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RRF Newsletter 49 back to contents
Why are so many of our children failing to learn to read? If the NLS is flawed what can we do about it?Fiona Nevola

A personal response to Debbie Hepplewhite’s  ‘An evaluation of the NLS from a teacher’s perspective’ from the RRF Newsletter No. 48 April 2002

A teaching history
I need to begin my response to this important article at a personal level. I have no axe to grind other than that we, as teachers, must be open to the new methodologies and teaching tools that are now available to us, and through us, to the children we teach. We are only teachers because we want to teach. We are not teachers so that we can watch children fail. If a teaching tool is not working then we must stop using it. We must also stop blaming the children for having ‘learning difficulties’. It is time to turn the spotlight - the searchlight - on our own teaching difficulties.    

For twenty-five years I have been a class teacher, teaching at KS2 and KS3. I was Head of English in two schools over a period of fourteen years. I was therefore responsible for the literacy attainments of the children within the school. By the word ‘literacy’ I mean very simply the ability to read fluently and to understand the text, and to write accurately using the accepted English spelling. I have never taught a whole class who had consistently high literacy standards. In every class I taught there were children who struggled with literacy tasks, be they reading, writing or understanding the text. Some of these children were removed from my classes for what was called ‘remedial’ help. They were children with ‘special needs’.  

I have had a life long interest in children with ‘special needs’ for two reasons: the first is because this concept has touched my family personally. I have two children of my own, both boys. The elder by twenty-three months could read fluently by the age of 5 whilst the younger was not really reading or writing accurately at age 9. He was still struggling at age 11 despite (by this time) at least five years of extra help. My son is now 29. He began to make real strides after he passed his GCSE exams. He went on to ‘A’ level achieving two A grades and then to London university where he studied for a BA and then a Masters degree. When he was 11 he was assessed by an Educational Psychologist with these letters after his name: BSc, PGCE, DipEdPsy, ADPsS. This Educational Psychologist wrote in 1983: "since F is not an academic high flier, he would be wrongly placed in a school where the majority of pupils were heading for ‘A’ levels and university; a wider range of ability would be advisable, as would plenty of opportunity to explore outlets other than the academic".  I have not forgiven this man’s report. Nor did I remotely believe it. My son continued to have help for the years running up to GCSE. He was known as ‘dyslexic’. The reason he was not ‘an academic high flier’ was that he had not mastered the basic skills of reading fluently and writing accurately. It also seemed that nobody could help him to access these skills - even if they had many letters after their name.   

The second reason is that on my first teaching practice in a small Sussex primary school I met a 9 year old who was evidently gifted: amongst other talents, which included both art and maths, he wrote the most marvellous poetry and stories: but his spelling was on the same level as my son’s; he wrote phonetically, but he could not access the correct English spellings. Later, I inherited him as my pupil as my first teaching post was in this same school. I set out to help him; I could not. I did not have the knowledge or the tools - despite a four-year BEd Honours degree. He was my first challenge. He and my son set the scene.  I have spent the rest of my teaching career trying literally everything there was to help children to read and spell more accurately. I have had a limited success. Until now.  

The present situation
A few months ago I read a lengthy report on a child aged 7 years 8 months. This child was assessed as dyslexic and dyspraxic: he clearly is both - however this was written of him: "This is a profound difficulty that will markedly impair J’s effective attainment of literacy".  I read this report after I had taught J to read. In 12 lessons spread between 11.09.01 and 28.01.02 (September to January) J had moved from a Reading Age of 5:5 to a Reading Age of 9:2 on the NFER Nelson Individual Reading Analysis test. This is a typical increase in the reading scores of the children I teach - but J is a child that has particularly ‘profound difficulties’. At school, his LSA makes plasticine dinosaurs with him. She does not know how to help him; she is undermining his confidence to a considerable degree.

I would like to quote one more Consultant Psychologist who wrote another long and detailed report on one of my pupils and concluded: "It is quite normal for a child to struggle with skills such as reading, writing, spelling and arithmetic in the first years of school, however after this period, she should attain a basic level of competence. If the child continues to struggle beyond this period, she may have a specific learning difficulty". 

I do not want to comment on this extraordinary conclusion other than to say that there is no need whatsoever for our children to struggle and to suffer in this way. There is no need for us to have within our school population 20% of 7 year olds who cannot read. There is no need for us to have over 25% of 11 year olds who have insufficient reading and writing skills to access a secondary school curriculum. There is no need for us to have our prisons full of young and not so young inmates who cannot read. It is said that 3 out of 4 prisoners have insufficient literacy skills. 

