Soundings off;Literacy;Interview;Geraldine Hackett

19th March 1999 at 00:00
Geraldine Hackett talks to John Stannard about progess so far

Primary schools are in the throes of introducing the most radical changes for decades in the way they teach reading and writing. Almost all now have a daily literacy hour that follows the pattern set by the Government, but some are having more difficulties with it than others.

Among the more serious problems to emerge in the first six months is infant teachers' lack of confidence about teaching crucial aspects of phonics, and their need for further training.

The director of the national literacy project, John Stannard, says there is a strong case for getting as much training to as many teachers as possible. "Every school is aware that phonics has to be taught systematically at key stage 1. Almost all teachers at that key stage are committed to teaching phonics. A large number - possibly as many as 50 per cent - need support or training," he says.

Teachers have made dramatic changes in curriculum content and classroom organisation, but many lack confidence in teaching the more advanced phonic code.

"Many teachers are doing the first stage of phonics reasonably - the initial letter sounds - well. But they are having more difficulty teaching children to identify and spell the 44 phonemes," says Mr Stannard.

Evidence from school inspections carried out in the first couple of months of the academic year suggests 20 per cent of literacy hours contain no phonics teaching and another 30 per cent have only a limited amount.

Other priorities for the literacy consultants working with local authorities are tackling the problems teachers face with guided reading and writing and the teaching of writing. Teachers used to the traditional method of hearing individual children read are having difficulties teaching groups of children all working at their own pace.

The most recent evaluation of the training suggests the quality of intensive support offered to a proportion of schools in each local authority has been of high quality and has increased teachers' confidence. The response of other schools has been more varied, especially where they have been left to manage distance-learning materials by themselves.

Local authorities are being encouraged to spread training more widely, identify teachers who could demonstrate high-quality lessons and provide more information through newsletters.

Several local authorities are trying out commercial phonic schemes. In Durham and south Gloucestershire, some schools are using Jolly Phonics; several schools in Hull are using Thrass, and in Pembrokeshire and Norfolk, schools are using a scheme still being developed called Programme of Phoneme Awareness Training (POPAT). Buckinghamshire has a similarly named scheme, Phonological Awareness Training (PAT). Other schools are using the Phono-Graphix methods developed by Carmen and Geoffrey McGuiness.

Many professionals are wary of commercial schemes that have not been created to teach phonics to large groups of children. Many also believe no single scheme provides all the necessary material.

The schemes are based on analytic phonics or synthetic phonics, the relative strengths of which Mr Stannard considers fairly irrelevant. "The national literacy strategy incorporates elements of both approaches," he says.

The synthetic approach is based on children being taught letter sounds. The analytic is more context-based with use of first letter sounds and their onset rimes.

"This is a theoretical debate that is being conducted at researcher level. It is only important if people contrive to polarise the two approaches. What is clear is the phonic code needs to be taught explicitly and systematically to children as early and as quickly as possible."

After the experience of one term, Mr Stannard stresses the crucial role of headteachers. He says: "Where the head is giving a strong lead and is involved in what is going on - maybe giving lessons personally - the strategy is working."

There has also been a significant shift of ground among teachers. In the early stages, they were concerned about the level of prescription.

"All our evidence suggests levels of commitment are high. The literacy hour is developing. The most important thing is that teachers are teaching to the objectives," says Mr Stannard.

Jolly Phonics, tel: 0181 501 0405Thrass, tel: 01829 741 413

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