We don't like sound of phonics

Estyn's first literacy conference hears that Wales will not follow `like lemmings' England's controversial primary lead

Isabella Kaminski

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Resistance is growing to the introduction and enforcement of a national literacy programme similar to England's, TES Cymru can reveal.

The clearest indication yet that there is no mood for a one-size-fits-all method of teaching reading - probably based on phonics - was made by top officials from Estyn, the Welsh inspectorate, last week.

Responding to questions at Wales's first literacy conference held by Estyn in Cardiff, Dr Bill Maxwell, chief inspector of schools, said teachers would not be expected to change the way they taught reading when inspectors visited.

His colleague, Wendy Young, conference organiser and HMI inspector, also told delegates that Estyn would not be pushing for a national literacy scheme because it would take flexibility and freedom from those who knew their classes and pupils best - teachers.

Synthetic phonics, a system through which children learn to read by linking sounds with letters, has been compulsory in English primaries since September 2007, but has proved controversial.

At the conference, Viv Edwards, professor of language in education at the University of Reading, criticised the UK's reliance on the system and said that no one method suited every child.

"Most practitioners have continued to promote the belief of a balanced approach, but overall the pendulum has swung increasingly towards teaching phonics," she told teacher delegates.

She went on to say it was a "personal pleasure" that Wales had not followed England towards statutory phonics "like a load of lemmings".

It was the Clackmannanshire study in Scotland - where pupils were found to be three years and six months ahead of their chronological age in decoding words and 3.5 months ahead in reading comprehension after using phonics - that led to the compulsory introduction of the method in England.

But the Scots have been more cautious, claiming more research is needed. TES Cymru's sister paper, TESS, this week reported comments made by Sue Ellis, of Strathclyde University, who recommended avoiding the policy.

Earlier this month, results compiled for the Assembly government showed that fewer than 40 per cent of Wales's 14-year-olds reached an acceptable standard of reading and writing for their age. The reading and writing skills of seven-year-olds were considerably better, but down on 2007.

Calls for a national literacy scheme were included in the national behaviour and attendance review released earlier this year.

The play-led foundation phase for under-sevens has been hailed as one of the keys to improving literacy - particularly among boys.

But Bev Jenkins, Estyn inspector and a former teacher, also warned delegates that children could not learn everything through play. She said a balance between old and new methods was needed.

"I don't think it (the foundation phase) will be as successful as it can be if we forget the good practice we already have," she said.

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Isabella Kaminski

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