The UK government is under pressure to change the way that children are taught to read in England. More than 250 people involved in children’s education have sent an open letter calling for urgent changes to be made, with less of a focus on phonics when teaching reading. Their letter is linked to new research which says that the current approach is too narrow and not sufficiently informed by robust research evidence. One of the report’s authors says that “by focusing on it [phonics] to the exclusion of other skills, we are failing our children.” Another key criticism is that the current approach does nothing to encourage a love of reading, something that is central to Life-Based Learning.
The open letter to the education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, was signed by more than 250 people, including headteachers and academics. It calls for “vital improvements” to be made to England’s education curriculum, with more time spent on reading comprehension and on encouraging children to be motivated to read and less time spent on phonics. “Teachers should be supported to use a range of phonics teaching approaches, not just synthetic phonics”, the letter says. “Robust evidence also suggests that the DfE should … decrease the amount of time devoted to phonics teaching in the national curriculum.”
The new research, called Reading wars or reading reconciliation? A critical examination of robust research evidence, curriculum policy and teachers’ practices for teaching phonics and reading, was carried out by the UCL Institute of Education. It found that the approach to phonics and reading teaching in England “is not sufficiently underpinned by research evidence” and that there is a need for “changes to the teaching of reading and to national curriculum policy on the teaching of reading.” Researchers said their findings “do not support a synthetic phonics orientation to the teaching of reading: they suggest that a balanced instruction approach is most likely to be successful.”
The report outlines the different approaches to teaching reading.
For the last decade the Department for Education has put an emphasis “first and foremost” on synthetic or blended phonics — children begin by pronouncing individual sounds in words and are then encouraged to blend them together to make words. This technique teaches children to read using phonetic sounds rather than letters. It means that “at key moments in the teaching programme phonics teaching is separate from practising reading with whole texts.”
The then education secretary, Michael Gove, introduced a phonics screening check in 2012 for all children in year one (aged five or six) to check pupil progress. The open letter calls for the screening check to be abolished.
A whole-language, ‘real-books’ approach, in contrast, is driven by reading for meaning. Phonics teaching is done in a relatively non-systematic way using examples related to the real books being read.
A third approach, which the report calls ‘balanced instruction’, is a mix of different approaches.
There is evidence that the phonics-first approach has been successful. According to the Department for Education, since the introduction of the phonics screening check in 2012, the percentage of year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard in reading has risen from 58% to 82%, with 92% of children achieving this standard by year 2.”
Tom Bennett, the founder of ResearchEd, said that evidence shows phonics “remains the single best way to introduce young people to reading.” He said that the report “seems to encourage … a return to the bad old days of multi-cueing and other forms of guesswork. Such approaches risk leaving children illiterate. Let’s not do that. Evidence matters, not dogma.”
However, critics say phonics training only helps children to do well in phonics tests. They are learning how to pronounce words presented to them in a list rather than to understand what they read. It includes nonsense words. They do not need to know what these mean and are judged to have ‘read’ them correctly if they say the appropriate sounds. Moreover, this approach does nothing to encourage a love of reading.
Life-Based Learning supports the prioritisation of children reading for pleasure, building on their natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge. As a nation, we simply don’t read enough — despite the many undisputed benefits that reading brings. Nor do we do enough to make it easy and fun for our children to read. We need to give them every encouragement to develop the habit of reading for pleasure so that they carry a love of reading with them into adulthood.
Image at the head of this article by qiangxuer from Pixabay.