Education: Why the sound approach is making a comeback: Colin Hughes assesses the value of modern phonics in teaching children to read

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The Independent Online
The National Curriculum Council last week recommended that primary-school teachers should be required to use phonics - the sounding out of letters and letter combinations - as part of their approach to teaching reading. Predictable reactions followed. Some suggested that the council had fallen in with reactionary 'back-to-basics' Neanderthals who want to promote out- dated methods; others applauded the shift to 'traditionalist' ideas, and thumbed their noses at the so- called 'progressive' protesters.

The progressive versus traditional ping-pong would be merely tiresome, if it were not for the fact that it inhibits classroom progress and parental understanding.

Many parents probably accept at face value the idea that phonics is an outdated approach, since both the traditionalists and the progressives seem to agree that phonics are reactionary territory. Anyway, how can parents be expected to adjudicate on methods of teaching reading?

But phonics is neither 'traditional' nor outdated as a method. Phonics did fall out of fashion with many teachers during the Sixties and Seventies. As a result, few were trained in phonics. But the approach has been returning to classrooms steadily over recent years. In fact, in some shape or form the vast majority of primary teachers already use phonics - though mostly in the simplest sense, of teaching letter sounds.

Modern methods of using phonics to help children to learn to read are considerably improved. They are more fun, more sophisticated and more effective. The truth is that they are - dare it be said? - quite progressive. They do not rely on chalk and talk, or on tedious rote-drilling. They invite children to play games with words and sounds and to experiment. They even (oh, horror]) allow children to mess about with spelling in the early stages.

Above all, most children find that phonics is a help. Several times over the past year I have visited primary schools and encountered teachers who have 'discovered' phonics, almost as if it were a new invention, applied the methods, and seen their average reading ages climb.

The National Curriculum Council is emphatically not advocating that phonics should be the only approach to teaching reading in schools; merely that it is a very valuable aid. There is, frankly, no reason why the council's proposal should be controversial at all. Rather than argue about it, it would be wiser for teachers to find out how modern approaches to phonics work and try them out, rather than rest on their prejudice. The council will leave teachers to choose how they apply phonics methods: teachers will be free, either to go the whole hog and found their entire approach on phonics, or incorporate some phonic teaching as part of a balanced approach which also uses 'look and say' methods.

What does all this mean? Broadly, there are two main approaches to teaching reading. The first assumes that children learn by recognising the shapes of whole words. By reading aloud with them - 'looking and saying' - the child absorbs the appearance of words, and so learns to read. The second - phonics - assumes that children are better placed if they learn letter sounds, and then build up words gradually. Words with sounds which do not fit in - and English is full of them - are learnt as oddities as you go along.

Experienced teachers know that most children learn to read using both of these strategies. Even those who use phonics, for example, often learn the easier 'odd' words - such as was, they, you and of - simply by recognising their shape. They also, just like 'look and say' learners, work out words by their context, as well as using phonic clues.

So how does the progressive versus traditional contest arise?

Traditional phonics meant learning the letter sounds from A to Z - 'a' for apple, and so on. Modern methods are more developed: they teach the full range of more than 40 well-used sounds in English: alternative short and long sounds for 'oo', as in cook or moon, for example. Children learn to form words by building sounds together.

Over the past year, several teach-your- child-to-read books based on phonics have been published for parents. Not all are reliable: one, bizarrely, claims to teach children to read using 'phonetics', which would be quite an achievement if it were true.

The best is a single volume which recently came on the market: The Phonics Handbook by Sue Lloyd. Mrs Lloyd is an experienced state school primary teacher who has used both main approaches to teaching reading, and who is strongly sympathetic to parental involvement in the process. She sensibly stays away from puritanical proselytising, arcane jargon and obscure rules, which many advocates of phonics seem to find obligatory. She recognises that her own phonics approach is not the only one, and that phonics actually provides a good foundation for so-called 'progressive' approaches to subsequent reading. But Mrs Lloyd is convinced that systematic early use of phonics makes a difference.

Mrs Lloyd's school - Woods Loke Primary, in Lowestoft, Suffolk - introduced phonics during the late Seventies: the average reading age rose above average, and stayed there. Only two children in the past 10 years have registered below average. The approach, she believes, has been especially valuable for those pupils who otherwise would have found it difficult to start reading. It takes teacher (and parents, ideally) only a few minutes a day: within one school term, most children are reading confidently.

Mrs Lloyd's handbook also absorbs the most recent research on spelling and handwriting, which suggests, for instance, that children should learn to use joined-up script from the outset. Linking the learning of reading to the hearing of syllable sounds enables children to write for themselves from an early stage.

Sadly, it is expensive: pounds 19.95. However, it includes worksheets for teachers (which can be photocopied), so the book is an economic and complete resource for schools.

Parents are evidently desperate to help their children: even with that price tag, the book's first 2,000 print-run sold out in 18 days, more to parents than teachers.

The publishers will kill me for this, but I do not think the book should sell to parents for use at home. If parents want to buy a copy, they should take it to their school, or nursery, or pre-prep, and just, well, lend it to the teachers - 'just for interest, you know'. Then let us see what happens. Perhaps teachers and parents together might beat the National Curriculum Council at its own game.

'The Phonics Handbook' is published by Jolly Learning Ltd, Clare Hall, Chapel Lane, Chigwell, Essex IG7 6JJ, pounds 19.95.