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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 May 2006, 05:54 GMT 06:54 UK
Gruffalo author makes sound move
Julia Donaldson with the Gruffalo
Julia Donaldson has long had an interest in phonics
One of Britain's most popular children's authors has spelled out her intention to teach reading using the phonics method.

Julia Donaldson, whose books include the multi-million selling The Gruffalo, has written a series of 36 books which aim to introduce children to reading.

The Glasgow-based author said she had long been interested in phonics.

She said that when she was just six years old she taught her younger sister by sounding out the letters of words.

Phonics is a method of teaching children to read and pronounce words by learning the sound of letters, letter groups and syllables.

The emphasis is on decoding words from the vowel and consonant sounds rather than "sight vocabulary" where a whole word is learned.

Gradually you introduce more letters until they have learnt all the short vowel sounds and all the consonants
Julia Donaldson

Donaldson, 57, said that when her own children, who are now adults, were at school, she was concerned that there did not seem to be enough flexibility in the way they were taught.

She said: "At that stage people seemed to be taught very much by the 'look and say' method, where you look at any word - telephone, table, that - and learned to recognise it.

"This is fine for a lot of children but for some it is 'look and guess', and as soon as you remove the pictures, then they actually can't read.

"I've long felt that you need a variety of approaches and that there were not really enough phonics books."

Sound recognition

She said that she was approached to write the Songbirds series for the Oxford Reading Tree scheme because her books such as The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and A Squash and a Squeeze, are widely used in schools.

"They are used to help teach reading, sound recognition, letter patterns and so on," she said.

Of the 40 or so books she has written since her first work was published in 1993, there are a significant number of "rhyme" books, which were described by fellow author Michael Rosen as "metrical perfection".

Donaldson said that writing books which had a strict but simple rhyme, yet still managed to tell an absorbing tale, was a very tough discipline.

Even though she is used to working within such confines she describes trying to write the phonics books as "like doing a crossword puzzle or a sudoku".

Teacher using synthetic phonics
Phonics is an accepted part of teaching reading

The first book in the series, Top Cat, only uses two vowel sounds and eight consonants.

"Gradually you introduce more letters until they have learnt all the short vowel sounds and all the consonants," she said.

It is only in the second half of the series that long vowel sounds are introduced, opening up more possibilities for rhyme and story telling.

Donaldson's foray into phonics has led to her being described as Britain's answer to Dr Seuss.

She said that she could see why the comparison would be made in relation to her phonics books.

The American author of books such as The Cat in the Hat was very much thinking of how children would read his books.

Although outside her work in phonics, Donaldson would prefer to be compared to Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.

Her books are published at a time when the teaching of phonics has become a political issue.

Intensive period

It is now an accepted part of the government's recommended approach to teaching literacy but there are disagreements about how it should be taught.

An experiment with synthetic phonics in Clackmannanshire has reported strong gains.

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

Advocates of synthetic phonics believe that children should have an intensive period of learning letter-combination sounds before they are introduced to books.

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

Sue Ellis, a reader in childhood and primary studies at Strathclyde University, said: "You need to make sure children are getting a rich language background, with books that are interesting, meaningful and enjoyable and that they want to read."

Ms Ellis agreed that phonics should be taught "fast and early" but said that children also needed a good "sight vocabulary" so that they could recognise words that were not phonically regular.

Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo has sold more than two million copies
Julia Donaldson's The Gruffalo has sold more than two million copies

She said that one problem with phonics book was that they required a very skilful writer to make them "rich" enough to engage young children.

There was always going to be a limited number of books available, she said.

Ms Ellis said that children needed to be taught to monitor their comprehension so that they noticed when they no longer understood what was happening.

"If you have a book that doesn't have a strong story, that comprehension monitoring becomes problematic.

"All systems for teaching reading have advantages and disadvantages.

"All systems produce casualties, they just produce different types of casualty."

Children's programmes

Donaldson said she did not want to be seen as a "phonics fanatic".

She said that phonics should be "at the core of teaching children to read" but thought a mixed approach to teaching was most suited to the different ways in which children learn.

Later this year Donaldson, who for many years wrote and performed songs for children's programmes such as PlayAway, is to set off around the world entertaining in theatres.

Her tour begins at the Edinburgh Festival in August before taking in Oxford, Brighton and London.

She will then head off with her GP husband, dubbed Dr Gruffalo in the medical press, for Bermuda, Chile, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.

Since publication of The Gruffalo in 1999 it has sold more than two million copies and been translated into 34 languages.

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