Literacy in the early years


Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report on Reception teaching was controversial, but it may ultimately serve to open some eyes and minds, writes Debbie Hepplewhite

“The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools”, commissioned by her Majesty’s Chief Inspector, “shines a spotlight on the Reception Year and the extent to which a school’s curriculum for four- and five-year-olds prepares them for the rest of their education and beyond” (Ofsted, Bold Beginnings: The Reception curriculum in a sample of good and outstanding primary schools, November 2017).

There are different views of what constitutes good and appropriate early years provision. The experiences and preferred approaches of some people are not entirely in line with the early years sector’s advisors who hold sway and, generally speaking, any alternative perspective may not get as much, or any, positive publicity through early years magazines and conferences. The dominant philosophy in the early years is noted in the Bold Beginnings report with reference to initial teacher education:

“Some headteachers said that early years tutors in initial teacher education (ITE) promoted only one view of early years practice. They felt this downplayed the importance of reading, writing and mathematics for the under-fives in favour of play-based pedagogy and child-initiated learning. This prevented effective progression into Year 1.”

I urge everyone to read in full the Bold Beginnings report to form their own opinion about the points raised, but please bear in mind the aspiration “fulfilling children’s potential” as this might have been a better premise for the case for explicit teaching rather than preparedness for the Year 1 curriculum.

Different opinions

The publication of the report seemed to stir up a hornet’s nest of competing opinions and activity. Here is a small selection of responses to the report to illustrate some of the contrasting views expressed:

“Ofsted’s Bold Beginnings report is ‘flawed’ and should be scrapped” (Helen Ward, TES, January 2018).

“Ofsted want to introduce more formal teaching practices – this is a potential disaster for children’s learning” (The Conversation, February 2018).

In contrast, however, Tom Bennett, founder of the popular researchED movement, had this to say: “this report is as controversial as custard, and the severity of its backlash indicates how difficult some of its critics find any criticism – however gentle – of the status quo”.

The headteacher-blogger Michael Tidd said: “Where can I sign the open letter that says Early Years people shouldn’t be allowed to let their own wilful misreading of Bold Beginnings stop education being improved for millions of children?”

The report kick-started several early years conferences to discuss the issues raised within it more deeply. Gill Jones of Ofsted is working hard to put the report’s findings into perspective, regardless of whether people liked the form of reporting or not; this includes Gill’s clarification that the schools observed were fairly selected and representative of a range of successful early years settings.

The controversy centres on Ofsted’s key findings with regard to provision for maths, language and literacy, and on some specific criticism regarding the “burdensome” requirements of the early years foundation stage profiles (EYFSP). One of the key findings, for example, stated: “In schools visited where writing was of a high standard, the children were able to write simple sentences and more by the end of Reception. They were mastering the spelling of phonically regular words and common exception words. These schools paid good attention to children’s posture and pencil grip when children were writing. They used pencils and exercise books, while children sat at tables, to support good, controlled letter formation.” 

Some people expressed horror that pre-schoolers should sit at tables to write; others denied that Reception teachers have often been instructed by early years advisors to get rid of their desks, while some teachers chipped in to say that they had indeed been instructed to get rid of desks in their early years settings. This example typifies the debate in the early years.

At its heart is the fact that there is a dominant and pedantic pedagogy in the early years sector, and early years practitioners and the teaching profession generally have been persuaded that there is a prevailing acceptable way of providing for all pre-schoolers, regardless of needs, context and curriculum – notions expressed with this kind of terminology: “free-flow indoor-outdoor” provision, “child-initiated” activities, “following the children’s interests”, “play-based learning”, “discovery learning”, and waiting for “developmental readiness”.

Observations described in the Bold Beginnings report, however, indicate that Ofsted wish to inform the readership that not everyone agrees with this type of early years learning as the only appropriate approach:

“Leaders and staff knew that most learning could not be self-discovered or left to chance through each child’s choices. Teachers appreciated that most knowledge, skills and processes needed to be taught directly, especially processes such as learning to read or write or understanding and using numbers.”

Negative connotations of “formal” provision

Many in the teaching profession have the deeply held belief that young children must learn through play and be entertained by the teaching and learning process, and that the children are turned off by anything that resembles “formal” teaching and learning.

I am going to suggest, however, that in many cases this could not be further from the truth. I have to work hard to demonstrate the kind of teaching and learning activities that surprise teachers – activities with which children deeply engage, enjoy and experience great, tangible success. I am constantly having to open providers’ eyes and minds about what can be “appropriate” or “fit for purpose” for children’s growth (according to the subject and learning intention) and what young children will enjoy that challenges many current beliefs.

