Criticism or evaluation?
Members of the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) have expressed their opinion that the Reading Reform Foundation should be supporting the National Literacy Strategy and not publicly criticising it. There is no question that we support the drive to improve literacy standards - indeed that is the reason for our foundation’s existence. We also concur that there are some excellent ideas within the National Literacy Strategy and that there is some rise in standards of teaching and learning.
The Reading Reform Foundation, however, was at the forefront of investigating the causes of illiteracy – and the ways in which we can reduce or eradicate it – long before the advent of the National Literacy Strategy. Examining and evaluating the NLS is rightly a continuation of scrutiny that we have always considered essential. We must all be vigilant and determined that the National Literacy Strategy does not continue to promote practices which many experts both in the UK and abroad, including the Reading Reform Foundation, have identified as being part and parcel of the illiteracy tragedy in the first place. We maintain that literacy standards could be substantially higher than is likely to be achieved by following the National Literacy Strategy in its ‘mix of methods’ format in the early years.
Guidance or directives?
I have been reminded by the DfES that the National Literacy Strategy is non-statutory and offers ‘guidance and support’ as opposed to ‘directives’. In future, I shall moderate my terminology accordingly, but it is the experience and perception of many that there is no alternative literacy training provision other than the ‘guidance’ of the National Literacy Strategy. Practitioners are led to believe that the manifestation of the NLS in the schools is exactly what local advisers and Ofsted inspectors are expecting to see. It is a brave teacher, headteacher, or local authority adviser who would openly be at variance with, or question, the ‘guidance and support’ of the National Literacy Strategy. In any event the non-statutory status of the National Literacy Strategy does not abrogate the DfES from its responsibility to ensure this influential guidance promotes the most successful teaching practice, which I suggest it currently does not.
Where and what are the statistics?
Most worrying is the lack of publicly available statistics from the NLS exemplar schools with which we can compare results. The DfES has promised such schools confidentiality. One might accept the argument for some measure of anonymity, but without transparent statistics we cannot move this debate forwards. Is this morally or professionally ethical? The National Literacy Strategy is apparently ‘based on extensive evidence, on a secure knowledge of relevant research and on existing good practice in schools’. Who would suspect that maybe this research is not so conclusive and that it is in some cases discredited, or that this secure knowledge differs from the secure knowledge of other experts in the literacy field? What regard has been paid to the ‘existing good practice’ of the synthetic phonics schools? Of course the mindset of most people is to believe in good faith everything they are told with such authority. Teachers want to do their best for the children and they also wish to survive professionally in these times of school accountability. Is it unreasonable to surmise that for the vast majority, the National Literacy Strategy is as influential as if it were statutory?
Monopoly or informed choices?
Compounding the problem is the sheer clout of the promotion and delivery of the National Literacy Strategy through the local education authorities. Some excellent reading practices and results have existed in our country prior to the NLS. Have we been adequately told about them? Have we been told anything at all? Arguably, the DfES should have fully capitalised and built upon existing good practice publicising the relevant information in some detail. Instead of this, the department has chosen to write its own material, delivered in many local education authorities as a monopoly, and yet without the details of the statistics we require to validate this advice. The DfES has told the Reading Reform Foundation that it is unable to promote or endorse specific teaching programmes; despite the fact that the National Literacy Strategy itself is openly influenced by the Australian whole language programme First Steps (as described in Roger Beard’s report: National Literacy Strategy – Review of Research and other Related Evidence). The latest NLS Early Literacy Support initiative is also modelled on the whole language Reading Recovery programme - yet another contradiction. The DfES can hardly be described as being impartial, objective or scientific under these questionable circumstances. Is this what the general public would expect after pronouncements by Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that research has shown the importance of phonics teaching? Ofsted has occasionally and obliquely referred to the effectiveness of ‘off the shelf phonics kits’. This is unhelpful. It is high time such programmes were fully identified alongside their proven outcomes, so that everyone can benefit from such vital information. There are some serious accountability questions here, or does accountability rest only on the shoulders of the unwitting teachers themselves?
Chance or Science?
If we draw upon statistical evidence, as we should, then surely there would be consensus as to the most effective practices in the matter of teaching reading? As it is, I suggest that the advice delivered to the country is influenced by other factors: Firstly we have ‘chance’: I know that had different leading literacy experts been in the driving seat, the advice for the early years would have been entirely different. Secondly, we have ‘compromise’: To advise a mix of methods (that is whole language guessing, and look-and-say, combined with some phonics) is to have concocted a political compromise, consisting of contradictory teaching principles, attempting to appease the whole language advocates and the phonics advocates. Thirdly, we have a ‘gamble’: To ignore essential advice from the synthetic phonics experts and to attempt to reinvent the wheel in the form of the NLS Progression In Phonics but with the continued promotion of the whole language guesswork reading searchlight strategies (referred to by many as the ‘balanced/mix of methods’ approach) is a gamble of the highest order. It is a vain hope that some phonics teaching, a high profile, national training, massively increased resources and pressure from local education authorities and Ofsted would inevitably provide the formula to sort out the illiteracy problem. I predict confidently that this will not be the case until the teaching profession and the general public understand the importance of automatic synthesising (blending) for the decoding of text, and the damaging effect caused by throwing several contradictory reading strategies at children in the initial stages of learning to read. Time will tell.
