'Phonics is essential. But, alone, it is not enough'

If we're going to do anything about our intractable problem with social mobility, we need to recognise that phonics on its own won't solve many of the regional problems with illiteracy

Jamie Fries

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To be socially mobile, you need to be able to read. Phonics is essential, but not enough.

The latest state of the nation is out, with frightening findings. The gulfs are widening north to south, rich to poor. The identity of many of those local authorities occupying the relegation zone comes as no great surprise. The DfE identified 12 opportunity areas over the last year, and they sit low in the table.

However, there is no relegation zone, no division below this singular table. We really are all in this together. And a potent force in turning things around in areas with poor social mobility is good literacy. Without reading well, the chance of these children climbing out of poverty is greatly reduced.

So what can we glean from the action plans of those struggling local authorities? Just how will they get their children reading better? Well, what we can see is more phonics. The rise of it, with its accompanying check, came after several years of government action. The match-funding and approved resources, along with the check, all aimed at ensuring the method was used.

'Phonics first'

The reason local authorities opt for more phonics is clear. The government, with schools minister Nick Gibb as the phonics poster boy, is 100 per cent invested in this methodology. In fact, Mr Gibb believes the reading wars are won, stating in September: "Finally, this fight is coming to an end thanks to the strong evidence in favour of systematic synthetic phonics.” Yet the mantra of the movement which has been embraced by him – "phonics first, fast and only" – still haunts the approach.

The reality is that it is just a part of the mix – essential but not sufficient – and if it’s the only thing on offer in the early literacy diet, then some vital nutrition is missing. 

West Somerset, sitting at the bottom of the social mobility index, knows there is more to reading than phonics. It cites in its action plan children arriving at school with a limited vocabulary, for example. Yet in the very next sentence, the focus shifts to phonics and the plan to deliver more phonics training. This will do little for vocabulary. Where in the West Somerset action plan – and those of the other opportunity areas – is mention of comprehension? Comprehension, the very goal of reading. The ability to understand, to form opinions and make meaning? It is mentioned not once.

Part of a rich mix

Make no mistake: I am fully behind skilled phonics teaching. It is essential in learning to read. But – and this is key – it must happen alongside comprehension strategies, vocabulary building and other core elements of reading. Even those regarded as fundamentalists are clear: phonics is part of a rich mix, including reading for pleasure. Yet government actions, driving school behaviours – the flow of money, lots to support financially struggling schools with phonics training and the phonics check – are one-sided. There is no real driver to encourage this rich mix in the teaching of reading.

If we are serious about creating the conditions for improved social mobility, a greater level of literacy is essential for children from poorer backgrounds. To improve literacy, this must be addressed. And so, what might this rejuvenated policy look like? One might expect reading for pleasure, developing vocabulary and the explicit teaching of comprehension strategies to sit alongside phonics, as equal partners in developing the inquisitive, hungry, questioning young readers we hope for.

Jamie Fries is CEO of Reading Wise. He tweets @jamief__

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Jamie Fries

Jamie Fries is CEO of Reading Wise

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