TES: Phonics before five? Palmer v Jolly

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Susan Godsland
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TES: Phonics before five? Palmer v Jolly

Post by Susan Godsland » Fri Mar 31, 2006 8:45 pm


A government report by former HMI Jim Rose says most children should begin reading using systematic phonic work by age five. Is that right? Two
leading literacy experts thrash out the arguments

Five is too early to cross sounds barrier.
Sue Palmer

Say no to phonics before five!" is the current cry from the early-years

And as a literacy specialist who has long supported the phonics cause, I
have to agree.

While the Rose report in general is informed, balanced and sensible, on the
question of when and how synthetic phonics should be taught, its author,
Jim Rose, has failed to listen to the experts.

In December a group of professors of early education, psychology,
neuroscience and human communication explained the problems. They said that
since children enter reception classrooms ever younger, with
poorly-developed speech, burgeoning attention deficit and minimal social
skills, there is a great deal of groundwork for teachers to do before the
child is ready to learn that c-a-t spells cat.

These professors, like other authorities in the field of child development,
urged delaying formal teaching until children are six. But Rose persisted
in recommending whole-class or large group teaching methods (extremely
formal for this age group) before five. Young children - especially boys
-find it difficult to sit still at the best of times, but squatting en
masse on the mat while the teacher rabbits about c-a-t requires
self-control and an ability to focus far beyond most four-year-olds.

Many will be too immature to appreciate the finer points of phonics; others
may find the c-a-t thing so self-evident as to be boring. Whatever their
ability level, inappropriate experiences like this can turn children off
school before their educational career has even begun. And when a young
child's enthusiasm for learning is snuffed out, it's difficult to reignite
it. Long-term studies show that an over-formal early-years curriculum can
result in a lifetime's emotional, social and behavioural problems.

This is, of course, why the national curriculum doesn't kick in till Year
1, why four and five-year-olds are now catered for in the foundation stage,
and why the curriculum guidance for that stage (now enshrined in law) is
child-centred and developmentally based in direct contrast to the large
group lessons described above.

It's also why schools elsewhere in Europe don't start formal education
until children are six or even seven. Our early school entrance date is an
historical accident, the ill-effects of which British early-years
specialists have spent decades trying to alleviate culminating in the
foundation stage guidance. So why this attempt to undermine all that good

Rose himself admits that the research evidence for his suggested approach
to synthetic phonics is "inconclusive". Much of it comes from commercial
companies who have products to sell. And the arguments in support of
phonics before five just don't stand up to scrutiny. For instance, some
phonics zealots claim we need an early start because the English language
is phonetically highly complex. But if something's particularly tough to
learn, surely it's better left until children are older and mature enough
to understand the task? Others want to crack on early because they fear
children might otherwise start "guessing" at words and end up dyslexic. But
children only start guessing at words if grown-ups ask them to read before
they're up to it, so again the sensible advice is to back off until they're

Children who do show an early interest in reading usually manage to figure
out phonics for themselves, or with a little informal help at the right
time. In this case, of course, teachers should help, and offer lots of
encouragement and praise. No early-years professional would suggest holding
children back if they want to read (hat would be as cruel as forcing them
to attempt something developmentally beyond them.

Similarly, there's no reason why teachers shouldn't develop all children's
phonemic awareness throughout the foundation stage, through appropriate
small group activities when the teacher considers the time is right. It's
called exercising professional judgement something regularly recommended in
the Rose report. Unfortunately, Rose lacked the courage of his convictions
when it came to the how and when of synthetic phonics. Instead of
entrusting these lo the professional judgement of people who understand
young children's language and learning, he appears to have bowed to
pressure from politicians, whose knowledge of child development is nil. As
a result, an otherwise excellent report will probably end up doing more
harm than good.

Sue Palmer is a literacy consultant and co-author of Foundations of
Literacy (Network Press, 2004)

Start right with most difficult language.
Chris Jolly.

