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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 December 2005, 13:16 GMT
Head to head: Synthetic phonics?
Child reading
At the moment phonics is one recommended method among four
England's schools are being told to change the way they teach children to read, with the government calling for greater use of a system called synthetic phonics.

At the moment, guidance is that phonics should be used as one of four methods of teaching children to read.

Now former Ofsted director Jim Rose has said phonics - where children learn the sounds of all the letters and combinations of letters first - should be taught "first and fast" to young children.


About time too. It was clear in 1997 when the national literacy strategy was introduced that synthetic phonics - that is the teaching of the letters of the alphabet and the sounds associated with them and teaching children to blend the sounds into words - was how children should be taught to read. Why has it taken the government eight years to realise it?

Jim Rose, who wrote the report, was working with me at Ofsted in 1997 and he argued for synthetic phonics and he was defeated.

David Blunkett, who was secretary of state at the time wanted to listen to ideologues, the advisors, on the other side who believed that children learnt to read by a process of magic osmosis. Phonics was there but it was there amongst various other methods and did not have the centrality it should have had.

The national curriculum should be revised the national literacy strategy should be revised and teacher trainers should be instructed to teach phonics to all young teachers who are entering. Many teacher trainers are very resistant to teaching phonics.

Phonics has been there in the national curriculum and there are teachers who have continued to teach in a traditional way whatever the fads and the politicians are telling them to do, but it hasn't been as central and at the heart of the teaching of reading as it should have been.

As a result we have 25% of 11-year-olds who continue to leave primary schools not able to read well enough to deal with the demands of a secondary school curriculum.


I think that what they've listened to is a very, very powerful lobby with an enormous commercial interest who are set to make a great deal of money out of schools having to change their reading schemes.

There was a big survey done by the national reading panel in the States which showed absolutely no difference whatsoever between success rates in synthetic and analytic phonics.

The Clackmannanshire study (which prompted calls for a review) was an extremely small study. They used reading schemes like the Oxford Reading Tree which relies heavily on analytic phonics. So it was a very blurry study and a very small one.

It would be a misunderstanding to say phonics was not fairly central to the literacy strategy. What we have got now is rather 'angels on a pinhead' - it's a particular type of phonics teaching rather than phonics in general.

I don't think a consensus (on reading) in the education establishment is possible, nor should it be, because children do not all learn to read in the same way.

So if you teach young teachers only one method and you come across children who are not going to learn in that way and you have no other strategies to help them to read, then you are going to disadvantage as many children as you advantage.

See how synthetic phonics gets children reading

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