Education Quandary

My daughter goes into the reception class this year. I have been told that she will be taught to read using a mixture of approaches and that her school does not believe in using only one, but I keep reading articles that say that phonics is the only way to get children reading, and that schools like this are wrong. I feel very confused about the issue
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HILARY'S ADVICE

HILARY'S ADVICE

In education, always be wary of people who say that one thing alone will answer the needs of all children. However, research shows that teaching phonics is a very effective way of teaching children to read, and the argument among the reading experts is no longer about whether to teach phonics, but how.

Phonics teaches children the sounds of letters, and letter blends, so they can then build them up into words. Enthusiasts say it must be done before other reading strategies are introduced, and cite work in Scotland where children who learnt six letter sounds a day over eight days streaked ahead of their peers.

The national literacy strategy, which primary schools follow, includes some phonics teaching, but also advises teaching children to use other skills, such as looking at the beginning and ending of words, and at where a word comes in a sentence. Advocates of this approach point out that no research has yet been done comparing a phonics-only approach with a more varied approach.

But many schools are not doing nearly enough phonics teaching, or are not doing it very well. Teachers of seven- and eight-year-olds are now being given more training, so you must find out how much phonics your daughter will be getting. You can back this up at home, but be aware that it isn't entirely plain sailing. "C-a-t spells cat" is easy, but when you get on to, say, the different "oo" sounds in "look" and "loop", it gets more complicated. Ask the school what system it uses, and try to use the same books and resources. For more on this, go to the primary-school section of the National Literacy Trust's website, www.literacytrust.org.uk.

READERS' ADVICE

People who think that they teach reading through phonics alone are either lying or confused. How do they think that young children learn to read words such as "the", "one", "was" or "said" through sounding out letters? We need to teach children to recognise whole words quickly, and give them the skills to use phonics and context to work out words they don't recognise. A child who lacks any of these skills will be less successful in reading.
Celia Osbourne, New Malden

You have stumbled upon a huge education scandal. The "mixture" method used in most UK primary schools is simply a euphemism for the dreadful "whole-word" reading method that has blighted the teaching of reading in our schools since the 1920s.

It is very unlikely that the teacher at your daughter's school will have received any proper training in the teaching of reading. The school will follow the untested National Literacy Strategy, which recommends that children use guessworkand promotes the learning of sight-words. Finally, the school will use a reading scheme that consists of books for new readers that they can't read without resorting to guessing. It's outrageous that this is still happening when we've long had all the empirical evidence that tells us what is necessary to teach all children to read quickly and easily.

You need to find a school that uses a "synthetic" phonic programme, such as Jolly Phonics, unadulterated by whole-word methods, along with "decodable" reading books for beginning readers. If you can't, school-proof your child by following a synthetic phonic programme with her at home.
Susan Godsland, Exeter

As a former infant teacher, I firmly believe that the more tools and strategies we can provide for children, then the better equipped they will to learn to read. But almost more important than any methodology is the importance of engendering feelings of excitement and interest towards books from an early age, and parents can be fantastic role models - not just by reading to their children, but also by reading themselves, and showing how enjoyable it can be.
Karen Morris, Surrey



THE NEXT QUANDARY

Our school wants us to start doing our Ucas personal statements, but I don't have anything to put in mine. How can you make yourself seem special to universities when you are just an ordinary student?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 6 September, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce@btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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