MPs: Gove's obsession with phonics will turn children off reading

Children's reading standards may be damaged by the Government's promotion of teaching phonics in schools, a report by an all-party group of MPs warns today. The Coalition is keen on the use of synthetic phonics – where children learn the sounds of letters rather than whole words – as the best way to improve reading standards among pupils.

Schools have been told they will get extra funding for training provided they use government-approved phonics teaching methods during reading lessons. Education Secretary Michael Gove is also introducing a phonics-based reading test for all six-year-olds to check on their reading skills.

But today's report, by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Education, says: "There is no single panacea which guarantees that all children will become readers. Following one programme rigidly will make reading unexciting to children."

It adds that the "one size fits all" approach of the Government "is flattening out inspiration and achievement: thereby failing low achievers and switching off the brightest [pupils]". It is full of praise for initiatives such as the Reading Recovery project, in which slow readers are given one-to-one sessions with mentors to improve their abilities. Funding for this has been cut, with schools who want to persevere with the programme being told they must find the cash from within their own budgets.

The MPs say the financial incentive provided by using approved phonics programmes "will be very strong and will be hard to ignore for many cash-strapped schools". But it concludes: "It should be acknowledged that there is no one way to teach reading and so a single focus on systematic synthetic phonics is a false one. The phonics test at six is likely to de-motivate children rather than ensure that they become eager and fluent readers."

Fabian Hamilton, the group's chairman and Labour MP for Leeds North East, said: "I think the Government needs to put literacy at the forefront of all education policies," adding that it was "absolutely right" that some children's progress could be hampered by a concentration on just synthetic phonics. "Children should be encouraged to read for pleasure," he said.

Schools minister Nick Gibb has said: "Synthetic phonics will not be compulsory in schools but we do believe more schools should teach synthetic phonics, because it is shown to have a major and long-lasting effect on children's reading and spelling."

The all-party group has 40 members – 25 MPs and 15 members of the House of Lords. They include the former education secretaries Ed Balls and Baroness (Estelle) Morris.

What is phonics?

Phonics is a widely used method of teaching children to read and decode words. Children are taught to associate the sounds of spoken English with letters or groups of letters, and to blend the sounds of letters to produce approximate pronunciations of unknown words.

This method teaches them that letters such as /k/ can be represented by c, k, ck, ch or q spellings, and that "tion" sounds like /shun/.

Children usually begin learning using phonics at about five. The previous government had put more emphasis on a "searchlights" method, where children were given simple books and taught how to guess words using context and picture clues.

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