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There’s More to Reading than Just Phonics

The latest DfE announcement shows literacy training is yet again failing to focus on many of the key aspects of teaching young children to read, says David Reedy…

David Reedy
by David Reedy
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At the beginning of June 2019, the DFE announced that Ruth Miskin Training had been given the contract to run the new training centre to develop literacy specialists.

The centre will provide training for up to 34 English hub leaders and 180 literacy specialists.

The DfE says the training will focus on three priority areas: age-appropriate systematic synthetic phonics provision; early language development; and promoting a love of reading.

The centre will be run in association with I CAN, the National Literacy Trust, Sounds Write, Jolly Phonics, Sounds Discovery, Phonics International and Floppy Phonics.

At UKLA, we’re concerned that the training yet again seems to prioritise systematic synthetic phonics teaching for very young children over every other aspect of learning to read.

Most of the partner groups listed publish commercial phonics programmes.

Although UKLA is clear that phonics instruction is essential for early reading development, we’d argue that it’s not sufficient to develop fully rounded young readers.

In particular, there’s little indication in the announcement that comprehension will be a key focus – a grasp of phonics does not necessarily help children make sense of what they read, which is the prime purpose of reading.

We’re pleased that language development and reading for pleasure are mentioned but, once again, phonics is prioritised and other aspects of reading seem to be an afterthought.

The elevated status of phonics instruction runs counter to research evidence which suggests that understanding what reading offers is even more important for young readers before and when they enter school.

Ruth Miskin has been very successful in developing and promoting phonics teaching, however there is less evidence that a phonics only approach helps children to read all words accurately, for example common words like ‘come’ and ‘the’ are not phonically regular and words like ‘read’ can only be pronounced accurately in the context of its sentence. Every teacher will recognise this.

In fact, there is new evidence that there are significant errors in current phonics programmes which need attention.

In research their research ‘How linguistically informed are phonics programmes?’, Roger Beard, Greg Brooks and Jaz Ampaw‐Farr write: The number and range of the linguistic errors in current phonics programmes pose a significant risk, not only to the implementation of the national curriculum, but also to the quality of teaching and learning of early reading… Inaccuracies in how GPCs [grapheme-phoneme correspondences] are referred to can only add to the difficulties that some children experience when learning to read.

This is a serious issue which most teachers are not aware of.

The offer of support from English hubs will be primarily for schools where scores on the phonics check are below expectations. Given evidence of inaccuracies in current phonics programmes, this puts less experienced early readers in an even more precarious position.

Discussions about phonics can distract attention from some of the fundamental experiences that help children to become successful, committed and lifelong readers – one of the most important of which is being read to by a family member or, in school, an adult who values reading. Children’s language develops not only through pleasurable shared reading but through the conversations that surround the text and the emotional connection of the experience.

The familiar cry, ‘Again!’ is a signal of engagement with language and its meaning.

Any training programme should reflect the substantial research evidence that shows a balanced approach to reading is the most effective.

In addition, it should include attention to the problems identified within specific phonics programmes which may undermine particularly vulnerable children’s progress.

The training should also include: attention to a range of word reading strategies; language development; engagement in reading; awareness and importance of the reading experiences children bring with them from home; comprehension and inference making.

The Reading for Pleasure research, carried out by the Open University and UKLA, offers a rich set of possibilities for the training hubs to draw on.

We hope that when details of the training programme are published, these will include a range of teaching approaches that go beyond synthetic phonics instruction and provide all children with genuine and life-enhancing reading experiences.

David Reedy is a UKLA trustee, member of the executive committee, past president and former honorary secretary. Until 2014 he was principal adviser for primary schools in the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham.

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