Ofsted English review – How to act on the recommendations

Illustration of a boy reading - Ofsted English review

Rachel Clarke breaks down Ofsted’s recent English subject report and recommends ways to tackle the areas of weakness it highlights…

Rachel Clarke
by Rachel Clarke
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The Ofsted English review, Telling the Story, landed in our inboxes in early March 2024. Based on research visits to 50 representative schools (25 primary, 25 secondary), the report evaluates some of the common strengths and weaknesses of English teaching across the country.  

There are several areas for suggested improvement including:

  • handwriting
  • spoken language
  • the texts used for English lessons
  • reading aloud to children
  • staff training. 

Ofsted English review – The good bits 

But let’s start by celebrating the areas of success. First off, English is at the heart of curriculum across the country. This is great to hear and shows how schools appreciate the importance of English. 

Next up, phonics. Thanks to the hard work of teachers and school leaders in addressing the requirements of the national curriculum, the situation here is a good one. The report points to the focus on systematic synthetic phonics as the main approach for teaching young children to read, and notes that the Phonics Screening Test scores have increased since the test was introduced in 2012. 

All the schools included in the report teach pupils to read using a consistent systematic synthetic phonics programme. Most teach phonics daily to all pupils from the beginning of Reception to the end of KS1. Pupils in all these schools practise word reading using decodable books that match the sounds.  

We should certainly feel proud of ourselves for achieving such consistent practice and ensuring such good outcomes for the children. 

Ofsted English review – Room for improvement 

The report does note that some children struggle with phonics from the beginning and quickly fall behind. 

Schools can implement a three-pronged strategy to address this issue. Firstly, teachers need to make ongoing assessments as they teach, and note which children are not secure with the grapheme-phoneme knowledge being taught.

They then need to arrange immediate catch-up for children who are struggling. Time must be provided for them to revisit and practise the specific grapheme-phoneme knowledge they need to secure. Finally, all teachers, including those in KS2, should be fully trained in teaching phonics so that they are equipped to meet the needs of children who may struggle. 

Help with handwriting 

The report suggests that not enough time is given to developing fluency in handwriting; children are thinking about letter formation rather than using it automatically. This takes up cognitive space which adds to the demands of writing. 

My advice to schools is to continue with Early Years fine motor skills such as creating pegboard patterns, threading beads onto laces and using spray bottles to build grip strength.

Then, during Year 1, take time to ensure that all children develop an efficient pencil grip and that they know how to sit at the table correctly with their paper at a comfortable angle. It’s particularly important to teach handwriting directly; it shouldn’t be used as an independent activity, as this is where formation issues slip in. 

Ofsted English review – Speaking up 

While schools understand that spoken language underpins pupils’ reading and writing development, the Telling the Story report says that they are not necessarily clear about how to teach it and that in many instances the national curriculum requirements for this aspect of English are not in place. Furthermore, they suggest that oral composition does not happen frequently enough. 

If teaching spoken language is an area of weakness for you, begin by increasing your familiarity with the national curriculum objectives for spoken language and the non-statutory guidance that accompanies them. The Progression in Spoken Language document created by Primary English is a useful tool to use for this. You can also visit the Voice21 website for ideas about how to teach the different aspects of spoken language. 

Finally, make sure you build oral composition into writing teaching sequences: if children can’t say it, they can’t write it. 

Selecting texts 

Most schools teach English through texts, using these as models for the writing that children will create. The Telling the Story report suggests that teachers should choose texts for their merits as texts to teach English rather than because they link with the broader curriculum.

This is not far from the advice I give to the schools I work with which is something like this: if the curriculum linked text is high quality and it exemplifies the written features you want your children to learn about, use it.

If the text links with your wider curriculum but is at the wrong pitch or lacks the depth and richness you are looking for, choose a different text.  

Reading for pleasure 

Primary schools are working hard to ensure that reading for pleasure is put at the centre of their provision, and this is acknowledged in the Telling the Story report. It explains that story times are a regular feature in Reception and KS1 classrooms, that children enjoy and value these sessions, but that in KS2, despite having a place on timetables, teachers frequently run out of time to read to their children. 

This is certainly something that I encounter in my advisory work. One suggestion I’ve made to schools is to help secure regular story times in KS2 by moving story time to a part of the day where it less likely to be missed off. Immediately after lunch time can work quite well. I also suggest using assemblies to read a short story or book to the children. 

Keeping on with CPD 

Continuing professional development and training came through as an area for development. The report notes that teachers in Reception and KS1 do receive training in phonics. Beyond this, the main type of English training tends to be on moderation of writing and teachers make little mention of the English associations or the English hubs. The report authors suggest that as a result of this there is a need for training to improve subject knowledge. I’ve provided some of my own CPD recommendations in the panel below. 

In this piece I’ve covered just a few of the areas included in the report. There is plenty more including spelling, teaching comprehension effectively, reading fluency and vocabulary.  

The report prompts us to consider how we are teaching English in our schools and settings. Not to create a tick list in preparation for inspection, but to evaluate our practice and to consider what changes we may want to make to ensure that all children experience success. 

Ofsted English review – CPD recommendations

  • Engage with your local English hub and make use of their expertise. 
  • Consider an individual or school membership to at least one of the English associations. The UKLA and National Literacy trust are good places to start. 
  • Make contact with your local Independent English Consultant. There are lots of us about with many years of expertise in training teachers in English. 
  • Create a staff CPD library. Fill it with books about English teaching. Staff could read these at their leisure, or you could use them to create your own CPD sessions. 

Rachel Clarke has 28 years’ experience as a primary educator. She is celebrating her 10th year as the director of Primary English, an independent consultancy working with primary teachers across the world. Find out more on X @PrimaryEnglish.

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