Ofsted had recommended that reception teachers should teach children to read using systematic synthetic phonics.
All the evidence shows that systematic teaching of phonics is an effective way of teaching children to read. But the emphasis on just one method, synthetic phonics, is likely to deter teachers who wish to use other methods of systematically teaching phonics.
The Education Endowment Fund report on Improving Literacy in Key Stage One set out recommendations covering all aspects of literacy including reading said:
‘Only a few studies have compared synthetic and analytic phonics, and there is not yet enough evidence to make a confident recommendation to use one approach rather than the other. Many phonics programmes combine both approaches.’
But Ofsted, in its report Bold Beginnings, says systematic synthetic phonics is ‘the route to decoding words’ (their emphasis).
A Department for Education (DfE) report commissioned in 2014 found teachers were combining phonics with other methods. The danger is that teachers may abandon methods they feel will benefit their pupils because Ofsted has recommended something else.
To be fair, the full report stressed the importance of a rich literacy diet comprising being read to, singing nursery rhymes and listening to poems. But imposing just one method of teaching phonics when the evidence doesn’t definitely support its sole use is worrying. As the EEF said, some phonics programmes combine synthetic and analytic phonics. But now Ofsted has come down on the side on synthetic phonics, schools using combined phonics material may feel they have to invest in new reading schemes just to satisfy inspectors.
That should please publishers of synthetic phonics materials – but it will only cause anxiety in schools who don’t solely use synthetic phonics.
Ofsted often claims it does not mandate particular styles of teaching. But blanket support for just one method of teaching phonics contradicts that claim and erodes teacher professionalism.