I’ve just finished an interesting article in TESS: ‘When will literacy get its fairy tale ending?’ by Emma Seith. It has a great graphic showing the depressing SSLN results compared with two years ago, and there’s some super stats about the brilliant Bookbug scheme. There’s also some advice as to what teachers could do in the classroom when children are struggling with reading, from Professor Sue Ellis of Strathclyde University.

“If a child is poor at decoding – reading slowly and stiltingly – the solution might not be for them to read more with the teacher,” Ellis explains. “It might be that you need to make reading more exciting, make them see it as something they do out of school, or provide them with more books – not reading-scheme books.” Professor Sue Ellis, TESS, 15th May 2015

Well, I’m afraid I have to say I disagree. There are three things required to build a reader:

• You need to be able to read (decode) and lift the words off of the page.
• You need to be able to understand what you read (comprehension).
• You need to be motivated and want to succeed in reading.

So, if a child is poor at decoding and ‘reading slow and stiltedly’ as above, will making the reading ‘more exciting’ be the magic wand that is required? Eh, in a word, no.
You need to diagnose the problem and find out exactly why their reading is slow and stilted. You need to get to the root of the problem to make sure you are responding to the real needs of the child in front of you.

Are they slow because their knowledge of the phoneme/grapheme (sound / letter) correspondences is weak?
Are they slow because although they have adequate knowledge of the alphabetic code, they are slow at blending, as they need regular, little and often practice to build up automaticity?

To quote Whitney Houston ‘How will I know?’

Well, the first thing to do is to assess their knowledge of the sound / letter correspondences – and ensure that when they ‘see the graphemes (letters)’ they can ‘say the sounds’. (Click here if you need access to some freely available assessments.) This will tell you if they lack the required knowledge – if they do then your next move is easy – simply teach the alphabetic code, in a systematic way, ensuring that lots of practice is given at word, sentence and text level. And sorry to disagree with Sue, but scheme books are an essential additional resource in the classroom – just make sure that they are cumulatively decodable. (They give practice in using the code, incrementally, as it is taught.)

If their code knowledge is sound then it is simply a problem of building up speed and automaticity, through regular, little and often practice. (Watch out that your reading books are not ‘look and say’ or reliant on sight words – this can lead to guessing, frustration and will undermine any phonics teaching that you are doing. (Sometimes, children are still just slow at reading. It is entirely possible that ‘slow readers’ can improve on the speed of their reading, through short interventions that focus on repeated readings of the same texts.) At the earliest stages of reading don’t worry too much about expression, it will come later – just getting the words off the page and understanding what you’re reading are plenty to focus on.
Making reading exciting is something that teachers know how to do, and most of them are already doing that supremely well. (I was in a fantastic primary school just last week that had been using Shakespeare across the stages as part of an interdisciplinary project.) What teachers do need to know is how to teach reading properly, in the most effective way, according to current international research. What teachers need is real, practical advice, support and training – so that they know exactly what to do when a child is struggling in any aspect of reading.

Reading for pleasure is essential, so is cultivating a reading culture and training parents so that they too can help with this most important job. However, just making reading exciting or bathing children in books is not sufficient in itself to build a reader – just as icing on its own is insufficient to make a cake.
happily ever after
So to answer the question ‘When will literacy get its fairy tale ending?’ Well, in my opinion, if we keep doing what we’re doing, it won’t be any time soon – especially if you believe the stories about how to achieve reading success that some people are spinning.

Want a handy document to help you diagnose reading problems? Here you go!
Phonics Forever Simple View of Reading Key

Identifying Reading Problems: How will I know?

8 thoughts on “Identifying Reading Problems: How will I know?

  • May 17, 2015 at 9:10 am

    Following the phenomenal success in a Highland secondary school, a representative sample of primary schools in the region tested the hypothesis that a short, daily perceptual learning component added to a rigorous phonics course would impact significantly on literacy standards generally. , At the insistence of the heads of the twenty or so primary schools that took part, Highland Council licensed the use of this approach in all of its schools and from the beginning of this year, most primary schools are now actively using this approach. A North Kessock primary school teacher reported last week “.Class teachers are amazed by not only reading but impact on writing and spelling. They have now integrated back into class reading groups and some are now in the top groups!” Louise Jones, Highlands ICT adviser has reported significant success more generally and I have been contacted by a Highland educational psychologist looking for data to support the perceptual learning concept. The three short videos below show the approach in use.
    A secondary school at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d-wlbCFVzto
    In an independent school for dyslexic children at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBDmOYllL04
    An Australian primary school at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oCV1Ql-x8xs
    Hope this is of interest.
    Eddie Carron

  • May 17, 2015 at 11:21 am

    Hello Eddie, thank you for taking the time to read my post, make a comment and promote your product. I think that ‘a rigorous phonics course’ combined with daily reading practice (if that’s what you mean by perceptual learning) is an ideal recipe for success in reading. However, I do suspect that we may disagree on what constitutes ‘a rigorous phonics’ course – certainly, I am having trouble reconciling your comments here with comments you made to me on Twitter about phonics a few weeks ago:
    ‘Stupid Chinese – no phonics! Stupid ancient Egyptians – no phonics! how do/did the manage to read so well?’
    My worry about your approach is that it focuses on reading without the ‘rigorous phonics content’. Certainly this was my impression from the YouTube clips and this quote:
    ‘This approach has no instructional content – it teaches nothing.’
    So as Deborah Meaden would say ‘I’m out!’ – buyer, beware!

