Reading needs repair

30th September 2005 at 01:00
Teaching quality is the key reason why so many pupils fall behind in the literacy stakes, says Jim Rose

Once upon a time I attended a reading conference in New York. It was in the days when car stickers were all the rage. A VW Beetle turned up with a sticker on the back saying: "If you can read this thank a teacher."

That the quality of teaching is key to children's educational achievement is an obvious truth. Moreover, the vast majority of our early-years settings and primary schools hardly need to be reminded, much less persuaded, of the attention that must be given to teaching literacy. This is of such critical importance for the education of all children that meeting the challenge to provide excellent teaching of literacy is a matter of professional pride that also carries high reputational risks for early-years settings and primary schools.

For early-years practitioners and teachers, fostering children's literacy generally draws upon a broad view of language and communication in which listening, speaking, reading and writing are closely related. At best, these four strands are developed along with positive attitudes. Thereby children become careful, comprehending listeners and confident speakers, able to read and write fluently for information and enjoyment, and increasingly able to use these attributes to learn independently.

However, when thinking about literacy, what most people have in mind is the ability to read and write. The majority of parents see reading as a prime indicator of achievement on the road to educational success, particularly as children move from primary to secondary school. At the very least, parents deserve to be reassured that their children are benefiting from high-quality teaching of reading from the earliest stage.

Despite reporting that English is one of the best-taught subjects, Ofsted continues to voice concerns about unacceptable variations in teaching quality in the case of reading instruction and has long observed significant variations between schools which have similar contexts and levels of resources. These concerns are echoed in the Report of the 2005 Select Committee: Teaching Children To Read, which points to the "unnacceptably high" 20 per cent of children at age 11 still not reaching the level in reading and writing expected of their age. It also draws attention to the "wide variation in the results achieved by schools with apparently similar intakes". We already have an active programme of support in the Primary National Strategy. How this might be made more effective in the cause of raising pupils' performance in essential literacy skills will be part of wide-ranging consultations about improvements to the National Literacy and Numeracy Frameworks. Effective literacy support will also be central to the new Early Development and Learning Framework. Both this new framework and the renewal of the literacy framework will be informed by the findings of the review of early reading I have been asked to undertake.

Meanwhile, action is especially urgent for the 20 per cent or so of children in key stage 2 who have yet to become secure readers as they move to secondary schools. Determining what might be done to identify those children at risk of reading failure and strengthen their reading performance in the foundation stage and KS1 will be high on the consultation agenda. I have long believed that whoever it was in the early years world that coined "plan, do, and review" as the virtuous circle for improving just about everything that goes on in schools deserves a Nobel Prize for common sense. Even the most carefully prepared initiatives, such as the National Literacy Strategy, do not, like the goddess Athene, spring "fully armed from the brow of Zeus". They have to be constantly worked upon and honed and kept under review by settings and schools.

Yet keeping frameworks and strategies under review will only take us so far in dealing with underachievement in reading. Tackling the most sensitive issue: that of assuring the quality of teaching, is even more important and far more difficult to deliver. Arguably, it is heads of primary schools and early-years settings who are best placed to create the conditions and make sure that support for and feedback on the teaching of reading are well received and acted upon by practitioners and teachers.

Amid the welter of things they face at the start of a new school year, additions to the "to-do" list of heads and teachers are unlikely to be welcome. Nevertheless, experience shows that waiting time can paralyse action. We certainly cannot afford to wait for the outcomes of consultations on frameworks or reading reviews before taking action where the teaching of reading needs repair.

Jim Rose, former chief primary HMI, is carrying out a Government review of the role of synthetic phonics

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