Too much phonics is not good for you

14th March 2008 at 00:00

Official consultant says schemes are overused. Pupils should move on to reading faster

While 5-year-olds are happy with curly Cs and kicking Ks, there is concern that overdoing phonics could hold back older children.

Many programmes teaching that approach do not do enough to help children move to the next stage of learning to read, an evaluation by government consultants vetting the schemes has concluded.

Since September, schools have been legally required to teach children to read using synthetic phonics, a method that links sounds to letters. Each phonics publisher has evaluated its own reading scheme against the 10 core criteria based on the review of reading led by Sir Jim Rose. The results have been published on the Department for Children, Schools and Families' (DCSF) phonics website.

Nicholas Bielby, one of the consultants, said he had seen around two- thirds of the schemes and felt none addressed word recognition skills. All programmes tackled the high-frequency, irregular words such as "the", but he believes they do not provide enough on the move from sounding out regular words to memorising them.

"Synthetic phonics is only a tool. It could become a problem if children don't get over it," said Mr Bielby. "What is important is empowering teachers to say to themselves that synthetic phonics is not the whole story: they need to think about what to do next. Yet teachers have been so demoralised they don't know what they are supposed to be doing."

A Year 1 teacher in Wigan, who wished to remain ananoymous, said: "It's almost like me and a lot of other people have gone a bit phonics mad. Any suggestion of the old material and you're scared it's going to undo all the good work we've been doing.

"I've praised the children so much for sounding out that now it has become quite a challenge to say to them that they don't have to. Sometimes children think phonics is just something they do in school, they don't make the link between learning it and reading books."

Greg Brooks, professor of education at Sheffield University and chair of the panel that checked the publisher's self-evaluations, said those that were judged inaccurate were taken off the DCSF website until the publishers corrected them or revised their schemes.

Greg Wallace, head of Woodberry Down primary in Hackney, east London, said: "There is an awful lot of confusion about what is happening with phonics.

"From reception to Year 2, children are not reading a lot, apart from flashcards. You need books, even if they are scheme books, otherwise children wonder why they should do it. It's like practising scales but never playing a piece of music.

"Every school says their main priority is for children to read, but unless they find a way to do that then the whole strategy will fail and I think that's what's happening.

"The Government is not putting it across as something important for children to be doing."

Sir Jim Rose, who has been following the implementation of phonics in 50 local authorities, said: "It is obvious, but important, that phonics is not done to death. Phonics teaching should be matched by use, so children get their reading miles in."

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