Ban the bombast and stop these reading wars now

21st September 2018 at 00:00
Start planning now to ensure all your boxes have been ticked – and to avert any potential disaster

Every teacher is a teacher of reading. In every domain, from algebra to art, home economics to history, every student is busy reading. And yet, how many teachers can profess to be experts on how children learn to read and go on to read to learn? When was the last time teachers were given time to explore the complexities of reading so that we could teach more effectively?

Like many aspects of learning, the challenge of reading for our pupils is too often taken for granted. Teachers receive quick-fire training before they are launched into the deep end of the classroom. Instead of having time to grapple with this vital aspect of all learning, we get a quick peek at contentious news headlines, or experience speedy CPD sessions with a few reading tips.

The antidote is supporting teachers to engage with the ample research evidence on reading.

This June, a seminal review of the research evidence on reading has been freely shared by professors Anne Castles, Kathleen Rastle and Kate Nation. Entitled Ending the Reading Wars: Reading Acquisition From Novice to Expert, this important review synthesises pretty much everything we need to know about the science of reading (

The review explores how the long-standing “reading wars” – played out in the press and in academia – have obscured the rich science of reading that is available to teachers. Mention phonics to teachers and many will rail at the perceived meddling of politicians such as Nick Gibb and Michael Gove. Vehement caricatures of systematic phonics as “barking at print”, alongside complaints about high-stakes testing, characterise a “vociferous argument over how children should to be taught to read”. Nuanced research quickly gets drowned out by politically-charged heckling as teachers are left to stumble.

What Castles et al do so expertly is explore the evidence for effective phonics instruction and the equally important processes beyond phonics that are so key to successful reading.

Alongside the efficient and systematic teaching of phonics, the review supports “extensive, varied and rich experience in reading”, while investigating useful avenues for teachers, such as how the explicit teaching of morphology – word parts, such as the prefixes “un” and “pre” – can offer a useful “binding agent” for developing readers who are learning new words and developing as readers.

They go on to explore the challenge of reading comprehension. Their research insights foreground the primacy of oral language, the importance of background knowledge, while unpacking the “overwhelming evidence” on how important vocabulary knowledge is to reading comprehension.

Wouldn’t teachers be better off with a little more nuanced, well-written research to steer their thinking and guide their actions? The researchers admit there is more to know about how we distil these reliable findings into effective practice, but this will only begin if we stop wrangling as warring factions and start working with these experts. As a profession, we need to ignore the bombastic point-scoring of the “reading wars”. Instead, we can engage with sophisticated evidence like Ending the Reading Wars.

Alex Quigley is a senior associate for the Education Endowment Foundation, a former teacher, and the author of Closing the Vocabulary Gap

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