Synthetic phonics are bringing real rewards

30th January 2009 at 00:00
Reading is improving in spite of teachers' worries about prescriptive approach, says Sir Jim Rose

The move to teach children to read using synthetic phonics is winning over hearts and minds throughout the primary sector, Sir Jim Rose has told Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary.

When the controversial method first became compulsory a year and a half ago, it was feared that the diktat would be viewed as too prescriptive, but this has not proved to be the case, Sir Jim said.

The former chief primary inspector's review of reading led to the synthetic phonics becoming statutory in September 2007.

In his review, Sir Jim called for children to have one discrete 20-minute synthetic phonics session a day by the age of five as part of the literacy curriculum. To help schools, the Primary National Strategy sent five free copies of its phonics guidance to every primary, although they are free to choose any synthetic phonics programme.

In his letter to Mr Balls this week, Sir Jim said it is now clear that there have been "considerable, though uneven, improvements", in the teaching of reading in schools.

He also wrote that more schools were teaching reading well and were doing so because they believe in the benefits of synthetic phonics, rather than "a reluctance compliance with central demands".

But he warned that some schools were not up to scratch and that training and support were crucial.

Judy Gurney, a Year 1 teacher at Bedgrove Infant School in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, agreed with his assessment.

"Initially, the reaction was that it was too prescriptive and teachers don't like being told what to do," she said. "But this method does have an effect - it does have benefits. Letters and Sounds (the official guidance) is flexible - you build your own programme around it.".

The Government has confirmed it will be putting Pounds 9 million into training in the next financial year. The money will enable specialist advisors to train and support teachers in 51 local authorities, as part of the Communication, Language and Literacy Development programme run by the National Strategies. The programme is already running in the other 100 local authorities.

But, as well as training existing teachers, Sir Jim highlighted the need to pay attention to initial teacher training. He said it was widely acknowledged that there was not enough time to cover reading thoroughly on PGCE courses, there were concerns about weaknesses in the teaching of reading for those taking on-the-job routes into teaching, and the Training and Development Agency for Schools, the body responsible for training staff, needs to focus on newly qualified teachers who are reportedly concerned about the "inadequacy of their training to teach reading".

Ofsted highlighted these problems in June, when a survey of 20 good initial teacher training institutions found that they had generally adjusted their courses to include training in how to teach phonics, but the trainees were not as effectively prepared in how to assess pupils' knowledge, teach them to spell or to use the method with older pupils.

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