There is no need for this level of human failure at all. We are, as a profession, caught in the mindset that a certain proportion of children will fail and that there is little we can do with them. A ten year old girl, born with hydrocephalus, who was receiving ten hours of special support a week at school and was still only reading CVC words such as ‘cat’ and ‘pin’, came to me at the end of August 2000. After 18 one hour lessons she had a reading age of 7:10 and a further 6 lessons later her reading age had reached 8:9 and her comprehension level 10.9.  

There is a sound methodology out there that teaches everyone to read - it is just not being used.  

The extraordinary mish-mash of mixed methods put forward by the NLS and commented on by Debbie Hepplewhite is what is now swamping our schools instead of a simple, straightforward, logical method, imbued above all with common sense and an understanding of how our language is put together. 

Our written language is not as straightforward as, for example, Italian, but it is made up of a sound to symbol code. The code is complex due to its history. This history has incorporated the spellings of different influences.  

So, for example, the sound ‘a-e’ can have many different spellings: d ay, r ai n, s t r aigh t, s t ea k, th ey etc.  

The letters ea in steak can also represent the ‘ee’ sound in m ea t and the ‘e’ in b r ea d.  

Children will benefit enormously if they understand these ideas. However, there are just two fundamental aspects to reading our code: decoding (an understanding that each symbol in a word represents a spoken sound and the ability to blend these sounds into whole words) and comprehension. Good decoding is fundamental to good comprehension and depends on the use of synthesising phonics (blending sounds). Children, or non readers of any age, need to understand how our English code works and to be shown the skills to access it -that’s all. 

The answer
Why am I so convinced we have the answer to the question, ‘Why are so many of our children failing to read?’ I am convinced, quite simply, because I am teaching them to read and to spell and so are my colleagues. We are also teaching them to read fast. Children do not have time to fail. It costs them their place in society.   

In the summer of 1998 I heard Professor Diane McGuinness (author of Why Children Can’t Read) and Carmen McGuinness (co-author with her husband Geoffrey McGuinness of Reading Reflex, the Foolproof Phono-Graphix Method for Teaching your Child to Read) speak at Westminster Hall. I knew that at last I was hearing some sense. The only alarming part of their thesis was that it was so simple. Why wasn’t this already the accepted way to teach reading? If they were right, why were we so bogged down in complicated rules about our language? Why had my son, amongst millions of others, had up to ten years of help with his dyslexia? 

I trained in the method in October 1998 with the McGuinnesses and a year later was co-training in Oxford with Sue Derrington and Susan Case on the first Five day Certification Course to be held in England by English trainers. Sue and I train teachers on the Certification course for Bristol LEA, for Lewisham and Camden in London and Susan, along with John Walker, has trained over 250 teachers for the Wigan Borough. I train with Mary Sturges in Sunderland and have been known to go as far as Morpeth, Newcastle and Manchester for one day inset days - so important do I consider this method to be. The results coming out of the KS1 classrooms speak for themselves. 

Since May 1999, in Oxford, I have taught somewhere in the region of 80 children between the ages of 5 and 13 who have reading and spelling difficulties. These children come from Oxfordshire primary schools and a few independent prep schools. 

Here are just a few typical results of children who have had 12 lessons using the Phono-Graphix (P-G literally stands for ‘sound picture’) method; the children had approximately one lesson a week and were supported in between lessons by a parent who sat in on the lessons. Every one of them was already receiving ‘special needs’ help for ‘learning difficulties’ at school, but progress had not been made. Each one of these children reflected the NLS reading strategies when I tested them on the NFER-Nelson Individual Reading Analysis or the NFER New Reading Analysis prior to teaching: but I did not realise this until months, even years later. Debbie’s article has provoked me into sharing my findings. They are not unusual: teachers up and down the country are finding the same.       

When are we going to start to consider that it may be the teachers who have not been given the right tools to teach with and therefore have teaching difficulties? 

10 ‘cases’- reading  and comprehension ages pre and post teaching 

JN age 7:6        02.02.00            RA 4:9 - 6:4  Comp 5:4 - 8:1 (New Reading Analysis)

19.04.00            RA 7:6 - 9:0  Comp 6:10 - 9:7

 NaO age 11:1    20.03.00            RA 6:10 - 7:11 Comp 6:6 - 8:3 (New Reading Analysis)

16.06.00            RA 9:8 - 10:9   Comp 10:5 - 12:2

 *HC age 7:9      02.10.00            RA 5:3  Comp no score (Individual Reading Analysis)

19.12.00            RA 9:9  Comp 10:9

 CD age 12:6      04.11.00            RA 10:11 - 12:1 Comp 10:7 - 12:4 (New Reading Analysis)

