Children would find it easier to learn to read and write if they were first taught how the English language works and what words mean rather than trying to sound out words, according Hampshire researchers.

Psychologists at the University of Portsmouth found that phonics, the common way of teaching literacy skills, was holding youngsters back.

Dr Victoria Devonshire, of the Department of Psychology, trialled a new method of teaching reading and writing with 120 children aged five to seven and found the average reading age increased by 14 months after just six months.

She said: ''We were surprised at how compelling the results were.

''When children were taught to understand why English works the way it does, we saw a leap in their ability to learn to read and write.

''The written word is about conveying meaning, not the sound of speech.

''Expecting children to just figure out the rules of our language is worryingly common and it isn't helping them become as proficient and confident as young children in many other languages.''

Dr Devonshire said teaching how the language was structured helped with children's understanding and gave them a ''huge boost'' in terms of their reading, writing and spelling abilities.

She said the new technique, called morphology, teaches children about the meaning and sources of words, which is more consistent than phonics, which focuses on pronunciation.

She gave the example of the words ''saying'', ''said'' and ''says'', which all have the root word of ''say''.

She said: ''Phonics is important and can be used to spell base or root words but you need to know about morphology to identify that part of the word.

''I'm not saying abandon phonics, I'm saying give the other elements the attention they need from the beginning of their formal literacy education, at the age of five years, to make sense of how our language works.

''Phonics is the most common method of teaching children to read and write. It is used in many countries and in many languages.

''It works well for children whose languages have a very close relationship between letters and sounds, including Finnish, Italian, Greek and Spanish but, according to the study, it is not helping children learn English.''

Dr Devonshire, whose research is published in the journal Learning And Instruction, said the problem for those learning English was that it had many rules and exceptions, with many letters not always being pronounced in the same way.

She said: ''About half of all the words in English are exceptions to the rules of phonics.

''English spelling has consistent rules but the way we pronounce words is inconsistent.

''That makes it hard for children taught using phonics - of course they will take longer to catch up with their European peers whose languages have consistent rules.''