This is my personal opinion based on my personal experiences, observations and reflections …
At long last, the Department for Education (England) and Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, have published a substantial guidance document for the teaching of early reading and spelling/handwriting – launched on Saturday 10th July 2021. THIS IS A GREAT DAY!
Tragically, government officials don’t always get the guidance right. They don’t, arguably, always make the right decisions as to what to publish for teachers. And, of great concern, this important framework is not guidance that all the countries of the United Kingdom may take into account and adopt because ‘education’ is devolved in the UK. So the foundations of reading and spelling instruction for children – even in the UK – is still left to chance.
England has been on an incredible journey with regard to the teaching of reading. Successive governments have demonstrated really good intent – significantly from 1998 when the, then, National Literacy Strategy was launched by the Labour Government at huge expense and with much fanfare and teacher-training.
In 1998, the National Literacy Strategy (NLS) did include phonics teaching, but only as part of a mixed methods approach. Multi-cueing word-guessing dominated (guess the printed word you don’t know from the picture, initial letter/s, context cues, whole word shapes) and continued to be promoted as the ‘Searchlights’ reading strategies. Reading books for beginners were designed on the basis of predictable and/or repetitive texts so they were not actually ‘decodable’ for children even if they had been taught some phonics and were making good progress. Then teachers only had reading material that undermined the children’s capacity to decode because the printed words had many letter/s-sound correspondences that the children had not yet been taught.
At that time I was heavily subjected to the NLS initiative as a primary teacher – it was imposed on me. You had to attend the training and you were supposed to deliver literacy teaching according to the NLS. Although the NLS was not ‘statutory’, it may as well have been – such was the climate. Coincidentally, I had deliberately just moved into infant teaching to find out what on earth was going wrong. I was alarmed and perplexed that so many junior-aged children were floundering with the basics of reading and writing. Invariably, their home circumstances or their special needs were considered to be the cause, but I didn’t believe this was the case. In other words, I developed a deep concern and an interest in how reading and writing were taught in the infants – so I set out to be an infant teacher for a while to find out, first hand, all about the teaching of children at the beginning of their school journey.
When I attended various training events delivered by designated NLS advisors, my first thoughts were worries about the prescription of the timescales allotted to all the component parts of an hour’s literacy provision (15 minutes for this, 15 minutes for that and so on – how did this make sense when the powers that be don’t know your circumstances – your pupils, their needs, your teaching style, the challenges you face – this seemed so overly prescriptive to me). Again, this may have just been good intent so that children were guaranteed ‘the literacy hour‘ at least.
But what tipped me over into becoming a challenger of the guidance in the NLS was when the NLS advisors were ‘training’ us to tell children to ‘look at the picture to guess the word’. What?!! Really?!! That’s not reading, that’s pure guessing – and it was my weakest children who resorted to guessing printed words they didn’t know. And as they were slower-to-learn children (inherited from a mixed methods Reception experience), they invariably didn’t recognise many printed words in the first place. So, guess, guess, guess, the words they didn’t know. They really couldn’t read.
NOW BE MORE HORRIFIED: MULTI-CUEING WORD-GUESSING IS STILL THE BASIS OF MUCH GUIDANCE FROM OFFICIALS, TEACHER-TRAINERS AND INFLUENTIAL LITERACY PROGRAMMES PROMOTED BY BIG PUBLISHERS FOR READING INSTRUCTION IN THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE ACROSS THE WORLD! CHECK OUT THIS FORUM AT THE INTERNATIONAL FOUNDATION FOR EFFECTIVE READING INSTRUCTION.
As I investigated more about reading and spelling instruction, I began to discover that the findings of research (largely from the United States in the 1980s and 1990s) confirmed that multi-cueing word-guessing was not well-founded for teaching beginners – and for many children it could be positively detrimental for causing short and long-term bad reading habits (children’s reading profiles). I was supported in my day-to-day teaching practice and professional understanding by various resources from the following programmes Jolly Phonics (Sue Lloyd and Sara Wernham), Alpha to Omega (Beve Hornsby) and Spelling Made Easy (Violet Brand). My subsequent work has been underpinned by these ladies (and some others) and the work of various researchers internationally – many of whom went on to be pioneers for research-informed reading instruction.
Chris Jolly (Jolly Learning Ltd) connected me to Dr Marlynne Grant (Sound Discovery) and Marlynne connected me to founder of the UK Reading Reform Foundation, Mona McNee. Mona was looking to hand over the reins of the RRF and editorship of its newsletter. So, for a few years I edited the RRF newsletter which we were able to get direct into schools. We also launched a website with a message forum. And, fortuitously, Nick Gibb learned of the work of the RRF and invited me to meet him in London. Off I went with my first few RRF newsletters tucked under my arm to meet Nick. What a day that was!
