You can feel it in the air. The end of term. Proms, prize-givings, leavers’ assemblies and celebrations for all that’s been achieved in another full-to-bursting academic year. As schools close their gates for the summer, many involved in Scottish education – the teachers in particular – will be glad to see the end of the session; it’s been a particularly challenging one, with no shortage of bad news blows.
Literacy standards have been falling in Scotland since 2006. This downturn is evidenced by previous Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) rounds, but is also confirmed in our own Scottish Survey of Literacy and Numeracy data, as well as the recent teacher judgement data. Last December, Scotland’s OECD rank went from 6th in 2000 to 23rd in 2015 in reading, and we are now behind both England and Northern Ireland.
To combat this, we have “new” literacy benchmarks and from August 2018 standardised testing makes a return. Just last week, the Scottish Government announced plans to establish up to seven regional bodies to drive school improvement instead of councils. This is apparently the *most radical* education reform in years…
For me, there is one entirely obvious and logical solution to Scotland’s literacy woes… if we want to improve reading and writing then we must improve teaching and learning in the classroom. And to be perfectly clear, anyone waiting for literacy standards to change because of ‘standardised testing’ and ‘literacy benchmarks’ will be sorely disappointed.
Imagine if there was a way that *all* of Scotland’s children could be taught to read, write and spell from Primary 1. Imagine if all children could read and access books for pleasure and for learning. Imagine if every child could access the secondary curriculum with ease. Imagine if Scotland’s literacy figures and fortunes could be totally transformed using pedagogy and classroom practice that is research-informed and can guarantee results…
It is possible. There is a way. In fact, we’ve known about it for a long time**, but it is the best kept secret in Scottish education. But you don’t need to take my word for it…
Aren’t we doing this already? No. We’re not. Scottish classrooms are suffocating in mixed methods, using a whole language approach, sight words and multi-cueing, with a side order of phonics, when it should be the main course. We’re using reading books that are out of date, that rely on guessing and memorisation, and undermine any phonics teaching that is taking place. It is little wonder that so many are struggling with this everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach.
This is not the fault of teachers, and while I often point the finger at Education Scotland and the Scottish Government, the truth is that most people – even most teachers – are not experts in the pedagogy of reading. However, when education is your remit, ignorance is no excuse. The research is out there, and so is the jury – systematic synthetic phonics works, for everyone. We cannot afford to ignore this any longer. When it comes to the teaching of beginning readers, we’re still doing what we did in the 70s – and it’s not working. Reading research has moved on; Scotland has not.
Here’s the thing. I’ve been sounding the alarm for years about this. But no-one is listening. They’re too busy writing useless documents and making glossy posters / tinkering round the edges/ blaming: parents; political parties; teachers; the curriculum; loss of libraries… *delete as appropriate …and no-one appears to have a clue, much less a solution.
If you believe that there’s a more effective, research-informed way of teaching reading, if you believe that our teachers need national guidance, support and resources, if you believe that it is the right of every child to be taught how to read and write, then please share this post far and wide, discuss it with colleagues, and sign the petition below.
Calling on the Scottish Parliament to urge the Scottish Government to
i) provide national guidance, support, and professional learning for teachers in research-informed reading instruction, specifically systematic synthetic phonics
ii) ensure teacher training institutions train new teachers in research-informed reading instruction, specifically systematic synthetic phonics
*We should be aiming for 100% of our children reading in Scotland. It is only in 2-3% of cases where children will have profound difficulties that will mean this is not possible.
N.B. The Phonics Screening Check in England (carried out in Y1/P2) showed that last year (2016) 1138 schools in England taught virtually every child in their classes to read. Shouldn’t every teacher in Scotland be equipped with the knowledge and understanding about reading instruction to aim for this level of achievement?
**The research from Clackmannanshire on synthetic phonics by Watson and Johnston is world renowned and has been highly influential in the UK, in England particularly, where as a result of The Rose Review (Independent review of the teaching of early reading, Final Report, Jim Rose, March 2006) systematic synthetic phonics is now mandated as the way to teach beginning readers in schools. The longitudinal study by Watson and Johnston found that using systematic synthetic phonics from Primary 1, the impact was still apparent in Primary 7:
At the end of Primary 7, word reading was 3 years 6 months ahead of chronological age, spelling was 1 year 8 months ahead, and reading comprehension was 3.5 months ahead
“At the beginning of the programme some teachers had reservations: they ‘thought at first it was too quick and [they] worried about those [pupils] that could not cope’. However, having seen the impact on children’s learning, the teachers were wholly committed to the approach. One teacher said, 'I have never seen results like this in 30 years of teaching'. She went on to say that, as a result of following the programme, 'I am seeing Primary 3 quality in Primary 1’. In other words, the teacher considered that the children she was teaching in Primary 1 were working at the level of children two years older.
Rose Review, Final Report, 2006, point 213
Watson and Johnston’s work is something we should be proud of in Scotland, but sadly we have not learned the lessons even from our own research.
Read Scotland's own internationally renowned research on phonics here (the Clackmannanshire research):
The effects of synthetic phonics teaching on reading and spelling attainment: A seven year longitudinal study. Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson (2005)
Independent review of the teaching of early reading, Final Report, Jim Rose (2006)
Follow-up Study from Reception to Year 1 (2010-2012) and Summary Report of an earlier Longitudinal Study (1997-2004) The Effects of a Systematic, Synthetic Phonics Programme on Reading and Spelling Dr Marlynne Grant (2012)