The government has ordered a shake-up of primary teaching, with more emphasis in the early years to be placed on the teaching of synthetic phonics. Just for once, this might be a good piece of government intervention (and you don't have to look too far to see that this isn't usually the case: city academies sponsored by religious fundamentalists; league tables; paying sixth form college teachers much less than their secondary counterparts etc).
Synthetic phonics is a relatively new way of teaching phonics, and one that has attracted some controversy as it does away with the names of letters and instead focuses on the sounds. Phonics themselves are generally seen to be a highly useful way of teaching the sounds of our language and helping children's phonological development, but it's their use in reading that has sparked debate. Many teachers have argued that teaching phonics on their own detracts from the joy of reading books and that synthetic phonics in particular is a very dry and joyless way of teaching children.
Personally I think they're wrong. As we've already seen, in the article last month about spelling reform, the English Language is a difficult and inconsistent beast for many people to master, so teaching the sounds of language - as they sound not how they are named (e.g. the letter "c" is learnt as a "k" sound) - seems a step in the right direction. Also, the teaching of synthetic phonics breaks down all words into these sounds and then allows children to blend sounds into more difficult patterns ("Sh" and "Ch"). This can be as exciting as the teachers (and resource makers!) allow it to be: there's no reason why this type of learning should be any more dry than learning to read through books and memorising the shapes and meanings of words as has been done for decades in British schools. It's also a bit like saying that English Language A Level is dry because it's analytical and strips language down to its syntax and morphology. Poppycock and balderdash, in other words (and there are other words, but they're a bit rude, so I'll stick to these old ones).
Giving people tools to either learn or dissect language is absolutely vital and (I would argue) truly democratic. Under the old system of teaching reading, many young children would miss out because they wouldn't be able to make the leap from seeing a word on the page to grasping how its sound was actually created: they might grasp the meaning but then that's probably down more to memeory than semantic or phonological understanding. Under synthetic phonics, every child can be taught the individual sounds and then blends, before being unleashed upon the slightly more baffling irregularity of the English spelling system.
My own boys are 4 now and learning synthetic phonics at their Tower Hamlets primary (a Local Education Authority that has been at the cutting edge of this style of teaching for a good few years now, and has shown huge increases in its English attainment - not bad for one of the most deprived boroughs in the whole country and one with a huge proportion of English as a second language kids in primary schools) and they love it. Now all I have to do is stop singing alphabet songs to them and learn the sounds of the words. After three, "K - A - T".
Interim Report (Word document)
Guardian Q&A on phonics
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition (although strudying reading and writing aren't AQA A requirements on this unit, the phonological development inspired by synthetic phonics could be fair game)