The phrase “formal teaching” is commonly used in a derogatory sense, but is this fair? And is it an accurate interpretation of systematic and explicit teaching and learning in modern times?

A very significant point about the “gap” between advantaged and disadvantaged children is that the latter may not have much spoken language, interests, knowledge or skills to bring to the setting. Explicit and systematic teaching and learning activities particularly in foundational literacy – for at least phonics, reading and writing – are much more effective when provided through truly fit-for-purpose, direct and content-rich activities (of the kind considered inappropriate by many) rather than through play.

Common features of early years provision

The Bold Beginnings report does note the importance of play, and the importance of language experiences and reading stories to children. Does anyone at all argue with children playing and book-sharing, and having hands-on experience, or with children making choices and having plenty of access to outdoor activities for some of the time?

Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman was interviewed by the parliamentary Education Committee about the Bold Beginnings report (7 March 2018). She emphasised the point that disadvantaged children need to be taught very explicitly and well to transcend their disadvantage. James Frith, committee member, commented that, as a parent, he had actually been very pleased to read the report and welcomed its key findings.

Food for thought

The Bold Beginnings report raises many important issues and suggests possible changes to some provision and assessment in the early years. The following are, I believe, important topics that should be openly discussed in all early years settings:

  • the frequently emotive usage and implications of the word “formal” and what this means to staff in the setting; consider whether the criticism of so-called “formal” teaching and learning in the early years (and beyond) warrants the current negativity
  • the possible reasons why some children are more language-rich, with a wider range of interests and skills, than others; how can early years settings most effectively provide for some children, matching the level of input of language, literature, experience-rich homes or for some children, making up for the lack of rich input at home? How best can this be achieved?
  • the main areas identified for pre-school education, focusing on what could be the most fit-for-purpose and content-rich provision for each specific area; consider the nature of the areas/subjects themselves and what provision would be most fit-for-purpose
  • the concept of “developmental readiness”; what are the most likely experiences and practices to increase children’s capabilities, including in the contexts of large numbers of children to provide for. For example, if children have few interests and impoverished experiences, is “following the children’s interests” and “waiting for them to develop” necessarily the best way forwards to address all the areas of learning and the children’s individuality? Is it possible that, inadvertently, with the current prevailing ethos in the early years that this may well lead to low expectations and putting a ceiling on at least some children’s learning (that is, waiting for every individual’s apparent “readiness” and what comes “naturally” to each child)?
  • whether children from different socio-economic backgrounds, attending both smaller and larger settings, may warrant adjustments of mind-set, planning and provision under the circumstances; what are the factors that could be considered relevant in a range of different contexts? Whilst much emphasis has been placed on the “unique child”, with planning, preparation and organisation in mind, is it always necessary to plan and provide for the individual? Can we care for and treat children as unique individuals on the one hand, but provide for them in simpler ways as children in collective scenarios
  • with regard to assessment, if given a blank slate, what would staff consider really needs assessing for national purposes? How would this differ for local and parental purposes? With each area of learning in mind, what would be the best method, materials and opportunities to assess the children – and how would this best be recorded bearing in mind the numbers of children that staff are accountable to provide for?

With regard to assessment and the early years foundation stage profile, the Ofsted report flagged up the guidance in the EYFSP handbook which promotes “observational assessment”, followed by descriptions of teachers preferring different forms of assessment:

“Although the EYFSP handbook says: ‘Observational assessment is the most reliable way of building up an accurate picture of children’s development and learning. This is especially true where the attainment demonstrated is not dependent on overt adult support. Practitioners need to observe learning which children have initiated rather than only focusing on what children do when prompted’ (EYFSP 2017 handbook).

“… the majority of teachers did not agree that observational assessment was the most reliable form of assessment as stated in the EYFSP handbook. They felt that statements such as the one above lessened the importance of assessment as part of teaching.”

Comparing types of provision

What does the body of international research show in the field of reading instruction about how best to achieve the highest levels of literacy across the ability range and regardless of the socio-economic circumstances?

In the next issue of SEN Magazine, I will address how early years providers and infant teachers can reflect on their phonics and foundational literacy to evaluate and compare possible variations of provision – and what implications this raises for changes in practice, keeping in mind the more explicit teaching and learning alluded to in the Bold Beginnings report. Whilst this article aims to encourage professional reflection, the next one will seek to be highly practical and specific, to support evaluation of the nuts and bolts of provision.

Further information

Debbie Hepplewhite MBE campaigned over many years for national, evidence-based, systematic synthetic phonics teaching in primary schools. As a representative of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, she advised the Government for the parliamentary inquiry Teaching Children to Read (March 2005) and she helped to inform Sir Jim Rose’s independent review of the teaching of early reading (2006). Debbie is the author of the Phonics International programme:

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