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Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) - Promoting Synthetic Phonics : Page Title

RRF Newsletter 48 back to contents
An evaluation of the National Literacy Strategy from a teacher’s perspectiveDebbie Hepplewhite

The advent of the National Literacy Strategy has focused attention on the need for teachers to improve their practice in an endeavour to raise national literacy standards as a matter of urgency. Many people speak almost loyally of the NLS and it is probably true to say that as teachers, we have all gained something from the impetus, associated training and increased resources. I certainly have. 

We have seen some improvement in literacy standards, although there is some question as to the degree of ‘embeddedness’ of these gains, what ‘grooming’ has taken place in order for children to reach expected levels or beyond, and what losses there have been in terms of a narrowing of the curriculum. 

According to the DfES, the National Literacy Strategy has achieved international acclaim for its sheer scale and impact. Certainly the external evaluation of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education commissioned by the Standards and Effectiveness Unit, describes the National Strategies in a positive light. The report also noted, however, the reservations and observations of advisers, heads and teachers and indicated the need to address ‘the balance between central direction and local (i.e., LEA and school) initiative and the role of the larger “infrastructure” of the teaching profession.’ 

From my perspective as a practising teacher, I have been extremely concerned about the singular lack of official opportunity for teachers to discuss the contents of the NLS and to provide feedback of their evaluations. So unwelcome were my comments at both LEA and DfES levels because of their challenging nature, that ironically this has led me to study in depth the field of the teaching of reading and as a further consequence I have now become the editor of the Reading Reform Foundation newsletter. 

Through the RRF newsletters I have described the urgent need for a full evaluation of the National Literacy Strategy Framework for Teachers and the additional NLS initiatives. There should arguably be local forums, and teachers must not be made to feel like heretics or revolutionaries simply because they may have opinions which challenge current thinking and advice. Such different viewpoints may be based on considerable knowledge and experience, and may be supported by objectively measured reading results. 

My general comments on the format of the National Literacy Strategy 

At the time of my initial introduction to the National Literacy Strategy, I commented that the Literacy Hour format was a ‘red herring’ in the business of what and how we should teach children to read and write. There is a vast difference between ‘pace’ in teaching, and clock-watching. I felt that teachers should not be put under this degree of prescriptive time and classroom management pressure with its consequential onerous planning regime. Teaching styles are as varied as the personalities of the teachers. This is to be valued. I, for one, cannot work in a hurry and cannot work to a clock. Others may thrive on a strict routine. Such variety should not affect the outcomes of the teaching so long as those teachers know what to do and in what order. I welcome ideas for teaching in my classroom and have only recently been trying out a completely different question and answer approach with my class with which I am delighted. This demonstrates that I am not stuck in my own habits and am open to suggestion – but not dictation, and not when I know the advice is fundamentally flawed from the outset. 

Guiding teachers as to approximate time-scales for teaching the objectives and informing them of the standards achievable is an entirely different matter from expecting teachers to behave like clones in the classroom. 

The teaching of reading 

Teaching children to decode is a sequential process. First you learn this, then this, followed by this. It is a presumption nowadays that every setting is ‘literacy-rich’ and that looking at books, sharing them, talking about the stories – thus developing vocabulary and comprehension - is an ongoing activity in the early years. Although Tony Blair and David Blunkett talked at some length about the fact that research showed we needed phonics teaching to improve reading standards, who could ever have imagined that the discredited whole language guesswork reading strategies would find themselves at the core of the National Literacy Strategy advice? I was not well-versed in the Reading Wars when I received my first NLS training on reading, but I was positively baffled about being told of the importance of my pupils looking at the pictures and guessing, guessing from the story (when the child can’t read it in the first place) and guessing from the initial letter. This is still current advice with blending the very poor relation. I have heard the guessing strategies described in the most expressive, impressive and plausible language, but guessing is guessing no matter how you put it. 

Such instructions seemed totally bizarre to me and I knew that when I inherited children from previous teachers, it was the strugglers who resorted to guessing and it was the lack of blending which held up progress. Children I received from teachers who had taught with these guessing strategies made up not only single words, but also frequently whole phrases! Here was the state-of-the-art NLS telling me to teach in this way and I was shocked and dismayed. Further, the original Framework for Teachers (yet to be modified or discarded) spread the teaching of a few digraphs over the three years of reception, year one and year two. This was nonsensical and yet when I questioned my literacy adviser, she supported the advice – although to give her credit she also forwarded my evaluation sheet of the training to Dr Laura Huxford. Dr Huxford kindly phoned me to discuss my comments, but we had to agree to differ. This has been the pattern ever since – having different views and moving no further forwards. 

About a year after the introduction of the NLS, the Progression in Phonics manual was brought out with attempts to speed up the introduction of the phonemes. The Reading Searchlight Strategies were again promoted on page 1. The disc which accompanied this publication showed whole language guessing strategies under the very section of ‘phonics’. 

The NLS throws all levels of knowledge and skills at the children through its Literacy Hour format of word, sentence and text level. Every day, children will be presented with levels of work beyond them, and precious teaching time is squandered on over-complicated activities which require a lot of preparation. 

This 'word, sentence, text' principle, which is the same for every year throughout the primary school, is a glaring mistake.  With correct teaching in the infant years, far greater emphasis should be placed on text level and extended writing in the junior years. Rigorous and systematic phonics teaching in the infant years should have laid down the foundations for a different approach to literacy at key stage 2. The Literacy Hour format at this stage could aptly be described as a ‘white elephant’. 

