Phonics: The U-Turn; Kelly Ditches Trendy Methods of Teaching Children to Read for a Return to Tradition

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Byline: LAURA CLARK;SARAH HARRIS

RUTH KELLY performed a major U-turn in education policy yesterday by agreeing to bring back traditional methods of teaching children to read.

The Education Secretary accepted the recommendations of a review backing greater use of a system known as synthetic phonics.

This teaches children the sounds of letters and how they combine to form words before they move on to books.

The approach was largely rejected in the Sixties and Seventies in favour of trendy theories which encouraged pupils to recognise whole words and to understand them from their context.

Labour has partially reintroduced phonics but schools are encouraged to combine it with other systems.

In June, the Government appointed Jim Rose, a former director at Ofsted, to review the way reading is taught in English schools.

He has now recommended that phonics should be the only way children learn to read before the age of five. He said the system should be used 'first and fast'.

Mr Rose said the Government's Searchlights reading programme, which involves a range of different teaching methods, 'had contributed much to improvements' in the teaching of reading.

But his report added: 'Having examined the available evidence, it is clear that the Searchlights model should be replaced.' He said Searchlights, which incorporates four elements of teaching reading but does not specify which is most important, was 'daunting and confusing' for pupils.

He added that using phonics with other methods in a 'pickandmix' approach diluted its effectiveness.

In a letter to Mr Rose, Miss Kelly accepted the recommendation.

'I share your view that it is now time to replace Searchlights,' she wrote.

'It was right for its time when it was introduced in 1998.

'Over the last eight years there have been dramatic improvements in children's achievements and teaching quality.

'The time is now right to replace Searchlights and I look forward to your detailed proposals for a new model of early learning.' Teachers' leaders were cautious about the reforms. Many teachers fear synthetic phonics does not suit all children's learning styles and argue it can destroy the joy of reading.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said ministers must not be too prescriptive.

'Phonics is one of an artillery of weapons to tackle reading in our schools,' he said. 'But children need to progress according to their own learning styles.

'Some children will struggle to read and phonics is immensely helpful for them but it isn't so helpful for other children who will learn by other strategies.' Steve Sinnott, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: '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.' The Tories claimed the Government was adopting one of their policies. Education spokesman Nick Gibb said: 'The Conservative Party will do all it can to help the Government implement these proposals.

'We urge Ruth Kelly not to be put off by recalcitrant Labour backbenchers or those in the education establishment still wedded to failed Sixties approaches.' Miss Kelly announced the review after criticism from MPs and Ofsted that one in five children leave primary school unable to read and write properly.

She admitted: 'We haven't done well enough.' She told the BBC: 'We've made progress but there's still one in five children who haven't reached that standard and, yes, we do need to improve reading standards further.

'I fully agree with Jim Rose that phonics should be taught systematically and discreetly. …