Politically correct or properly principled?
It is interesting, however, that some authorities know only too well that the best advice they can give is to ‘follow your Jolly Phonics’ (or Best Practice Phonics, Phono-Graphix etc.). These local education authorities do indeed encourage their schools, or some of their schools, to follow the leading synthetic phonics programmes, but they still dish out the NLS training in addition without openly questioning and drawing attention to its misguided contents. This is how the flawed advice in the National Literacy Strategy is in danger of being glossed over. It is also instrumental in diluting and distorting the advice of the synthetic phonics programmes as some people attempt to be politically correct by flitting between publications. A common example of this is where teachers are encouraged to use the Jolly Phonics multi-sensory mnemonics system only, but then ‘guided’ to follow simultaneously the NLS Progression in Phonics (which promotes whole language guesswork reading strategies in contrast to Jolly Phonics). To which approach then, should results from such circumstances be accredited? This is clearly the National Literacy Strategy eclectic approach and not synthetic phonics. How many would really understand this subtlety? The DfES will still claim that the NLS is a success, as results from those schools following the synthetic phonics practices will get absorbed into the general hysteria of ‘look at the rise in standards since the National Literacy Strategy’. Immorally, it will still be entirely a lottery as to which teaching of reading practice children receive in their educational settings. Which, I wonder, would the parents choose? And when
is a Jolly Phonics school not a synthetic phonics school by the true definition? When will the LEAs investigate the advice of the National Literacy Strategy properly, openly comparing the results of different practices, thus demonstrating the accountability that they are arguably now lacking? [Since I wrote this article, the newly published HMI report Teaching of Phonics refers to ‘a judicious mixture’ of Jolly Phonics and Progression in Phonics. Please read my response on p. 24.]
Transparent or veiled information and communication?
The Reading Reform Foundation has called upon Ofsted to clarify which early years settings follow exactly which practices to ensure that we can learn about real results in real schools and what their success or failure is really based upon. Currently, Ofsted inspectors are instructed to avoid such jargon as ‘synthetic phonics’ apparently because school inspection reports are targeted at parents. Is this an acceptable reason to avoid clarifying early years teaching practices which allows the National Literacy Strategy to claim any rise in literacy standards regardless of the reality? [The latest HMI report fails to mention synthetic phonics teaching – is this an attempt at political diplomacy?]
The trouble is that even when statistics speak for themselves, those who have promoted flawed whole language reading practices in the past simply do not appear to possess the good grace, common sense and educational principles to acknowledge or understand what is under their noses. In effect, at best they may concede that some emphasis on phonics teaching produces better results, but then begrudgingly they try to split hairs about how much, when and how to incorporate phonics - which is to miss the point that the process of synthesising is the most essential ingredient for the greatest reading success ensuring that guessing is a redundant strategy. The current ‘mix of methods, balanced approach, from the bottom up and the top down’ just happens to be part of a lumbering and reluctant international move towards the most effective practice. Why is there such reluctance to acknowledge what works? I cannot over emphasise how tragic and ludicrous I consider this situation. Crystal clear analyses and warnings of the consequences of the move away from systematic synthetic phonics-first teaching have existed for decades. Here we are in 2001 still promoting practices which direct children away from the letters in the words and telling them instead to look at the pictures and guess. Does this really make sense?
Blend or guess?
There has been a great deal of interest in why we describe our recommended phonics teaching approach as synthetic phonics, when we clearly advocate synthesising (blending) and analysing (segmenting) as simultaneous teaching features. My interpretation of this title is the sheer need to emphasise the paramount importance of synthesising in the reading process. The enormous empowerment of any person – child or adult – derived from developing this skill to automaticity is a sight to behold. In contrast, to witness a person struggling along grasping at clues from pictures and context is demoralising, pathetic, unnecessary and tragic in the extreme - let alone, the spectacle of a teacher trying to teach by these guessing methods as exemplified in the highly flawed NLS Early Literacy Support (ELS) training video on guided reading. The Reading Reform Foundation has called for the withdrawal of the Early Literacy Support programme until further review, but this call has been ignored. We consider that this warrants an urgent inquiry at the highest levels and we have approached the Education and Skills Select Committee to this end. Supporting our call, Lord Prior has written a question in the House of Lords: ‘To ask H.M. Government whether, in view of the alleged flaws in the Early Literacy Strategy, the scheme will be withdrawn?’
Charade or genuine progress?
