Guest Post from Rob Randel, a primary school teacher with a keen interest in reading instruction and a passion for getting this right in Curriculum for Wales. This is a must read for all teachers.
Does #CurriculumforWales leave reading to chance?
Teaching children to read is the most fundamental thing to get right in any education system. Our invented writing system has allowed us, as a humankind, to permanently record ideas and save them from being lost or forgotten. These ideas can be as simple as a shopping list, to the complex inner-workings of the greatest minds. By recording these things we have been able to advance ourselves as a human race, as we don’t need to constantly reinvent the wheel. We can observe the ideas of what has come before, and build upon them.
The skill of reading is complex, and learning to read is complex. However, we are also fortunate because reading is the most researched area of education. Therefore, there is no excuse for education systems to not be informed by the evidence, and when it comes to early reading instruction, it means using Systematic Synthetic Phonics.
So what does Systematic Synthetic Phonics mean? Well quite simply, it is knowing that the letters of our alphabet represent the sounds that we use in speech, and when we blend these sounds together they make words. This sounds simple, but it certainly isn’t simplistic. In English we have 26 letters in our alphabet, but we have around 44 sounds to represent. This results in a complex situation: sometimes a sound (phoneme) is represented by a single letter (grapheme), or sometimes by two or more letters together (digraphs, trigraphs); sometimes the same sound is represented with different letters, and sometimes the same letter(s) can be used to represent different sounds. This makes it all a little confusing, unless of course we teach it to children in a logical and carefully sequenced way. And this is why we need a well resourced, proven programme to allow us to do it well.
Now, some practitioners will argue that this results in children ‘barking at print’ and not reading for meaning. However, no proponent of phonics claims that just being able to decode the words is enough. Effective, expertly written phonics programmes teach all of the big five elements needed to read: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. They encourage that a broad range of literature is read to children, that stories are discussed and comprehended, that children make predictions and inferences. What they don’t do is ask children to independently read books that contain words with letter-sound correspondences that they haven’t yet been introduced to. This is very important because we want children to decode and blend through the whole written word. If children have not yet learnt certain letter-sound correspondences, but are asked to read books that include them, they will develop bad habits, such as guessing from the context or a picture, or trying to memorise it as a sight word after an adult has told them what it says. These strategies do not align with how our written system of reading and spelling work. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that they do not get encouraged, and that they do not become established in a learner’s reasoning about how reading works.
We have evolved naturally to learn how to communicate with each other using the sounds we are able to make from our voice boxes. By the time children begin school, apart from a very, very small percentage, all will be able to talk. Yes, some will have been exposed to a much greater range of vocabulary and they will have absorbed these words into their own early lexicons. However, other children may not have had the same rich language experiences at home through those dinner table conversations, being played with, and being frequently read too. Sadly, it is a fact that the attainment gap has already presented itself before they have even begun at school. So what are schools doing? In some cases, they are adding to the disadvantage of some children by suggesting they are not ready for phonics.
Learning to read is a biologically secondary process. Our writing system is around 5000 years old, therefore it is not something we have evolved to naturally learn to do. Our ability to recognise individual phonemes (phonemic awareness) is only a requirement for the process of reading and spelling. Therefore, associating phonemes to the graphemes that represent them should begin right from the start. If a child can say ‘sat’, ‘cat’, ‘food’, ‘mami’, then they are ready to begin learning phonics. They can learn the phoneme /s/ and that it is represented by a <s>, and well designed synthetic programmes do this in an active, fun, and engaging way with the materials and direction you need to teach it well, so that it includes phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, comprehension, spelling and handwriting. As soon as a child has learnt just a few of these correspondences they begin blending them to build words in order to read them. After learning /s/, /a/, /t/, /i/, they can blend straight away to read ‘sat’, ‘sit’, ‘at’, ‘it’. As new sounds and the letters that represent them are added, they can read and write even more words. Decodable books are introduced to children to practise, and now they are reading: lifting the words of the page for themselves. It is this success from reading for themselves that leads to motivation, motivation to read even more, motivation to read for pleasure and access information for themselves.
It will be hard to find primary schools in Wales not agreeing that phonics is important; however, through professional conversations with colleagues across the country, I am aware that too often schools are detracting from their adopted programme, and this often leads to mixed methods being used. This is very concerning. It also leads to propelling the unhelpful untruths regarding phonics, such as it doesn’t work for all learners, that they have to learn nonsense words, that they need ‘real books’. This results in the children who need the explicit teaching of systematic synthetic phonics the most, receiving it the least. Schools then conclude that phonics hasn’t worked for them, and they need something different, when what they need to do is to review how well they are delivering their SSP programme, and whether the programme that they are using is manageable for them as a school. I am also aware of schools that use SSP in Foundation Phase, but then intervention in key stage 2 means a balanced literacy intervention, undoing the logic of how our written system works by encouraging children to use pictures, context, or the initial letter sound to ‘have a go’ at the word. All primary teachers need to know how to teach early reading well, understand the simple view of reading, and to not divert away from the logic of how our alphabetic code works.
With all this in mind, we can now turn our attention to the guidance we have in Wales: our professional standards for teachers and leaders, the literacy framework, Estyn, the Welsh government’s guidance for intervention, and of course, Curriculum for Wales.
If there is one thing that Curriculum for Wales should absolutely make sure it gets right, then it is reading. However, despite there being amendments to the draft, it still falls far short of what is needed to ensure all children in Wales receive the best, evidence-informed reading instruction.
Firstly, Wales' professional standards contain nothing requiring teachers to know how to teach reading. Let’s compare this to England’s teaching standards:
- Demonstrate an understanding of and take responsibility for promoting high standards of literacy, articulacy and the correct use of standard English, whatever the teacher’s specialist subject.
