But will review lead to phonics drills for toddlers?

9th December 2005 at 00:00
What's in a preposition? Quite a lot, according to the tigresses of the early- years lobby, especially when the one in question is in the Rose report in a sentence that goes like this: "Systematic, direct teaching of phonics should be introduced by the age of five (my italics)."

The redoubtable literacy expert Sue Palmer, who has been battling for balance in the phonics debate for years, backs most of Jim Rose's recommendations, but argues that if he had just said around the age of five, it would have helped teachers to feel they had the freedom to judge when their children are ready. Some just aren't mature enough, she says. In the nursery world, very loud alarm bells are ringing because, despite a high profile and high investment, the education of pre-school children is at a vulnerable point in its venerable history.

For one thing, the Government is offering nursery places to everyone, but not necessarily staffed by the sort of highly qualified people who run local authority nursery schools and classes. Second, the Government's Birth to Three framework is being merged with the foundation stage guidelines for children up to five, to make the so-called "national curriculum for babies".

Obviously this a good thing in many ways, but by now you can probably see where this is going. The worry is that two and three-year-olds will end up being set phonics worksheets because nursery managers think this is expected, and because parents want their progeny to get ahead.

"We are now looking at a framework that I am afraid could contain synthetic phonics," says Pauline Trudell, of the Forum for Maintained Nursery Schools and Children's Centres. "We are able to cope because there are still brilliant practitioners. Once you have people who are not that experienced, there's a danger. I can see a situation where people are slavishly drilling children on phonics."

Those developing the new early-years foundation framework, which is to take effect in 2007, are obliged to take account of the Rose findings - which are quite explicit about the new stage.

Rose wants phonics introduced by five for most children; a language-rich environment that develops speaking and listening; and a revised literacy framework to ensure that early phonic work gives sufficient attention to spelling.

Mr Rose says: "From what we have seen of well-designed phonic programmes so far, it is not only possible but also worthwhile and appropriate for most children to begin a systematic programme of phonic work by five, and there is no good reason for delaying it beyond this age." In the final report, it would be useful for him to explain what's wrong with waiting until the age of six, as they do in so many other countries, and also to give some examples of bad practice (such as giving worksheets to three-year-olds).

Perhaps he should propose a minimum age for phonics teaching as well.

The growling among the tigresses is not about high-quality, fun activities for rising fives, it's about the downward thrust of formal teaching, and whether those working with pre-schoolers have the skills to make the judgements needed about highly individual children.

DH

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