Well, it has been just over a year since I started writing angry letters to the Scottish Government and campaigning about the need for proper phonics teaching in the classroom and in teacher training in Scotland. So today gave me cause for a little, tiny celebration, when Education Scotland published some new guidance on the teaching of early reading. It is six pages long, so it’s hardly The Rose Review and it’s quite repetitive – but it is, nonetheless, an encouraging step in the right direction.
Here I pick out, what I feel, are the pertinent points. All quotes are taken from the document: A Knowledge Into Action resource for practitioners and education staff Briefing 2: Early Reading.
An important first step is for children to develop decoding skills, through the teaching of phonics (how letters are linked to sounds) and phonological awareness.
Woo! Finally we have recognition of the importance of decoding through teaching phonics – because if we want all children to read and write – they all have to get to grips with the Alphabetic Code. Result!
DANGER! DANGER! Phonological awareness – while it is considered a useful indicator (or even a prerequisite by some), of future reading success, it is important that children are not held back from being taught how to read – even if they are not yet fully phonologically aware. Crucially, research shows that these children will actually develop phonological awareness as they are taught phonics using a Systematic Synthetic Phonics approach.
A balanced reading programme should also develop children’s fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills.
Woo – agree! But…
DANGER! DANGER! The use of the term ‘balanced instruction’ is perhaps misleading – as many people take balanced instruction to mean ‘mixed methods’; – i.e. we do some phonics, but we also do sight words, multi-cueing etc. (using the picture or context as a clue to ‘work out’ what a word might be.) Also, many teachers (wrongly) believe that phonics teaching, just by its nature, is not balanced. Any high quality phonics programme will also address fluency, vocabulary and comprehension skills. Phonics devotees all adhere to the Simple View of Reading – which separates reading into two processes – Decoding – what are the words – can I read them / get them off the page and Comprehension – what do the words mean. So contrary to popular belief, an adherence to, or preference for, phonics instruction is not at the expense of meaning or comprehension.
Evidence from Scotland shows that children from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to have difficulties with their reading. As a result, phonics-based approaches are more likely to help children from disadvantaged backgrounds master the basics of reading.
Hooray! Finally – recognising the importance and value of a phonics based approach to reading! Indeed, I do believe this is the answer to closing the gap. (As many schools with significant populations of disadvantaged and ESL children in London have done) BUT it is important to note that a phonics based approach will of course benefit ALL children – regardless of background – and in particular those that struggle. And yes, especially those that have dyslexia.
The most effective approach to improving reading for children from disadvantaged backgrounds is to ensure that they receive high quality teaching.
Indeed, the most effective approach to improving reading for children from ALL backgrounds is to ensure that they receive high quality teaching. But for this to happen – teachers need to have secure knowledge of the teaching of reading and, for example, knowledge of the Alphabetic Code and how to teach it, as well as the skills required to blend for reading and segment for spelling. Most teachers in Scotland have had no ‘high quality teaching’ on this subject themselves – which means they in turn are poorly positioned to provide any ‘high quality teaching’ and are unable to evaluate phonics programmes to see if they truly meet with the needs of learners.
A range of teaching approaches including, for example, co-operative learning approaches can be effective for all learners, including those who were having difficulties with reading. More targeted support programmes for children who are struggling with reading can also be effective if required, for instance one-to-one tutoring or small group teaching.
Whilst I agree that a variety of teaching and learning approaches can be effective, it is beyond disappointing that the role of direct teaching is not mentioned here. Particularly in the earliest stages of learning to read write and spell, the most effective strategy is direct teaching (within a full teaching and learning cycle) – and this is supported by research. It is important that any one-to-one teaching or group work is enabling children (where at all possible) to keep up with the work of the class and that ‘targeted support programmes’ are not translated as Reading Recovery – or anything else that is not SSP or a waste of precious time.
Children from disadvantaged backgrounds can learn to read well when they receive high quality teaching which includes an appropriate mix of learning approaches that meets their needs.
Agree! ALL children can learn to read well with high quality, research-informed instruction. But…
DANGER! DANGER! ‘an appropriate mix of learning approaches that meets their needs’ – often, simply due to a lack of knowledge on the subject, well-meaning teachers will translate this into – ‘Oh, phonics doesn’t work for them’ ‘They need sight words’ ‘They’re not ready to read’ and will justify poor practice (multi-cueing, guessing, sight words etc.) using statements like this. All children, even those that struggle, have to get to grips with the Alphabetic Code if they are to read and spell effectively. This means providing research informed instruction and ensuring that slower learners are given ample time and support to learn. For most strugglers this will amount to ‘little and often’ extra practice to build up their knowledge and skills.
The systematic, explicit teaching of phonics is important for the teaching of reading, and there are a number of different approaches to doing this, e.g. synthetic phonics and analytic phonics. Evidence supporting a particular phonics approach is not conclusive.
WRONGO! Oh dear – and it was going so well. There have been four major, international enquiries into the teaching of reading. They all reached the same conclusion – that Systematic Synthetic Phonics is the most effective form of reading instruction. End of.
My Verdict: While this is a very welcome validation of the importance of phonics in the teaching of reading, schools and teachers need more specific, detailed advice and training on the subject of phonics and what it actually involves and looks like in the classroom. It is a ‘baby step’ in the right direction – but I’m afraid that Education Scotland should and ‘could do better’. Many are confused about how to teach reading effectively – I’m afraid the briefing above won’t do much to change that – it will simply allow those who favour ‘mixed methods’ to continue doing so.
P.S. Informing What Works… is it me, or is this title totally wrong – it just doesn’t sound right or make any sense…?
Want a solution?
The programmes below have all been thoroughly evaluated by the government in England as being phonics programmes that align with current international research:
Phonics International, Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters, Sounds Write, Read Write Inc, Sound Discovery, Jolly Phonics
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