British Government Urges Phonics-Based Reading Strategy

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Just as many American classrooms will be echoing with the sounds of schoolchildren practicing phonics this school year, their counterparts in England will also be more deeply entrenched in learning basic literacy skills.

The new National Literacy Framework, lauded by officials in Britain as "a crusade to promote reading," is one of the most extensive interventions by that government into classroom instruction. The program to raise flagging student achievement in England's 18,500 schools mirrors the efforts of many educators and lawmakers in this country who have instituted programs and passed laws to ensure a greater emphasis on phonics instruction in the early grades. ("More States Moving To Make Phonics the Law," April 29, 1998.)

As in the United States, the level of government intervention across the Atlantic Ocean is deemed necessary by those frustrated by low test scores and convinced that schools need more guidance on how to teach reading.While similar initiatives in the United States have been primarily instituted by conservative lawmakers, England's version began under Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party government. Its beginnings, however, can be traced to the previous conservative administration of Prime Minister John Major.

Complaints of Intrusion

Despite the bipartisan agreement on the plan, it has been condemned by some as an unwelcome intrusion into the classroom.

"This is the first time ever that there has been this degree of specification of not only content but pedagogy," said Greg Brooks, a senior research officer for the National Foundation for Educational Research, a nonprofit group in Berkshire, England.

"The hope is that in schools where there isn't any firm structure for literacy, they would, if [the framework is] adopted wholeheartedly, be able to pull themselves up by bootstraps," added Mr. Brooks, the chairman of the European development committee of the International Reading Association. The Newark, Del.-based reading group is a professional association of K-12 and postsecondary educators. "The worry which a lot of people have expressed is that ... this will steamroller effective, but different, programs."

'The Literacy Hour'

Britain's education secretary, David Blunkett, a member of Mr. Blair's Cabinet, has made literacy one of his top priorities. His goal is to get 80 percent of 11-year-olds reaching the expected level of proficiency in reading by 2002. According to the Department for Education and Employment in London, the equivalent of the U.S. Department of Education, only about 60 percent of 11-year-olds meet that standard.

The cornerstone of the initiative is the "literacy hour," one hour per day of dedicated time that includes "systematic and challenging teaching of phonics, spelling, and vocabulary." The hour is broken into blocks of time for shared reading and writing, phonics and spelling, independent reading or writing, and a review period. The framework further defines what should be taught for each academic term through the first six levels of schooling, which begins with what Britons call the reception year, or prekindergarten. Although not required by law, teachers are feeling the pressure to follow the guidelines, according to news reports there.

To help them do so, Mr. Blunkett has reduced the compulsory curriculum in primary schools, allowing more time for reading and mathematics instruction. He has also expanded the country's summer-literacy schools and provided two days of professional development to prepare teachers to implement the program.

The new strategy, which requires that students first be taught phonics, will replace the widespread practice of teaching children to read in the context of the story or picture clues, a method associated with whole-language instruction.

Schools in the rest of the United Kingdom--Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales--are governed by their own education ministries and are not required to follow England's lead on such issues.

Mr. Blunkett argues that the framework uses "tried and tested teaching methods" from the United States and Australia, as well as Britain, according to The Times of London.

While many teachers are enthusiastic about the project, Mr. Brooks said, the initiative has drawn criticism from many others who say the government should not get so involved in what happens in the classroom.

"One of the concerns I've heard is that the whole curriculum process in the United Kingdom has had the effect of limiting the professional judgment of individual teachers," Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the International Reading Association, said. "That has created a lot of anger and resentment among fine, professional teachers."

Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 6

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as British Government Urges Phonics-Based Reading Strategy
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