Authors including Michael Rosen, Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman have criticised the exclusive use of the phonics method of teaching, in which words are broken down into individual sounds, claiming it risks undermining children’s love of books.
However, they came under fire last night from Sir Jim Rose, author of a landmark review of literacy teaching which led to the renewed focus on phonics, first under Labour and then by the Coalition.
Sir Jim accused critics of trying to “destroy” phonics programmes, causing damage to children’s education.
Opponents support a mix of techniques to teach reading, including the “whole word approach” in which children are taught to recognise entire words.
The row comes as 600,000 six-year-olds this week sit the Government’s controversial new phonics screening check for the first time.
Pupils will read a list of 40 words aloud to the teacher. Half of them are non-words, or “nonsense words”, such as “vap” and “jound”, created to check that pupils can sound out letters and are not just memorising words.
Sir Jim said systematic synthetic phonics was the best starting point when teaching young children to read. He said the views put forward by many opponents created “fake polarities” between the use of phonics and reading for pleasure.
“I’m quite surprise really that even very, very good children’s authors who have made massive contributions to putting good literature in to children’s lives, still can’t accept that you need to put a balanced structure in place which includes phonics,” he said.
“I’ve spent so many hours reading Michael Rosen’s books with my grandchildren, doing dramatised stories.
"I have no problem with what he is doing in terms of producing good literature, or for that matter Morpurgo or Pullman, who have all one way or another had a bit of a go at phonics.
“My argument is that you don’t have to destroy phonics in order to promote your views about good literature - the two things are entirely complementary.
"So many confusions arise in thinking that one is at odds with another. The losers will be the kids.”
Michael Rosen, the former Children’s Laureate, is an outspoken critic of the Government’s “obsession” with teaching synthetic phonics.
He has said that such strategies presented children with books containing words lists and letters, rather than inspiring literature.
“Is it any wonder that children are leaving school unable to read,” he said. “Synthetic phonics is being presented as the cure-all but it will never be enough to teach kids to read. Let’s stop pretending that phonics will solve everything, and develop a book-loving culture.”
Michael Morpurgo, the author of War Horse and also a former Children’s Laureate, has said he is concerned about the “one size fits all” belief in synthetic phonics.
“My reservation about all this is that in education anything that is a solution for everyone is almost always wrong because people are different,” he said.
The author of the award winning children’s trilogy His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman, has also expressed concerns.
“If you are reversing a car, you look over your shoulder, you use your rear view mirror, your side mirror, you use what is available,” he said. “Well to learn to read, you use everything that is there, use all the things that are available. One of which is certainly phonics, the other is certainly real books.”
Mr Rosen has also criticised the phonics screening check for potentially labelling thousands of children as failures at the age of six, a fear shared by many teacher and parents.
In the Government’s pilot, only a third of pupils met the minimum standards - set at 34 correct words out of 40.
Teachers’ unions said that children who could already read well would be marked down because they would recognise that the fake words were not correct and try to substitute real words. For instance in the pilot, the non-word “osk” was read by some children as “ask”.
But Sir Jim said the comments misrepresented how systematic synthetic phonics was being used in schools.
“They take the view that what we are saying is that phonics is the only way to make children highly competent readers,” he said.
“But all of us who favour this approach say phonics is essential but not sufficient. You still have to make sure that children develop language comprehension but you can’t do any of that unless children can decode the text.
“You still need a really good quality phonics programme, and synthetic phonics is as good as anything else.”
He said the phonics screening check would give leverage to parents and help them get help if their children were below the minimum standard.
“It is not about pass or fail, it is a progress check,” he said. “If I was a head or a classroom teacher, I would be hungry for the sort of information that the test can provide.”
"I’m quite surprised really that even very, very good children’s authors who have made massive contributions to putting good literature in to children’s lives, still can’t accept that you need to put a balanced structure in place which includes phonics,”
No, Jim, I and others are in favour of 'balance'. We doubt the value of spending so much time at the outset being exclusive about phonics, banning non-decodable texts (ie 'books') from initial reading. If there's any lack of balance going on is the idea that 'literacy' for Year 1 children consists of government-approved phonics schemes.
Jim Rose says:
"You still have to make sure that children develop language comprehension but you can’t do any of that unless children can decode the text."
Hold it there, Jim. I think if you thought that one through, you wouldn't want to stick with that. You know as well as any parent or grandparent or teacher that of course children can move forwards on several fronts at the same time - doing a mix of decoding without understanding, understanding things without decoding them (ie predicting correctly, picking up cues from other sources etc).
the phonics screening check would give leverage to parents and help them get help if their children were below the minimum standard. It is not about pass or fail, it is a progress check
There we have it Jim: the idea that a child learning to read is already dubbed 'below the minimum standard' (ie not decoding 32 out of 40 words - that was a two-thirds of all children in the pilot test, I think). You say it's not about pass or fail, but you in your mind are already dubbing a third of children 'below the minimum standard' and in the DfE documents it states quite clearly that parents and carers must be informed if their child fails. That's failure, Jim. That's what it's called. It's very hard for parents and children to think of it any other way...like 'failing' one's driving test.
"If I was a head or a classroom teacher, I would be hungry for the sort of information that the test can provide.”
They are hungry for information, Jim. That's why they monitor the children's progress every day, every week, every month, every year. This is a monitoring of the monitoring with the child as the guinea pig.
Do you remember, Jim, how you invited me in to the DfE to talk to you during the time I was Children's Laureate? This is how I remember it. I walked into a room and you had a copy of 'Bear Hunt' in front of you. You said to me, 'I've put the alphabetic principle in place, but how do you make books come alive?' I told you how I act out 'Bear Hunt'. You seemed to think that that was a good idea and mentioned the idea that this was the sort of thing that we needed to happen everywhere...making books come alive. You were so keen on it, that you said we had to talk some more about it. I said, fine, and I left.
Needless to say, you never did talk to me again about it. But that's how it is. All the money and action is with synthetic phonics, to the tune of many millions of government money, and virtually nothing for the bit about making books come alive. How come?
And yet, as you and Nick Gibb and others are discovering, synthetic phonics doesn't turn children into readers. It turns them into decoders, many of whom will of course become readers...er...which is what we had before. But we also get children who 'can read but don't understand' - or as I would put it, 'decoders who can't read for meaning'.
Meanwhile, this week we're going to get plenty of children who 'can read but will fail'. Yes, many of those scary middle class parents who have taught their children to read a bit may well be getting a little bit cross that their kids are failing the phonics screening test. They're bit too 'meaning aware' and not 'phonics aware'.