Leading article: The Government is reading it right

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The Independent Online

The launch of an independent review of the way children are taught to read is to be welcomed.

The launch of an independent review of the way children are taught to read is to be welcomed. The move signals a return to traditional methods of teaching reading. As such it is an embarrassing U-turn for the Government, which has spent months insisting that the mixture of methods advocated in its official strategy was the best way of getting children to read. However, ministers could not withstand the growing pressure from educationalists, combined with mounting research evidence in favour of phonics. This is a traditional method of teaching which teaches children to blend sounds together to make words: for example c-a-t makes cat. A change to this would mean that children would be taught all 44 sounds within the first 16 weeks of starting school.

Change is definitely needed. More than one in five 11-year-olds still fails to reach the expected standard in reading despite seven years of the Government's National Literacy Strategy. Earlier this year, a seven-year study of children in Clackmannanshire, Scotland, showed that pupils who were taught to read using synthetic phonics were three years ahead of their peers by the time they were 11. In April, the influential Commons Education Select Committee published a damning report condemning current literacy standards as "unacceptable".

The teaching of reading has always sparked passionate debate among experts, with each arguing that their method is the best; and, for decades, argument has raged between the advocates of traditional phonics and those who favour other approaches, such as "look and say", which requires children to recognise the shapes of words, and "real books" which depends on pupils reading by practice.

The National Literacy Strategy tried to steer a middle course by using a mixture of phonics, whole-word recognition and guessing words by their context. The announcement of the review - one of the most dramatic U-turns in education - is a cause for celebration. Children who do not learn to read properly at primary school find themselves at a disadvantage and are liable to become disaffected and unemployable. The review - and its recognition of the success of synthetic phonics - is an important step towards improving the life-chances of the one-in-five children at the bottom of the educational pile.