Kelly bows to pressure for teaching by phonics

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The Independent Online

The Government has bowed to pressure for a return to traditional methods of teaching reading - by ordering a review of its flagship national literacy strategy for primary schools.

The move has been interpreted as a sign of the influence of the new Schools minister, Lord Adonis, Tony Blair's former chief adviser on education. It is set to lead to greater use of the old-fashioned synthetic phonics method in teaching reading - a U-turn in government thinking.

The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, has told the chairman of the review body, Jim Rose, a former director of school inspections for Ofsted, to concentrate on looking at the role of synthetic phonics in improving reading standards.

This is in marked contrast to the stance adopted by ministers and senior civil servants before the election, when they were at pains to stress it was just one of many methods teachers could use to teach reading.

The review body, which has been ordered to produce a final report by January, could well set up pilots by next September. These would require teachers to use synthetic phonics as the sole method of teaching reading.

Pressure to act came with the publication just before the election of a report by the influential House of Commons Select Committee on Education.It published research carried out in schools in Clackmannanshire in Scotland, which showed the reading age of 11-year-olds using just synthetic phonics had leapt ahead of those using a variety of methods by as much as seven months in a year.

The select committee also disclosed that one in five children was still unable to read properly by the time they left primary school - and that ministers had failed to reach their 2002 target for 80 per cent of all 11-year-olds reaching the required standard in English national curriculum tests. The current figure is 78 per cent.

Ministers denied any change in policy yesterday, describing the announcement as "evolutionary". Any rift between Ms Kelly and Lord Adonis was denied.

It was said that one of the reasons for delaying the announcement of the review was that during the election campaign it would have been seized on by political opponents as an admission of failure.

Mr Rose's review will also look at how best to help the 22 per cent still struggling to meet basic standards in English, and how to improve the training of teachers. A report by Ofsted in 2001 described phonics teaching in schools as "weak".

Ms Kelly said yesterday: "There is a false notion that we have not been teaching synthetic phonics as part of the literacy strategy. We have. It is already at the heart of early literacy teaching for every child, every day. The debate now centres not on whether to teach phonics, but how."

Yesterday's move was welcomed by the chief schools inspector, David Bell. Barry Sheerman, the Labour chairman of the Select Committee on Education, said he hoped the review would lead to the setting up of pilot schemes.

The move was welcomed by the Conservatives who, during the election campaign, said they would make synthetic phonics compulsory in every school. David Cameron, their education spokesman, said: "We have been saying for some time that phonics should be at the heart of the national literacy strategy."

Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: "The Government's decision to appoint someone of Jim Rose's experience and expertise is very welcome. I would expect him not to be influenced by attempts to politicise the debate but to concentrate on what works, to consult teachers and respect their professionalism."

Under synthetic phonics, children split words into the smallest unit of sound, and then blend the sounds to form words. "Street" would be broken down into five components, "s-t-r-ee-t".

Children taught solely by this method were seven months ahead of fellow pupils after a year. Supporters say teachers can then move on to teach reading comprehension.

'I cannot speak too highly of it. It is fantastic'

Debbie Hepplewhite, teacher

Debbie Hepplewhite believes synthetic phonics is a "fantastic" way of teaching reading that has helped her son Jack more than she had dreamt possible.

Mrs Hepplewhite, a primary teacher from Newbury, Berkshire, started using the system to teach Jack when he was just three and a half. Now 10, Jack is an "avid reader" who has consistently performed years ahead of the standard expected of his age.

Mrs Hepplewhite believes the phonics approach has given Jack an advantage that was denied to his two older sisters and brother, who learnt using other methods. "Jack is the only one who has been taught through a totally phonics approach," she said. "I cannot speak too highly of it. I think it is fantastic."

Mrs Hepplewhite, started using synthetic phonics with her pupils after becoming concerned that some obviously bright children were failing to thrive under the Government's recommended methods.

Jack started learning the basics while she was preparing lessons at home. "He virtually taught himself. I was not pushing him. He learnt all 42 letter sounds within a month as well as how to blend them together to make words. He just picked it up.

"People sometimes try to say phonics is a boring way of teaching reading but they could not be more wrong. It is absolutely not dull. The children love it."

Mrs Hepplewhite is now a firm opponent of the methods in the Government's National Literacy Strategy, which she believes are damaging children's ability to de-code words. It encourages them to guess words from pictures rather than build them by blending letter sounds together.

"This is a clear case of the emperor who wears no clothes. It is scandalous how many people have been duped," she said. "The NLS advocates using a mixture of methods all at once. This is very confusing and teaches bad habits."

Sarah Cassidy

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