04.12.00            Spelling age 10:8 (Vernon)

10.02.01            RA 11:2 - 12:3   Comp 11:3 - 12:10

10.02.01            Spelling age 14:2  C came primarily for help with spelling

 TM age 6:0       13.12.00            RA 5:0  Comp no score (Individual Reading Analysis)

10.04.01 RA 9:3  Comp 10:9

 JT age 8:11       01.02.01            RA 6:5 - 7:7      Comp 6:2 - 7:11(New Reading Analysis)

18.07.01            RA 8:9 - 9:10    Comp 8:1 - 9:10 =16 lessons  

31.10.01            RA 9:4 - 10.5    Comp 9:4 - 11:1 re-tested

 *JWA age 7:0   15.03.01            RA 5:6  Comp 6:9 (Individual Reading Analysis)

17.07.01 RA 9:9  Comp 10:10  8 lessons

 *V.L age 7:0     04.01.02            RA 5:0  Comp no score (Individual Reading Analysis)

16.05 02            RA 9:5  Comp 9:8

 *N.O age 8:4    03.11.01            RA no score   Comp 5:10 - 7:7 (New Reading Analysis)

27.03.02 RA 8:2 - 9:3   Comp 7:3 - 9:0  16 lessons

 J.V age 9:6       28.09.01            RA 7:8 - 8:10  Comp 7:9 - 9:6  (New Reading Analysis)

30.04.02            RA 9:1 - 10:1  Comp 8:7 - 10:2

 10 children = 4 girls + 6 boys

 4 case studies looking at reading strategies before and after tuition

(minimal lesson detail included)

 1)*HC age 7:9

02.10.00            RA  5:3  Comp no score ( Individual Reading Analysis)

19.12.00            RA  9:9  Comp 10:9

Blending                                   14/15

Segmenting                               63/63

Auditory processing                   2/10

Code knowledge                        24/50 = 48%

Harry had basic code on board, which means he knew the one sound - one symbol ‘a’ ‘b’ etc; he knew ‘sh’ but not ‘ck’ or ‘ch’; he gave ‘p’ for the ‘qu’ in queen; he did not know the ‘oo’ in ‘moon’ or the ‘ee’ in ‘sweet’. Harry’s main reading strategy was whole word recognition: he could read the word ‘house’ and ‘come’; he could not read ‘out’ or ‘ship’. Harry read ‘put’ for ‘Pat’ and ‘dack’ for ‘dock’. Harry read 2 passages from the test and one line from the third passage. He refused to go on; he was pinched, withdrawn and bewildered.

In the first lesson Harry was taken back to the beginning to read words such as ‘cat’ and ‘frog’; from there the ‘nature’ of the code was progressively taught to him; each lesson he could access more of the code. By lesson 5 he was making amazing progress and he was smiling! In lesson 12, when he was also tested, he was reading the Ahlberg Happy Families books. His strategies had completely changed; he read all 5 passages. Passages 1 - 4 were faultless: he decoded every word except ‘magician’ which he read as ‘manager’ and then self-corrected. He was fluent and confident. In Passage 5 he self-corrected wanted/went and for ‘could’ he read ‘couldn’t’ (the meaning of the passage indicated this!)The only words he made an error with were: ‘owners’ which he read as ‘only’ and ‘now’ which he read as ‘not’. He scored 10/10 on the auditory processing task and had 43/50 = 86% of the code on board.

2)*JWA age7.0

15.03.01            RA 5:6   Comp 6:9

17.07.01            RA 9:9   Comp 10:10  8 lessons

Blending                                   12/15

Segmenting                               33/63

Auditory processing                   3/10

Code knowledge                        24/50 = 48%

Jamie read the first passage without difficulty. In passage 2 he read ‘left’ as lif/leaves/lit and ‘pet’ as ‘pat’ and then went back and read ‘pee’. Was he using letter names? For the comprehension question I went back to ask him what the dog ate. Jamie replied "A pea!" The answer was a hat.  His ‘basic’ code was not in place. He read ate as at/ter and then at/ee. In passage 3 he read ‘Ken’ as ‘Kan’ and ‘put’ was ‘pat’ (vowel sounds not in place). ‘He’ was ‘the’ (word recognition which has become muddled?) and ‘drove’ was ‘door’ (first sound cue?); further errors; off/ofs, fill/fell, out/when (more whole word recognition that has gone astray?), sink/stick (Jamie has been taught to blend consonants so he puts in extra letters when they are not there - see his segmenting score). He tried passage 4 although he was frustrated: legs/leeks, arms/arrmps, son/sone as in ‘bone’. Jamie was working hard to decode; he knows that will help; he is flipping sounds around; he is content with nonsense. I suggested to his mother that on this evidence Jamie might need 18 lessons, rather than the average 12.

