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Government recommendations for teaching reading are putting out contradictory signals

We need an urgent and transparent look at “official guidance” to ascertain the true state of affairs regarding methods of teaching reading, since the government claims to have accepted Jim Rose’s recommendations described in his historic report (Rose Report, March 2006).

As far as most people are aware, the government has now changed its official guidance for reading instruction to systematic synthetic phonics, in the form of the free-to-schools government publication, Letters and Sounds. This 200+ page teaching manual emulates elements of practice from the three leading synthetic phonics programmes, including the Clackmannanshire seven year longitudinal study, and is, in effect, a complete U-turn from the previous government advice of using multi-cueing reading strategies for teaching reading.

This is a direct move away from the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) multi-cueing Searchlights Reading Strategies model. In its place, Gough’s Simple View of Reading model has been accepted, whereby the two processes of “word recognition” and “language comprehension” are clarified (appendix 1, Rose Report).

But, in reality, have all sections of the Government’s education department accepted Jim Rose’s recommendations as the Government spin suggests? The pupils who were most at risk from the 1998 NLS Searchlights model of multi-cueing strategies arguably remain at risk a decade later.

The Government’s Year 1 intervention programme, Early Literacy Support (ELS) (2001), was largely based on the well-known Reading Recovery intervention programme. Typical reading strategies, as stated on page 23 of the original ELS manual, are described as follows:

Shared reading: work out an unfamiliar word based on the pictures and context of the sentence; re-read sentence with suggested word: Does it sound right in this sentence? Cross-check suggested word by looking at initial letter: Does the word that you suggested start with this letter?

This multi-cueing approach to reading has been discredited by international research on reading. Plenty of evidence can be found on the internet to verify this, in addition to Jim Rose’s findings, made during his independent review.

Rose makes it very clear that “…effective intervention work should focus on the phonic skills children have already met in their mainstream classes but may need more help and time from skilled adults to strengthen and secure those aspects they had not at first understood” (Rose 2006 para.153).

Post Rose, ELS was rewritten (Jan 2008), supposedly with the aim of bringing it in line with the Rose Report which stated that “High quality phonic work, as defined by the review, should be a key feature of the provision in each of these ‘waves’” (Rose 2006 para.133). The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) itself issued an almost identical statement: “High-quality phonic work, as defined by the Rose review, should be a key feature of literacy provision in all the ‘waves’ of intervention” (Primary National Strategy: The Primary Framework: ensuring progress for children with literacy difficulties in Key Stage 1, 2007). The revised ELS appears to consist of the new DCFS programme, Letters and Sounds, bolted on to the original whole-language programme, rather than a genuine rewrite. It still includes, for example, a miscue analysis assessment, uses whole language books rather than cumulative decodable texts, and contains “busy-work” which will not help children learn to read.

Furthermore, despite the fact that Rose makes it clear in his report that intervention teaching should build on the mainstream synthetic phonics teaching, government ministers have actually invested public money in, and promoted, the whole language Reading Recovery intervention programme directly under the Every Child a Reader umbrella – thereby in reality undermining Rose’s recommendations and promoting the same type of multi-cueing reading strategies that he rejects.

We have more direct evidence that local authorities and schools continue to receive conflicting messages about approaches to teaching reading. The National Strategies team has issued the opposite instructions to Rose in its publication The National Strategies | Primary: Every Child a Reader: Guidance for local authorities. The following section is taken from this publication.

Effective local authorities develop a model of ‘layered’ literacy intervention in Key Stage 1…Questions for the local authority to ask itself might be:

  • Do we make clear to schools from the start that their trained Reading Recovery teacher should impact on quality first teaching of literacy in the school?
  • Do we make clear to schools that as they become more experienced, their trained Reading Recovery teacher will be able to provide training, coaching and support for a range of literacy interventions delivered by teaching assistants and volunteers?
  • Do we encourage schools to make sure that their trained Reading Recovery teacher has time allocated for these wider roles in school?
  • Do we provide training for schools in layered literacy interventions?
  • Are trained Reading Recovery teachers able to access the Reading Recovery in Primary Literacy Leadership (RRiPLLe) course locally, so that they can develop their wider role in school?

Just whose influence is at play here, and what reading instruction methods are schools expected to teach? Has the House of Commons inquiry Teaching Children to Read (March 2003), leading to Rose’s review, been a waste of time, effort and money? Why has the government provided several free copies of Letters and Sounds for every infant and primary school if the staff are then instructed by the National Strategies team, through local authority advisers, that they should be influenced by their resident Reading Recovery teacher – who is busily teaching the weakest pupils in the school with methods that have been rejected by Rose.

As the synthetic phonics teaching approach positively excludes the use of multi-cueing reading strategies, a school cannot claim to be a ”synthetic phonics school” if it also uses the Reading Recovery type approach for intervention. Teachers and parents need to be alerted to this fact.

Is the government going to be fully accountable for a state of affairs in which the strongest pupils in the strongest schools receive teaching which follows Jim Rose’s recommendations, whilst the weakest pupils in the weakest schools receive the type of multi-cueing reading strategies which research shows us fails the weakest pupils and which Jim Rose rejects? Will this lead to the highest possible standards of literacy for all?

Further Information
Debbie Hepplewhite FRSA:
Phonics Consultant and Teacher-Trainer: www.syntheticphonics.com
Website Editor Reading Reform Foundation (UK): www.rrf.org.uk
Designer Phonics International Ltd: www.phonicsinternational.com

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