- If teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics.
Our Literacy Framework within the aspect of reading strategies for Y1 requires learners to be able to:
apply the following reading strategies with increasing independence:
– phonic strategies to decode words
– recognition of high-frequency words
– context clues, e.g. prior knowledge
– graphic and syntactic clues
– self-correction, including re-reading and reading ahead
It is unclear whether they are referring to decoding or language comprehension with these strategies. However, because this list begins with the use of phonic strategies, it is likely that they intend the strategies below should also be used for word recognition. Yet these strategies just aren’t supported by the science of reading, and they will actually cause harm to some children struggling to learn to read.
In 2007, when England’s Department for Education was busy adopting the findings of Sir Jim Rose’s Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading review, Estyn were busy concluding to the contrary. Interestingly, Estyn didn’t examine the research literature themselves, but commissioned the review to Reading University. One of the authors later stated that it was a “personal pleasure” that Wales has not followed England towards statutory phonics “like a load of lemmings.” (TES, 2008) This strikes me as being hardly impartial, either politically or with regards to phonics instruction. So unfortunately, by default, Estyn has also been a huge barrier in getting effective early reading instruction into our schools as a result of their report:
“The review of literature and inspection evidence could not determine conclusively that the teaching of synthetic phonics was more effective than the teaching of analytic phonics. Inspection evidence also shows that schools tend not to adhere rigidly to one type of approach. For example, some schools teach phonics using ‘onset’ and ‘rime’ to divide words into openings and endings, such as ‘str’ and ‘eet’, which is an approach usually recognised as analytic phonics. This work takes place alongside the segmenting of words into the smallest units of sound, which is a synthetic phonic approach.”
It is worth recognising here that analytic phonics cannot be systematic by its own definition. Analytic phonics requires children to memorise sight words as a whole and with initial attention paid to the first letter sound. Another concern here is the use of ‘onset’ and ‘rime’, this is not used to decode words and is of no use when teaching children to read and spell.
About two-thirds of children will learn to read despite the insufficient instruction they receive. They may still have misconceptions in their understanding about how our writing system works, but they have worked it out and pieced it together for themselves. Then there are the children who don’t pick it up, they go into key stage 2 and are identified as needing reading intervention. These children have developed poor reading habits that desperately need undoing. At this point, what they need is an expert reading teacher to assess and check what gaps they have in their understanding of the alphabetic code. Then it is followed by the explicit teaching of synthetic phonics, but beginning at the correct point for that learner and correcting the gaps in their alphabetic code knowledge. But tragically, the Welsh Government’s guidance on reading instruction contains no SSP programmes. That’s right, not one! Instead they get more mixed approaches and balanced literacy programmes that exacerbate and compound their misunderstandings. These children then start secondary school with serious reading complications. Below is the list of ineffective balanced literacy programmes that the Welsh Government recommend in their document, ‘Guidance for literacy and numeracy catch-up programmes’:
- Better Reading Partnership
- Catch Up® Literacy
- Fischer Family Trust Wave 3
- Reading Recovery
- Talking Partners
Curriculum for Wales could have changed things. Pioneer schools tasked with developing the Language, Literacy, and Communication area of learning and experience could have called for the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics. However they opted for the following wording:
“Research recognises phonological and phonemic awareness as important cognitive skills in learning to read. Schools should put in place a clear procedure for, and place emphasis on, the systematic development of learners’ phonological and phonemic awareness. When appropriate for a learner, the teaching of phonics should be systematic and consistent, and take place with other language activities, which promote vocabulary-building and comprehension.”
This provides no clarity as to what reading approaches schools in Wales should use, and we will continue to see ineffective practices. Compare this to England where synthetic phonics is mandated and their Year 1 programme of study makes it very clear that children will be taught to:
- apply phonic knowledge and skills as the route to decode words
- respond speedily with the correct sound to graphemes (letters or groups of letters) for all 40+ phonemes, including, where applicable, alternative sounds for graphemes
- read accurately by blending sounds in unfamiliar words containing GPCs that have been taught
- read common exception words, noting unusual correspondences between spelling and sound and where these occur in the word read words containing taught GPCs and –s, –es, –ing, –ed, –er and –est endings read other words of more than one syllable that contain taught GPCs
- read words with contractions [for example, I’m, I’ll, we’ll], and understand that the apostrophe represents the omitted letter(s)
- read aloud accurately books that are consistent with their developing phonic knowledge and that do not require them to use other strategies to work out words
- re-read these books to build up their fluency and confidence in word reading
To wrap this up, I recommend that every school in Wales evaluate their current practice when it comes to reading instruction. Do this by using the Phonics Screening Check from England. It is free to download from their Department for Education site. If you have 100% of your learners passing this test in Year 1 then you are doing great. These children won’t need intervention in Key Stage 2 and attention can now focus on the morphology and etymology of words, building knowledge, analysing an author’s craft, and giving children a real love of our languages and writing system. However, if some children don’t pass the check, they don’t need something different. They need more SSP teaching, more practice, more time, and the continued use of decodable books. I recommend that parents whose children are struggling to learn to read look carefully into what practices their child’s school is using, and consult Susan Godsland’s informative website, dyslexics.org.uk, for advice. With many high quality synthetic phonics programmes and training out there, such as Phonics International, Sounds-Write, Jolly Phonics, Sound Discovery, Read Write Inc., Floppy's Phonics, there really are no excuses for children to reach the upper years of key stage 2, and head into secondary school without being able to decode text fluently. And if they are, I seriously hope this blog raises awareness of this problematic situation, and encourages all stakeholders to take responsibility and address the concerns expressed.
Does #CurriculumforWales leave reading to chance? I believe it does.