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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 17:35 GMT
Phonics: Strategy but no consensus
By Mike Baker
BBC News education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
If, as I am about to, you venture into the debate about reading methods, it is wise to don a crash helmet.

It is odd that one of the most rewarding parts of a child's education - the moment when they learn to understand the written word - is also the one that has educators at each other's throats.

The fact is, though, that the factions in the reading debate are as numerous and as passionate as the political groupings in revolutionary Russia.

Sometimes, to an outsider, the differences between their positions are close to incomprehensible.

This week's report on synthetic phonics tried hard to avoid getting dragged into what its author, Jim Rose, called a "futile debate" between "strongly-held, conflicting views".

He may have tried to steer a middle course yet, judging by the way his recommendation in favour of more synthetic phonics was greeted as a "back to basics" approach, he might well have failed.

It certainly seems that his report, and the government's acceptance of its recommendations, means the reading revolution continues to spin. The question is: Are we back to where we started or has the teaching of phonics moved on?

It now seems that synthetic phonics will be the first strategy that all teachers in England will be expected to use.

As the report puts it: "Pupils should be taught... synthetic work as their first strategy... because... [it]... is the most effective systematic approach to teaching reading."

Which approach?

If you have read this far, you probably know what synthetic phonics is. Or maybe not? After all, even the champions of synthetic phonics do not seem to agree wholly on all its aspects nor on exactly how it differs from the other main method, analytic phonics.

The Rose report defines them as follows. It says synthetic phonics involves learning to pronounce the sounds (phonemes) associated with letters "in isolation". These individual sounds, once learnt, are then blended together (synthesised) to form words.

Boy writing
Supporters of synthetic phonics report big improvements
By contrast, analytic phonics, does not involve learning the sounds of letters in isolation. Instead children are taught to recognise the beginning and ending sounds of words, without breaking these down into the smallest constituent sounds.

To many this difference sounds like dancing on the head of a pin (I know, I have tried explaining it to many different people).

It is made worse by the fact that not everyone can agree on these definitions.

Jim Rose highlighted the problems of defining these approaches to phonics when he observed that it is extremely difficult to determine what they stand for, as disputes over definitions exist not only between the two camps but even within each camp.

So what can teachers and parents expect as the government guidelines are updated to require the teaching of synthetic phonics as the first, and main, strategy for reading?

There seems to be agreement on some aspects. Synthetic phonics should be taught in daily short bursts of about 20 minutes. It should include a variety of activities, for example using solid or magnetic letters or using physical movement to model letter shapes.

It should be intensive, over a period of two to four months, to ensure that children quickly learn the 44 (or 45 - there is even dispute over this) basic sounds of the letters and letter combinations.

In this respect, this is much more than just a return to the way phonics were taught in the 1950s and 1960s, when the emphasis was on pure rote learning and reading materials were often of the "cat sat on the mat" variety.

This is important since one of the reasons for the move away from phonics in the 1970s was because educators felt it was rather joyless and put children off reading.

Despite the way his views have been reported, Rose does not seem to be advocating a simple return to "back to basics", old-fashioned 1950s phonics

Hence the development of the so-called "real books" approach, which emphasised the use of interesting, colourful, books which children would learn to read because they wanted to.

However, as Rose points out, beyond the agreement on certain basic points, there is also much disagreement on how to teach synthetic phonics.

For example, there are divergences of view over the age and speed at which to teach it and whether to rely entirely on books that have been selected because they follow regular phonic rules.

Not 'whole picture'

One of the biggest issues of all is whether children should use only phonics or whether they should employ supplementary methods to decode words.

The Rose recommendations are slightly less clear on this and the emphasis on synthetic phonics is tempered by saying it should be within the context of a "broad and rich language curriculum".

He also stresses that, although phonics is "an essential part", it is not "the whole picture" of what it takes to become a fluent reader.

So, despite the way his views have been reported, he does not seem to be advocating a simple return to "back to basics", old-fashioned 1950s phonics.

He insists that, despite the evidence in some schools, it is possible to both teach phonics systematically and to encourage a love of books and positive attitudes to reading.

The government seems to have accepted that it should be taught "fast and first" but, like Rose, seems to have held back from the "only" bit.

However, it has said it will scrap the official "searchlights" model which, to oversimplify, urges children to use a variety of methods to decode words.

This has worried those teachers who say that children learn in different ways and that there is no "one sizes fits all" in learning to read.

Jim Rose now has a few more months to develop his final report, which will focus more on how to deliver these changes.

He still has a lot to do and there will be many more arguments along the way.

Today, 16 years after the start of the national curriculum and seven years after the national literacy strategy began, it is hard to recall just how free primary school teachers used to be to teach in their own preferred way.

The heavy emphasis on synthetic phonics now being required by government may be right or wrong but, even with the opt-out it leaves to use other methods, it is certainly prescriptive.

So, it had better be right.

We welcome your comments. A selection will be published later in the week.

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01 Dec 05 |  Education
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