Letters: Phonics and reading

Children need more than just phonics in the uphill task of reading
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Sir: Ruth Kelly is right ("Kelly tears up schools' reading policy", 2 December): our knowledge of the best way to teach reading has moved on since 1997, thanks to the insight that successful teachers and schools might have something to teach us. But what large studies on both sides of the Atlantic have shown is not that synthetic phonics is the golden gateway. They tell a rather different story.

The most effective teachers use a variety of approaches, with a clear focus from the start on both the technical aspects and the making of meaning. They put a high premium on engaging their pupils, helping them to see reading as a way of enlarging their experience, not just as a set of exercises to be carried out to please the teacher. Effective teachers recognise that children need to read large amounts of engaging text to become better at it.

They certainly teach phonics, but many use a combination of synthetic and analytic phonics, so that children learn to spot patterns and draw analogies. In this way they are enabled to tackle words such as "fall" and "fast", where, although the spelling is regular, the vowels are not readily amenable to "sounding out". In addition, effective teachers teach essential but annoyingly irregular words such as "was" and "you" as sight words.

Children learning to read in English have an uphill job. The complexity of our spelling system is reckoned to add about two years to the task, as compared with most of the spelling systems of continental Europe. And yet England's 10-year-olds came third after Sweden and Holland in a recent survey of reading competence. But their scores for attitude were much lower. England's 10-year-olds don't like reading as much as they used to.

If we prioritise synthetic phonics in teaching our five-year olds, we risk a further fall in attitudes to what is arguably the most demanding, but potentially the most rewarding lesson of their early school years.



Heavy responsibility on Muslim scholars

Sir: As a Muslim who was brought up in the United Kingdom and had a religious up bringing and one who professes belief in all the tenets of Islam including Jihad, I know that Islam is a religion of peace. And that there is no place for wanton acts of violence in the Islam which I have been taught. Unfortunately the so-called scholars of the Muslim world have failed miserably in their understanding and education of the Muslims, in particular those in the West.

New converts to Islam, in Europe and America, are usually exposed to those scholars who espouse a narrow and intolerant interpretation of the Muslim Scriptures ("Girl next door who became a suicide bomber", 2 December). They fail to understand that the society which the Holy Prophet of Islam, (peace be upon him) established in Medina was one which was inclusive and not exclusive. It encouraged interaction with non-Muslims.

Unfortunately, many of the young and impressionable youth who revert to Islam are all too eager to prove themselves more loyal to the teachings which they have been taught. It is high time that the Muslim scholars who are responsible for the education of the Muslim youth take their responsibilities seriously and stop playing Russian roulette with the lives of vulnerable young people.



Sir: Anne Penketh makes the case that the Iraq war and associated events are the cause of Islamic radicalism ("The struggle to understand 'the enemy within' ", 2 December) when she states that "Western governments have been forced to recognise that the Iraq war and the televised brutal treatment of Muslims has radicalised an entire generation."

Islamic radicalism existed long prior to the Iraq war. Two of the examples he gives, concerning Zacharias Mousaoui and Richard Reid, occurred before the war.

European commentators such as Ms Penketh should be loath to cast blame on the US for the actions of Europe's malcontents. While the Iraq war no doubt has inflamed passions among some of the Arab population, if the Iraqi people are able to choose their government and the insurgency is eventually quelled, the result will be a boon to the Arab "man on the street" and the raison d'etre of radicalism will presumably be diminished. Let us hope that is the way it turns out.



Sir: Your piece on the perils facing "security contractors" in Iraq (3 December) was rather misleading. Surely the greatest dangers are those faced by ordinary people who dare to be in a car anywhere near these so-called contractors.

If Britain was overrun by a foreign army and we faced this threat from beyond-the-law gunmen would we sympathise with our fellow citizens who were being mown down or the armed gangs who shoot them? Not only do these armed gangs have no right even to be there - let alone shoot folk - but they always have a choice to return home, a choice completely unavailable to their Iraqi victims.



Nuclear power is still dangerous

Sir: The confident pro-nuclear statements made by Professor Hughes (letter, 30 November) demand a reply.

Safety: "Thousands of years of reactor experience have now [since Chernobyl] been built up". Thousands of hours had already been built up before that tragedy. Human beings will always remain fallible and sometimes criminally reckless.

Terrorism: The threat posed by "easily available biological agents" in no way rules out the additional threat posed by an increase in the number of nuclear power stations, along with an increase in the air, sea and road miles covered by nuclear materials and waste.

Waste: "Safe storage of the very small volumes of highly hazardous waste for hundreds of years has been shown to be feasible." Really? Well thousands of years is the time-scale required, and "shown to be feasible" does not fill me with confidence.

Cost: Insurance companies (not renowned for turning down business) won't offer accident cover on a nuclear power station, but even if they did, no private company wishing to build a nuclear power station would accept liability for dealing with the waste. Our taxes would have to pay for both.

Finally, in the event of an accident or terrorist attack, no other form of electricity generation is so potentially dangerous to the wider community. The degree of risk involved throughout the many stages of nuclear power generation should rule out further nuclear build.



Mergers and the Pensions Regulator

Sir: In your article of 25 November "Business anger at Blair" Sir Digby Jones states that the Pensions Regulator "has to give his consent if you want to buy or sell a business". This is not correct and I feel it is important to clarify the role of the regulator in this respect.

