An OFSTED video suggests that formal phonics training should start at the age of four. But, says Sue Palmer, such an approach could do many children more harm than good.
A nursery teacher calls out a little girl named Rehana to identify the first and last sounds in the word "fish". She writes the relevant letters - "f" and "sh" - on the board and is given a round of applause.
This is a clip from the OFSTED video, Literacy Matters. I watched it with a group of experienced nursery and reception teachers, and they were sure the majority of children in their nursery classes wouldn't be able to do what they had seen Rehana do. And, as teachers, they'd be reluctant to push such a formal approach to phonics too soon. "She's putting the cart before the horse, " said one nursery teacher. "You've got to develop their language first. Many children come into nursery classes with very little interactive language experience, so they need opportunities to talk one-to-one with adults, and circle time to talk with their friends, and lots of stories, songs and rhymes to develop their feel for language sounds. Nursery is about laying foundations, not formal teaching. "
This professional verdict is in step with the findings of recent research. In an interview to be published soon in English 4-11 - a new magazine from The English Association - Margaret Snowling, professor of educational psychology at York University, is in no doubt that phonics is an important element. She says: "Children's reading benefits very substantially when they are taught using approaches which combine training in their appreciation of the sound structures of words, sometimes called phonological awareness, with exposure to . . . quality books, at the right level." But she voices concern that the current interest in phonics teaching could backfire if teachers find some children don't respond, and says teaching should take account of the way phonological awareness develops.
"There's a generally accepted view that children first acquire appreciation of the larger units of sound - words - then the syllables that comprise them, as in kang-a-roo," Professor Snowling says. "Within the syllable they then develop the capacity to distinguish onsets and rimes -the onset being the initial consonant cluster, the rime being the vowel and any consonants that follow the vowel, as in boat and spring. Awareness of phonemes - the smallest, contrastive unit in the sound system of a language, as in trot - comes next." While many children acquire this awareness of the sounds of language naturally, others (especially those from backgrounds that are not "linguistically rich") need help to move through the stages.
"Clearly one needs to move from listening, through work with rhythm and rhyme, to developing attention to the sounds of language, to giving attention to syllables, to onset and rime and phonemes; from the concrete to the more abstract," says the professor.
Rehana, in the video, obviously had a high level of phonological awareness. But she seems to be an exception. Teachers are increasingly concerned that children are arriving at school with poor language and listening skills. They attribute this to two main causes: an apparent increase in upper respiratory tract infections, which is affecting the hearing of many children, and the huge increase in TV and video watching in the home.
Children with intermittent hearing loss are known to lag behind their peers in the development of phonological skills; and children from homes where the television is constantly on may suffer a similar delay. They have fewer opportunities for the interactive language play with parents which alerts a child to the sounds of language (nursery rhymes, songs, repeated readings or retellings of favourite stories), and they become tuned in to visual stimuli at the expense of auditory ones.
Research by speech and language therapist Dr Sally Ward backs up these claims. She has found that as many as 40 per cent of pre-school children in inner-city areas have a significant deficit in listening skills, with consequent effects on their language development.
This has huge implications for practice in nursery and reception classes. Carefully planned strategies are required to provide the "linguistic richness" that a constant diet of TV or intermittent hearing denies to many children. And these strategies must be designed to appeal to the four-year-old psyche - through songs, rhymes, games, and word play; not through something that looks suspiciously like a formal class lesson.
Child-friendly approaches can be just as well structured and rigorous as more formal ones. Songs, word games and action rhymes can be tailored to meet the more advanced needs of children such as Rehana while at the same time providing other children with the phonological nuts and bolts of rhythm, rhyme, syllabification and patterns of sound.
It is good to see OFSTED promoting more direct teaching methods in primary schools, and a positive attitude to the teaching of phonics, which has long been neglected. But the teachers I watched the video with had mixed views about headteacher Ruth Miskin's explanation for why phonics training has such an important role to play in early years schooling.
If OFSTED is suggesting that we should start formal phonics training at the tender age of four - without heeding the views of early years professionals and recent research into literacy skills development - it could do many children more harm than good. It could also do long-term damage to the cause of phonics teaching.
"Crucially," says Professor Snowling, "what nursery and reception teachers have to be able to do is recognise those children who already have a good foundation for literacy and those who have not. They need flexible literacy agendas, flexible curricula, that will enable all of those children to be in the best place, the best position, to take their learning forward. Which means that we're back to carefully focused assessment and then meeting needs. "
Or, as one primary head said after watching the video: "I'm all for phonics, but children have got to be able to put words together before they start taking them apart."
Issue one, English 4-11, The English Association, University of Leicester, University Road, Leicester LE1 7PA. (Subscription for three issues, Pounds 8.50) Literacy Matters by OFSTED (Pounds 11.75), CFL Vision, PO Box 35, Wetherby, West Yorkshire LS23 7EX. Tel: 01937 541010