  • May 18, 2015 at 7:31 pm

    Thanks for your constructive comment.
    Perceptual learning materials are educational resources which have no formal instructional content. The fact that they include no formal teaching does not mean that they do not result in learning. You could tell a child that touching hot things is painful and indeed that formal instruction will be successful with the majority of children – possibly about 85% but the lesson will not be learned by all because some human beings are innately predisposed to learn more readily and more completely by experience – ie to learn perceptually. Commercial language teaching organisations no longer include formal instruction in their courses – they now rely completely on perceptual learning modules for no reason other than they are very successful
    I know that the most successful initial reading teaching strategy is synthetic phonics – I regard that as beyond question and there are now a number of quite good commercial SP courses available. I have not particular preferences and I never question which particular SP course a school uses. Although I have not doubt that some will be better than others, that is not an area on which I would pass comment.
    There are plenty of literacy course which include lots of phonics teaching, My approach is not one of these – if it were, then of course it could not possibly be a perceptual learning course – it would just be another phonics course. My suggestion is that because a small proportion of any population learns more readily by experience than formal instruction, at a time when ‘differentiation’ is fashionable, schools tend to ignore this fact in favour of a philosophy, the basis of which is that individual learning styles are irrelevant – give them all phonics and if it doesn’t work, given them even more phonics. I think this is a philosophy which abuses many children and consigns a very large number of people to a life of illiteracy.
    What would you say to the girl in Charleston video who arrived at secondary school with a reading-age deficit of about three years and now, after completing a short PL literacy course has secured her place at uni to study politics – a girl who statistics suggest would have otherwise left school unable to read and write confidently and whose self-esteem was clearly seriously eroded.
    What do you say to the parent at the end of Australian video who is in no doubt that the PL course rescued her daughter’s reading?
    What do you say to the 20 Highland head teachers who carried out a one-term trail of the PL approach and whose pressure subsequently obliged the authority to acquire a license for its use in all of their schools?
    I recommend that about 5% of the time devoted to initial reading instruction should have perceptual learning modules in order to accommodate the needs of those for whose innate predisposition is to learn perceptually. What is your objection to that specific recommendation or do you think that there are no children innately predisposed to learn more readily by experience ?
    What do you say to the teacher in your near neighbour at North Kessock primary school who wrote that teachers are amazed by not only reading but impact on writing and spelling and have now integrated children back into class reading groups where some are now in the top groups! Would you tell her that her children would have been better off with more phonics instruction. I think the only way you could ever get the PL package away from her is if you tore it out of her dead hands.
    And what would you say to the staff at the Charleston Academy whose PL work has now rescued the literacy skills of literally hundreds of children in just one school?
    My approach is not a complete reading teaching course. It is a remedial strategy designed to be used only by the small proportion of children who are being failed by conventional approaches and then only to be used for a short time until their reading and chronological ages come into line.
    A good reader has inevitably mastered the letter-sound correspondences – a poor reader is one who has not. When children’s reading and other literacy skills are significantly boosted by a short PL course, it goes without saying that this course has accelerated their assimilation of the letter-sound correspondences and this is exclusively what it is designed to achieve. It is critical that children learn the letter-sound correspondences – how they learn them should not be a matter for disagreement!

  • Pingback:Identifying Reading Problems: How will I know? | The Learning Zoo | The Echo Chamber

  • October 19, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Hello Anne,
    When I 'click here' to access some free assessments but there doesn;t seem to be a link. Would it be possible to get it?

  • February 17, 2019 at 12:10 am

    Using phonics international is super but how do we supplement reading at p2 level? Thank you.

    • February 17, 2019 at 9:41 am

      Hi Andrea, thank you for posting. Fabulous to hear that you are using Phonics International. Already, your class will be reading two sets of ‘Sentences’ and ‘I can read’ stories per week, and the corresponding comprehension questions. (The ‘I can read stories’ often contain more text than many scheme reading books – and the huge advantage is they are decodable). I would supplement this with: decodable reading books that can be used in class/at home for further independent practice (They must be decodable and use the GPCs taught to date); a whole-class, mixed-ability Short Read comprehension lesson once a week using a high quality text or extract – frequently this can be a picture book style text; reading to the class every day – this can be anything, but slim chapter books are good – you are reading beyond the level of the children and exposing them to new vocabulary and complex sentence structures; free choice reading for children every day such as ERIC time – this should be genuine free choice and become a daily habit. At this stage, much of the time you have for a Language lesson will be taken up by PI – and learning the basics of reading, writing and spelling. Children’s work should be paper-based and I would avoid carousel-type activities for language as the noise generated is not conducive to phonics work – and the activities are often offer only very shallow ‘learning’. If you would like further guidance please email me on: anne@thelearningzoo.co.uk 😀


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *