Minister embraces reading overhaul

A government-commissioned report today recommends an overhaul in the way children are taught to read in English schools.

The review by former Ofsted director of inspections Jim Rose calls for the synthetic phonics method to be introduced systematically and directly to all children by the age of five.

This method teaches children to read using the sounds of letters or groups of letters, and is already widely used in conjunction with other reading methods in English schools.

Education secretary Ruth Kelly has welcomed the findings, saying they recognised the part phonics already played in education, and insisting the recommendations would be implemented through the national literacy framework.

However, unions have warned that the method is not suitable for all children, and should be kept as one of a number of approaches to teaching.

There are also concerns that, in delaying the time at which children can turn to books, the method could impact on the enjoyment of reading. Other methods, such as allowing children to guess words based on context and pictures, allow them to read books earlier.

In his report, which comes ahead of final recommendations due next year, Mr Rose says that phonic work – teaching children the alphabetical principles to read and spell words in or out of context – should be taught “regularly, discretely” and “at a brisk pace”.

But he admits that to be effective, the programme must be taught well, and stressed the importance of monitoring the delivery of synthetic phonics.

And while Mr Rose says that high-quality phonic work is “one of the most effective ways to prevent reading difficulties”, he warned there would also be children who would struggle. His final report would deal with how to intervene in those situations, he said.

Ms Kelly welcomed the report’s recognition of how phonics had long played a part in Labour’s literacy strategy, saying the method was now “a part of every child’s development”.

“Our challenge now is to learn from the best evidence of what works and when, and to embed that within the literacy strategy for the future,” the education secretary said.

She rejected suggestions that the method would impinge on a love of reading, saying: “On the contrary, exciting and engaging teaching can ensure children master the phonics code and take pride in doing so.”

However, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) warns that this remains an issue, and called for teachers to be involved in the debate on which teaching methods work best.

“The last thing teachers want is a massive upheaval as a result of the promotion of a single fashionable technique. They know that to teach reading effectively there must be a range of strategies to hand,” said general secretary Steve Sinnott.

“Without that, a teacher will be constrained in teaching a child who is struggling to cope with phonics or who is trying to teach children the richness of the English language with its roots in so many other languages.”

He also warned that teachers were “desperately weary of the reading war”, suggesting phonics had previously been used to score political points.

“We want every child to be a proficient reader,” he said, adding: “But we all need to recognise that teaching the meaning of words and a love of reading is also vital.”