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Why phonics won't fix poor readers' prospects

Secondaries should use mix of methods to boost skills, study finds

Secondary schools in the UK should not use phonics alone to support the tens of thousands of children each year who are still struggling to read by the time they leave primary education, new research has found.

The phonics approach, heavily promoted by the government for use with younger students, is not the most effective way of teaching older children who have reading difficulties, according to analysis published today.

The findings from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), which was set up by the government to fund research, contradict a 2011 report on phonics by Ofsted. The inspectorate says that the approach should be central to the teaching of reading in secondary schools and colleges, as it is in primaries.

The EEF analysis, which examines evidence from 1,200 studies, concludes it is "highly unlikely" that any single approach will succeed in helping 11-year-olds with poor reading skills. Instead, teachers should carry out in-depth assessments of what children need and offer a range of support.

In primary schools there has been a concerted effort to emphasise the role of synthetic phonics in learning to read. The government has changed the curriculum, introduced a phonics test at age 6 and provided matched funding for related resources and training. England's education secretary Michael Gove has repeatedly championed the approach in speeches.

Nevertheless, last year around 75,000 children - about one in seven - started secondary school without having achieved the expected level 4 in reading.

Although pupils below this level may be able to read texts aimed at nine- to 11-year-olds, often they will not pick up on inferences and may be unable to find and collate information. Just one in 10 children in this category is likely to leave secondary school with five good GCSEs including English and maths.

"The educational prospects of children in this group are bleak," said Kevan Collins, chief executive of the EEF. "Despite repeated efforts, the proportion of struggling readers at the transition [from primary to secondary] has remained static for the past decade.There are no quick fixes. But some approaches offer greater promise than others. Using evidence will increase the chances of the 11-year-olds who need our help."

The EEF report finds that phonics helps younger children but its effectiveness declines when pupils reach secondary school. Other techniques - such as reading comprehension, which focuses on meaning and building understanding from context - are more effective on average, the research shows.

"Supporting struggling readers is likely to require a concerted effort across the curriculum, and a combination of approaches," the report concludes. "It may be that children who have not succeeded using phonics previously will benefit from approaches which place a greater emphasis on meaning and context."

But phonics campaigners argued that it was wrong to compare the strategies. "The simple view of reading, which is widely accepted, shows that meaning and decoding are separate," said Chris Jolly, founder of the popular Jolly Phonics programme. "My experience of providing phonics skills is that it is just as applicable at different ages. Children and teenagers benefit from being able to work out words phonetically."

Ruth Miskin, founder of the Read Write Inc programme and a former government curriculum adviser, said phonics and comprehension could be used together. "Each programme serves different purposes," she added. "If children's reading difficulties were picked up in primary, we could sort it out. I'm not knocking secondary schools but they shouldn't be in this position."

In January last year, the government introduced catch-up funding of pound;500 for each child who starts secondary school without reaching level 4 in reading or maths; the funding is due to continue until 2015. Schools must use the money to select programmes that have been shown to be effective and publish evidence of the impact they have on attainment.

According to the EEF, phonics programmes help 11-year-olds with poor reading skills to make the equivalent of three months' progress on average over the course of a year - the same as relatively expensive summer schools. However, comprehension approaches lead to four months' progress. And children receiving one-to-one tuition, which may include different teaching techniques, make up to five months' progress.

A Department for Education spokesman said: "Evidence shows that phonics is the most effective way of teaching young children to read. This report is the latest to show the benefits of phonics, in particular the benefits to children at the start of secondary school, who made three months' more progress.

`Central' importance

Ofsted's Removing Barriers to Literacy report, published in 2011, highlights the importance of using phonics to teach reading.

"The best early years providers and primary schools visited understood the need to teach phonics rigorously and systematically and the importance of regular reading. However, phonics needs to be central to the teaching of reading in both secondary schools and colleges too," the inspectorate says.

The report adds: "Inspectors saw few instances of systematic phonics teaching in secondary schools, colleges and other providers of adult education and training, despite the fact that for learners without a grasp of the link between sounds and letters, this knowledge is necessary to develop their literacy."

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