At a kindergarten I visited in Malaysia last July, young Aishyanni was
waving her hands above her head, trying to click them like castanets, and
saying "k, k, k". She was typical of a group of three and four-year-olds
learning English with phonics and enjoying it. The parents want this kind
of teaching and have seen how effective it is.

I have seen this same scene repeated in kindergartens in Hong Kong, Taiwan
and Tokyo, countries that will be keen competitors and partners to us in
the future.

I need to explain that I do not advocate that phonics be obligatory for
children at that age. Instead I think it should be encouraged, and, above
all, that it should not be prevented. Ultimately the decision should be
that of the teachers, and one that reflects the views of parents.
Information is needed for such a decision, which is why a debate is

The comparisons most commonly made in this debate are not with countries
teaching English, but with countries such as Finland. This is surprising as
the languages are so different. Professor Seymour of the University of
Dundee has analysed the languages of Europe by difficulty. On the basis of
alphabetic complexity (lots of consonant blends and digraphs) and in terms
of irregular spellings, English came out as the most complex - and Finnish
the least. Little wonder then that children in Finland may start reading
later. Where European languages have a similar complexity to English, such
as French, the teaching of reading also starts before the age of five.

In North America the teaching of reading (and phonics) does start at five.
However, there is no evidence that the later start has led to higher
literacy standards. In primary schools in Scotland, however, the teaching
does start slightly earlier than in England, and the Scots have long prided
themselves on doing better.

One claim made for a later start is that the children will soon catch up.
However, there is no evidence for this, and plenty against. Children tend
to keep their rank ordering from one year to the next. The claim that a
child will "catch up when they are ready" is not borne out in practice.
There is a high correlation in rank ordering between one year and the next.
This suggests that children who start earlier will do better.

In the past phonics has been seen as dull and boring and that may well have
been true. However the Rose review noted, as a reason for embracing
synthetic phonics, that there are more engaging materials on the market. It
seems to me important that we live in the real world on this issue. Almost
all parents will want their child to start learning to read before five,
and most teachers will want to teach them.

If phonics is restricted at these ages the teaching will be back to real
books and guesswork, with phonics just used after age five as a remedial
tool, as in the past. The Rose review will have been nullified. So one has
to ask whether this is a backdoor way of preventing phonics teaching.

Parents of pre-schoolers may well find this advice confusing and difficult
to accept. Does it mean that they should not teach their child the
alphabet? And should they leave off l-spy until the child is five. If a
child is not to be taught letters and letter sounds, what about numbers?
Are we actually seeing a rejection of structured teaching?

We do need to ask what is in the best interests of the child and, in my
view, to think of their parents in best representing that interest.
Children in private schools, and children in the growing economies
overseas, will continue to be taught with phonics from an earlier age. It
seems to me important that we should give the same opportunity to children
in all schools in this country.

Christopher Jolly is managing director of Jolly Learning, publishers of the
Jolly Phonics programme

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Post by Lesley Drake » Fri Mar 31, 2006 8:59 pm

Rose himself admits that the research evidence for his suggested approach
to synthetic phonics is "inconclusive". Much of it comes from commercial
companies who have products to sell.
Coming from a woman who has more products out there in Eduland than Carol Vordeman has sudoku books in Smiths, that's not only rich, it's pretty dispicable.

Lesley Drake
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Post by Lesley Drake » Fri Mar 31, 2006 9:24 pm

OK, you all know I meant despicable.

It IS Friday night!

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Post by bwking » Fri Mar 31, 2006 11:44 pm

Sue Palmer certainly has that commercial flavour, like a lot of other prog writers: 'a group of professors say...'.

WHICH professors? At which seminar? It's exactly like any soap etc. advert, with details kept to a minimum or zero.


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Debbie Hepplewhite
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Post by Debbie Hepplewhite » Sat Apr 01, 2006 1:14 am

Sue has been campaigning for this early years ethos and rolling back the starting age for 'formal' phonics.

I find it sad that she sort of 'apologises' for phonics teaching during her training.

I think this is misguided.

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Early start

Post by MonaMMcNee » Sat Apr 01, 2006 9:56 am

I say that "all" children are ready to start simple phonics by 4th birthday, if not before.
When a child can talk (Drink of milk, mummy) and match up a letter-shape from among 10 or 12 others, he is "ready".
Good phonics will teach phonemic awareness, pronunciation/enunciation, vocabulary, as you go along.
Despite Rose saying (diplomatically) that the searchlights were "not the best way" to teach beginners, government national or local have yet to say "We were wrong." It is inconceivable for them. Being experts, they must be right. Yes?
Since failure has now vanished from Dumbarton, then the previous teaching MUST HAVE created the previous failure. Q.E.D. (When will a family sue the teacher/school?)
But the idea of any teaching having been actually harmful is not in the mindset of today's experts (i.e. for the last 50 years).
See the website of the National Right to Read Foundation: "Illiteracy: An incurable disease or educational malpractice."
A group in Oregon is also concerned about "academic child abuse".

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Post by g.carter » Sat Apr 01, 2006 2:11 pm

Sue Palmer does have a point, in that it's very tough to see 'young' 4 year olds in a fairly formal setting in the care of a tough/rough teacher. I've seen it - though the teacher departed after one term when parents complained. Also have known parents who have been very upset at having to put their child into school at the age of just 4 when they know the child needs more time to mature. Parents are told that their won't be a place for their child at 5. That said, I agree with Mona that 4 year olds are ready for the skill of reading. A friend going home to Croatia last year was amazed to see her cousin's 18 month old picking 'sounds' out of a bowl of wooden letters when her mother asked for the sound.

This slur of 'commercialism' the Education Establishment has decided should be part of its mud-slinging armoury (in lieu of rational, well-founded argument that addresses the needs of the 20+% school-age children they have effectively disenfranchised) is both cynical and irrational.

And who was first off the block with her 'synthetic fonics'?

Yep, 'fraid so.

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Post by chew8 » Sat Apr 01, 2006 7:40 pm

We also have to remember that children are not of statutory school age on their 4th birthday. We can only start talking about what we think schools should be doing from the time that children are required to be in school.

Another point: my own view is that if we start bringing comparisons between English and other languages into the debate, Sue Palmer's argument is actually stronger than Chris J's - the fact that English has a much more complex orthography than other languages makes it seem more reasonable to start later rather than earlier. However .... I don't think that the comparison between languages is a good one to bring into the debate. The fact is that if one starts simple, English children can cope perfectly well with phonics from the age of rising-5. It's bringing the complexities in from the start that causes the problems.



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Post by john walker » Sun Apr 02, 2006 1:35 pm

Sue Palmer’s argument that five is too early to begin learning phonics (TES: 31/03/06) reveals a serious misconception about how children learn and how they should be taught. She is obviously still stuck in the old Piagetian naturalistic and organisist way of thinking. According to the early years lobby, development is directly linked to the maturation of brain functions and learning and teaching is predicated on what the child knows and can do independently today. Either that or they believe that learning is (just!) something that will simply happen through mere exposure. What they don’t take into consideration is that, if we adopt a Vygotskian apprenticeship or mediational approach to learning by modelling what we want the child to do and then inviting the child to participate with the teacher in the activity, very often the child will be able to do with support what they are unable to do alone. After a period of guided participation, the child is able to accomplish the task independently. For some this period will be shorter, for others longer; but they all get there in the end. Through this approach, development is driven by instruction, rather than the other way round.
As Jim Rose pointed out, phonics can be taught in a playful and exciting way and, using a mediated learning approach, we all know that children can learn very fast indeed. What I also really object to is the way the nay-sayers travesty the rich and complex teaching method advocated in quality first linguistic phonics programmes by their crude reductionist claims that phonics is c-a-t.
John Walker, Sounds~Write
John Walker

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