This newsletter has been timed to coincide with the beginning of the academic year and will reach nearly 6,000 inner city schools, the Education Directors and the teacher training establishments. It can be downloaded free from the RRF website. We hope that it will aid infant teachers in their planning, and give them the confidence to focus on teaching letter(s)-sound correspondences and all-through-the-word blending for reading in place of the misguided advice of the ‘text down’ NLS Early Literacy Support programme (see Dr. Bonnie MacMillan’s evaluation of the ELS initiative).
Fiona Nevola’s case studies (p.3) demonstrate clearly that teaching the alphabetic code with blending for reading and segmenting for spelling are the empowering factors for children with literacy special needs. Revealingly, Fiona stresses that the description of children’s difficulties exactly matches the whole language and guessing methods that as teachers we are to this day trained to employ through the National Literacy Strategy advice! She states “Each one of these children reflected the NLS reading strategies when I tested them…prior to teaching:”(p.5). Note, for example, that in week one of the ELS programme whilst the children are expected only “to hear and say s, m, and t in the initial position”, they are then expected “to read on sight the 45 high frequency words to be taught by the end of reception” and “to read on sight the words from texts of appropriate difficulty”. Educational Psychologists’ reports constantly describe children’s reading failings as guessing words from their shape, the picture clue or the initial letter and yet instructions to teach reading by these flawed methods persist in the National Literacy Strategy despite the documented evidence that the children are frequently handicapped by them in the longer term. Professor Diane McGuinness, in contrast, lists as the very first point in her prototype of how to teach the English alphabet code ‘NO SIGHT WORDS’ (p.21), and throughout the RRF newsletters the dangers of learning words as wholes and guessing from initial letters, picture and context cues are stressed over and again and evidenced by research.
What a tragic and ironic twist of fate that those who have been charged with writing the National Literacy Strategy advice have misunderstood the research on reading instruction or brought their own beliefs to the fore. The National Literacy Strategy remains the greatest opportunity to get reading instruction right, but this can only happen with honest examination of the research alongside classroom findings and open comparison between approaches and programmes. The notorious reading debate has necessarily manifested itself in this new century. Politics, subjectivity and bias have taken precedence over scientific testing and mounting evidence of the most effective reading instruction. The NLS Early Literacy Support early intervention programme is symptomatic of the lack of professionalism and accountability which is endemic at the highest levels. In this day and age it is inexplicable that a major national and expensive initiative has been piloted on a vast scale, but without pre and post standardised testing and without control and comparison groups. And all this after decades of debate so heated that it is referred to as the ‘reading wars’. Have no lessons been learnt from the history of misguided fads and philosophies in reading instruction? Diane McGuinness refers to this history and the way forward in her fascinating article (p.17). Bonnie MacMillan’s evaluation of the ELS programme should be the catalyst for an immediate national inquiry and the RRF will be making yet another approach to the Education and Skills Select Committee to this end.
A large percentage of children are still failing to learn to read, or to read well, and this cannot be blamed on the backgrounds or ‘special educational needs’ of the children. Whilst the RRF recognises the need to change the National Literacy Strategy’s advice on reading instruction because of its massive impact and influence, nevertheless the schools and teachers could choose to change overnight and we could quite simply leave the NLS advice for reading instruction behind. The DfES has reminded the Reading Reform Foundation that the National Literacy Strategy is non-statutory, and so I pass on that reminder to the teaching profession. ‘Non-statutory’, however, should not equate to ‘unaccountable’ considering the clout of the delivery of the non-scientific NLS as a virtual monopoly via the LEAs. We welcome five new members to our RRF committee. This very special issue of our newsletter includes contributions from four of those new members. I shall make no comments after their articles as their contributions and credentials speak for themselves. Please do let us know how you get on with any new approaches or programmes, do measure the outcomes, and don’t hesitate to contact the RRF if you would like advice or just a chat. Good luck and best wishes.