Time to settle the great phonics row

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
As chairman of the MPs' committee which published the pre-election report on teaching children to read, it was gratifying to see it form the basis of two articles in your May 13 edition. Unfortunately, both articles contain mistakes about what we actually said.

Joseph Lee ("Reading, writing and hysteria") says our central assumption was that there was a crisis in literacy. This is not true; nor did we equate failure to reach level 4 at age 11 with illiteracy.

We noted that national test results and the international PIRLS study suggested that about 20 per cent of pupils failed to reach the reading level expected of them. While England ranked third in reading achievement among 35 countries, it had one of the largest variations between its most and least able pupils.

Our conclusion was that it seems at present around a fifth of English children have not fully benefited from any general improvement in reading standard - and this was unacceptable.

Mr Lee deplores the fact that these comments were translated into headlines saying "schools still cannot teach children to read by age 11". So do I: our report was written in moderate language, but it seems impossible to say anything about the teaching of reading without triggering an extreme reaction. Writing that we think there is a crisis in literacy, which we do not, only adds to the problem.

In the second article Dominic Wyse ("Is synthetic phonics really the holy grail of reading?") takes us to task for taking evidence from proponents of synthetic phonics without taking account of other points of view. But this was not an all-encompassing study emulating Sir Alan Bullock's inquiry in the 1970s.

Our main aim was to examine practice in schools, so we talked to the then minister, Stephen Twigg, to Kevan Collins, the national director of the primary strategy, and those who criticise the strategy, who are primarily the supporters of synthetic phonics "fast and first".

Our recommendation for further research with properly controlled groups was to enable a judgement to be made about whether those critics are right when they say the strategy is not promoting the most effective teaching methods.

It was also an attempt to move the debate away from sterile assertion and counter-assertion so that policy could be seen to be based on evidence, something on which we have consistently pressed the Department for Education and Skills .

Mr Wyse also criticises us for an inadequate review of research, but he needs to get his facts straight. If he looks again, he will see the review was not ours, but a submission to our inquiry, and we expressed no opinion about it.

The report can be found at www.publications.parliament.ukpacm200405cmselectcmeduski121121.pdf Having completed our inquiry, it is instructive to look back at the Bullock report, in particular the beginning of the chapter on the reading process.

Everything written there about the problems caused by wildly differing opinions on how to teach reading, including the criticism of "the expression of unnecessarily extreme opinions", applies today as much as it did in 1975.

Our aim should be to enable all children to be able to read as competently and fluently as possible. Surely it is time to move on, look objectively at the evidence about what works best, and seek to implement it as effectively as possible?

Barry Sheerman MP

House of Commons

London SW1

The Editor writes: Joseph Lee's Analysis article took issue with the MPs'

claim that the proportion of children failing to reach level 4 (20 per cent) was "unacceptably high". We quoted Professor Paul Black, one of the architects of the national curriculum tests, who said that level 4 was not designed as a minimum acceptable standard, but the mid-point of the ability range.

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