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London Conference 2010 : "Waves"

Choosing Cost-Effective Methods for Teaching EVERYONE to read and write.

The conference was held on Friday 19th March 2010 at Birkbeck College. Its aim was to examine cost-effective ways to make sure everyone learns to read.


While the government is promoting ‘whole language’ for children who fail to learn to read as expected, the country’s leading reading reform group is receiving interest from across the world about ways to address reading instruction for everyone who cannot yet read properly. At the Reading Reform Foundation Conference 2010, the talks and the interest shown in the workshops and decodable books showed that the need for better information and training is unequivocal.


In spite of numerous government initiatives to tackle the problem, too many children still leave primary school unable to read well enough. English schools have ‘Waves of Intervention’ for children who are at risk of failing or fail to learn to read. Wave 1 is about ‘quality first’ teaching for all children, while Waves 2 and 3 involve small group or individual teaching – hence the conference title.

The Reading Reform Foundation (RRF) is a non-profit-making organisation whose members campaign for effective teaching of reading. They are convinced that most reading failure is caused by faulty instructional methods, in particular by the promotion of a range of unreliable strategies to identify words. The RRF maintains that effective instruction involves systematic teaching of the alphabetic code and the skill of blending sounds to read words, a method known as ‘synthetic phonics’.

Since 2006, the government in England has promoted synthetic phonics for the initial teaching of reading through ‘Letters and Sounds’, but training is often poor and teachers do not know enough about how to consolidate and extend children’s learning. Worse, the government has undermined its support for synthetic phonics by promoting and funding the expensive programme, ‘Reading Recovery’, with its contradictory methods, for young children who struggle to learn to read. As well as Reading Recovery, the government now funds one-to-one teaching by dyslexia specialists for children labelled as ‘dyslexic’. Although this is likely to involve an emphasis on phonics (but not necessarily high quality synthetic phonics), it is not the best way forward. It costs less and reaches more children when extra help is provided by school staff using the same synthetic phonics as used in effective mainstream programmes. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee looked at the evidence for both Reading Recovery and specialist dyslexia teaching and found it to be inadequate.

The RRF supports the conclusions of the Committee. Nevertheless, this conference did not concentrate on criticism of government initiatives. Instead it used talks and workshops to inform delegates about better ways to help those who struggle to learn to read.


The conference was attended by teachers, special needs and specific learning difficulties co-ordinators, literacy co-ordinators, learning support assistants, senior staff, tutors, students, reading specialists, researchers, consultants and advisers from the primary, secondary, further and adult education sectors. Several leading educational publishers were represented. It was an international event with delegates from the USA, Australia, Ireland, Spain, Nigeria, Hong Kong, Dubai and Grenada, all interested in knowing more about how to help their students to read well in English. Several people said they found discussions with other delegates during breaks useful and enjoyable.


  • Jennifer Chew : The recent history of government initiatives in the teaching of reading
    (view PDF transcript)

    This interesting talk began with an account of the influence of ‘whole language’ on the National Curriculum twenty one years ago and went on to describe the changes that led to the introduction of ‘Letters and Sounds’ for Wave 1 ‘quality first’ teaching.

  • Shahed Ahmed : Why all 900 children in his school learn to read

    Shahed Ahmed, Head of a large multicultural primary school in East London, has rejected government funding for Reading Recovery and employs no dyslexia specialists. Instead he makes sure every member of staff knows how to teach synthetic phonics and every child who needs it is immediately given the additional help necessary to ensure that reading skills are in place. Staff use the same effective synthetic phonics programme used for all the other children. Every child learns to read.

  • Francis Gilbert : Teaching those who cannot read well enough to cope in the classroom
    (view PPT file)

    Francis Gilbert, teacher and author of best-seller, ‘I’m a Teacher, Get Me Out of Here!’ spoke of his experiences with disillusioned teenagers who cannot read well enough to access the usual curriculum. He provided inspirational ideas for helping them to benefit from English at secondary school. Now he has written about the conference on his blog at www.francisgilbert.co.uk/blog

  • Teachers from Carriacou and Petite Martinique : Literacy Project in the Caribbean

    This was an uplifting report about a project on two small islands in the State of Grenada. Gertrude Niles, Education Officer, began by showing pictures of the islands and inviting the audience to visit them; then she introduced her colleagues. Eight teachers and an Early Childhood Education Officer described the success they have had teaching children in their schools to read using synthetic phonics. They thanked all those who helped by donating their time, money or resources.


Many of the people responsible for teaching those who cannot read do not know about the excellent synthetic phonics programmes available and suitable for helping their students. This year the RRF was able to provide workshops about a range of such programmes as below:

  • Jolly Phonics, for beginning readers, including those who are slow to start, with Sara Wernham
  • Read Write Inc. Fresh Start, for Y5–7 pupils working below NC Level 3, with Janey Pursglove
  • Sounds~Write, used to train teachers of beginners and as catch-up, with John Walker
  • That Reading Thing, a reading & spelling programme for teens and adults, with Tricia Milla
  • Fast Phonics First, for Waves 1-3, aligned to Letters and Sounds, with Rhona Johnston
  • Phonics International, systematic & extensive programme for all ages, with Debbie Hepplewhite
  • Sound Discovery, using Snappy Lesson® in KS2, with Jackie Day and Marlynne Grant
  • Sound Reading System, for reading & accurate spelling, beginners to adults, with Fiona Nevola
  • Using ‘decodable readers’: advice about suitable books and how to use them, with Sue Lloyd

It is common for teachers to begin teaching with a good synthetic phonics programme, but then to ask children to read books with words they cannot read independently, because they have not been taught the letter-sound correspondences in the words. Children who pick up reading easily can cope with this, but for those who struggle it is essential that they practise what they have been taught. Sue illustrated her workshop with ‘decodable’ readers (books and texts structured according to the letter-sound correspondences in them) from several different publishers.


Sue Lloyd presented Jennifer Chew with flowers and thanked her for her contribution and commitment to the RRF over the years.


The conference was brought to an emotional conclusion by Debbie Hepplewhite, struck by the enthusiasm and commitment of delegates from all over the world, united by their wish to help everyone learn to read effectively.




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