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RRF Newsletter 47 back to contents
How Many More Years?Debbie Hepplewhite

Comments on the ‘Teaching of Phonics: A Paper by HMI’

Reference number: HMI 329  (

This paper not only “raises issues about the teaching of phonics”, but it also raises issues about the management and format of the National Literacy Strategy itself. 

It has serious implications for the future format of the National Literacy Strategy as it clearly recommends changes in the original framework.

It indirectly casts doubt upon the knowledge, understanding and competence of the past and present managers of the National Literacy Strategy.

There is no more fundamentally important time in a child’s formal education than in the early years (3-8). It is upon the foundations of the teaching in these years that arguably all subsequent education rests. The ability to read and write is recognised in our society as the most important factor for enabling future success and happiness. In recent decades, our system of teaching reading and writing has failed a very large percentage of the population, and needlessly continues to do so.

The report quite rightly notes “Phonics teaching has increased significantly since the implementation of the National Literacy Strategy. The debate is no longer about whether phonic knowledge and skills should be taught, but how best to teach them.” However, it then goes on to give a stark warning: “Although more phonics is being taught, it is still not having enough impact on standards of English at the end of Key Stage 1. In 2001, almost one third of Year 2 pupils failed to reach level 2B in reading and more than four in ten failed to reach level 2B in writing.”

Contrary to the implication in this report that we should all congratulate ourselves for the impact of the NLS so far, I think we should be taking a very serious look at the 30-40+% of children who failed to reach 2B at the end of Key Stage 1. This is simply a repetition of past failings and we certainly cannot consider the National Literacy Strategy a success despite some rise in standards.

We then have to ask why. Simplistically this could be attributed to two main reasons:

Reason 1: The teachers are not sufficiently trained and skilled in following the advice of the National Literacy Strategy.


Reason 2: The National Literacy Strategy advice and training are themselves looking flawed.

(NB We cannot blame the antecedents of the children, because although personal factors may depress standards to some extent, there are many schools with disadvantaged children of various descriptions where outstanding results have been achieved at the end of Key Stage 1.)

This report overtly states the former reason to explain the poor results, for example: “Despite the strategy’s timely production of materials in 1999 and the associated training, it is clear from HMI visits that the impact of these still has to be felt in many schools…”

Indirectly, however, HMI also suggests that the National Literacy Strategy could be flawed or inadequate in the vital early years:

 Those with responsibility for the management of the strategy should:

·        consider, in any revision to the NLS Framework for teaching, the scope for raising expectations of the speed with which pupils can acquire and apply phonic knowledge and skills in the foundation stage and Key Stage 1.”

We now need to turn back the clock and examine what transpired at the outset of the National Literacy Strategy. Ruth Miskin went on public record stating that her advice was not followed and the NLS was flawed. Rhona Johnston and Joyce Watson were never invited to present their paper on the Clackmannanshire research and it was dismissed out of hand. John Stannard, then Director of the NLS, was adamant that it did not matter what kind of approach you had to phonics teaching and he gave his name to the ‘Reading Searchlight Strategies’. These were subsequently promoted on the first page of the NLS Progression In Phonics, despite the fact that the leading phonics experts in the UK and abroad warned about the serious dangers of promoting whole language guesswork reading strategies. Consultations were ‘held’ with leading figures in the phonics domain [Jenny Chew will write about this in the next newsletter] and their advice was simply not followed. Considering that this advice was based very firmly on enormous collective experience and the results of scientific research, this is astounding to say the least.

Back to the present; three years later HMI are recommending changes which are moving far closer to what the phonics experts said long ago (including Mona McNee who founded the UK branch of the RRF in 1989).

·        Will the phonics experts now be consulted properly and their advice heeded?


·        Will their collective advice continue to be swept aside until there are more revelations in years to come about the inadequacies of early years teaching?

…And what about those managers responsible for the National Literacy Strategy who are clearly neither early years nor phonics experts? Do they still have the nation’s vote of confidence? Did they ever have it?

The HMI report’s second recommendation to the managers of the strategy is that they should:

  • “consider publishing criteria which schools might use to judge the extent to which commercial phonics schemes support the systematic teaching of phonic knowledge and skills.”

Let’s get to the heart of this recommendation!

We have been arguing for many years for the recognition of the essential role that the leading commercial phonics schemes have to play in early years teaching. [NB I prefer to use the more accurate term – teaching programmes.] Once again, Mona McNee has been calling for the comparison of the effectiveness of such programmes for many, many years.

But it is the government’s publications and programmes that are in desperate need of being carefully, transparently and independently monitored with standardised testing, and the results should be readily available for us all to see. It is the government’s cobbled-together-hastily programmes which have been foisted on to the nation at massive expense to the taxpayers. Indeed, we could well suggest that were it not for the use of the leading commercial phonics programmes behind the scenes, we might not even now have the national rise in standards for which the NLS takes all credit.

Should the HMI report have made recommendations along the following lines?

  • the managers of the National Literacy Strategy should measure and compare the effectiveness of the leading commercial phonics teaching programmes and the advice of the NLS publications to ascertain which are the most effective regardless of the settings and circumstances.
  • the testing of these programmes should be in the form of simple standardised reading tests appropriate for the age of the children to take place at the end of the Reception year, Year 1 and Year 2, and conducted by an independent body.
  • the results of these tests should be available for anyone to study, and they should be conducted on the basis of being helpful and informative to our future teaching of reading and writing practices.

Further, is it time for the National Literacy Strategy to be evaluated by the teaching profession itself? There are good ideas within the strategy, but also failings and areas for debate. No one can argue with the need to bring rigour, knowledge, skills and resources to literacy teaching, but having made that point, surely we all now need to evaluate the National Literacy Strategy through discussion and the examination of real statistics?

As things stand, despite much correspondence with the DfES and meetings at the highest levels, the advice of the leading phonics experts is still not being listened to. This HMI report vindicates our advice for faster, more rigorous phonics, but our severest warnings about the continued promotion of guesswork reading strategies have not been heeded in the slightest. Will the same people who have made so many mistakes in the original framework of the NLS in the early years keep changing their instructions year by year, or will they at last seek and follow the advice of the phonics experts?

Jennifer Chew’s critique of the Early Literacy Support training video of guided reading makes it extremely clear that whilst the DfES purports to promote phonics teaching, the main emphasis in the early years still remains on the internationally discredited whole language approach. The singular underestimation of the importance of blending for reading is plain for all to see.

How many more years will the current managers of the NLS be allowed to continue in authority when their mindset is so intransigent and prejudiced towards methods which have failed, and will continue to fail, so many of our children?                      




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