When I was at home on maternity leave with my 19 yer old son- I mean- with my son who is now 19 years old- my husband came back from a school he had been visiting as part of his PGCE where everybody in year 2 could read- where everybody passed their reading sats and many got level 3. They did this by teaching them phonics. It is difficult to convey quite how shocking this was. At that point (1996), the idea that you could teach something out of context- without some meaningful frame of reference that made sense to the child- was seen as almost tantamount to child abuse. Children were said to learn to read by being immersed in a rich world of high quality children’s literature, by bathing in wonderful stories and glorious poetry. Not by dissecting language into individual atoms and labelling them with differently voiced grunts. It was like being told they taught witchcraft. Surely, I said, the children had sprouted horns as a result, or hair on the palms of their hands or something? But husband- usually the sort of person to champion wonderful stories and glorious poetry- was adamant that this atomistic sound grunting business had something to it. So I went to visit.
Within 5 minutes it was obvious these kids were streets ahead of mine. About a year ahead, I reckon. So although if I were God I would have created things so that children learnt to read best through exposure to rich language as that appeals to my liberal tendencies- I conceded that unfortunately the seemingly less inspiring, dry and dull phonics method was annoyingly superior. Witchcraft was now in. We adopted it, found that children actually really enjoyed it because they loved the success that went with learning to read. Our results soared. Every child except some of those with statements for thorough going global delay learnt to read. The headteacher of that school was Ruth Miskin and we’ve been using her products through their many iterations ever since.
At this point, the phonics champions are whooping, poised to retweet. But fear not, oh phonics denier- there is more to this tale. Actually SPOILER ALERT, both purist phonics advocates and deniers are going to be disappointed as I will come to a ‘sit on the fence- we need both phonics and other strategies’ moderate conclusion.
Anyway, time passed and we realised that while we were really good at getting almost everyone a 2c or higher at the end of year 2 ( if you remember the old days when we used to have these levels), the ones who got 2c – and some who got 2b, limped through ks2 and might just scrape a 4c on a good day, with a fair wind behind them. They might be able to read, but they couldn’t always pass that damn test. Pot holing at Dingley Dell in 2011 was a particular low point- with an able reader scoring N, yes N, in the reading test. Reading for meaning was a real issue for some children. In fact for some, their tolerance of non meaning was truly shocking. They just didn’t expect reading to make sense- it was just an exercise in barking at print. The most proficient print barkers would get quite cross when you tried to slow them down and enquire what a sentence actually meant. They know they were good at decoding and saw reading as nothing more than that. Yet here we were, calling their hard earned prowess into question. For some children, this may have been exacerbated by the way they were taught to read Arabic at Quran school, where as far as I am aware ( do correct me if I am wrong) learning to read the Quran means learning to decode it fluently- sometimes beautifully- but not actually understanding what the text says.
We’d been using ‘accelerated reader’ for years to keep tabs on whether our children were actually reading the books they took home from our library and this clearly showed that a stubbon minority of children – let’s call them Biff and Chip- just don’t read at home ever. And if we force feed them reading at school- they still don’t really understand what they’ve read.
Anyway- enter ‘ project meaning’. We kept doing all the phonics stuff but added in extra ‘reading for meaning and pleasure’ stuff too. We revamped guided reading in ks2 by introducing reciprocal reading. This was fabulous. Our proportion of level 5’s shot up- 85% one year and we are in a very deprived area (school deprivation index 0.58). We also did Power of Reading and made fancy reading corners and bought lots of great children’s fiction and rewrote our curriculum centred on high quality children’s literature. We also realised our phonics programme had moved on and put a lot more emphasis on reading for meaning and enjoyment itself so got retrained in that. We introduced guided reading into ks1 so on top of a hour’s rwinc ever day and 45 minutes of text based literacy, kids also got 30 mins guided reading daily. Biff and Chip got additional phonics teaching in years 3 & 4, until they were scoring a level 3 in their end of year assessments. Throughout ks2 all children did a phonics based spelling programme. And guess what? Biff and Chip ( and really unexpectedly Wilma) still missed a 4c by 1 miserable mark. Which means we now have red blobs on our raiseonline saying the proportion of our disadvantaged pupils making expected progress in reading is ‘well below’ that of other schools. (Although we get a yellow blob for our proportion of disadvantaged children making more than expected progress). So we are simultaneously really good and really bad at teaching disadvantaged children to read.
Deep breaths. Yes the red blobs are annoying- but actually- I sort of get it. Say Biff and Chip had scraped a 4c? (I’m ignoring Wilma and assuming that was down to exam nerves- she’d got solid 4’s in all practice tests.) I would have patted myself on the back, smug in the knowledge that all was well with reading. But seriously – 4c…! You can ( or rather could) be pretty poor at reading and scrape a 4c. Hardly setting you up for success at secondary though- is it? Not good enough. When I looked back at our results over past few years realised most years there was at least one Biff……what was going on? Why weren’t we picking up that these children were so weak and doing something about it? I could hear David Didau tutting.
‘But Biff and Chip don’t read at home’, decried my SLT. ‘Mrs Biff took Biff on holiday in term time…..in year 6! And neither Biff nor Chip came to February or Easter booster classes! ‘ they continued. True, but we need to be good enough to enable our children to succeed even without parental support. With support- well just look at those other disadvantaged but well supported children with all those level 5’s. But we can’t rely on it for all children. What were we doing wrong? Or what weren’t we doing? Tracking showed that the children were 3c by the end of yr4, 3a by the end of yr5- so 4b here we come. 4a should be possible.
