Phonics: politics and practice


Official guidance may have caused more problems for teaching reading than it’s solved

It is time to take stock of how we teach reading in England. A significant aspect of this is to understand what systematic synthetic phonics provision looks like in different schools. To date, not all schools apply the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles in full, which is very worrying. Many, perhaps most, schools continue with multi-cueing reading strategies, amounting to teaching children to guess some words routinely in place of decoding them. Children will also invariably default to guessing words when asked to read books independently which include words with alphabetic code beyond their code knowledge.

The fact that England’s teachers do not share a common professional understanding of the research on reading and reading instruction, or might not apply the systematic synthetic phonics teaching principles in full, is clearly evidenced in official Department for Education (DfE) and Ofsted reports. This means that children’s experiences of reading instruction in their schools is still based on chance and not necessarily informed well enough by science and leading-edge practice. Let’s look at some evidence.

Ready to read
The following are selected bullet points from Ready to read – how a sample of primary schools in Stoke-on-Trent teach pupils to read (Ofsted, June 2014):

  • “Not all the schools taught early reading using phonic decoding as ‘the route to decode words’, as required by the national curriculum 2014.”
  • “Almost all the schools visited used a wide range of early reading books to teach young children to read. Many of these books, however, were not ‘closely matched to pupils’developing phonics knowledge and knowledge of common exception words’. In other words, the books used did not support young children to practise and apply the phonics they were learning.”
  • “Four of the schools did not send home phonically decodable books so that children could practise their new knowledge and skills at home.”
  • “The teaching of phonics was not always of good quality and pupils did not progress quickly enough in several of the sessions observed.”

Phonics screening check
The following are selected bullet points form the DfE Phonics screening check evaluation, Research report (NFER, May 2014).

  • “In the majority of schools, however, other strategies alongside phonics were also supported…”
  • “More than half (60 per cent) of schools reported that they taught systematic synthetic phonics ‘first and fast’, although teachers’responses regarding use of other methods to teach children to decode words were not wholly consistent with this data”.

What does schools’ phonics provision look like?

In England, the notion and promotion of systematic phonics is certainly not new. After years of successive governments promoting phonics and even funding systematic synthetic phonics (programmes, decodable books, resources and training), it would be understandable if all infant and primary teachers in England consider that they are well-equipped in terms of their professional understanding and their schools’phonics provision. But observation and analysis reveal some major differences between schools –and of course the question arises as to what effect different practices and professional understanding may have on the literacy results of the children, particularly the slowest-to-learn children who have the widest range of challenges and disadvantages.

In the 2010 Ofsted report, Reading by six – How the best schools do it, much was made of the following commonalities between the selected schools:

The schools represent a diverse range of communities but have striking features in common. They are passionate in their belief that every child can learn to read. Teaching children to read is at the heart of their curriculum. Rigorous, intensive and systematic phonics teaching underpins reading, spelling and writing. Teachers and teaching assistants are well-trained and highly effective, and the schools are led and managed by able, committed headteachers and reading managers who assure quality and drive improvement.

This heavy emphasis on rigorous, fit for purpose, intensive systematic phonics teaching, staff training and senior management commitment and monitoring to assure quality and drive improvement was made abundantly clear.

Further, in Reading by six – how the best schools do it (November 2010), Ofsted said that:

Shortcomings in the rigour and fitness for purpose of schools’ programmes for phonics teaching should be redressed urgently, for example through using a high-quality synthetic phonics scheme. This should be accompanied by training for staff to use it, by rigorous monitoring of the implementation of the programme, especially the quality of the teaching, and by evaluation of the impact of the programme on pupils’ decoding and spelling skills.

The Reading by six report concludes by providing the Government’s “Criteria for assuring high-quality phonic work” including the “Explanatory notes”. These official core criteria are the basis for the teaching principles underpinning Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) and are reiterated via various government documents and websites. The official core criteria include the following clear guidance in the Explanatory notes:

1) Phonic work is best understood as a body of knowledge and skills about how the alphabet works, rather than one of a range of optional ‘methods’ or ‘strategies’ for teaching children to read. For example, phonic programmes should not encourage children to guess words from non-phonic clues such as pictures before applying phonic knowledge and skills.

7) It is important that texts are of the appropriate level for children to apply and practise the phonic knowledge and skills that they have learnt. Children should not be expected to use strategies such as whole-word recognition and/or cues from context, grammar and pictures.

Inconsistencies from officials

However, whilst the DfE made clear its official criteria for assuring high-quality phonics work avoiding a focus on multi-cueing reading strategies, it also continued to fund a whole language intervention programme until 2014. The Government therefore gave teachers a mixed or contradictory message about reading instruction methods, and potentially risked damage to children’s reading profiles (instilling flawed habits of guessing words from multi-cueing reading strategies) which is particularly worrying for the slower-to-learn children.

