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Phonics make a comeback to help infants read

Teachers will be required for the first time to use phonics when they start reading with infants.

That means, in simple terms, that they must teach children to use letter sounds (C, A, T spells cat). At its more sophisticated level, phonics teaching enables children to identify common sounds in combinations of letters - such as 'ch' and 'ur' to work out 'church'.

Phonic methods were challenged during the Seventies and Eighties. Some specialists argued that too many English words do not conform to rules, or that the 'sounding out' rules are so complicated that they cannot help young readers. As a result, although most infants learn the main letter sounds of the alphabet, more structured teaching of phonics have become less popular.

Advocates of phonic methods argue that most English words can be worked out using around 40 such phonemes, which can easily be taught to young children. They accept that there are more than 600 words in English which do not conform to phonic rules, but say that phonic clues nevertheless give new readers a headstart.

When anxiety about reading standards became intense during the late Eighties, a fierce row broke out. Many traditionalists claimed that the demise of phonic methods were largely to blame, while a few extreme progressives continued to insist that children acquire reading in much the same way that they pick up speech.

Ministers concluded that too many infant teachers were relegating phonics, and cited recent research which demonstrates that letter sounds do help children to read more quickly and confidently.

The curriculum council's proposals, however, take a middle course. They recognise that phonics alone are not sufficient to ensure that children learn to read fluently. They recommend balancing phonics with letter patterns in words (known as 'look and say'), the way a word works in a sentence, and context.

David Pascall, the National Curriculum Council chairman, pointed out yesterday that none of the reading schemes commonly used in schools incorporated phonics, and hoped that the new requirements would encourage them to adapt their publications.