Lord Prior recently arranged and attended a meeting between delegates of the Reading Reform Foundation, Baroness Ashton (Under Parliamentary Secretary of State for the Early Years and School Standards), Stephen Anwyll (Director of the National Literacy Strategy), Dr. Laura Huxford (Strategic Director of Training for the NLS) and members of the National Literacy Team. The DfES representatives were unwilling or unable to provide specific statistics to support the NLS advice, including for the latest Early Literacy Support initiative, despite long-standing requests by the Reading Reform Foundation. Baroness Ashton asked for names of exemplar synthetic phonics schools to investigate, which the RRF has duly provided. We hope this is a step in the right direction to an honest review of the national literacy situation, but we have reasons to believe it is not. The RRF delegates stressed their sense of urgency as the reading debate has long since concluded that synthetic phonics teaching is the most effective teaching approach for all children – and undeniably essential for the group commonly-referred to as ‘the long tail end’. If this government believes in the principles of inclusion as it purports, how does this correspond with the continued promotion of whole language reading strategies through such initiatives as the Early Literacy Support programme - which is openly based on whole language reading strategies and the Reading Recovery Book Bands system consisting of whole language reading scheme books?
Some local education authorities have undertaken their own early intervention initiatives based on synthetic phonics teaching and are no doubt well aware that the Early Literacy Support initiative appears not to be supported by standardised test results. How can these LEAs in all conscience roll out the ELS initiative in preference to their own promising and monitored programmes and without making proper comparisons? Could this have anything to do with the Standards Funds accompanying the NLS initiatives, or could it be succumbing to the pressure to be seen to be politically correct? Where are the transparent comparisons between different approaches of the first wave of literacy teaching – arguably far more pertinent than the national roll out of a second wave remedial teaching initiative? Surely prevention is better than intervention? Either way, there are clearly more unanswered questions here and indisputable issues of accountability at all levels.
It has been drawn to my attention, however, that accountability for standards rests squarely on the shoulders of the individual schools. Considering the interference and influence from all levels of authority, how can this status quo possibly be considered acceptable?
The Reading Reform Foundation has made some progress this year, but it is absolutely vital for the sake of our future generations, our current 3, 4 and 5 year olds and all the older children and adults with reading difficulties, that this debate is brought out into the open in an educational and scientific manner as soon as possible:
· The DfES has yet to supply satisfactory statistics and answers to any of the issues we have raised through our correspondence and meetings.
· The LEAs need to do their own homework to establish which practices are working the most effectively and broaden their training provision accordingly in the interests of the teaching profession and the general public.
· Teacher trainers should ensure that they are providing rigorous courses in synthetic phonics practices and the history of the teaching of reading.
· The literacy advisers should not merely deliver the National Literacy Strategy as per their remits, but evaluate it for themselves. If they feel the need to modify it, or recognise the advisability of promoting synthetic phonics programmes, they should inform the DfES of their professional observations and judgements to promote future adjustments to the NLS.
· The teachers and early years practitioners must not assume that guidance from those with the greatest authority is necessarily the best. They should use their common sense and be prepared to listen to others. Standardised tests should be used to monitor and influence reading practices at the end of YR, Y1 and Y2. Comparisons should be welcomed, not feared or avoided. Teachers need to know what works best.
· Publishers need to open their minds to a range of suggestions regarding required phonics resources instead of slavishly following the most recent fads of the National Literacy Strategy. [The recent production of yet more inadvisable whole language reading scheme books is a direct consequence of the whole language nature of the ELS programme.]
· We need to be conscious of the absolute rights of parents to know what is going on and what the issues are – including the identification of settings employing genuine synthetic phonics practices. The current illiteracy rate indicates that we failed their generation and we must not continue to fail their children now.
· Ofsted needs to break the mould of the bland and vague description. Observations need to be specific if they are to help us to learn which are the most effective practices. We should not have to resort to reading between the lines. [See my comments on latest report – page 24.]
In some areas of the UK there is a long way to go to raise awareness of the synthetic phonics teaching approach, whilst in other areas of the country programmes like Accelerated Reading and Spelling with Synthetic Phonics, Phono-Graphix, Jolly Phonics, Best Practice Phonics and Step by Step are spreading rapidly. Sadly, what started out as a laudable national strategy to address the UK’s illiteracy tragedy, may be serving to delay, distort or prevent the spread of the best practice in the teaching of reading and writing. In genuine synthetic phonics schools it is normal and predictable for reception children to achieve average reading and spelling results at least one year ahead of their chronological age whatever the circumstances. Headteachers are reporting the virtual disappearance of former high percentages of special educational needs since a change to synthetic phonics teaching. Such classroom findings and the growing body of staunch enthusiasts from a range of professional roles and enlightened members of the general public are clearly indicative of something very important transpiring. Groundbreaking synthetic phonics teaching in some secondary schools raises major issues about the way forward at Key Stage 3. There is no reason why literacy teaching could not be successful for every person in every corner of the English-speaking world. No reason except flawed old habits and beliefs as encapsulated in the guidance and advice of the National Literacy Strategy in the early years. No reason except malpractice and a network of unaccountability from those with the greatest influence at the highest political and educational levels.