Saturday, 4 December 2021

Putting Welsh Children at a Disadvantage

Guest Post by Rob Randel

Putting Welsh Children at a Disadvantage:
the Estyn Report compared with The reading framework

As a primary school teacher in Wales, I am concerned that our children are at a disadvantage compared with those in England, because of the way they are taught to read. I would like to thank those who commented and made suggestions for this blog: a blog that asks you to examine the evidence and to consider the guidance given to teachers in Wales about the teaching of reading. 

In March 2021, Estyn published their report: English language and literacy in settings and primary schools. Following this, in July 2021, the Department for Education in England published their policy paper: ​​The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy.


Education in Wales is devolved. Our curriculum is different from the national curriculum for England and we do not follow the Department for Education’s guidance. This raises an important question: Why should early reading instruction be different for children in Wales from that for children in England?


Estyn was involved in shaping the new curriculum. Is it because of Estyn that Wales still promotes an approach misleadingly known as ‘balanced literacy’, when there is overwhelming evidence that teaching systematic synthetic phonics is more effective?


The table below sets key paragraphs in the Estyn report alongside corresponding paragraphs in The reading framework. The comments are about similarities and differences. They include references to relevant evidence about early reading instruction.

The following table shows how the two reports agree.

Estyn – English language and literacy in settings and primary schools

DfE – The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy





Decoding, vocabulary and advanced reading skills


Primary schools should ... develop a clear strategy to support the effective teaching of reading, including addressing learners’ decoding skills, vocabulary development and advanced reading skills (R4)





Children need both good language comprehension and good word reading to become good readers.


A clearly defined curriculum extends children’s language and vocabulary


Pupils should read often ... to become more fluent, since fluency is important for comprehension.




Both reports assert the importance of decoding (word reading), vocabulary development and advanced reading skills, like fluency and reading comprehension.




A love of reading


Fostering a love of reading and literature is a priority in schools that develop learners’ language and literacy effectively.




Making sure that children become engaged with reading from the beginning is therefore one of the most important ways to make a difference to their life chances ...



Both reports emphasise the importance of fostering a love of reading.




Daily teaching, whole-school strategy and vocabulary


Schools who develop reading effectively teach it daily. Many use suitable resources successfully to support their teaching, of phonics for example. Where learners do not improve their reading skills well enough, often this is because there is no whole- school strategy to improve learners’ decoding skills, build their vocabulary knowledge, or develop their responses to what they read.




Teaching should ... be daily


[Headteachers should] adopt a ... programme that includes well-conceived and structured resources for teaching phonics


A clearly defined curriculum extends children’s language and vocabulary


Understanding vocabulary is vital for comprehension




Both reports state the need for daily teaching, suitable resources and developing children’s vocabulary and comprehension.

Systematic teaching of phonics


the teaching of phonics should be systematic and consistent (21)




... decoding and encoding can be taught through a systematic synthetic phonics (SSP) programme …



Phonics should be taught systematically.

Phonics, vocabulary and comprehension


the teaching of phonics should ... take place with other language activities, which promote vocabulary-building and comprehension. (21)




 ... language comprehension and composition are developed by talking, listening to and talking about stories, and by learning poetry and songs ...


The daily timetable for Reception and year 1 should include:

•a storytime

•a poetry/singing time

•one or more phonics sessions.


Vocabulary, comprehension and phonics are all essential and should be taught alongside each other.

The next table shows how the two reports differ.

Estyn – English language and literacy in settings and primary schools

DfE – The reading framework: teaching the foundations of literacy





Sight words and high-frequency words


They read age-appropriate texts accurately, drawing on ‘sight vocabulary’ to read high-frequency words.  (34)




Children should not be asked to learn lists of high frequency words. They can read most of these in the usual way, by saying the sounds and blending them, when they have learnt the GPCs (letter-sound correspondences) in the words.


Sight-word learning on its own is insufficient for reading development and teaching with this approach alone is contrary to current evidence-based practices in literacy instruction.




‘Asking children to memorise scores of high frequency words (e.g. Dolch/Fry words) visually, without phonics decoding, is a harmful practice and why no high quality phonics programme expects children to learn words as logographs.’

Balanced Approach to Word Reading


Picture cues


Many use their knowledge of letter sounds and picture cues to help them read unfamiliar words.  (34)



‘Decodable’ books and other texts make children feel successful from the very beginning. They do not encounter words that include GPCs they have not been taught. If an adult is not present, they are not forced to guess from pictures, the context, the first letters of a word or its shape




Using picture cues to help children read unfamiliar words amounts to guessing.


It is part of the ‘3 cueing system’ which has been discredited:                                                                                                                                                                                                        


‘... the three-cueing system is a seriously flawed conception of the processes involved in skilled reading, and the practices flowing from its misconception may have contributed to the problems experienced by an unacceptably large number of students (Wren, 2001).’