Lesson 1: I took Jamie back to basics; lesson 2 we put ch, sh, and th into place as well as the ‘variation’ of c/k/ck.  I noted that he was tired. Lesson 3: I taught him the variations of the sound ‘o-e’ and we sorted the letter ‘o’ into ‘pot’ words and ‘most’ words. Jamie now had the key to how the code works. The next lesson we covered vowel +e, the sound ‘ow’ and sorted ‘cow’ and ‘show’ words. I realised I was working with a very bright boy who was making rapid connections. There was a two-week gap because of half term. I was amazed when in lesson 5 I found that he was reading fluently - as though there had not been a problem. What had happened? Jamie had accessed the code himself! He took The Night the Titanic Sank, a Dorling Kindersley level 2 reader, away with him to read. His mother insisted that I go on teaching him. I moved into multi-syllable work and special endings. When I tested him at lesson 8 he reached the ceiling of the Individual Reading Analysis test. He made 3 errors: convenient /convenent, vigorously/vigusly, and boil/bowl. He self-corrected prepare/produce, tightly/totally. (Incidentally, the test text is a recipe to cook Italian rice: is this appropriate reading material for 7 year olds?) 

The important point is that the child was completely transformed; he told me reading was his best thing! His improved scores were as follows: blending 14/15; phoneme segmenting 60/63; auditory processing 7/10; code knowledge 45/50 = 90%.

3)*V.L age 7:0

04.01.02            RA 5:0  Comp no score (NFER Individual Reading Analysis)

16.05 02            RA 9:5  Comp 9:8

Blending                                   4/15

Segmenting                               36/63

Auditory processing                   3/10

Code knowledge                        24/50 = 48%

Val’s poor blending and segmenting scores were an immediate cause for concern. She had glue ear at a young age and probably missed some key teaching. In the Phono-Graphix programme it is essential that the child hears and identifies each sound in a word. I knew I would have to play lots of auditory processing exercises/games with her - and show her mother how to do the same. Her code knowledge was weak: she was reasonably secure with basic code although she was prone to use letter names: letter names do not help with reading and spelling. Where she came unstuck was at advanced code level. The ‘ch’ in ‘chip’ she gave as ‘k’ for example; ‘qu’ in ‘queen’ she gave as ‘p’, and ‘th’ she gave as ‘t’, ‘ce’ as in ‘nice’ she gave as ‘x’ and ‘ai’ in ‘rain’ she gave as the ‘a’ sound in ‘pat’. She knew the ‘oo’ as in ‘moon’ and the ‘ee’ as in ‘sweet’.

At the level of the reading test Val had trouble with the word ‘has’ and read ‘when’ as ‘one’ and ‘sad’ as ‘saying’. She may be muddling sight word vocabulary (when/one - both words are part of KS1 sight word list) and she may be using the first sound ‘s’ as a cue and guessing the rest. This became more apparent in the third passage when she could not get a word out of ‘dock’ or ‘deck’. She read ‘hid’ as ‘had’ and then ‘hided’ and became lost with: ‘was still there when the ship left’. She didn’t want to read anything further. Val’s body language lacked confidence. She sucked her thumb and used baby talk.

I did not start advanced code with Val until the fourth lesson - at lesson 6 I made a note ‘very good progress’. Lesson 7 and Val is so pleased with herself; she takes 4 books off to read: amongst them Mouse Tales and Mrs Jolly’s Joke Shop. By the time she reaches lesson 12 she is reading ‘chapter’ books by Jacqueline Wilson and Enid Blyton. The main strategy that she now uses for reading is straightforward decoding and she self-corrects mistakes; chunkled/chuckled, shows/shoes, cloud/could.

She is another transformed child with clear confident eyes. She has grown up to match her reading. Her blending score is now 14/15, segmenting 57/63, auditory processing 9/10 and code knowledge 47/50 = 94%.

4)*N.O age 8:4

RA no score    Comp 5:10 - 7:7 (NFER New Reading Analysis)

27.03.02                       RA 8:2 - 9:3   Comp 7:3 - 9:0 16 lessons

Blending                                   9/15

Segmenting                               46/63

Auditory processing                   2/10

Code knowledge                        29/50 = 58%

Reading was a very uncomfortable exercise for Nat. He was also having behavioural problems at school. He had a ‘lazy’ patched eye. I used the New Reading Analysis test because he was older. I could not score him. He got 12 points and he needed 24 to give him a reading age between 6:5 and 7:6. Some of his errors were as follows: took/looked, lid/lide, held/he, soon/sood, black/box, wall/will, Anna/Annie and he substituted ‘bathroom’ for ‘bedroom’. He gave up with the words ‘lay’, ‘admire’ and ‘picture’.