Graham Frater in his book Effective Practice in Writing at Key Stage 2 states diplomatically how a variety of leading schools with reduced reading/writing gaps have ‘adopted, adapted and extended’ the National Literacy Strategy. He describes the features they have in common; they ‘discarded the literacy hour’s clock (i.e. its recommended partitioning of lesson time), but retained its emphasis on pace;’ ‘ensured that extended time for extended writing was frequently and regularly available;’ and ‘commonly gave text level work the clear priority in their plans and lessons alike.’ Does this sound familiar? 

Frater then also says in his evaluation; ‘As will emerge, still less can the survey schools’ achievements be attributed to their adhering exclusively, or even always closely, to the NLS’s recommendations. All these schools did much more than the NLS prescribes, and they sometimes did it differently.’ [Frater’s italics] 

If such schools have achieved a higher measure of success than others, then surely those aspects which they have in common should be noted. It could well be that not only is the NLS flawed badly in the early years, but it also needs considerable rethinking for key stage 2. We need the kind of feedback that Frater has afforded us, but we also need to stop speaking as if the NLS is something to be revered and preserved. It should be acceptable to say something is not right about it, so let’s adjust it accordingly. This should involve taking it apart entirely and examining all its elements with no sentimentality or loyalty whatsoever. We can preserve or modify the best bits, add others where necessary and discard the parts which consensus or evidence show to be flawed. 

The DfES must also stop rolling out initiative after initiative trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. It is simply not acceptable to conduct pilot studies without pre- and post- testing using  standardised tests and without control and comparison groups. It is time that we were all allowed to have a fresh look and moved on from the original. 

Notes relating to the teaching of reading in the NLS 


  • The NLS is organised on a year-by-year basis, irrespective of whether the children can decode.
  • Equal emphasis is placed on comprehension and on decoding at a time when the children cannot decode.
  • The structure is the same for all children, regardless of their stage of learning or their abilities; for example, ONLY 15 minutes of word level work is allotted whether or not the child can actually read.


  • Because the NLS 200 words are lumped together for children to learn by 7, teachers invariably teach them by ‘look and say’ (as noted in HMI report Teaching of Phonics, October 2001). Most of these words are phonically regular and learning through look and say does not develop any decoding skills for the learning of the ‘next’ word.
  • Although the objectives are reasonably clear in Progression in Phonics, the activities themselves grossly slow down the teaching. There are 5 or 6 activities for each objective and these activities take longer to teach than the objectives. Many of these time-consuming games also require time-consuming preparation.
  • The phonics lessons stress analytic phonics as much as synthetic phonics. Is this the right balance when children cannot read? Programmes which favour working from symbol to sound (synthetic phonics) have the side effect of producing excellent spelling results into the bargain. Programmes which favour working from sound to symbol (analytic phonics) produce weaker readers.
  • Synthetic phonics (blending) is restricted to games and not transferred to reading text.
  • The time-scale for introducing phonics is different in the Progression in Phonics manual from the NLS Framework. Not all teachers know that it has changed.


  • The teacher has to deal with 6 children at a time in 10 minutes (for two sessions per week) or 20 minutes (for one session per week). This is not much time especially if the children are weak or non-readers.
  • These texts do not necessarily link with the shared text at the start of the lesson or with the word level work.
  • Sequential reading schemes are not recommended (and even the Early Literacy Support programme for weaker Year 1 readers recommends look and say books rather than decodable phonics books).
  • The texts from guided reading are unlikely to be sent home for reinforcement and in any event look and say books are not appropriate.
  • The NLS trains teachers to use guesswork reading strategies for dealing with texts – never blending.


  • In group work, what can children realistically do on their own when they cannot read, while the teacher spends 20 minutes on guided reading? They are probably given some form of ‘busy work’ consisting of copying, filling in and colouring. This busy work therefore accounts for at least 80 minutes of the literacy hour sessions compared to the 20 minutes of guided reading per week.

We hear a lot about tracking, so how does the Literacy Hour look for a Year 1 child who cannot read? 

  • Shared text –  he follows a book that he cannot read for 20 minutes a day which reminds him that he cannot read.
  • He tries to keep up with word level work, but still does not know his basic sounds - so most of the work goes over his head.
  • Twice a week for 10 minutes (or once a week for 20 minutes), he reads with his bottom group who cannot read. Chances are that the books are in any event look and say at this level. At best he guesses the words largely unsuccessfully. Once again, he is reminded that he cannot read. He can’t take these books home to read anyway.
  • In the independent slots on other days (80 minutes per week), he is probably given ‘busy work’.
  • As our struggling reader goes through school, teachers are less knowledgeable about teaching early reading and invariably the child is passed on to an assistant. These assistants have been trained on different programmes (same objectives, different activities). The teachers may not be aware of what the assistants do day by day. The work does not necessarily tie in directly to what is taught in the lesson.

A teacher in Year 3 and above has to teach children who have reading ages between 5 and 13 years. The planning is a nightmare. Even good teachers find this beyond them. Most say they manage, but if you delve, the reality is they do not meet the needs of the poor readers.  

Since the NLS started there has been one programme after another to teach the same decoding skills: Additional Literacy Support (ALS) for juniors, Progression In Phonics (PIPs) for reception, Early Literacy Support (ELS) for Year 1 catch-up children, and further NLS initiatives in KS2 and KS3 are being rolled out now. Each requires new training - all to teach phoneme-grapheme correspondences. The programmes are riddled with time-consuming activities including numerous games, cut, paste and make. If these programmes were working properly, we would not need more and more initiatives. 

In conclusion

I look forward to a new NLS Framework for Teachers based on up-to-date understanding of the scientific evidence and classroom findings. We simply must move on and understand what does work the most effectively in the teaching of reading so that we can all aim for 100% success. 




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