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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 05:08 GMT
The debate about phonics teaching
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Child writing
The report will inform a revised literacy strategy
The teaching of reading has always been controversial and methods such as phonics - which teaches children the constituent sounds of words - have been in and out of fashion.

Phonics is an accepted part of the government's recommended approach to teaching literacy and few now argue over whether or not it should be used.

Instead the debate is about which type of phonics works best: analytic or synthetic. So how do they differ?

Analytic phonics is already in widespread use. It breaks down words into phonetic beginnings and endings.

Many teachers fear it does not suit all children's learning styles and argue it is so mechanistic it can destroy the joy of reading
Mike Baker

In the jargon, this is called "onset and rime". So, for example, the word street would be broken into two parts: "str" and "eet".

By contrast, synthetic phonics is more prescriptive.

Before children are introduced to books, they have an intensive period of learning the 44 letter and letter-combination sounds in the English language.

They then use these to construct words. So, in our example of the word street, they would build it up from all its constituent sounds: s- t- r- ee- t.

Advocates of synthetic phonics say children should be taught this method fast, first and only.

It is this which makes the method controversial: it is, in effect, an all-your-eggs-in-one-basket approach.

Many teachers fear it does not suit all children's learning styles and argue it is so mechanistic it can destroy the joy of reading.

Politicised issue

But an experiment with synthetic phonics in Clackmannanshire in Scotland has reported strong gains.

It found that children taught this way were seven months ahead at the end of their second year at school.

By the end of their seventh year in school, they were still ahead in reading comprehension although the lead had been halved.

Earlier this year the Commons education committee called for a larger-scale study of phonics and the issue became politicised when the Conservatives backed the calls for the introduction of synthetic phonics.

This prompted the government to invite former senior schools inspector Jim Rose to conduct the independent review whose interim recommendations are published on Thursday.

The government lists 45 phonemes and example words (although some experts say there are 44 phonemes) as follows:

Vowels and representative words

/a/ cat
/e/ peg, bread
/i/ pig, wanted
/o/ log, want
/u/ plug, love
/ae/ pain, day, gate, station
/ee/ sweet, heat, thief, these
/ie/ tried, light, my, shine, mind
/oe/ road, blow, bone, cold
/ue/ moon, blue, grew, tune
/oo / look, would, put
/ar/ cart, fast (regional)
/ur/ burn, first, term
/or/ torn, door, warn (regional)
/au/ haul, law, call
/er/ circus, sister
/ow/ down, shout
/oi/ coin, boy
/air/ stairs, bear, hare
/ear/ fear, beer, here

Consonant phonemes and representative words

/b/ baby
/d/ dog
/f/ field, photo
/g/ game
/h/ hat
/j/ judge, giant, barge
/k/ cook, quick, mix, Chris
/l/ lamb
/m/ monkey, comb
/n/ nut, knife, gnat
/p/ paper
/r/ rabbit, wrong
/s/ sun, mouse, city, science
/t/ tap
/v/ van
/w/ was
/wh/ where (regional)
/y/ yes
/z/ zebra, please, is
/th/ then
/th/ thin
/ch/ chip, watch
/sh/ ship, mission, chef
/zh/ treasure
/ng/ ring, sink

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