In 2009, the Science and Technology Select Committee conducted an inquiry into whether the Government was justified in funding and promoting the whole language intervention programme as a fundamental part of the Every Child a Reader initiative and as part of the inquiry’s conclusions stated:

Teaching children to read is one of the most important things the State does. The Government has accepted Sir Jim Rose’s recommendation that systematic phonics should be at the heart of the Government’s strategy for teaching children to read. This is in conflict with the continuing practice of word memorisation and other teaching practices from the ‘whole language theory of reading’ used particularly in Wave 3 Reading Recovery. The Government should vigorously review these practices with the objective of ensuring that Reading Recovery complies with its policy.

So, did anything happen as a consequence of the Science and Technology Committee’s recommendations? We have evidence via the NFER May 2014 phonics survey, and the Ofsted June 2014 Stoke-on-Trent survey, that multi-cueing reading strategies remain established practice in many of our schools.

Systematic synthetic phonics provision, and independent reading practice with cumulative, decodable reading books, were nevertheless considered so essential that in 2011, the Department for Education launched the phonics match-funded initiative (September 2011 to October 2013) and also piloted the Year One Phonics Screening Check in 300 schools.

At this point, take note of some further guidance in the Government’s official Explanatory notes “for assuring high-quality phonic work” which states:

5) Multi-sensory activities should be interesting and engaging but firmly focused on intensifying the learning associated with its phonic goal. They should avoid taking children down a circuitous route only tenuously linked to the goal. This means avoiding over-elaborate activities that are difficult to manage and take too long to complete, thus distracting the children from concentrating on the learning goal.

The phonics match-funded catalogue, however, included pages of various phonic manipulative resources and games. Was this wise? Some schools spent their entire £6,000 matched funding on stocking up with the various games and activities, no doubt considering them to be “fun”, “kinaesthetic” and “age-appropriate”–perhaps endeavouring to further equip their programme of choice –Letters and Sounds.

According to the NFER May 2014 phonics report, most teachers involved in the survey stated that their schools’core programme was Letters and Sounds. This raises questions as to how differently schools may have translated Letters and Sounds into a comprehensive programme –considering that Letters and Sounds has no teaching and learning resources.

It is understandable if many Letters and Sounds schools –which might also be “multi-cueing reading strategies” schools –chose to spend their money on the phonics manipulatives in the match-funded phonics catalogue rather than on commercial phonics programmes and/or cumulative, decodable reading books and/or on training for systematic synthetic phonics.

The Year One Phonics Screening Check

The negative responses to the statutory Year One Phonics Screening Check rolled out in 2012 have been evident in the national media, through which various literacy organisations, early years advisors, teaching union leaders, children’s authors and some academics expressed their disquiet.

The Year One Phonics Screening Check, however, has served to reveal significant differences in opposing professional understanding; some teachers argue that children are making sense of words by turning the pseudo words into real words, while other teachers expect accurate decoding of pseudo words. The results of the check also reveal differences in teaching effectiveness. These revelations are important for us to address. The phonics check has fortunately sharpened teachers’phonics provision leading to year-on-year improvements since the national roll-out. In 2014, over 600 schools demonstrated that nearly every six-year-old can achieve good decoding skills by the end of Year One. So can we expect that all schools can achieve this level of decoding moving forwards?

Teachers are working very hard whatever their approach and wherever their school, but it could well be quite common that the children themselves simply aren’t getting enough of the right kind of rigorous systematic phonics practice, which is especially worrying for the slower-to-learn children. There is grave danger in believing that some children do not need phonics, that it doesn’t suit some children or that some children have had too much of it and didn’t learn so now they need something different. Instead, we should consider that it is the phonics teaching content and practices that might need changing or strengthening. Thus, the dangers remain for the slowest-to-learn 20 per cent of children if professional understanding is not truly based on the international body of research which warns about the flawed practice of multi-cueing reading strategies –and if teachers are unable to differentiate between rigorous, content-rich phonics practices and weaker multi-sensory activities “which take children down a circuitous route only tenuously linked to the goal”.

More official confusion

Ofsted itself also has much to answer for in regard to promotion of “circuitous” or “extraneous”activities (Sir Jim Rose warned about “extraneous” activities in his Final Report, March 2006). Six phonics and literacy specialists took Ofsted to task for promoting a phonics-parachute gameon the Literacy: a non-negotiable footage via the Ofsted site.

In other words, whilst Ofsted and the DfE have gone to considerable lengths to look into the teaching of reading based on international research findings and leading-edge practice, and to promote rigorous, fit-for-purpose programmes and practice based on their findings, other branches or people within the DfE and Ofsted have promoted practices which are contradictory.

So what are teachers to conclude? No wonder many remain confused with conflicting guidance from officials. No wonder teachers may feel that they can pick and choose their own approach to reading instruction. No wonder we have not yet reached the point of all schools teaching all their children to read well.

Further information

A former primary headteacher, Debbie Hepplewhite is the author of Phonics International programme and the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters programme. She is an international synthetic phonics consultant and trainer and a member of the UK Reading Reform Foundation. She helped to inform the UK parliamentary inquiry (Teaching Children to Read, March 2005) and Sir Jim Rose’s independent review of 2006:

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