The teaching profession complains about all the recent changes officially required and the subsequent burden of increased (unnecessary) paperwork, but one cannot deny a sense of excitement from the input of new ideas, resources and training opportunities. The time is here for our profession to be truly thoughtful and creative, taking the very best out of the many initiatives – whilst rejecting those elements that we simply have not found to be the most suitable or effective in our settings. This ‘upwards evaluation’ is long overdue. At the chalk face, we are subject to it constantly. Are those in authority, who shape our methods and curriculum, equally accountable? They are not.
We have a bizarre and tragic situation where the DfEE has foisted upon us directives for the early years that are heavily flawed – proof of which we have in abundance. The National Literacy Strategy and Progression in Phonics were hastily created. Advice from too many sources resulted in compromised recommendations, and in a lack of clear guidance on the best way to teach early literacy. Phonics is now recognised as the essential ingredient for the goal of raising literacy standards, and yet all the leading phonics experts’ protestations that the NLS is flawed are being ignored. The DfEE will not respond to our voiced concern supported by the research evidence. Ofsted continues to report on literacy in synthetic phonics settings as if all results were a product of the National Literacy Strategy – misleading both our profession and the general public. Training opportunities are totally dominated by the DfEE directives. Standards, far from being ‘national’, continue to vary widely from one setting to the next. Ignorance of what can easily be achieved still abounds.
What an irony that teachers sometimes feel that they cannot follow all the guidance in such programmes as Jolly Phonics or Best Practice Phonics because they have to incorporate the conflicting recommendations of the NLS Progression in Phonics. Our comparison chart (p.20-21) clearly demonstrates that there is a vast difference in the potential of each approach. The new ‘politically correct’ emphasis on ‘learning through play’ as advised in the DfEE Curriculum guidance for the foundation stage is also resulting in missed opportunities for the best start in early literacy. Margaret Hodge’s statement on the training video that “…It is not about them learning to read and write too early…” is misleading, contentious, thoughtless and damaging.
When something is so simple as teaching young children to read by teaching them the sounds quickly, and teaching them to sound out and blend throughout the word from the outset (initial, medial, final sound), why go ‘round the houses’? The difference in results between the expectations of synthetic phonics teaching and Progression in Phonics’ teaching is profound, and this issue must not continue to be swept under the carpet by the authorities at both LEA and DfEE level. In the U.S.A., research that backs this up led the National Reading Panel to conclude that:
- ‘Teaching PA with letters helps students acquire PA more effectively than teaching PA without letters.’ [PA stands for Phonemic Awareness] (Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction p.2-41]
Instead of spending all the time trying to develop phonemic awareness without letters using the activities in the Progression in Phonics Step 1, we should be teaching synthetic phonics. The Canadian researcher, Dale Willows, found that the best gains were made when the children had synthetic phonics [Jolly Phonics] in the nursery and reception class…and the children loved it.
Another revealing conclusion reached by The National Reading Panel was:
- To be able to make use of letter-sound information, children need phonemic awareness. That is, they need to be able to blend sounds together to decode words, and they need to break spoken words into their constituent sounds to write words. Programs that focus too much on the teaching of letter-sound relations and not enough on putting them to use are unlikely to be very effective. In implementing systematic phonics instruction, educators must keep the end in mind and ensure that children understand the purpose of learning letter-sounds and are able to apply their skills in their daily reading and writing activities. (p.2-135)
Until we are given evidence that the children being taught strictly to the National Literacy Strategy and Progression in Phonics achieve higher results than those children taught with synthetic phonics, teachers and foundation stage practitioners should not be drawn into deviating from the principles of systematic synthetic phonics teaching. The new NLS material Developing Early Writing clearly shows settings where children are taught their letters sounds from using Jolly Phonics mnemonics (although there is blatantly no acknowledgement of this), but then the teachers continue to follow the slower and flawed advice of Progression in Phonics – to which there is constant reference. We would argue that the National Literacy Strategy is keeping reading and writing standards in the early years below their true potential. The DfEE is in an ideal position for self-promotion of its methods and materials, with no corresponding accountability. This cannot be right.