The coalition Government has committed itself to promoting systematic synthetic phonics in schools, which education secretary Michael Gove advocates as the best way to teach children to read. As part of this plan, the Government is to introduce a reading test for all children at the age of six, to be piloted from next June.
Phonics teaching in the 12 infant and primary schools highlighted in the Ofsted report, Reading by six: How the best schools do it, showed consistency, structure, fast pace, praise and reinforcement, Ofsted said.
The report hints at a more formal direction of learning for young children in the future.
'Past concerns, such as fears about the effects of structured learning and teaching on threeand four-year-old children, may have little foundation,' it says.
'Schools that are anything less than outstanding in teaching or reading', says the report, should adopt high-quality phonics programmes, train all teaching staff to teach phonics effectively and monitor the implementation and impact of the programme.
Ofsted said that inspection evidence showed the critical age for children to learn to be good readers and writers is between three and seven.
Ofsted's chief inspector, Christine Gilbert, said, 'Despite some major initiatives in recent years to raise standards in reading and writing, the levels achieved by many children at the end of primary school fall stubbornly short of what is achievable.
'These 12 schools are not a rarified elite. The challenge is for all schools to match their achievements. If schools set their minds and practice to it, they can teach virtually every child to read.'
The DfE issued guidance last month to help schools choose high-quality systematic synthetic phonics programmes to follow.
Some schools use one dedicated phonics programme, while others use a combination of different programmes or have developed their own from others, such as Letters and Sounds, Jolly Phonics and Read Write Inc.
But Dr Sebastian Suggate, a developmental psychologist and expert in language and reading development, said he was concerned about how little regard the report gave to developing children's language. He said phonics should not be seen as 'a miracle cure'.
'Rich language is far more difficult to develop and far more important than simply learning to bark at print,' said Dr Suggate.
'We must also be clear that any regimented and systematic programme like this replaces, to some extent, what children could otherwise be doing, like developing their imagination, learning social skills, developing rich oral language (not just segmenting sounds), being active outdoors, and playing.'
He said evidence points toward early reading having no exclusive benefit for later reading.
'Certainly, the schools in the report have admirably implemented synthetic phonics programmes and, if the goal is reading by six, then a synthetic phonics programme will be most likely to achieve that. If we take a broader view of education, it is difficult to recommend wide scale and early use of synthetic phonics to get children to read by six.'
Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, said the report showed the importance of letting teachers use their professional judgement.
'The schools mentioned used phonics because in the professional judgement of the teachers, who are best placed to assess the needs of the children they teach, this was the most appropriate method.
'The findings of this report call into question the decision by the coalition Government to impose the use of phonics on all schools.
'Such a one-size-fits all approach jeopardises pupils' learning and undermines teachers' professionalism. The Government talks about freeing teachers from centrally imposed controls, but actions speak louder than words.'
CASE STUDY: TOWER HAMLETS, LONDON
At Old Ford Primary school in Tower Hamlets, 71 per cent of children do not have English as their first language - 22 different languages are spoken - and some children start nursery with very limited speech.
As well as growing up in an environment of TV and mobile phones, head teacher Amanda Phillips said, 'Many children live in language-deprived communities where adults don't see the value of talking to young children. Speaking is not seen as an important responsibility in terms of parenting.'
Teaching staff carry out home visits for every child before they start nursery and make baseline assessments against the EYFS. Ms Phillips said it was widespread to find that three-year-olds are not weaned, toilet-trained, or walking properly because of over-reliance on buggies, and many still use dummies. Sometimes this was because of a culture of co-dependency where children are 'babyfied' or simply because parents lack knowledge about what a three-year-old should be able to do, she said.
Children will start to use phonics at the age of three, six weeks after they start nursery. Ms Phillips said, 'A very structured and rigorous synthetic phonics programme is essential but won't on its own create readers.' Children also needed to be 'emotionally ready' for school so that they are able to concentrate.
Children's language skills are developed through 'shared reading of books, traditional songs and story books'. The school stresses 'that phonics is one part of a bigger picture and reading is aided by association and high-frequency words'.
But the Ofsted report warns, 'This broad approach, is not recommended to any school whose reading results are not already well above average and where systematic phonics is not already well embedded.'