Approaching the regulator to seek clearance for a business transaction is entirely optional. The purpose of the clearance process is to give assurance that the regulator will not use its anti-avoidance powers if the transaction is later deemed to undermine the position of the pension scheme. In fact, this process of clearance was actually requested by British business during the passage of the Pensions Act 2004 through Parliament.

It is not our intention to constrain business activity; our role is to protect members' benefits, promote good administration and reduce the risk of claims on the Pension Protection Fund. While the existence of a pension scheme deficit should be an important factor when a corporate transaction is under consideration, it is clear that mergers and acquisitions must still be able to go ahead - providing pension scheme members' interests are respected. Only where the circumstances of the scheme give cause for concern would the Pensions Regulator become involved.



An answer to light pollution

Sir: Your correspondent in Pudsey (1 December) asks how anyone can know that streetlights don't turn off when no one is around. I suggest he takes himself 20 miles north in the small hours and takes a look at Leeds and Bradford from Brimham Rocks? He will see a sea of orange light.

Turning off the streetlights is not the answer, though. They'd be burning power when they warmed back up, they'd take so long to warm up that they'd need sensors a mile away, and they'd burn out more often, which would add to their environmental impact, not reduce it.

What is needed is a hood over each lamp, reflective or at least white underneath, and angled down so the light goes no further than the next post and nearest house wall. This would darken the skies for birds and astronomers, keep the light out of children's bedrooms and reflect the lamps' currently wasted light on to the street. They could be made brighter and safer, or lower wattage lamps could be used, saving money every night.



Human right to buy and sell sex

Sir: Your headline to Felicity Roberts' letter (3 December) tells us, "A man who pays for sex pays for abduction, violence and rape." It isn't as simple as that. A man can pay for these things, but he can also (and generally does), pay for consent.

Rape is intercourse without consent. Consent is just as valid if given for money as for "love". Adult people have a fundamental civil and human right to sell and buy sexual services.

The answer to the heinous problem of sexual slavery is to bring prostitution out of the closet and allow proper licensed zones for it, such as the German "eros centres", where women and men can sell sexual services legally and with some security. These can be invigilated to eliminate the under-age, and to make sure those there are doing it of their own free will. Counselling and social services should also be available via these places. These should be financed by sellers having to pay taxes out of their incomes.

This is the only thing that will work. Throughout history women have been persecuted for prostitution (they are still stoned and killed for it in Muslim countries). Any neo-puritan idea (which will appeal to the Government's repressive tendency) that the problem can be solved by transferring this persecution to the clients (many very inadequate individuals) is cruel and specious.



Smoking ban will hit market-town hotel

Sir: As the owner of a small hotel that is also a meeting place for local residents in our Cotswold market town, I will be caught in the middle if the Government insists I ban smoking because I serve food.

Our 10 guest rooms are non-smoking, as is the restaurant, but we allow smoking in both our bars. In our function room, which has a variety of uses, from conferences and private parties to local farmers' breakfast meetings, we leave it up to the organisers to decide what they want.

The two sides of the business go hand-in-hand, but I make more than two-thirds of my income from drinks sales, and although guests do drink in the bar, the majority of the drinks business is from the locals. Most of them are smokers, and if I had to choose between smoking and food, I'd be driven out of business.

The Government needs to recognise that there is not a one-size-fits-all solution - there's a wide variety in both pubs and what their customers want. Compromise and flexibility is what is needed for smokers, non-smokers and the trade.



Best in perspective

Sir: Thanks to Deborah Orr (3 December) for putting George Best's life and death into perspective. I cried watching his funeral, not because of his football prowess, but because a son had lost a father. My three children have never come to terms with losing their father due to the same illness. It was heartbreaking to see them watch his gradual decline, knowing that essentially it was his choice to remove himself from them.



First woman MP

Sir: Is The Independent trying to re-write history? You report (1 December) that on this day Nancy Astor took her seat as the first woman MP. That's correct. She was the first to "take her seat", but not the first woman MP. That distinction belongs to Constance Mark-iewicz, who was elected for Dublin Central under the banner of Sinn Féin, even though she was in HMP Holloway at the time for her part in the Easter Rising. As an Irish Republican, she refused to take her seat.



Buses held up

Sir: Why haven't British bus companies adopted the sensible and successful Continental practice of requiring pre-payment of bus fares, and never taking ticket money on the bus itself? This eliminates the waste of time and/or motor fuel for the bus company, the passengers and the vehicles queuing behind, while the bus is stationary and the driver is selling tickets. Most important, it speeds up the bus journey and makes public transport much more attractive. Can you imagine train or tube drivers or airline pilots selling tickets?



Unseen killer

Sir: The saddest aspect of the declining rainforests (Letters, 29, 30 November, 1 December), apart from the fact that this phenomenon is hastening the demise of us, the human race, is that the creatures residing there that we have not even had the wonder of observing yet will be extinct before we ever knew they existed. The one saving grace is that they will never have had the horrendous experience of setting eyes on us.



Gay wedding protocol

Sir: I am most delighted to read of Sir Elton's marriage in, of all places, Russia (report, 3 December). Should I be so lucky as to meet the happy couple after the ceremony, would protocol dictate that I address his partner as Lady Elton?