(This article is a slightly edited version of one first published in The Daily Telegraph on 11 February 2004 )
David Bell, the head of Ofsted, said last week that primary schools were spending so much time teaching literacy and numeracy that they were failing to give their pupils a rounded education. And yet, he added, the national literacy strategy appeared to have stalled, leaving one pupil in four unable to read and write properly.
So how has the literacy strategy – supposedly one of the jewels in the Department for Education’s crown – resulted in a double failure across the primary curriculum? The simple answer is that it is blind to what works. It has tried to achieve its aims by bluster and prescription instead of by research and understanding.
Failure to teach reading is not a new problem. A recent report from the Basic Skills Unit showed that just over a fifth of adults are functionally illiterate. But it need not be so, for the failure is very largely the result of the way reading is taught.
The national literacy strategy repeatedly uses the expression “to read on sight”. But reading on sight – memorising how words look – results in a high level of failure. The alternative, which is infinitely more successful, is to learn to read words by the sounds of their letters.
Learning to read this way is called phonics (or synthetic phonics). It has two main elements, both of which are relatively straightforward. First, the child needs to be taught each of the letter sounds. The alphabet is not enough as there are about 44 sounds in English. Some of them, such as “sh” and “ee”, are represented by two letters, called digraphs when they function in this way. By the time you include “th”, “ng” and “oo”, there are quite a few digraphs, each of them representing a single sound.
The alphabet is not enough for another reason, too: it calls each letter by its name, when what the child needs is the letter’s sound.
The other element the child needs is to learn how to “blend” the sounds together to read words. Just making the sounds b-u-s run together to make the word “bus” is quite an achievement for young children. But they can be quick to learn and, with practice, they will become good at it.
A child who knows the letter sounds and can blend is able to read new words that he or she has never seen before. By contrast, a child taught to “read on sight” will know only the words taught so far. Faced with new words – even a simple one such as “hat” – the child is likely to say that he or she has not done that one yet.
The difference in the achievement of those taught by each method is stark. At the end of their first year at school, children taught with phonics in the way I have described typically have a reading age 12 months ahead of those taught to memorise words by sight. More importantly, their failure rate is far lower. Children whose teaching is based on sight vocabulary have a one in four chance of failing, with boys much more likely to fail than girls. With phonics, less than one in 20 has this risk, and boys do as well as girls.
All this is well known and has been confirmed by one published study after another. The best start for children is to learn all the letter sounds as soon as they start school. Commercial phonics schemes are available that ensure this happens in the first term, and they are widely used by teachers. Sadly, the national literacy strategy recommends taking two and a half years to learn letter sounds.
Yet reading with half the letter sounds is like trying to play cards with half a pack. It is the same with blending. Many published schemes make the blending of sounds central to their programme, but in the national literacy strategy, the word “blending” does not appear at all in the first year.
The failure to understand lies with the Government and the authors of the national literacy strategy, not with teachers. A study my company commissions each year shows that the majority of primary school teachers think “learning letter sounds and blending” is more effective than “learning the alphabet and using context and meaning”.
So we need a way out of this dilemma. We need the teaching of reading to be based on the use of phonics – which requires no extra time from other subjects in the curriculum – rather than on the advice of the national literacy strategy. To an extent, it is already beginning to happen. Fewer teachers now use the national literacy strategy, and more of them are using commercial phonics schemes.
Decisions about teaching methods should be made by teachers, not by ministers. The Government and Ofsted should limit themselves to setting objectives and measuring results. The best guidance on teaching methods comes from teachers who achieve excellent results with children of all abilities – something the teacher training institutions ought to remember.
We need to do a lot more to reduce a level of failure that has been with us for too long.
Christopher Jolly is Managing Director of Jolly Learning Limited.
|Editor’s comment: The phrase ‘reading words on sight’ can, as some researchers have pointed out, have two rather different meanings: reading words by their general shape, without detailed attention to the letters, and reading words which have been read so often by detailed attention to the letters that they are familiar and any detailed processing is now subconscious. When the NLS was introduced, most teachers were so used to the first of these meanings that it was inevitable that they would treat the lists headed ‘High frequency words to be taught as “sight recognition” words’ in this way and not as words to be processed by letter-sound decoding.|