Sunday, 18 November 2007

Phonics first and fast

The shadow schools secretary, Michael Gove, is right to put teaching children to read at the heart of his schools' policy. But, as Ruth Kelly pointed out on the Andrew Marr show this morning, she was the secretary of state who introduced synthetic phonics to the whole school system, following Jim Rose's excellent review. The challenge for policymakers is not whether or not this is the right policy - the evidence shows that it is, despite the moaning of the 'leave 'em to learn to read in their own good time unless they're our own kids' brigade - but how to ensure that every school uses phonics. Gordon Brown has chosen to put rather too much emphasis on his reading recovery programme, Every Child A Reader, which may be an effective catch-up but is a rather expensive one. Instead, there should now be a cross-party consensus on the Rose recommendations that synthetic phonics should be taught first and fast. Ofsted should inspect primary schools specifically on this aspect of their policy. The programme needs the sort of intensive leadership and training given the national literacy hour in 1998. And, there is merit in having an independently validated national reading test - and one in Maths too - to replace the 'teacher assessments' that were brought in to replace national tests at seven by Charles Clarke. But all parties should be clear that reading early is the key to later success - and clear about how phonics is put at the heart of early learning in every school.
UPDATE: There is a very peculiar thread about this post running over at the Reading Reform Foundation website - the home of the shock troops for synthetic phonics. Most readers of this post might (rightly) imagine that I am a rather strong supporter of synthetic phonics, which I have been since at least 2002. I had a good deal to do with the Rose Review being established when I worked for Tony Blair, and I welcome the fact that both main parties support it. But what I suspect upsets my should-be friends at the RRF is that I have dared to suggest that Every Child A Reader may help with catch-up - there is evidence (pdf) that it does; however, most youngsters could and should be taught more quickly through synthetic phonics, as Rose recommended. My second sin in RRF eyes is probably mentioning the literacy hour: yet before it, phonics had been allowed to die in many schools. Phonics would not be debated now without it. As a result of its introduction, many children were taught much better how to read, spell and write: the evidence is there in the improved test results (pdf - go to table 1). But there is now much clearer evidence from Rose and elsewhere that synthetic phonics is the way forward. And the government should ensure - with Ofsted's support - that it is taught first and fast.

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