***No. 1: What will Minister Nick Gibb and the Department for Education do next to further raise standards of literacy in England?

As I start to write this post, I hardly know where to begin. The ‘Naked Emperor‘ story theme could not be more apt for the information I am about to relay.

I think a little bit of my history is appropriate to try to set the scene as to who I am and what I do, and why I do what I do – and why I have decided to write a post to reflect on Minister Nick Gibb’s and the Department for Education’s plans for addressing standards of literacy further in England’s context.

I’m guilty of speaking in cliches and ideas all the time to put points across – and central to this is the language and points of principle of my upbringing including this guiding message from my mother:

‘To thine own self be true’

I am highlighting this guiding principle as I am now faced with a serious dilemma. We can do much better to raise standards in the foundations of literacy. For many years I’ve dedicated my life to informing others about research findings, and leading-edge classroom practice, for the teaching of reading. I’ve helped to raise awareness about the intense and protracted reading debate both in England’s context and internationally. I’ve worked with my husband, David, and others, to create content-rich phonics programmes to support training, teaching and learning in the field of foundational literacy. All these activities continue, but the national phonics progress in England has stalled and Minister Nick Gibb’s decision of how to address this is important to raise standards further for all children. Will Minister Nick Gibb listen to the collective group of stalwarts who have pioneered systematic synthetic phonics for the teaching of reading (and spelling) for decades – informed by the findings of research and leading-edge classroom practice?

People can decide for themselves what they think and perhaps, more importantly, what they choose to do in their schools but is it time for new and updated guidance to be provided for teachers, and others, to reflect on their provision?

How did I get into the reading debate and the field of foundational literacy and phonics in the first place as I really did not seek it?

My infant and primary teaching experience began a sustained journey of enquiry. As I had four children of my own, there were times when I taught in many different local schools over a number of years on a part-time and supply basis to fit in with my family life. Every school I worked in had caring, hard-working and competent staff – teachers and assistants. So how could it be that so many children languished in ‘special needs’ groups when they were so bright and sparky – nothing wrong with their general intelligence it seemed to me. Why did their behaviour change when they’d been interested, engaged and excited during the introduction of lessons, but when asked to put pencil to paper, boys kicked off and girls frantically sharpened pencils and worked hard at wasting time.

I did not believe that these children could not be taught to read and write. Some private tutoring also raised questions about this mysterious failure. How could such intelligent and often articulate children struggle so much with basic reading, spelling and writing? Starting off with asking them to write out the alphabet letters in order (however old they were) was an eye-opener – they couldn’t do this simple, basic task. What was going on!!!!

I deliberately headed for an infant teacher’s appointment to find out first-hand about the beginnings of teaching reading and writing – and that was when I started to learn about this approach we now refer to as ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) and observed the consequences of ‘mixed methods’ and ‘whole language’ on five to seven years old who had not had the advantage of quality SSP provision.

As an experienced teacher, but novice infant teacher, my five to seven year olds made huge leaps in their literacy ability thanks to SSP and I had tangible evidence of this. At that time, England had statutory, national tests and assessments at the end of Y2. My Y2 pupils came top in reading and writing by far compared to others in my Local Authority. Bar charts provided to all schools by the Local Authority advisors demonstrated this – I had comparative evidence from a national objective assessment.

During my infant teaching years, the Government was rolling out at great expense, and with huge clout, the National Literacy Strategy (1998-2006). From my teaching experience, I recognised it as fundamentally flawed with its promotion of the NLS ‘Searchlights’ multi-cueing reading strategies at the core of its guidance. Readers of this post may be well-aware of this multi-cueing strategy approach: ‘Guess [the printed word] from the picture; guess from the initial letter or letters; read on, go back, what word would make sense?’ [a context cue]. The debate about these multi-cueing word-guessing strategies rages on to this day across the world in English-teaching contexts.

I questioned the guidance of the National Literacy Strategy from the get-go. I asked if there was any research to back up this approach. I wasn’t knowledgeable myself about research findings at that time, but I couldn’t believe that such flawed guidance had validity. After all, it was the very weakest readers in my class (inherited) who tried to guess unknown words from the pictures – and they invariably guessed words incorrectly and then looked up at me with their big eyes for guidance because they KNEW they weren’t guessing the right word more often than not!

I got into a lot of trouble locally over a number of years because I constantly raised my worries during local teacher-training for the National Literacy Strategy. It was not uncommon for two Local Authority advisors to arrive together at my school to take me to task (tell me off). We would now recognise this as bullying. I received a lot of this quite frankly, but that is by-the-by. I wrote copious letters to the Local Authority personnel and to various Government folk and to the leading inspectors of Ofsted.

I made connections with people in the field of phonics including co-authors Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham, and Managing Director Chris Jolly, of the Jolly Phonics programme; and Educational Psychologist Dr Marlynne Grant, author of Sound Discovery; and Ruth Miskin who went on to create the Read Write Inc programme.

Founder of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, Mona McNee, kept appealing for someone to take over the organisation and write the RRF newsletters. My husband, David, eventually said to me, “It has to be you, Debbie” – so with no writing experience (and with a heavy heart), I became the RRF newsletter editor and started a plan to inform people, draw attention to the findings of research of teaching reading, and to hold the, then, Government to account for the National Literacy Strategy with its flawed multi-cueing ‘Searchlights’ reading strategies.

If of interest, you can see some of my early RRF newsletters and their challenge to the ‘Searchlights’.

And this is where Minister Nick Gibb steps into the backstory. I was invited to meet Nick in London and off I went with several copies of the RRF newsletter tucked under my arm. I told him all about the various schools, using various phonics programmes, who were getting such great results with no multi-cueing word-guessing. By now I had learnt about research findings – particularly from America – and the work of pioneers in America.

Nick listened and no doubt conducted further enquiries and met others who were achieving great things in their schools in England at that time. He worked really hard to keep this as a cross-party issue and enabled a House of Commons parliamentary enquiry into the teaching of reading in 2005. You can see that I was involved as a leading witness providing oral and written evidence for this enquiry in the report, Teaching Children to Read.

This was shortly followed by the Education Secretary commissioning Sir Jim Rose to conduct an independent inquiry culminating in his world-renowned Independent review of the early teaching of reading 2006. I had the honour of meeting with Sir Jim Rose to offer my experiences at that time.

The Government, and subsequent governments, accepted Sir Jim’s recommendations to replace the ‘Searchlights’ professional understanding of reading with the ‘Simple View of Reading‘ (Gough and Tunmer, 1986). This was an exceptionally important outcome and still is to this day. This was a turning point in England – although, tragically, not reflected in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Minister Nick Gibb has continued to champion the ‘Simple View of Reading’ and the need for Systematic Synthetic Phonics with no multi-cueing reading strategies. This has led to official guidance and literature for the National Curriculum for English for key stages 1 and 2, guidance for teaching and teacher-training, and various phonics-based initiatives such as ‘match-funding’ (2011 to 2013), a DfE validation process of SSP programmes which involves self-assessment then subsequent DfE scrutiny, the statutory end of Year 1 ‘phonics screening check’ (2012), ‘Phonics Roadshows’, and the latest ‘English Hubs initiative’.

In short, Minister Nick Gibb has truly been the political champion of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and the raising of standards for foundational literacy. Other politicians from different political parties were also supportive as individuals along the way, but it was Nick who pressed ahead and ensured the national promotion and uptake of research-informed systematic synthetic phonics.

But where next for phonics and the foundations of literacy in England? Is it time to reflect on a national scale and build on our findings to date?

This will be continued in the next post – No. 2…

Click here to investigate free access to the full Phonics International programme.

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