(PDF) The three-cueing system: Trojan horse?


The only strategy children need when reading unfamiliar words is saying the sounds and blending them.


However, word reading should not be confused with comprehension. Other strategies are helpful for comprehension.

Decoding and comprehension

teachers ... use a balanced approach to developing reading that integrates decoding and comprehension skills. (36)

Word reading and language comprehension require different sorts of teaching.


When children start learning to read, the number of words they can decode accurately is too limited to broaden their vocabulary. Their understanding of language should therefore be developed through their listening and speaking, while they are taught to decode through phonics.

The DfE follows the ‘simple view of reading’ model.


Estyn promotes an approach that mixes decoding with comprehension for beginners and calls it a ‘balanced approach to developing reading.’


There is a wealth of evidence showing that ‘balanced literacy’ is harmful to a child’s chances of becoming a skilled reader.


Balanced Literacy: An instructional bricolage that is neither fish nor fowl (Prof. Pamela Snow)


Balanced Approach to Word Reading

Reading schemes


In addition, learners’ progress in developing their reading skills can be adversely affected by having to adhere rigidly to a set number of texts from a reading scheme.  (36)



‘...schools should invest in books that have been carefully structured in cumulative steps for children learning to read, so that they can decode every word as their knowledge of the alphabetic code increases. These books are often referred to simply as ‘decodable’ books.’



It is not clear what Estyn means by ‘having to adhere rigidly to a set number of texts from a reading scheme’.


It is right that the number of texts should not be fixed and that teachers should consider supplementing their reading scheme for some children.


However, it is important that children can read the words in the texts they are asked to read without guessing, including words they have not come across before. This is easier to achieve with texts already matched to the phonics programme the school uses.


‘An extra gain of 5 months in average reading age was made ... when the first set of decodable reading books was introduced’

Grant, M. (2014) Longitudinal Studies with Synthetic Phonics from Reception to Year 2 and to Year 6



During the foundation phase, many learners progress to writing initial and end sounds to represent words successfully (42)



To encode (spell) words, children are taught to identify the phonemes in spoken words first. This is also referred to as ‘segmenting’ spoken words. Then they write the graphemes that represent the phonemes.


1.hear the spoken word ‘dog’

2.say ‘dog’ – /d/ /o/ /g/

3.write the three corresponding graphemes ‘d’, ‘o’, ‘g’ to spell the word ‘dog’.



With synthetic phonics teaching, at no stage do children write initial and end sounds to represent words. Instead, they are taught to identify all the sounds in a word in order, and represent them with corresponding letters.

Sight vocabulary and high frequency words


In the most effective schools, their systematic and consistent approach to the teaching of phonics is well embedded and sustained over time. In addition, staff pay appropriate attention to developing learners’ sight vocabulary and recognition of high frequency words, to improve their decoding skills and reading fluency. (84)




Children should not be asked to learn lists of high frequency words. They can read most of these in the usual way, by saying the sounds and blending them, when they have learnt the GPCs in the words, e.g. ‘mum’ and ‘came’. Synthetic phonics programmes teach others systematically as exception words, e.g. ‘said’ and ‘to’.


Some children can decode a word by sounding and blending once; later, whenever they come across the same word, they read it ‘at a glance’. Most children, however, have to decode a word several times in different contexts before it becomes familiar enough to read ‘at a glance’. Children with poor short-term memories need to practise decoding a word many more times before they can read it ‘at a glance’.




Estyn has got this the wrong way around. It is through lots of practice decoding words by saying the sounds corresponding to the letters and blending them, that children learn to read words ‘by sight’, or ‘at a glance’, and develop fluency. Decoding skills and reading fluency are not improved by developing learners’ sight vocabulary and recognition of high frequency words.


Teaching whole words as ‘sight vocabulary’ without reference to letters is sometimes called ‘Look and say’. It has been discredited. See:



Interventions and context cues


In these schools, learning support assistants have strong expertise in teaching learners’ phonemic knowledge. They support learners well through interventions, where they practise important reading strategies with learners, such as segmenting phonemes and using the context to predict unknown words.  (84)



To enable children to keep up, they should be given extra practice ... The emphasis should be on:

•consolidating the work the children have already met in their main ... phonics session ...

•revising grapheme-phoneme correspondences ...

•practising oral blending of spoken sounds to pronounce words

•reading words by saying the sounds and blending them.





This is another example of Estyn promoting word guessing strategies in their report. See the section about picture cues.


Discouraging guessing is especially important for those children who find phonics difficult. They need extra practice using phonics, not less. Otherwise they learn to rely on other strategies, such as guessing words from context, that they find easier, and those strategies fail them when they are older.


That is why interventions to support learners who need extra help should not teach strategies that involve guessing.