Sure when they actually entered yr6 the teacher ranted about them not actually being able to read properly…..but then she always does this about every pupil at the beginning of the year. ‘ ‘Woe is me…there is a mountain to climb….they are all barely level 2….what am I supposed to do.’ That’s just what year 6 teachers say ever year- it’s tradition. I don’t take any notice of that! Especially because look, the tracker is all green- they are on track to make good progress. And usually- almost all of them do. Except Biff. And Chip.
Then I read Daisy Christodoulou’s piece about reading ages versus national curriculum levels and I felt sick. Daisy shares the evidence that shows that national curriculum level 2 reading assessment can span a seven year range of ability when the same children were assessed using reading ages. Now we’d always poo pooed reading ages as when we used the bit of accelerated reader that assesses reading age- the results were so out of kilter with our national curriculum judgements that we just simply didn’t believe them. Sats held such sway that those results just had to be infallible- didn’t they?
And to be fair- the accelerated reader test has its flaws. It’s a multiple choice test done on a computer. Without sitting on top of a child and forcing them to take it seriously, some children find the thrill of having a laptop just too exciting and get distracted- clicking merrily at any answer without actually you know, er reading. I know sharing grades is not great practice but it does work wonders on the bright 10 year old who hasn’t concentrated on his ‘star reader’ test to be told- ‘apparently you read like a six year old- how about you do the test again and actually concentrate?’ Who then achieves a 13 year old’s reading age. Earlier this term a teacher left the test to do with a supply and got a dire set of results. Only weeks later did the children mention the fire practice that had interrupted the test. Since it’s done on a computer and time limited, it’s a wonder that the results were as good as they were. And then there is a legendary tale of a struggling year 2 reader who presumably by random chance managed to score a reading age of 12 once ( and only once). And then with young children there is the fatigue effect. As soon as you get a certain number of questions wrong, your test ends- so the better you are the longer your test lasts. With lunchtime looming, Wilf sees Biff and Chip heading to the playground after a mere 20 questions and wonders why he is on number 34. He quickly clicks at any old answer to get the stupid test over and done with and lo and behold- the test ends. How do you make a test high stakes enough for children to try their hardest but low stakes enough that they don’t panic?
Anyway the team needed convincing- so I read the boring small print bit in accelerated reader about how they ensure their test is reliable and it may not be perfect but it’s got heaps of trials behind it and is way, way more reliable than the old nc test. So we are using that now. Alongside some other stuff. And each time it throws up a couple of kids in each class that are doing less well than we had thought. Not bad enough for us to already have them flagged for phonics intervention but a good year behind where they should be.
I think it’s a reading fluency problem. Rwinc teaches them phonics and reciprocal reading nails the meaning but somewhere in between the two some kids don’t quite take off. I see now that when we ended Biff and Chip’s phonics based intervention – because they’d got a 3c- that 3c was probably cobbled together by getting easy marks here and there and masked the fact they weren’t really fluent refers yet. Because they got their intervention from a TA during guided reading- the class teacher didn’t actually know much about what they were like as readers. So went on the test result alone. BIG MISTAKE. Although it’s tricky- what should Biff miss to catch up on his reading. Mum won’t bring him before or after school so should he miss guided reading or history? If he misses history- he’ll miss out on acquiring knowledge- and that’s vital for reading too, we now understand. I’m sure if we’d been pot holing in 2011 our ‘Dingley Dell’ Sats results would have been much better! Assembly time? But what about developing his SMSC, hey and all those Britsh values. Because he never did his reading homework, he already had to stay in every lunchtime to catch up. You’d see him, staring at his open book but not actually reading it. Or, when forced to, reading it word by word without enjoyment or real understanding. Every lunchtime and it did him no good- put him off reading more like. What he needed was someone to read with him. If we had realised how bad it was we might have found someone to do just that.
So that’s where we are at now. Screening all ks2 using reading ages and trying to catch all the Biffs and Chips for whom 3 years of high quality phonics in ks1 still hasn’t been quite enough to enable really fluent reading or, unsurprisingly, a passion for reading. A literature rich curriculum, a well stocked library, author visits and teachers who are passionate about passing on a love of reading still hasn’t inspired them to really want to and so to voluntarily put the work in. Not even the lure of being able to read ‘ The Recruit’ ( parental permission required because a character says ‘shit’ or something) has been sufficiently tempting- because it’s just a bit too hard for them to read by themselves. So now we are overhauling our lower ks2 for children who are not yet fluent. We’ve bought in ‘ Project X Code‘ for them- rwinc is great but they need a change after 3 years on the programme. And they like the stories. Then in upper ks2 trying to find enough staff to give up their lunch break to help children become fluent and eager readers even when we’ve deprived them of football, using real books via the Chatterbooks project. As they remind us, being someone who reads for pleasure is a better indicator of long term success than education or social class. But will try and supplement with yet more phonics (rwinc’s fresh start) at some other point in the day. Just don’t have enough staff to do this at the moment. Am in school tomorrow trying to squeeze budget for solutions. And we are really well funded compared to other local authorities. No idea how the rest of the world copes!
So that’s my solution. Don’t choose between phonics and other approaches. Do it all!