Are vital speaking and listening skills being neglected in a literacy debate too fixated on formal skills? Jon Slater reports.
Considering humans have been teaching reading and writing since the time of the Sumerians 6,000 years ago, there is surprisingly little agreement about how it should be done.
It is not known whether the ancient Egyptians had their own equivalent of today's debate between supporters of synthetic phonics, who believe children should be taught to master the building blocks that make up words before anything else, and those who believe in a wider range of methods.
Perhaps in the time of the Pharaohs it was mastering individual hieroglyphics versus teaching whole stone tablets.
But for those teaching English today, the debate is no laughing matter.
Proponents of synthetic phonics methods - which emphasise a highly systematic approach to learning sound-letter correspondences from an early age - have wrung their hands in despair at the failure of successive governments to champion their methods, despite what they see as overwhelming evidence in its favour.
Proponents of a more broad-based approach and those who believe that there is too great a focus on formal literacy at too early an age worry that the Government, under pressure from sections of the press, may jump on the phonics bandwagon.
So far, supporters of synthetic phonics seem to be winning the argument, with successive re-writes of the literacy strategy increasing the emphasis on it.
Ministers' latest position will be revealed when they respond to the publication of the Rose inquiry into literacy teaching, expected later this month. The inquiry was set up largely to counter accusations that schools have still not embraced phonics sufficiently. As the debate rages, a silent majority of English teachers look on nervously.
John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers, said: "We should not be looking for a magic solution. Teachers need the recurrence of reading wars like a hole in the head."
While teachers hold their breath, Ofsted has put in its own twopenn'orth. A report on English published last month confirmed the importance of phonics and warned of "significant variation in the effectiveness with which pupils are taught the phonic knowledge they need to decode text".
It said: "In the schools with high standards, phonics was taught early, systematically and rapidly so that pupils quickly gained the ability to decode text (and begin to write too), associating letters with sounds.
Where standards were lower, expectations as to the speed at which pupils could acquire phonic knowledge were insufficient and the phonics teaching lacked systematic or full coverage of sounds and their combinations."
More good news for the phonics lobby then? Well yes, but the report also suggests that the phonics debate may be obscuring the need for other - perhaps more important - changes to the way we teach English.
According to Ofsted, improved phonics teaching is merely one of many changes needed to improve pupils' English. On its publication, the report garnered headlines for its criticism of teachers for giving pupils "indiscriminate praise" and for failing to tailor the curriculum to individual pupils' needs.
But little attention was given to Ofsted's warning that speaking and listening, which with reading and writing makes up the three pillars of the national curriculum, is being widely neglected.
The report said: "Too many teachers appear to have forgotten that speech supports and propels writing forward. Pupils do not improve writing solely by doing more of it; good quality writing benefits from focused discussion that gives pupils a chance to talk through ideas before writing and to respond to friends' suggestions."
Or, as the educationist James Britton said 30 years ago: "Reading and writing float on a sea of talk."
With pressure to hit targets, teachers have been reluctant to spend time on skills that are not officially assessed before pupils take their GCSEs. Sue Palmer, a primary literacy consultant, said that vital activities such as reading to children have been lost in the rush to raise test scores. The co-author of a recent book, Foundations of Literacy, she stressed that in an age in which even the youngest children have a TV in their bedroom, reading to children at school is vital - not only to develop their language but also their ability to form the mental pictures needed to enjoy reading.
Learning to listen is also vital for improving behaviour, she said.
Teachers' reluctance to give weight to speaking and listening skills, which is linked to the lack of national curriculum tests in these skills, is disadvantaging boys, who often lag behind girls in writing.
A literature review carried out by Ofsted for the report and published alongside it suggests that boys' achievement may be further limited by a fear that success in English will lead to them being labelled as "gay" by their peers.
Research suggests that English teachers exacerbate those fears by promoting "stereotyped views of boys as troublesome and girls as compliant". The latter point apart, much of Ofsted's criticism of English teaching has its roots in the assessment and accountability regime imposed on schools by ministers.
The inspectorate said that pressure on pupils to pass national tests was undermining their enjoyment of reading. It said that children suffer from a good deal of uncertain practice in key stages 2 and 3, where teachers struggle to reconcile the national strategies - designed to boost test results - with activities such as independent reading. Small group work has also suffered because teachers have concentrated on drilling pupils for national tests.
So, while attention is focused on the detail of phonics, are policy- makers missing the bigger picture?
Simon Wrigley, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, believes there must be a change in the way children are assessed to ensure that schools pay enough attention to the most widely used English skills. "Key stage tests cannot assess the breadth of the curriculum," he said. "Things that don't get assessed don't get valued."
Children's poetry, in particular, is difficult to assess and therefore at risk of being marginalised.
Mr Wrigley believes this evidence should lead the Government to water down its testing regime - with a view to getting rid of it, or at least abolishing the league tables associated with them. He does, however, concede that this is unlikely.
So, if removing the pressure of tests is out of the question, is it possible to change them in light of Ofsted's criticism to make sure greater weight is given to speaking and listening?
Merriel Halsall-Williams, chief executive of the English Speaking Board, thinks so. Her organisation trains teachers and works with schools to assess pupils' oral skills.
The latter can be done by getting children aged six or seven to bring in a picture or a toy, and talk and answer questions about it in front of other pupils and an assessor.
Older primary pupils can read pages from a book they have enjoyed and explain why, or recite poetry or prose they have learned by heart. But Ms Halsall-Williams believes these require changes to both government attitudes and teacher training.
"It could be done," she said. "Teachers would need training - training colleges do not always teach oral communication. The Government pays lip-service to speaking and listening but doesn't do anything about it."
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority this week published a report which suggested that speaking and listening should be a priority for all ages.
The report, called "Taking English Forward", also highlighted concerns that pressure on teachers to achieve in exams was squeezing the creativity out of English lessons.
primary forum 24
Six tips for teachers
1 Involve children in discussions about subjects that interest them. Avoid closed questions, and begin sessions with phrases such as "I wonder what..."
2 Read to children every day
3 Organise regular music activities
4 Use audio resources instead of videos
5 Talk to children about what listening is. Help them to devise their own rules.
6 Encourage them to talk and learn to listen without worrying about losing control of the class.