Last reviewed 31 January 2022

Is there a better way of teaching young children to read? Former primary school headteacher Michael Evans looks at a recent report suggesting that government policy for teaching reading could be improved.

The crux of the problem

As any early years practitioner will know, the teaching of reading has never been an exact science. Although most people grow up with a good or even a modest degree of reading fluency, an extraordinary number do not.

In 2013, a survey carried out in England and Northern Ireland revealed that 5.8 million people, equating to 16% of the adult population, scored at or below the lowest level of literacy.

It has been estimated that low levels of adult literacy cost the UK £81 billion a year in lost earnings and increased welfare spending.

Statistics from 2014 indicate that one in five children in England were not able to read well by the age of 11 and further research showed similar percentages for 15-year-olds.

Trying to solve a well-established problem

It is an established fact that if children have not developed sufficient reading skills by the middle of primary school, this can have a serious impact on their future ability in all other areas of the curriculum.

Teaching children to read is one of the most fundamental goals of early years education throughout the world and as such, it has attracted an enormous amount of research from a wide range of academic disciplines. The teaching of reading is so fundamental to children’s educational development that academics consider it vital that curriculum policies are informed by robust research.

The Government’s favoured option

Learning to read involves the ability to recognise symbols (letters) that represent sounds that can then be blended together to form words, so the obvious way of learning to read is to use a phonics approach. Unfortunately, a major problem with the English language is that there are so many inconsistencies that this is not a straightforward process.

Over the years numerous methods have been devised in attempts to overcome this problem and the current system favoured by the government is known as “Synthetic Phonics”. Here children learn the sounds made by letter blends, in addition to sounds made by individual letters. Government policy is to use synthetic phonics first and foremost, with other strategies such as teaching comprehension following later.

A number of reading schemes to support this have been vetted by the Department for Education (DfE), and schools are obliged to choose from this list. To maintain a check on progress, towards the end of the academic year, all pupils in Year 1 take a test to ensure that they have achieved an expected standard.

Questions are raised

A major new research study has recently been published by academics at the Institute of Education at University College London, and this suggests that there is no evidence to support the DfE’s focus on the first and foremost use of synthetic phonics in the teaching of reading.

Findings are based on a survey of more than 2000 teachers, plus an analysis of trends in Sats, the Programme for International Student Assessment and the Progress in International Literacy Study.

Professor Dominic Wyse, an author of the research paper, reported that the majority of the teachers who were questioned taught synthetic phonics as the only form of phonics teaching and this was done quite separately from comprehension. He said that the review also discovered that there was no strong evidence that synthetic phonics should be the only method, or that it should be taught separately.

The DfE maintains that synthetic phonics, together with the associated statutory phonics screening check, is the most effective method of teaching early reading. Many researchers support this view, while others, such as the writers of the research paper, do not.

The need for improvement

Coinciding with the publication of the research paper, an open letter with 251 signatories was sent to the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi. Signatories included primary heads, heads of department, policymakers, academics, and even former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen.

The letter acknowledges that England’s current approach to teaching reading has a number of strengths, but it suggests that the most robust research has indicated that changes to DfE policy and guidance are needed if more children are going to succeed. Vital improvements are urgently required.

Policy and practice, it maintains, should focus more on the importance of encouraging children’s motivation for reading and teachers should be encouraged to focus first and foremost on pupils making sense of the text. It stresses the importance for phonics teaching to be carefully linked with reading the whole texts and that teachers should receive support to use a range of phonics teaching approaches and not just synthetic phonics.

The letter goes on to say that robust evidence suggests that the DfE should increase the amount of time devoted to reading comprehension in the national curriculum, while decreasing the amount of time devoted to phonics teaching. Vetting of phonic schemes, it says, should be discontinued and the use of the phonics screening check as a national statutory test should be abandoned. Teachers, it goes on, are better placed to decide which resources to use to support their teaching of reading and how to assess children’s early reading development.

Prof. Wyse was asked how in his opinion the UK’s approach differed from other countries. He called England an “outlier”. While some countries followed an approach that focused on whole texts, others favoured a balance between whole texts, systematic teaching about the alphabet code plus other linguistic features. In England synthetic phonics was prominent. The end of year test was given high importance and usually, he said, the first thing that an Ofsted inspector would ask for during an inspection was to see the phonics screening results.

A call for caution

As observed earlier, the teaching of reading is not an exact science and intense passions can be aroused as experts defend their corners. Julie Carroll, professor of child development and education at Coventry University, questioned the findings of the report.

She feels that in some instances the research is flawed, with too much emphasis on early literacy teaching in Years 1 and 2 and not enough emphasis on later literacy teaching, from Year 3 onwards. She points out that a key part of the “phonics first and foremost” approach is that it is during Year 2 or Year 3, when most learners are able to move on from phonics tuition, that they are able to focus on whole texts and comprehension.

She regrets that the report does not address “struggling readers” or “at-risk readers”. This, she feels is disappointing, since it is for those groups that synthetic phonics is most beneficial.

She makes the point that in her opinion synthetic phonics does no harm to anyone’s outcomes, but it does help those who are most at risk. She points out that in each class there will be at least 20% who could be classed as at-risk readers, mainly due to learning difficulties or having to cope with English as an additional language but there can also be a myriad of other reasons.

To sum up, Prof. Carroll makes the point that in many areas she agrees with the writers of the research paper. She highlights the high level of agreement on the need for literacy research and the agreement that children need good-quality phonics teaching and access to high-quality children’s literature. The only points of disagreement are about how and when the different skills should be integrated as children learn to read.

The status quo continues

As far as early years practitioners are concerned, while the research paper is obviously of great interest, in the short term it is not likely to make a great deal of difference to the way they work. The obligation to follow the DfE’s existing statutory guidance will remain and will likely stay so for some time. As for the future, who knows?

Summary

  • Teaching children to read is not an exact science, but most systems rely on a phonics-based approach.

  • The method favoured by the DfE is synthetic phonics, where children learn to recognise sounds made by letter blends as well as sounds made by individual letters.

  • A recent research paper has suggested that this approach is too prescriptive, there should be less central control and teachers should be given more freedom.

  • In an open letter to the Secretary of State, it was suggested that the DfE should discontinue its system of vetting reading schemes and abandon the use of the phonics screening check as a national statutory test.

  • Prof. Julie Carroll of the University of Coventry expressed concerns about the report, questioning some of the research and regretting that there was no consideration given to struggling readers or at-risk readers.

  • Prof. Carroll agreed with much that the report had to offer, but she was concerned about the integration of different skills as children learn to read.

  • In the meantime, early years practitioners will need to continue to follow the DfE’s existing statutory guidance.