Leading article: A teaching method that works

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Things have reached a pretty pass when something as basic and necessary as learning to read becomes politicised. But this is what happened after a study in Scotland showed that primary school pupils taught by a method known as synthetic phonics learnt to read faster than those taught by other methods. The Conservatives called for the system to be adopted nationwide. The Government demurred, and then set up a review.

The interim results of that review, conducted by Jim Rose, a former director of inspections at Ofsted, bore out the thesis that synthetic phonics helped more children to read more quickly than other currently used methods. The Government, to its credit, responded immediately. The Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly, announced yesterday that she was accepting the findings. Synthetic phonics is to be the preferred method of teaching reading in primary schools in England.

Almost anyone now above or approaching 50 would wonder what all the fuss was about. Synthetic phonics, although mostly not known by that name then, was the way that most learnt to read. It was only later that other methods were used, instead or in combination, as part of the rethink of primary teaching undertaken in the Sixties and thereafter.

As with so much in education, the very brightest children and those whose families prize education tend to do well in the end, whatever methods are used to teach them. It is those who are less bright, or enjoy fewer advantages, who are most penalised by poor or ineffectual teaching. And for all the target-setting and national testing that this government has introduced, the primary school literacy targets have remained stubbornly elusive - even though they are arguably the most crucial. Children who have difficulty reading or writing at 11 will be handicapped for the rest of their school career, unless remedial action is taken. At present, this is as many as one in four.

Synthetic phonics may not be the whole answer to the teaching of reading. But some education specialists surely protest too much when they object that this method does not suit all children and could detract from a child's enjoyment of reading. The review findings show that even if this method does not suit all, it suits a greater proportion than the combination of methods currently employed. As for enjoyment, what is there to enjoy about not being able to read at all?

The guiding principle in schools, which is surely applicable further afield, must be "what works". If, as seems clear, synthetic phonic works better than other methods, it should be used.

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