The Big Question

By Hodges, Lucy | The Independent (London, England), November 2, 2007 | Go to article overview
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The Big Question

Hodges, Lucy, The Independent (London, England)

What is the best way to teach reading - and should children be tested at six?

Why are we asking this now?

Because the Conservative leader, David Cameron, is today publishing a Green Paper outlining measures to help prevent poorer children falling behind at school. This will include a reading test at the age of six for all except those with serious learning difficulties, and a phonics-based approach to the teaching of reading. The aim is for all children to be reading by the end of Year One.

The Conservatives plan to scrap the controversial Key Stage One literacy test for six- and seven-year-olds and replace it with a straightforward reading test. The Tories regard this test as bureaucratic and over-complicated and believe that it detracts from the important job of teaching youngsters to read.

How are children taught to read at the moment?

The Labour government has implemented a national literacy strategy which includes a structured literacy hour every day for all children in primary school - and which has introduced systematic phonics. Between 1997 and 2000 this strategy produced remarkable results. The number of 11-year-olds achieving level 4 - able to read - shot up from 48 to 75 per cent. But the problem is that a hard core of young people get left behind, still unable to read when they start secondary school.

This 7 per cent of children are unlikely to get four good GCSEs, the minimum needed to secure a good job or move on to further education. Jim Rose, the former Her Majesty's Inspector and author of the latest review of the government's literacy strategy, believes that with a good phonics programme almost every child should learn to read.

What is phonics?

It is a systematic method for teaching children to decode language, and it comes after several decades in schools when children were taught to read by getting them to memorise whole words and their meaning in one go - the"Look and Say"method.

This Look and Say method has been largely discredited and is thought to account for the crisis in reading in primary schools that gripped the nation in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Phonics involves splitting each bit of a word into its component parts.

In phonics, youngsters are taught the sounds and blends of letters before they see any books. Rose believes that they should be introduced to phonics at four or five by learning letter sounds and doing a lot of speaking and listening. By learning to decode words, children learn how words are constructed and how to spell. Knowledge of language is built up in the first year, and by the age of six they are capable of recognising words.

Why the change in government policy?

Various pieces of research, notably the Clackmannanshire survey in Scotland, showed that children benefited from learning how to decode their language in this way. The Scottish research put children up to three years ahead in reading, although they did not show a significant improvement in comprehension of words.

Is anyone against phonics?

Some teachers in schools are against phonics, believing that it is mechanistic and old-fashioned and not the way to teach children to love reading and books. The argument against phonics is that while it speeds up the rate that children can read words, it does not aid their understanding of what those words mean. Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, says that the method is useful but adds that the Tories are obsessed by it."They somehow think it is a magic solution for everything else.

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