'Zero' benefit of reading classes

Researcher pours scorn on lessons for struggling five-year-olds. Julie Henry reports

LESSONS designed to help five-year-olds who struggle with reading devote only 3 per cent of the time to methods that work, such as phonics, according to a literacy expert.

The claims come as the results of national tests for 11-year-olds appear to have reached a plateau and officials look for new ways of raising standards. They will fuel the long-running debate about the best way of teaching pupils to read.

The early intervention programme was designed by literacy strategy gurus to help children who have fallen behind their classmates.

Pupils in the first term of their first year in statutory education, who have been identified as lagging behind, are taught in small groups for 20 minutes a day for 12 weeks.

But an analysis of the materials sent to all primary schools claims the vast majority of lesson time is taken up with useless activities and far too little attention is paid to the development of letter-sound skills.

Dr Bonnie Macmillan, the author of Why Schoolchildren Can't Read, said: "I estimate that the chances of the programme being effective in improving the reading of at-risk children to be close to zero."

The analysis found that a third of time was spent on shared reading, where pupils and teacher look at text, guess at print from context, pictures and word length and memorise sentences, phrases and words. More than a quarter was taken up with shared writing, where the group composes text and spellings are memorised.

But Dr Macmillan, a research associate at Hull University psychology department, said numerous pieces of research showed that these methods were unrelated to subsequent reading success. Such activities were better employed after a child could read. Work which developed letter-sound skills, where pupils sound out letters and blend sounds, was rarely employed in the classes, she said.

There is a long-running debate about how best to teach children to read. Advocates of "synthetic" phonics, such as Dr Macmillan, claim letter sounds need to be taught first before words are built up. However, "analytic" phonics, starts with the word set in context and breaks it down into its constituent parts.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "Children spend five minutes on word-level phonic activities in the Early Literacy Support programme in addition to the 15 minutes of daily word-level teaching received each day in the literacy hour.

"The simplification of the activities in the report by Bonnie Macmillan is misleading."

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