I have taught for 25 years, 14 years as a headteacher. During all this time, however, my real interest and passion was the search for efficient and effective ways of getting children to read and write. We all know that as soon as children develop fluency the more they read, the more they want to read and the better they get at reading. They read texts in other lessons and, importantly, read books at home for themselves. This was particularly important in my last school where parents could not read English.
Unfortunately, the task of teaching reading was made very difficult: not because the children had any difficulty in learning grapheme-phoneme correspondences, or phoneme-blending to read words (they learned this very quickly), but because we had few appropriate texts for the children to read for themselves. By this I mean simple decodable texts that encourage word-reading-by-phoneme-blending. I wanted children to read texts, every day, that included first the 26 letters and a simple sound for each, then advancing to 44 grapheme-phoneme correspondences, then to 80+.
I looked for texts that included a gradual build up of this knowledge, that were lively and fun (this has often been a problem with phonic books) and lastly I needed them to be very cheap so that every child could have a copy to keep and practise at home. I did not find any that met all these criteria.
We had plenty of lovely books that we could read to children. We had Oxford Reading Tree and a plethora of other schemes for children to ‘read’ for themselves. However, these texts encourage guessing, the use of picture and context cues and the need for many words to be taught beforehand by ‘look-and-say’. They also encourage comprehension to be used as an aid to decoding rather than the other way round.
I left my school nearly two years ago and supported other schools to help their children learn to read. The more I saw of other schools the more I realized that this predicament is nationwide and urgently needed addressing.
So I decided to write two literacy programmes: one for older children who have failed to read for seven years at primary school and another for children beginning reading.
I found an excellent writer who could write texts with a good story-line, at the same time as building up the grapheme-phoneme correspondences step-by-step. (After trying to write phonically regular texts myself, I know how difficult this task is.)
rml 1 programme
rml 1 is designed for children in Year 1 and for children in Years 2, 3 and 4 who cannot read confidently. The programme is also appropriate for children with special needs and EAL children.
rml 2 programme
rml 2 is a reading, spelling, vocabulary and writing programme for older KS2 and KS3 children who find it hard to understand texts because they read so slowly and hesitantly.
Both rml programmes start right at the beginning with the 44 sounds of English and move to reading texts with multi-syllabic words and those with a range of suffixes and prefixes.
They aim to take children to a decoding age of 9+ (rml1) and 12 years (rml2). (Note that this is not a comprehension age. Children with the potential of attaining a high comprehension reading age achieve this once they have read fluently for a few years.)
The course is intensive and systematic. It uses teaching strategies that are simple and easy to use, once teachers have been trained.
It is based upon considerable research and three simple premises:
- If children cannot read graphemes (letter/ letter groups) they will have difficulty in reading words.
- If they cannot read the words easily they will be unable to read a text.
- If they cannot read a text they will be unable to comprehend what they read.
The programme includes teaching children to:
- Understand phoneme-grapheme correspondence
This is taught quickly and effectively using mnemonic associations.
- Read single and multi-syllabic words containing specific phoneme-grapheme correspondences
Children practise reading words they will read in the forthcoming text using phoneme-grapheme knowledge.
- Read phonically irregular words
Children are taught to read the small number of words that do not follow a regular phonic pattern.
- Read texts containing carefully controlled phonic and irregular vocabulary
These are very lively texts that are written to include a range of fiction and non-fiction genres. They have been specially written to help children practise reading words they already know. Once children can ‘decode’ the text, they are then helped to re-tell, summarise and then discuss key questions about the text.
rml 1 and rml 2 have texts appropriate to younger and older children respectively. Every child has a copy of the text.
- Spell words containing a gradual build up of phoneme-grapheme correspondences
Children learn to spell very quickly using a simple system that has proved highly successful. They are also taught to spell the small number of irregular words.
- Develop a wide range of vocabulary for writing
Although the texts are phonically regular, a wide range of vocabulary is introduced to broaden children’s spoken and written vocabulary.
- Write in a range of genres
Children are helped to write independently step by step. Both teachers and children are supported with ideas, structures and writing frames.
Marking rubrics are used for assessing the quality of writing so that children have a clear idea, as they write, about their audience, purpose and the form their writing will take.
The writing generally ties in closely with the texts they read, but further support is given to teachers to develop writing in the afternoons (rml 1 only).
- Develop a clear handwriting style
It is vital that children develop a clear and fluent handwriting style as soon as they learn to write. Once they have mastered clear individual letter formation they are taught to join letters into a fluid script. Teachers are given step-by-step guidance.
- Take responsibility for completing specified homework
Children have specified homework to complete. This consists of re-reading the text and revising spelling and speed-reading exercises.
Teachers introduce children to a range of literature (of their choice) alongside the rml programme. Stories, poems, non-fiction texts are read to children. Books are chosen with no other objective other than ‘this is a good book’. No expectation is placed upon the children to read these books for themselves before they have the necessary decoding skills. It is vital that children do not struggle as they learn to read; too many children get turned off reading because they believe it is just too hard for them. While children learn to read, teachers do what they do best: encourage children to love books. It is only when children love stories that they will want to read them for themselves.
As soon as children can read texts half way through the programmes, they are then encouraged to read familiar stories and texts for themselves at home as well as at school.
Great emphasis is placed upon all children talking throughout the whole lesson; when they can talk about and explain their ideas we can be sure they understand what they have learned.
Cooperative learning is a key ingredient to the programme. Children work with a partner to practise what they have been taught. This means that all children participate during the whole lesson; there is no ‘down time’.
Teachers, assistants and teacher-trainers are taught the principles of (a) grapheme-phoneme correspondence, (b) blending for reading and (c) segmenting for spelling. They are then taught how to teach these using quick and effective strategies. Teachers are then taught how to implement the rest of the programme.
Support to schools
Schools are given advice and support to implement the programme. Even good reading programmes can fail if there are not strong support systems in the school to ensure that the programme is implemented rigorously and most of all, relentlessly.