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.
This petition was previously lodged in June 2017 and closed in May 2022 without action, but it has the potential to achieve two key priorities of the National Improvement Framework and Improvement Plan (2019) namely:
- Improvement in attainment, particularly in literacy and numeracy
- Closing the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged children and young people.
It is essential that teachers are trained in the science of reading and this petition focuses on an essential element of this—systematic synthetic phonics. Systematic synthetic phonics is an approach to initial reading instruction which explicitly teaches children to recognise letters (graphemes) and sounds (phonemes) and the relationship between them. From the earliest stages of learning to read, children are taught to sound out and blend (synthesise) letter-sound correspondences all through the word (referred to as phonic decoding) to read unfamiliar words (e.g., c-a-t).
Systematic synthetic phonics is strongly aligned with theories of early word reading development and recent research highlighting the importance of explicit instruction for new word learning (Rastle et al., 2022). Systematic synthetic phonics should be introduced within the context of a rich literacy environment and any successful literacy strategy should address all ‘Five Pillars of Literacy’ (National Reading Panel, 2000): phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency and comprehension (often referred to as the ‘science of reading’)—as well as supporting reading for pleasure (Department for Education, 2012).
There is considerable research evidence highlighting that children taught by systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) make both short and long-term gains in reading, spelling and reading comprehension (e.g., Johnston et al., 2012). Furthermore, SSP is particularly beneficial for children who start school with weak vocabulary skills (McGeown & Medford, 2013), which are often those children from lower-income backgrounds (Sosu & Ellis, 2014). Indeed, phonics proficiency in Primary 2 is the strongest predictor of reading comprehension in Primary 5 (Year 4)—stronger than having books at home or welfare status (McGrane et al., 2017). Developing word reading skills efficiently and effectively ensures children become confident and successful readers early on, which is critical to develop their language skills (Nation et al., 2022) and a motivation to read (Toste et al., 2020).
It is important to emphasise that this petition does not seek to introduce a prescriptive approach to the teaching of reading across Scotland. Instead, it aims to ensure that all teachers are empowered with the most recent research and deep knowledge of how the English alphabetic code works to introduce SSP in ways that optimally support their learners. Teachers’ professional and contextual knowledge will be essential to draw upon, to ensure SSP optimally supports all learners, including the early identification of those children in need of additional support.
While it is true that most schools in Scotland use some form of phonics, the vast majority also use sight words (memorisation of whole words) and multi-cueing strategies, for example, where children are taught to look at the pictures, the first or last letters in a word, or to use their knowledge of context/sentence structure to work out or guess unfamiliar words. However, this approach will be more effective for children with larger vocabularies, better grammatical knowledge, and greater background knowledge, amplifying inequalities in the reading trajectory between children from high- and low-income backgrounds. In addition, most schools still use older style banded or levelled reading books, as opposed to decodable readers which children can read independently using their current phonic knowledge. This means that the most common type of reading instruction seen in Scotland is not aligned with the scientific evidence. This is also highly problematic for children who have dyslexia/reading difficulties where the current ‘mixed methods’ approach often results in continued struggles with literacy which can have long-term detrimental impacts on mental wellbeing and academic achievement.
This is an urgent issue with significant international interest. Across the world, English-speaking countries are passing legislation around the science of reading and phonics. As of May 2023, thirty-one states and the District of Columbia have passed laws or implemented new policies related to evidence-based reading instruction (Education Week, 2023). Some states are adopting approaches that will make it mandatory for schools and ITE programmes to have a research-informed reading curriculum that includes systematic phonics and provide appropriate CPD for all teachers. Ten states are seeking bans on the practice of multi-cueing, three of which have already passed (APM Reports, 2023). In Australia, references to balanced literacy techniques, including multi-cueing and the use of predictable texts, have been cut from the foundation stage of the curriculum (Sydney Morning Herald, 2022).
Ironically, Scotland is notably absent from these fresh commitments to the science of reading. Yet it was research conducted in Scotland (Johnston & Watson, 2005) demonstrating the superiority of systematic synthetic phonics over a more eclectic approach (sight words, analytic phonics, multi-cueing) which has informed international policy and practice, including in England. In 2014, following the Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (Rose, 2006), teaching systematic synthetic phonics to beginning readers in Reception (Primary 1) and Year 1 (Primary 2) became a statutory requirement in England’s National Curriculum (Department for Education, 2013).
In May 2023, England celebrated coming fourth in the PIRLS international reading league tables, up from 8th place, as their schools maintained attainment in the wake of the pandemic. Furthermore, they reported that the gap between the lowest-scoring and highest-scoring pupils in England had reduced over time (Lindorff et al., 2023).
This petition urges the Scottish Parliament to take action. A more research-informed teaching profession has the potential to achieve the National Improvement Framework and Improvement plan priorities. Delivering instructional approaches that are evidence-based and reduce inequalities in learning is the single greatest thing that can be done for disadvantaged children in Scotland.
Action resulting from this petition is urgent and has the potential to have a positive measurable impact on the literacy skills and subsequent learning and life opportunities of all children and young people living in Scotland.
Anne Glennie (Petitioner)
Carey, A. (2022) Phonics to the fore in pared back Australian curriculum. Sydney Morning Herald https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/phonics-to-the-fore-in-pared-back-australian-curriculum-20220509-p5ajrx.html
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Johnston, R. S., McGeown, S., & Watson, J. E. (2012). Long-term effects of synthetic versus analytic phonics teaching on the reading and spelling ability of 10-year-old boys and girls. Reading and writing, 25(6), 1365-1384. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-011-9323-x
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McGeown, S., & Medford, E. (2013). Using method of instruction to predict the skills supporting initial reading development: insight from a synthetic phonics approach. Reading and writing, 591-608. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11145-013-9460-5
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National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. NIH Publication No. 00-4769. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/sites/default/files/publications/pubs/nrp/Documents/report.pdf
Peak, C. (2023). After Sold a Story, more states spell out reading instruction. APM Reports. https://www.apmreports.org/story/2023/05/18/legislators-reading-laws-sold-a-story
Rastle, K & Lally, C & Davis, M & Taylor, J. (2021). The Dramatic Impact of Explicit Instruction on Learning to Read in a New Writing System. Psychological Science. 32. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/349651370_The_Dramatic_Impact_of_Explicit_Instruction_on_Learning_to_Read_in_a_New_Writing_System
Rose, J. (2006). Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading. DfES. https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/id/eprint/5551/2/report.pdf
Sosu, E., & Ellis, S. (2014). Closing the attainment gap in Scottish education. https://www.jrf.org.uk/report/closing-attainment-gap-scottish-education
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Toste, J.R., Didion, L., Peng, P., Filderman, M.J., & McClelland, A.M. (2020). A Meta-Analytic Review of the Relations Between Motivation and Reading Achievement for K–12 Students https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/epub/10.3102/0034654320919352