Challenges from the Reading Reform Foundation and other people involved with reading instruction at that time (linked to research and practice and programmes) led to a DfES Phonics Seminar in 2003. I was invited to attend this seminar and I considered it to be a debacle quite frankly. I wrote about the event and the subsequent report by Professor Greg Brooks in RRF newsletter no. 51: In denial – the NLS whitewash continues
Nick Gibb, however, worked tirelessly (cross party) to champion a parliamentary inquiry Teaching Children to Read (2005) for which I was a witness and gave evidence to challenge the National Literacy Strategy and its ‘searchlights’ reading strategies. Closely following this event, Sir Jim Rose was invited to conduct an independent review and his subsequent report was profoundly important Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading (2006). Sir Jim Rose and his team of inspectors paid due regard not only to the research findings up to that date, but also to what they could see with their own eyes of actual provision in the classroom. This certainly persuaded Rose of the powerful impact of ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) provision not only of one particular phonics programme but of various programmes based on the same basic teaching principles. Rose not only commented on the benefits of SSP, but also the helpfulness of the Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) which subsequently became the model of professional understanding in England of the two main processes of being a reader in the full sense – word recognition (capacity to lift the words off the page) and language comprehension (the capacity to understand the words that have been lifted off the page). This remains the case to this day in England, and you can see reference and diagrams of the Simple View of Reading (and its parallel rationale for writing) in the new framework launched today (10th July 2021).
I have provided a useful pdf for teachers – for their professional understanding and for use to reflect on actual children (especially if they struggle) of the Simple View of Reading and the Simple View of Writing.
Throughout these years of parliamentary inquiries and developments, I continued to be an infant teacher, then a primary headteacher, then a special needs teacher. This meant I was literally in the thick of teaching children who had already had mixed methods, then who had SSP from the start, then overseeing large-scale teaching failure (at least partially caused by flawed guidance) and what happens to children’s behaviour and self-esteem when they don’t have strong foundational literacy provision. When children get in a muddle and a mess, one could suggest it’s because their provision has been a muddle and a mess. And this can still be the case with strong, competent, dedicated teachers – doing the wrong things with the wrong emphasis and the wrong timing – and this may also be based on the wrong guidance. Of course sometimes teachers are not naturally competent or talented as teachers – so that is always a challenge even with good, supportive materials and guidance designed to achieve quality teaching and learning – and, thankfully, the new reading framework addresses the accountability of senior leaders and the responsibility of all stakeholders to get the best outcomes for children.
The new framework makes reference to other official guidance documents published in England which have incorporated the right kind of information and messages to the teaching profession and teacher-training profession for the past 14 years or so – for example, the 2013 National Curriculum for English for Key Stages 1 and 2, the new Early Years guidance, the 2019 Inspection Handbook for Ofsted inspectors. This illustrates how much of a journey England has travelled to highlight the importance of early language provision and a literature-rich experience, with systematic synthetic phonics provision (with no multi-cueing word-guessing), matched texts for reading and writing – and the benefits of programmes, training and continuous professional development (CPD). There are references to international studies and research findings, a hat tip to some individual international personalities and pioneers such as Maryanne Wolf, Diane McGuinness and the influential Clackmannanshire research of Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson.
I suspect that this new framework might be the envy of many poineers for research-informed reading instruction in the English language ‘around the world’. It addresses so much – including issues such as assessment, special needs, choosing a phonics programme (reflecting that even with the same SSP teaching principles, there are differences amongst them), accountability, even how to develop conversations with little children in a practical way both in the classroom and that can be shared with parents.
It signifies the change of approach of governments providing actual ‘programmes’ to government providing ‘informed guidance’ – based on both research findings and classroom findings. Surely this is how it should be. I’m well-known for being critical of the Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) publication because I saw dangers and inadequacies of providing something from a government that purported to be a ‘high quality six phase phonics programme’ that I have always argued was not really a programme at all. In effect, it was a resourceless framework that led many thousands of schools to adopt it as it was both official and free – but what cost to equip it with teaching and learning resources – and what cost to those children in schools where teachers have not managed this well enough? But how many teachers’ choices were actually skewed simply because Letters and Sounds was the government programme and perceived to be ‘official’ and ‘safer to be seen to use’ rather than whether it was superior or more sensible to use to support teaching and learning?
In March 2021, the DfE announced that Letters and Sounds (DfES, 2007) would no longer be ‘validated’ by the DfE in its list of validated SSP programmes – acknowledging its lack of resources. Then the DfE decision to ‘revise’ and ‘equip’ the original Letters and Sounds was actually reversed. A new round of SSP programmes applying for DfE validation based on 16 core criteria was opened in June 2021.
And, today, the DfE has also published the list of newly validated SSP programmes (fully equipped this time) to add to the list of SSP programmes previously validated in 2012.
I’m not sure how others might regard the significance of these developments – perhaps not in the same light as me as this has, indeed, been a long and hard personal and professional journey – but I view the advent of this reading framework as a new era for reading and spelling instruction at least in England’s case – and I do wish for officials and people with influence in other countries teaching reading and writing in the English language to hurry up, take note, and even use Nick Gibb’s profoundly important, long-but-very-readable, very good, guidance framework!