In 1999, The Centre for Policy Studies published my pamphlet which lambasted the National Literacy Strategy (NLS). The central piece of evidence was the Scottish Office study by Joyce Watson and Rhona Johnston at St Andrews, which found that children who are taught intensive phonics in reception came out 14 months ahead of those taught according to dictates of the NLS. Joyce recently told me that these pupils have subsequently maintained or increased their advantage.
At the Promethean Trust, we are now getting our first pupils who entered school when the NLS was introduced. Recently we’ve had quite a number of 7 year-olds who are almost totally ignorant of phonics. The most extreme case—a boy I’ll call Jason—came to us in September knowing only three letter sounds, and those none too reliably. He was totally ignorant of the phonemic principle, and needless to say, incapable of blending. Part of the trade of assessing young children is to put them at ease, but Jason sucked his thumb throughout the proceedings and burst into tears at almost anything.
Fortunately, Jason’s mother is a brick. Within three weeks she had taught him all his basic letter sounds, and he was beginning to blend. Jason started coming into lessons with a big smile. Now, a mere eight lessons later he knows all of the common digraphs, he can blend consonants, and he can say the sounds in words with ease. He’s started SRA Spelling Mastery A and is ever so proud of himself—and he’s a pleasure to teach.
Jason’s school has only just got in specialist help for him, and it’s a pity they didn’t wait a little longer. His mother is livid. The ‘experts’ are whole-word dinosaurs whose efforts to undo our work are not, fortunately, succeeding.
The problem with the NLS is that it perpetuates the myth that children should be taught a range of strategies for identifying unknown words. Consequently, when children have trouble mastering basic phonological skills, teachers tend to rely almost exclusively on the whole-word and whole-language strategies in the NLS.
David Blunkett’s claim that the NLS is working must be treated with the greatest suspicion. His only evidence is the improvement in 11+ English SATs results. Last year Liz Lightfoot published evidence from Godmanchester Primary School which strongly suggested that SATs are being dumbed-down. At one of our local comprehensives, the SEN teacher reports that ten of her new special needs pupils ‘passed’ their English SATs earlier this year while still in primary school. One of the parents asserts that the teachers read the test to the class. It is surely wrong to ask teachers to administer these high-stakes tests: it puts them in a difficult moral dilemma. Every primary school teacher I’ve talked to believes that cheating is rife. Do they cheat too, or do they let down their school? And what about their career prospects?
Yet it is well to remember that even if the NLS embraced early, intensive synthetic phonics, it still wouldn’t work. You can’t bludgeon teachers over the head with imperious dictats. With all the bureaucracy that is being heaped upon them, they loathe every piece of paper that floats down from on high, and it’s a miracle that they find any time to teach. As I continually tell my parents, no teacher wants a child to fail. It is almost impossible to expect teachers to accept that most of what they’ve been trained to do is dead wrong.
There are no easy answers. I have long maintained that objective standardised reading and spelling tests must be administered externally to raise public awareness of the extent of the problem. Nothing concentrates a parent’s (or a teacher’s) mind more than knowing that a child is x years behind. But without wider trials such as the St Andrews study, teachers will have no direct evidence of pedagogy that really works.
The power of example is potent. Tower Hamlets is now the fastest-improving LEA in inner London, and this is in no small part due to the salutary influence of Ruth Miskin’s success in teaching all of her Bengali pupils to read.
Burkard, T. (1999) The End of Illiteracy? The Holy Grail of Clackmannanshire, CPS, London (020 7222 4488)
Tom Burkard started The Promethean Trust in 1990 to help other parents teach their children to read. His own son, Arthur, spent 1 1/2 years in school without learning to read a word, but he was fortunate in living near Mona McNee--who, working with his late wife Felicity, taught Arthur how to read in six months. By the age of 9 Arthur had read Churchill's ‘My Early Life’, and now at the age of 17 he remains a prolific reader, despite the usual teen-age preoccupations.
The Promethean Trust now employs 7 part-time tutors, and has 60 pupils who attend weekly lessons with their parents. Tom Burkard has also introduced their programme of intensive phonics in two Norwich high schools, and very shortly he will be introducing it in local primary schools. Mr. Burkard has written numerous articles in academic journals and the press, as well as two pamphlets on literacy for the Centre for Policy Studies. He is a member of the Conservative Academics’ Group, and he is currently advising the shadow education bench on special needs policy.
How big a part does whole language teaching play in demoralising some children at a very early age, resulting in behaviour problems? Rather than perpetuating the notion that children have different learning styles, which leads to the concept of ‘giving them a bit of everything’, consider using the synthetic phonics technique shown to be effective with virtually all children.
In the next Reading Reform Foundation newsletter, we shall examine the results of St. Michael’s Primary School at Stoke Gifford, where the improvements made from a change in early literacy teaching to synthetic phonics have been dramatic. At the end of their reception year, children attain an average reading and spelling age 17 and 18 months ahead of chronological age. Trudy Wainwright (SENCo) and Dr. Marlynne Grant (psychologist) have fine-tuned a very early intervention programme (‘Sounds Discovery’), ensuring no child gets left behind at the foundation stage.