Leading article: The phonics war isn't over yet

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The Independent Online

We welcome the Government's decision to give priority to the teaching of synthetic phonics to children from the age of five. But, at the same time, we attach a health warning. It is true that the evidence suggests that children who learn to read via this method - which uses the sound of words - achieve better standards in reading than those taught by others. The research from Clackmannanshire in Scotland, on which the Government and the inquiry by Jim Rose, the former head of inspections at Ofsted, based its decisions showed that - on average - by the age of 11 children taught to read by synthetic phonics were three years ahead.

But we are worried by the notion that teachers are being made to adhere to one method, and one method alone. How often have we heard - particularly in relation to comprehensive schools - that the "one size fits all" approach does not work. Choice and diversity, it seems, are king when it comes to determining what is offered to pupils and parents in the secondary sector, but not when it comes to teaching children to read. Union leaders were quick to say that teachers should decide what teaching method to adopt for individual pupils.

In his report, Rose supported the idea of putting pupils into ability groups according to how quickly they learn in early years, and from the age of five when they start compulsory schooling. However, he stopped short of demanding that schools adopt this approach, acknowledging that individual schools may well be in the best position to decide how to group pupils.

We see no problem with synthetic phonics being the "prime" approach for the teaching of reading. Indeed, Ruth Kelly would be failing in her duty if she did not advise the use of this method, given the evidence of its effectiveness. The clock has already been turned back on the "look, say" and "whole books" approach of the 1970s and 1980s and synthetic phonics is now in widespread use in many schools - contrary to what some of its more fanatical supporters claim. But to go further than advising, and to make it a legal requirement under the national curriculum for every school, as the Education Secretary is doing, is a step too far. Children learn to read using a variety of approaches and teachers should be free to use the technique, or combination of techniques, that work for each child.