My kids learned to read just as phonics schemes began to be pushed by the Government. The oldest did it via Jolly Phonics and the Oxford Reading Tree; the youngest via Read Write Inc and the same Oxford Reading Tree books her older brother had read (although they were a lot tattier than they had been three years previously). Both children were sent home with a list of ‘red words’ (high frequency words that are tricky to read by ‘sounding them out’). I helped them learn these words as whole units. Yes, I know I’m a ‘phonics denier’ for suggesting that such a thing might be useful to do, but I really truly don’t care. Thankfully they both had an experienced teacher and we supported their reading at home. As soon as their teacher realised they had got it, she set them free from the dull old reading scheme books and told us to read whatever we wanted with them. I thank my lucky stars that they are both avid readers who read for ages every night out of sheer pleasure.
Nick Gibb regularly talks about the increase in the number of children passing the phonics test. He seems certain that phonics will eventually filter through so that all children can read at the expected level when they leave primary school. It’s worth remembering that governments have pushed for a focus on synthetic phonics since The Rose Report was published in 2006. In 2011 schools were given extra funds to invest in training and resources for teaching systematic synthetic phonics. Although there was a steady increase in Key Stage 2 reading results, this seems to have stalled. To quote the DfE’s statistics for 2015: “There was no change in attainment at level 4 or above in reading.” When I learned to teach reading on my BEd course back in the 1990’s, we were not given a specific ‘system’ for approaching the task. Certainly, it seems useful to have a set of guidelines, in the form of a coherent, systematic approach. (Although I disagree with mandatory SSP, I suspect that simply having a ‘system’ of any kind is useful in its own right.)
Earlier this week there was a flurry of tweets about the phonics test (sorry, the ‘phonics screening check’). Two of these tweets particularly caught my eye. First, there was this one from Becky Allen:
It’s surprising to see it written down like that, isn’t it? The idea that a school would teach four year olds to blend nonsense words when they haven’t even learned to read yet. Or to ponder the similarly weird notion that some schools narrow their curriculum and spend terms preparing their Year 6 classes for SATs. Surely we should all somehow be ‘above’ that kind of thing? Shouldn’t we just send those children into their phonics check or their Key Stage 2 SATs and find out what they know? It doesn’t take a genius to work out that this is a direct result of the pressures on schools, and particularly on primary schools, to ‘pass’ these checks or run the risk of a failed inspection and academisation. (Of course secondary schools don’t have any National Tests until GCSEs, but we have seen similar stories of ‘gaming’ going on with those too.) Just because you hope that schools would not try to ‘game’ the system, doesn’t mean that they won’t turn to such approaches when faced with high pressure and high stakes.
And then there was this tweet from David Didau:
I often see expressions of surprise online about the fact that some children leave primary school unable to read at the expected level. I’m not sure whether David was being serious with his tweet, but the suggestion that it only takes a few weeks to teach a four year old phonics totally misses the point. You could in theory teach phonics as quickly as you want; you could narrow the curriculum so that mostly all your four year olds did for their first six weeks of primary school was chant phonemes. (Although you’d have hell to pay with the parents, that’s for sure.) But until children have retained the sounds, and can use them in the context of reading a book, they have not learned them. It is a bit like teaching your Reception class to chant their times tables up to 12 x 12, and then expecting them to get 100% in a times tables test.
One of the results of the statutory screening check seems to have been to exacerbate the frustrations between primary and secondary teachers – something I see far more of these days than I used to. There is no reason why secondary teachers should not comment on the teaching of reading. But until you have tried to teach 30 tiny children to read, alongside all the other subjects, it is hard to understand the enormity of the task. This is especially so if you do not have helpful parents, if your class has more than 30 children in it, or if you do not have any in-class support. Telling primary teachers to ‘make it happen’ or imagining that it would be simple if they just ‘did it right’ is rather missing the point. Often it is not about the method, or the teacher, but about time, behaviour, absence, vocabulary development, the child’s home life, SEND – a whole multitude of factors.
The ‘phonics wars’ seem to have reached a stalemate. One group of educators is wary of the unintended consequences of the Government’s approach – the thought of children saying ‘I hate phonics’ is too much to bear. Another group of educators says that the method is not working for everyone because the first group of educators are ‘not doing it properly’, and that further training and oversight is the answer. (This does rather seem to me to be like having your cake and eating it, since the prior increases were attributed to the method itself.) As far as I can tell, both groups of educators are united in their animosity to the idea of children being ‘taught’ nonsense words, as though this somehow equated to ‘learning to read’. I’m mainly confused and concerned about the fact that we are telling children as young as five that they have ‘failed’ a test and will have to do it again next year. And the fact that, despite Ofsted being told not to mandate methods, we appear quite happy to do so with this particular approach.
By dint of some impeccable timing, a bit of home schooling, and being out of the UK at just the right moments, neither of our kids has ever sat any kind of National Test. No two year old check, no Reception baseline, no phonics test, no Key Stage 1 or Key Stage 2 SATs. They have made their way through their schooling blissfully unaware that such things exist. Their results have never counted towards a league table, an Ofsted report, a teacher’s class data or a school’s reputation. The first National Tests the older kid will ever sit will be GCSEs. There is no ‘baseline’ for his secondary school to progress from, so he won’t even be counted in their GCSE results. I’ve also offered the younger kid the option of a term of home schooling to avoid Key Stage 2 SATs (it seems only fair). But if my children were tiny again, and about to face three different tests in their first few years of schooling, I am clear what I would do. I would say to my partner that education has “schtopped may king senz”. I would choose to home school them. And eye wood teech them too reed bi miself.