (and this is where critics disagree), too many techniques at the start may confuse children. "There is a a tendency to start from the end of the reading process by identifying what skilled and proficient readers do, and then to assume that all the strategies of skilled reading need to be covered from children's first steps of learning to read," he says. "For many beginner readers, this can be a confusing experience."

The biggest concerns about the report are less to do with its content than its context.

Will the pressure of league tables (which the Government published the same day as the Rose report) and inspection prompt some schools to feel they have to subject four-year-olds to worksheets and drills? Will they - along with commentators and politicians - forget about some of Jim Rose's other essential messages? For example, he says speaking and listening are the roots of reading and writing and schools must do more to boost these skills.

He also points out that teaching phonics does not stop us encouraging a love of books. He stresses that phonics teaching needs to be set in the context of lots of stories, books, rhymes and songs.

"The importance for young children of learning co-operatively in language-rich contexts cannot be overstated," he says.

The final Rose report, due early next year, will examine what needs to be done for those youngsters who need extra support with reading.

DH

A SYNTHETIC FUTURE

Synthetic phonics has as many definitions as there are ways to teach it. A journalist who carefully checks a description of it with one expert is bound to receive an outraged letter from another.

But, broadly, Jim Rose has found, when using a synthetic approach for beginning readers, children should be taught:

* lettersound correspondences in a clearly defined, incremental sequence

* to apply the highly important skill of "blending" (or "synthesising") phonemes in order, all through a word, to read it

* apply the skills of "segmenting" words into their constituent phonemes to spell (children say the word they wish to write and split it into its phonemes and say them in turn, and then write down the letters, for instance d-o-g.)

* That blending and segmenting are reversible processes

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