Embracing hard questions over reading approaches and phonics

A Scottish Learning Festival event raised concerns about reading approaches in schools. That willingness to grapple with difficult questions is a good sign, says Henry Hepburn
22nd September 2022, 4:31pm


Embracing hard questions over reading approaches and phonics


There have been times in the past when the Scottish Learning Festival (SLF) has stood accused of being too safe and not open enough to challenging viewpoints.

This week, however, one of the main SLF 2022 presentations sought to debunk conventional approaches in Scottish schools around how children are taught to read. 

Literacy consultant and former primary teacher Anne Glennie said that current research supported the systematic use of synthetic phonics but that approaches to reading used in Scottish schools often do not reflect this.


In one of five “spotlight” sessions on a range of topics given special billing at this year’s largely online Scottish Learning Festival, held today and yesterday, Glennie said that “phonics is a prerequisite for good comprehension”.

She said that the ages between three and eight are “optimal for connecting neural pathways”, so explicit reading instruction should start early. She also said that it is the less advantaged groups of children who are most likely to suffer if this does not happen.

“Every day that you delay the teaching of reading, the attainment gap is getting larger,” said Glennie.

She was critical of long-established practices in Scotland, such as the use of laminated “sight words” that are learned by pupils, which “can look convincing, but it gives an illusion of reading”, as it is based on “pure memorisation”.

Glennie said it was common for schools in Scotland to view phonics as just one of a number of tools for teaching reading, whereas phonics is often more pivotal to literacy approaches in other countries, including England.

Rather than learn whole words, teachers and pupils should “break [each] word down into its component parts”, she said.

“We have to wire the brain to programme it for reading,” Glennie told attendees at her SLF session.

So-called “balanced literacy” approaches, where literacy is just part of the mix, “emphasise meaning over accuracy” so that young readers often resort to guessing a word, said Glennie.

If, for example, they saw the word “horse” but guessed “pony”, prompted by an image of a horse alongside the text, “sometimes you will say, ‘well, that’s OK because you’re close enough’”.

With an approach based on systematic synthetic phonics, however, a teacher would say “let’s try that again” - and such an approach “absolutely aligned with current research”.

“Reading is not natural - reading is a human invention,” said Glennie. She said it was different to a natural impulse, such as walking, as it has to be taught explicitly.

She was also keen to promote handwriting, which she said “activates this reading system [in the human brain]” in a way that, for example, tapping on a computer keyboard or forming letters in a sandpit do not.

One teacher who attended Glennie’s SLF session this week tweeted: “I am questioning why almost everything you shared I don’t recall learning on my [postgraduate teaching] course a few years ago.”

Another favourable Twitter response came from physics teacher Stuart Farmer, now education manager of the Institute of Physics Scotland, who wrote: “Learning to read is a basic human right of a child. You cannot read for pleasure if you have not been taught effectively to read.”

In August 2017, Glennie lodged a parliamentary petition with the title “Improving literacy standards in schools through research-informed reading instruction”. It called for “national guidance, support and professional learning for teachers in research-informed reading instruction, specifically systematic synthetic phonics”, and for new teachers to receive training in this.

However, in May this year, the petition was closed by the Scottish Parliament’s Education, Children and Young People Committee. It had been due to be discussed at a session in March 2020 but Covid scuppered those plans.

On the day that news emerged, Glennie tweeted: “Utterly soul-destroying, as this matters so much for children *right now* who are being failed by the system.

When the committee agreed to close the petition on 4 May, deputy convener and primary teacher Kaukab Stewart said: “I have taught synthetic phonics for over 30 years but I have also taught the other methods. At the moment, in initial teacher education, they are trying to use a variety of those approaches.”

She added: “There are technical flaws to synthetic phonics because there are issues about pronunciation and how neurodiverse kids come into it. It also does not solve the issue of dyslexia.”

Ms Stewart also said: “Is it our role to direct the way that we teach reading and roll that out? That is what the petition is looking for and I am not sure that that is our role.”

In a piece for Tes Scotland in May, Dr Sarah McGeown, a University of Edinburgh senior lecturer in developmental psychology, said: “This petition was closed, in my opinion, as a result of a misunderstanding of what it represented.

“Firstly, the petition did not request a single mandated approach to the teaching of reading across Scottish primary schools. Instead, it requested that all new and experienced teachers had access to research (specifically the contribution that psychological science has made to understanding how children learn to read) to be able to apply this in their own classroom contexts.

“Secondly, the idea that ‘all children learn differently’ and that, therefore, teachers should use a variety of approaches to teach reading, unfortunately, often disadvantages the very children that this argument is made to support.”

If there has been a more conscious effort by SLF organisers this year to stimulate debate in Scottish education than in the past, then Glennie’s session went some way towards achieving that.

Confident education systems and events will always encourage challenge - so if the SLF carries on in this vein, it can only be a good sign.

Henry Hepburn is Scotland editor at Tes. He tweets @Henry_Hepburn

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