Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education says councillors and governors should ensure their schools use phonics.

On Monday last week, Education Secretary Ed Balls announced that he has allocated an additional £9m ‘for training to develop high quality phonics’  as part of the government’s drive ‘to ensure every child learns to read’.

This is a comparatively small amount when set against the £1bn this government has already spent to improve the teaching of reading, but will it be wasted like the rest?

In theory, following Sir Jim Rose’s 2006 report on the teaching of reading, there is now more  agreement that the most effective method is what is known as synthetic phonics.

This means that from the start, children are taught the shapes of the
26 letters of the alphabet, together with the 44 phonic sounds the
letters represent, either singly or in combination with others.  This
is the phonic code, and once children have mastered all or most of it
(usually within two or three terms), they can read almost anything that
is put before them.

None of this is rocket science. But a huge ideological divide still
exists between those who advocate synthetic phonics and ‘progressives’,
who believe children should be taught using  ‘whole language’ methods.

‘Whole language’ means that children are taught to look at the shape of
words (not letters) and memorise the word itself; or read the first
letter and guess what the word is by its context; or look at the
picture (if there is one) and try to guess what the text says from the
illustration. Yes, it’s true!  Children are taught so many ‘strategies’
that deflect them from concentrating on the letters, many become
confused and simply give up.

Teacher trainers favour ‘whole language’.  So if any Labour education
minister, from David Blunkett onwards, had considered for ten minutes
what hundreds of teacher trainers and training colleges have been doing all these years, he could have saved taxpayers £1,000,000,000.

It was the efforts of a small number of Conservative MPs such as Nick
Gibb and Andrew Turner that compelled Labour to accept that its
expensive National Literacy Strategy was not working,  because it was
a mixture of phonics and ‘whole language’.  So the Department for
Children, Schools and Families produced new guidance called ‘Letters
and Sounds’.  This was sent free to all relevant schools. Genuine
experts say ‘Letters and Sounds’ is an improvement, but it is still
long-winded and questionable in some areas.

That said, in the real world, the teaching of reading is a local matter
that school governors, local councillors and parents can fundamentally
improve if they need to.

First, as mentioned in earlier posts, simple information is essential,
such as test results showing pupils’  ‘reading ages’ set alongside
their chronological ages.  Then, if improvements are required, the best
course of action is to go for a private-sector book or scheme.

Excellent, well-proven, materials can be bought for £10.00 upwards.

The best books include The Butterfly Book by Irina Tyk (; Step by Step Reading by Mona McNee (; and Phonics: The Easy Way by Annis Garfield (  The Phonics Handbook by Sue Lloyd and other Jolly Phonics books and aids for teachers ( are also well-proven and highly recommended, as is The Dancing Bear Series by Hilary and Tom Burkard (

This is a crucial area of education where all that is needed to make a
huge difference is a little common sense. It’s as easy as a, b, c!

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