Rose wants to switch off reading searchlights

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Tucked at the back of the Rose review on the teaching of early reading is a 21-page argument for ditching the searchlights model of reading - the example of good practice proposed in 1998 to help teachers visualise how reading worked.

Searchlights is explained by a simple diagram with a circle labelled text in the middle of the page. Around it are four boxes: phonics; grammatical knowledge; word recognition and graphic knowledge; and knowledge of content. From each box an arrow points to the text in the middle - showing that readers can use four aspects in their reading.

However, it gives the impression that the techniques are equally useful. In its report on the first four years of the national literacy strategy, Ofsted said that was wrong.

The Ofsted argument was that the intensity of the searchlights should fall in different places at different stages of learning to read. And the system does not show that phonics knowledge - how to link sounds and letters - was crucial for beginners.

In his interim early reading report last term, Jim Rose, former head of primary at Ofsted, said the searchlights should be switched off. He has now proposed an alternative model, one which has become increasingly popular with psychologists investigating reading.

It starts by dividing reading into decoding - the ability to recognise words -and comprehension, the process by which given words, sentences are interpreted.

A diagram shows these two aspects as a cross, with a horizontal axis plotting word recognition from poor to good and vertical axis to illustrate language comprehension ranging from poor to good. This makes it clear that children can be better at recognising words than understanding meaning or vice versa. This is the model which the report says should replace the searchlights.

This idea was championed by Professor Morag Stuart, head of the school of psychology and human development at the University of London's institute of education, at a 2003 investigation into phonics teaching conducted by Professor Greg Brooks, of Sheffield university. Professor Brooks said then that the model should be adopted alongside the searchlights model. And both professors were on the advisory group for the Rose report.

The report says that teachers must also understand how to develop word recognition skills and comprehension.

Word recognition skills - understanding that letters represent sounds - is the primary driver of all aspects of reading, not just of phonically regular words. When children have enough knowledge to work out the pronunciation of unfamiliar words, they have a self-teaching device. By the time they start school most children can understand what is said to them and can express themselves. Learning to read just means being able to understand words through seeing them rather than hearing.

Helen Ward Letters 26

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