Start right with most difficult language

31st March 2006 at 01:00
At a kindergarten I visited in Malaysia last July, young Aishyanni was waving her hands above her head, trying to click them like castanets, and saying "k, k, k". She was typical of a group of three and four-year- olds learning English with phonics and enjoying it.

The parents want this kind of teaching and have seen how effective it is.

I have seen this same scene repeated in kindergartens in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Tokyo, countries that will be keen competitors and partners to us in the future.

I need to explain that I do not advocate that phonics be obligatory for children at that age. Instead I think it should be encouraged, and, above all, that it should not be prevented. Ultimately the decision should be that of the teachers, and one that reflects the views of parents.

Information is needed for such a decision, which is why a debate is valuable.

The comparisons most commonly made in this debate are not with countries teaching English, but with countries such as Finland. This is surprising as the languages are so different. Professor Seymour of the University of Dundee has analysed the languages of Europe by difficulty. On the basis of alphabetic complexity (lots of consonant blends and digraphs) and in terms of irregular spellings, English came out as the most complex - and Finnish the least. Little wonder then that children in Finland may start reading later. Where European languages have a similar complexity to English, such as French, the teaching of reading also starts before the age of five.

In North America the teaching of reading (and phonics) does start at five.

However, there is no evidence that the later start has led to higher literacy standards in primary school. In Scotland, however, the teaching does start slightly earlier than in England, and the Scots have long prided themselves on doing better.

One claim made for a later start is that the children will soon catch up.

However, there is no evidence for this, and plenty against. Children tend to keep their rank ordering from one year to the next. The claim that a child will "catch up when they are ready" is not borne out in practice.

There is a high correlation in rank ordering between one year and the next.

This suggests that children who start earlier will do better.

In the past phonics has been seen as dull and boring and that may well have been true. However the Rose review noted, as a reason for embracing synthetic phonics, that there are more engaging materials on the market. It seems to me important that we live in the real world on this issue. Almost all parents will want their child to start learning to read before five, and most teachers will want to teach them.

If phonics is restricted at these ages the teaching will be back to real books and guesswork, with phonics just used after age five as a remedial tool, as in the past. The Rose review will have been nullified. So one has to ask whether this is a backdoor way of preventing phonics teaching.

Parents of pre-schoolers may well find this advice confusing and difficult to accept. Does it mean that they should not teach their child the alphabet? And should they leave off I-spy until the child is five. If a child is not to be taught letters and letter sounds, what about numbers? Are we actually seeing a rejection of structured teaching?

We do need to ask what is in the best interests of the child and, in my view, to think of their parents in best representing that interest.

Children in private schools, and children in the growing economies overseas, will continue to be taught with phonics from an earlier age. It seems to me important that we should give the same opportunity to children in all schools in this country.

Christopher Jolly is managing director of Jolly Learning, publishers of the Jolly Phonics programme

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