A second point: The phrase ‘segmenting phonemes’ is used incorrectly in the Estyn report. Segmenting (taking apart) is for spelling, not reading, and it is whole words that are segmented for spelling, not phonemes. For reading, phonemes are blended (put together). To explain more, a phoneme is a small unit of sound, so segmenting phonemes means dividing them into even smaller units, which does not make sense.


Published schemes


Nearly all primary schools use published schemes to support their teaching of phonics ... (85)



Schools ... should ensure their programme meets the guidance on good SSP teaching in this document.



Estyn states that nearly all primary schools use published schemes. However, there is no assurance as to their quality, because the government in Wales provides no guidance about how to choose an effective phonics programme.

Phonological awareness, rhymes and phonemes


In a few schools, learners do not always have a secure enough awareness of rhyme, syllables, onset-rime and stress patterns in words, upon which to build their knowledge of phonemes.  (33)


Most non-maintained settings and nursery schools focus strongly on developing children’s pre-reading skills, including their phonological awareness through songs, rhymes and music. (82)


Staff do not take sufficient account of learners’ developmental stages before the formal introduction of phonics teaching.  This means that, for learners with underdeveloped language and communication skills, such as poor phonological awareness, they struggle to make the link between letters and sounds.  (85)


Across languages, children’s phonological awareness is an important contributing factor to their reading and spelling development (Ziegler and Goswami, 2005). Phonological awareness is the ability to distinguish features of speech, such as syllables, onset-rime and phonemes. It is important that children develop phonological awareness of rhyme, syllables and stress patterns in words, as this is related to their later ability to read fluently (Harper, 2011; Law et al., 2017). This is because awareness of syllables and rhymes develops prior to literacy across languages, whereas phonemic awareness does not. Phonemic awareness is dependent entirely on teaching because the phoneme is not a natural unit of speech.  (19, Research section)


Work with young children has revealed that sensory cues, such as music and poetry, help them to develop their awareness of rhyme, syllables and stress patterns in words. Drumming to different beat structures in music, clapping out the syllable structure of poems and marching to the beat patterns in nursery rhymes all enhance language processing and help struggling readers (Goswami, 2018). When starting school, a child with poor phonological awareness will have more difficulty in learning to read. Learners with poor phonological skills and reduced sensitivity to rhythm are at risk of dyslexia in all languages (Goswami, 2015).  (20, Research section)





Learning rhymes, poems and songs is an end in itself. However, learning poems including traditional nursery rhymes ... can also heighten children’s awareness of the individual sounds within words through alliteration, assonance and rhyme.


Learning to read and write letters develops phonemic awareness rapidly. It seems easier for children to identify phonemes in words when they know how they correspond to letters, because letters provide visible and concrete symbols for sounds.




Both Estyn and the DfE recognise the importance of children learning rhymes, The DfE explains that this is an end in itself, but agrees that it can also heighten children’s awareness of sounds that make up words.


However, the Estyn report includes excessive detail about the importance of phonological awareness for reading. For evidence, it refers to Goswami’s research, which concludes that it is important for children to develop phonological awareness before being taught to read.


Estyn and Goswami are wrong. Numerous studies and research evidence contradict this notion. For example:


‘PA [phonemic awareness] instruction with letters produced larger effects on PA and reading than instruction without letters’, Ehri LC and others (2001).


Johnston R and Watson J (2004). ‘Accelerating the development of reading, spelling and phonemic awareness skills in initial readers’

Reading and writing: an interdisciplinary journal: volume 17, number 4, pages 327–357.

 ‘... phonological awareness intervention that focused on rhyme awareness, syllable segmentation, & initial phoneme discrimination had little effect on the later literacy acquisition of children from low-SES backgrounds.’


‘The weight of current evidence suggests that rhyme awareness is not related to phoneme awareness, nor does rime training appear to affect the development of phoneme awareness. Instead it seems alphabetic instruction plays a key.’

Macmillan, B. M. (2002) ‘Rhyme and reading: A critical review of the research methodology.’

Rhyme and reading: a critical review of the research methodology


(The onset of a word is the consonant sound or sounds at the beginning of the word, e.g., ‘spl’ at the beginning of ‘splash’ and the rime is the part with a vowel and any consonant sounds that come after it, e.g. ‘ash’ at the end of ‘splash’.)


When to begin teaching phonics


When appropriate for a learner, the teaching of phonics should be systematic and consistent ...



Daily phonics sessions should begin as soon as children start their Reception year.


Some children need extra support from the beginning. Assessment should identify such children as soon as they begin to fall behind their peers ...

To enable children to keep up, they should be given extra practice, either in a small group or one-to-one ...



It is unwise to wait for a time that is ‘appropriate for a learner’ to begin teaching phonics. For some children, the appropriate time may never come and they fall further and further behind their peers. When they are older, they are often provided with intervention lessons, but by this stage their learning and self-esteem have suffered.


This can be avoided by teaching all children systematically when they start school, and immediately providing extra help for those at risk of falling behind.


Rob Randel

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