The following statement seems particularly apt: Education is roughly at the same stage that the doctors were one hundred years ago when drugs were administered without being tested. Many patients benefited, some deteriorated and a significant number died. Eventually this practice became illegal and rigorous testing of drugs was introduced.
This certainly applies to the teaching of reading, except that the bottom group of children do not die from the lack of correct evidence-based phonics teaching, but they certainly have their education, and often their adult lives, ruined by it. Literacy programmes, especially those promoted by the government, really should be tested with the same rigour that is applied in the drugs industry.
Back in 1990, Martin Turner revealed in his book Sponsored Reading Failure that the number of children with literacy problems was increasing at an alarming rate. The evidence that he presented was based on the test results that he, his fellow educational psychologists and Local Education Authorities had amassed over many years. The psychologists believed that the cause of the problem was the lack of phonics teaching in our schools. This revelation cost Martin Turner his job, but also jolted the government into becoming directly involved. No longer could this kind of failure be tolerated, especially as good literacy skills were essential for our modern society and workforce.
Suddenly the people at the Department for Education and Skills (DfES – formerly the Department for Education and Employment) took on a new role. Instead of carrying out their usual promotion of fashionable ideas, such as the ‘real books’ approach and emergent reading/writing, they were given the brief by the government to write and promote an effective literacy programme which included phonics. This became the National Literacy Strategy (NLS).
As the NLS was being developed many educationalists and teachers were consulted about the best way to teach phonics. Indeed it appears that several of their ideas were written into the NLS, but did this hodgepodge of ideas make an effective programme?
There was an element of testing in the pilot study for the NLS: the ‘Evaluation of the National Literacy Project Summary Report’ by Marion Sainsbury, which was published by the National Foundation for Educational Research in December 1998. The schools involved in this pilot project showed improvement, but they were still below average and certainly had far poorer results than the schools that used synthetic phonics. So right from the beginning it was known that the NLS did not produce the best results, and yet all schools were made to feel that they must follow this programme. Why were the test results of the NLS pilot not distributed with the NLS materials? Then head-teachers would have been able to make up their own minds whether to implement it or not.
When the NLS was published, I realised that the principles behind it were poor. For example, there were 45 ‘high frequency words to be taught as “sight recognition” words’ in Reception, and a further 112 words to be similarly taught in Years 1 and 2. Without knowledge of letter sounds and the skill of blending, many children are unable to remember words by sight. In the school where I was teaching, we had abandoned this ‘look and say’ type of teaching in the 1970s because it failed so many children. In July 1998, before we were expected to follow the NLS, we tested our children at the end of their Reception year to find out how many of the 45 ‘sight words’ they could read. At the same time, we also tested them on the Year 1 and 2 list of sight words. The teacher of this class of 27 did not know what the NLS words were, so could not have coached the children on them. She had followed our usual Jolly Phonics programme. The results for these Reception children were as follows:
Reception words: on average, 41 out of 45 (91%) correctly read*.
Year 1 and 2 words: on average, 72 out of 112 correctly read.
These results were sent to John Stannard, then director of the NLS. I explained that I would like to compare the performance of our children with that of the children who were specifically taught these words in the NLS trial. His reply was ‘Unfortunately I don’t have comparable data to show you because similar tests were not conducted using these word lists’.
It is staggering that not even this simple test was carried out. Surely the people in the DfES would have wanted to know how easy it was for the children to learn the words this way. Several researchers have warned of the dangers of teaching a sight vocabulary in the early stages of teaching reading and yet this logographic stage is part of the NLS. The children in our school, who did not learn sight words by their shape, were probably able to read a higher number of words successfully than the children who were taught the NLS sight words, but this was impossible to prove because the NLS team had omitted to test their children. Where is the accountability in that?
It is natural for teachers and head-teachers to be influenced by the DfES, advisers, Ofsted inspectors and college lecturers because they hold higher posts of responsibility and are expected to be more knowledgeable. Yet these are the very people who, without any evidence of the effectiveness of their ideas, led us into the fashionable teaching methods that have badly failed the bottom 30% of our children. The NLS was promoted in our schools with an almost mandatory zeal, but, as we have seen, without much evidence that it was an excellent and effective programme.
Surely it is time that we really came into the 21st century, learnt to respect evidence-based research, and gave teachers the facts, instead of misleading them with fashionable ideas.
Sue Lloyd is the leading author of The Phonics Handbook.
|*Editor’s comment: Note that these results are very similar to those obtained when the children in Marlynne Grant’s study were tested on the same words (see page 9).|