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HomeNewsChris McGovern: Essential tips for parents. Phonics are best for teaching reading

Chris McGovern: Essential tips for parents. Phonics are best for teaching reading


The start of a new school term is just around the corner. Spare a thought for those mums and dads whose child is about to start mainstream schooling. It is a worrying time. Having chosen, or having been allocated, a school they now have to hand things over to the ‘professionals’, the teachers. This can be more stressful for the parents than for the child.

Will it all work out? Will my child be happy? Will he/she make friends? Will he/she learn anything? Is the teacher up to the task? Is the class going to be over-crowded? In any case, how will I know? Having taught for 35 years, much of it with younger children, these are my personal observations. It is the first in a series of guidance blogs I intend to write for The Conservative Woman website. This one is intended, mainly, for parents of children who about to enter Year 1.

First of all, you need to understand that the Year 1 is the most important year in your child’s 13 years at school; subsequent years become increasingly less important. This is a message that you are unlikely to hear from many teachers, educational commentators or, indeed, from other parents.

It is the building blocks, the foundations, which matter most in all enterprises and not least in learning. Currently, around 20-25 per cent of 11-year-olds leave primary school below even the minimum level of attainment in literacy and numeracy set by Government SATs tests. From that position there is rarely a way back. Instead, most of these youngsters fall further and further behind. Some become disruptive, which means classmates have to share the cost of their failure. Our prisons are full of people who never recovered from their primary school in general and their early years teaching in particular.

In Year 1 your child should be taught to read. For most children this should not be a problem; indeed, some children arrive at school with the basic skills already in place. In order to have a secure foundation for reading, your Year 1 child, from the beginning of Term 1, needs to be taught the sounds of letters and of letter blends. This is called ‘synthetic phonics’. It is easier to understand if described as ‘blended phonics’ since it is based on blending into words the 44 sounds of our alphabet.

The collapse in reading standards that began back in the 1980s coincided with a move away from ‘phonics’ to what is known as the ‘real books’ approach to the teaching of reading. This is based on teaching whole word recognition. It means that children learn to read by recognising the shape of whole words rather then the sounds of individual letters and letter blends. A child might, consequently, read the word “hippopotamus” through recognition but be unable to read “has”, “hot” or “her” because he/she has not been taught the phonic code.

In my school the phonics basis for learning to read was taught to Year 1 pupils in around 8 weeks. It is logical and straightforward. There is no mystery to it. It should involve both ‘encoding’ letters and letter blends to form words and ‘decoding’ letters and letter blends to read words.

In recent years, government has become ‘converts’ and we now have national tests in phonics for 6-year-olds. These tests are bitterly opposed by many in the educational establishment still wedded to the ‘real books’ approach. Be wary of teachers claiming that they use a variety of approaches. The subtext is a dislike for what they see as ‘old fashioned’ phonics.

This brings me back to your Year 1 child. Success in learning how to read is one of the best ways of ensuring that they are happy; the heart of every parent’s concern. Failure in learning to read will certainly lead to unhappiness. Listen to your child sounding out letters and words every evening and, as they progress, listen to them reading. Follow this with your reading a story. Oh, so simple! Sadly, the simple things never get said.

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Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern
Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. A retired head teacher with 35 years’ teaching experience, Chris is a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street under two Prime Ministers.

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