Leading Article: Two `R's are worth one hour of attention

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The Independent Culture
THOSE WHO sneered at the Government's literacy initiatives should be ashamed of themselves today as they digest the two-year study published yesterday by the Office for Standards in Education. The study shows a real gain in average reading age over that period.

It appears that concentrating the minds of all concerned by means of a "literacy hour" and by changing the way reading is taught can produce results. Overall, the picture is one of improvement in an area that has not seen significant change for 50 years. In announcing the figures, David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, emphasised the Government's insistence on "phonics", the method whereby children are taught to read through the sounds that make up words. Mr Blunkett's insistence on national standards is another example of the good work he has done in insisting on one standard for all.

It does seem as if the political consensus on education extends to the teaching of reading using "phonics"; but just as there are many types of teacher, there is a huge variety of teaching techniques. The popular caricature of "loony left" teachers imposing a "whole books" revolution, in which children are simply exposed to a pile of books and expected to absorb reading, is nonsense. In reality, schools adopted a wide range of methods, depending on the needs of each child and class; "whole books" was just one technique among many.

Recent research by St Andrews University seems to show that a new "phonics" method may yield better results. Instead of teaching whole words by their composite sounds, it may be better to teach the sounds first and mix them up into different words. The Government has performed well in raising standards but must remain open-minded about the means.