Wendy Scott: Don't bury our children under phonics lessons

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The Independent Online

Early-years experts are seriously concerned by the Government's plan to teach children in reception classes a system of phonics to the exclusion of other methods of learning to read.

The proposal was made by the former schools inspector Jim Rose in his interim report last year, and runs counter to established evidence about early learning: an over-formal way of working at the start risks switching children off reading - and school.

Specialists working in teacher education who have queried the proposal have been told that the debate on phonics is closed. This raises questions as to how independent the Rose Review can claim to be. The final report, due in March, will be damaging. It does not make clear that whole-class teaching of phonics should not be contemplated before Year 1 when all children are over five.

An observation from a reception class illustrates why we should all worry about an approach that does not respect the complexity of young children's learning. As part of a systematic approach to teaching phonics, pupils were given a pre-formed letter "E" to match to drawings of a number of items beginning with "E": an egg, an elephant (which children called a toy), an eagle (which children called a bird), a picture of an elbow (children understandably said "arm") and an arrow pointing to the "edge" of the table (children had no knowledge of what this was).

Like parents and politicians, early-years staff want all children to become confident, fluent readers who enjoy books. They agree that knowledge of phonics has a vital contribution to make to literacy, and know that there are many effective ways of introducing very young children to sounds and letters in contexts that make sense to them. There is, however, no convincing evidence that a formal programme of phonics teaching before five results in better outcomes.

On the contrary, children in other countries learn to read, write and spell quickly and accurately at a later stage. Because English is a less regular written language than most, the misguided argument that children will only reach high standards if phonics are taught earlier is actually a reason why systematic instruction should be left at least until Year 1.

Younger children need to be physically active, socially involved and creative in their pursuit of knowledge and understanding. Their time is better invested in developing skills in listening and communicating, and engaging in early reading and writing through play.

It is important for primary teachers to know about the structure of language, including phonics, but those working with the youngest children must also be aware of the individual nature of their learning, so they can build on their interests and experience. It would be perverse for children in reception classes to be taught in large groups when personalised learning is recommended for older children, and when primary teachers have been granted non-contact time to plan more individual work for their classes.

Interestingly, a recent statement from the Sure Start Unit about the proposed early years Foundation Stage says: "The approach of practitioners will be age-appropriate, ensuring that there are different activities for children of different ages and at different stages of their development. Through the early years Foundation Stage parents can feel secure, knowing that all settings will allow children to progress at a pace that is right for them."

Successful phonic work depends on children being able to listen well and speak clearly. Teachers need to bear in mind regional variations in pronunciation, and must take account of children who are in the early stages of learning English and all those who have language delay, behavioural difficulties or other problems in listening and speaking.

Rose himself says in his interim report: "The National Curriculum treats phonic work as essential content, not a method of teaching. How schools should teach that content is a matter of choice."

Ultimately, it is up to teachers to decide how they work with their classes. Those who are trained and experienced in the early years will ensure that young children's enjoyment of books and their motivation to read widely is sustained and extended through practice that accords with the principles underpinning the Foundation Stage, which have statutory force.

Do please pay attention, Secretary of State. There/ their/thair/thare/thaer is a lot to looz.

The writer is a former adviser to the Department for Education and Skills and former chairman of the British Association for Early Childhood Education