As I taught Nat I realised that his overriding strategy was guessing and some pretty wild guessing too! He often used the first sound cue but after that the word often bore no resemblance at all to what was printed in front of him. We played endless ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire?’ type games to eradicate this as he owed me £100s on his winnings if he guessed a word! He also had a marked short-term memory deficit and needed a great deal of practice. Half way through the course of lessons he told his mother that he could now “see” the words at school. This literally meant that he was getting the hang of decoding a word such as ‘m’ ‘ou’ ‘se’ into its components. Nat was able to read ‘ambition’ and ‘enough’ and ‘telephone’ by the time we had had 16 lessons and his scores were as follows; blending 15/15, segmenting 63/63, auditory processing 3/10 - he is still experiencing difficulty - and code knowledge 43/50 = 86%.

A couple of weeks ago Nat rang me up. He had just read a book of 163 pages! He wanted to come and read to me. Nat glowed as he read his book. The behavioural problems have subsided and his teacher tells his mother that he is “trying hard at everything”.

All these children have made progress because they have been supported in between the lessons by their parents who have understood the method. Reading is like being a good footballer or piano player: you have to practise every day.

The last word
I haven’t yet finished. One of my pupils, William was withdrawn from mainstream schooling and put in a special school for dyslexic children for a year. He did not make one month’s progress during that time. The headteacher rang me up; she had a ‘feeling’ Phono-Graphix would help. Would I take William for lessons? Rather unwillingly I agreed. It was still early ‘P-G teaching’ days for me: if they had not been able to help, why should I? In 12 lessons William aged 9:2 moved from a reading age of 7:8 to 9:2 in the space of 8 weeks: July and August 2000.

William’s reaction was one of anger. “Why haven’t I been taught like that before?” The school for dyslexic children have now trained all their teachers in the Phono-Graphix method.

Hasan also springs to mind: Hasan, who is 10, is struggling with his reading. Since he began to read using the Phono-Graphix method his mother tells me that he is making progress with his weekly Arabic lesson. Why? Arabic, like English (… and Italian, Greek, French and German etc.) is a sound picture coded language. Hasan now has the skills and understanding to access any language that uses a sound symbol based code. 

Recently I tested a little boy of nearly 6 whom I had last seen 11 months previously, in July 2001. He is Swedish and his mother was concerned about his reading. I do not usually teach very young children. I showed her the book Reading Reflex and how to teach the method. She used it for the summer and then her son returned to school and she, quite rightly, followed the school’s methodology.

When I later re-tested her son he had moved one point on the same test - still not achieving a minimum reading age. He is still using first sound cues. He is muddling ‘sight’ words’, he still has the b/d reversal he had last year. He sounded out ‘when’ as ‘w’ ‘h’ ‘e’ ‘n’ and could not make a word. I showed him with a word puzzle how to read when: ‘wh’ ‘e’ ‘n’. I can guarantee that if I take the child in September to teach out of school he will be reading fluently by Christmas.

What is happening to our children? With Debbie Hepplewhite I look forward to a serious re-appraisal of the eclectic NLS and all its tagged on initiatives that are not working, or ‘working’ too slowly. We must all be aiming to teach 100% of our children to read and spell. We must clarify and simplify the reading strategies taught in our schools. We need an effective evidence-based methodology that anyone can use. Our teachers must be given the basic principles for the successful teaching of reading for the sake of the psychological health of the nation.

Reading tests: NFER-Nelson Individual Reading Analysis tests to within the range of 5:0 (mid-point) - 10:8 (mid-point) - it starts with easier passages. 

NFER New Reading Analysis is within the range of 6:5 - 12:4.

Phono-Graphix - who needs additional literacy support? An outline of research in Bristol schools

Katy Dias and Lynne Juniper, Support for Learning Vol 17 No 1 (2002) NASEN 2002

Assessing the benefits of phonics intervention on hearing-impaired children’s word reading

Sue Palmer,Centre for Human Communication and Deafness,University of Manchester

Deafness and Education International 2 (3), 2000 © Whurr Publishers Ltd.

Fiona Nevola can be contacted at 69 Divinity Road, Oxford, OX4 1LH – Tel. 01865 728760





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