Give them literacy with all the lights on
Two cheers for Jim Rose's interim report on the teaching of early reading.
His recommendations for greater emphasis on speaking and listening are fundamental and deserve a big cheer. The emphasis on explicit phonics instruction is also right. It underlines what the national literacy strategy (NLS) has been saying since 1998.
We embarked on the NLS with a clear intention to learn as we went on. But the framework needed stability over at least five years to have any serious chance of raising standards. Now is the time to revise it, building on what has been achieved. I give that a second cheer.
The third cheer is reserved for the final report because the practical implications will lie in the detail. Phonics is obviously here to stay, no one disagrees about the big principles, and teachers will, one way or another, get better at doing it. We can all be confident that these principles will be articulated clearly with an accelerated progression in the revised framework, and sound guidance on teaching methods.
Ironically, though, phonics per se is not the most significant issue.
Bigger questions concern the way that phonics gets embedded in the wider literacy curriculum. Mr Rose's formula for "not overlooking the importance of exposing children to a wealth of good literature and favourite books"
and to build positive attitudes to reading, leaves this question open.
There are a number of options. We could have phonics fast and first as the House of Commons select committee proposed, confining reading to a narrow range of contrived texts comprised of only phonically decodable words with stories on the side for fun, and leading to proper reading later.
A more amenable option is a kind of "dual route" approach where phonics goes its own way while, quite separately, the "wealth of good literature"
is used to create positive attitudes. Somehow, in time, these two streams of learning fuse into fluent and comprehending reading, but it isn't clear how, or even whether this would happen.
The third and probably the least popular option offers a more developmental solution where phonics is woven into wider reading experiences. This is not antithetical to the separate and systematic teaching of phonics. Nor does it mean resorting to "mixed methods "or "discredited" whole language teaching approaches.
Jim's own four-year-old grandson, no doubt will have rich and responsive reading experiences of all kinds as well as loads of good speaking and listening.
As yet, he may not have much interest in phonics but will probably know a lot of books by heart, have a good range of language and concepts about books and reading, recognise a good number of favourite words on sight, know some letters by name and sound, play at reading and writing, and imitate the reading and writing behaviour of adults.
When, in time, he is taught phonics, he probably won't need too much instruction because he will have the skills and experience to make use of it effectively. He has a better than average chance of becoming a successful reader because the foundations are well laid for self-extending competence.
Such competence grows from children applying their knowledge of language to reading through inference, analogy, generalisation, prediction, deduction (all classified as "guessing" by the Daily Telegraph and the Reading Reform Foundation) and appropriating phonics along with other workable strategies in the service of reading for meaning. It is the common and familiar biography of a successful reader.
This is the message of the "searchlights" metaphor in the framework. Yes, teach phonics systematically and separately. But give children good books to read and supplement phonic decoding with anticipating, hypothesising, problem-solving and self-correction from other sources.
Teach them to recognise tricky and highly salient words so they don't trip up on them, help them use grammatical awareness to understand and predict words in sentences, and use all this in the service of reading and understanding texts.
As the searchlights head for room 101, we might recall that successful children typically learn to read by having all these lights switched on, using them in complementary ways. Far from confusing children as the critics claim, this reinforces and extends their learning.
The best teaching tries to replicate the conditions of successful learning.
It is unlikely to do this by preventing children from developing and applying their personal knowledge, alongside phonics, to the task of reading.
Phonics is very important; it should be taught but it is not a panacea.
There is no serious evidence that a generous programme of the kind I have hinted at does anything other than good, provided the phonics is there.
Moreover, there is evidence that undue focus on single-strategy teaching is hazardous, counter-intuitive for teachers and contrary to the typical experience of successful readers.
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John Stannard was director of the national literacy strategy, 1997 to 2001