On pulling the right lever

Some people may have seen these already, but they’re worth watching and thinking about in relation to the Phonics Screening Check

Here and here

John Seddon’s definition of ‘deliverology’ – ie management by targets – which he gives in the second linked videos is

‘A top-down method by which you distort a system, undermine achievement of purpose, and demoralise people’.

Both videos are well worth watching and thinking about, and Seddon’s view reflects my own (and I’m sure others’) experience of the distorting effects of targets.

I seem to be back to asking questions again. I’ll start with these:


The Check is a big lever to pull, so, given all possible levers, is it the right one?


If the system is to work at its best, how does the Check contribute to this?

This is a real question, by the way, not an implication that it makes no contribution.


Another is:

How do we know when the system is working ‘at its best’?

another way of putting this would be:

What are the criteria for judging how near or far the current system is from being the best it could be?


Given that there are some schools which are failing to reach the levels of literacy attainment at the end of KS1 which are generally agreed to be necessary, what does the check contribute to solving this problem?

This is where things get quite interesting. Because although the most recent evaluation of the Check says that the check seems to have led to increased focus on SSP – including non-words – and that this has improved the recent results for the Check itself, it also says this:

Will/has the introduction of the phonics screening check have/had an impact on
the standard of reading and writing?
Exploratory analysis of NPD data suggests that the check provides additional
information on pupils’ progress as their literacy skills develop from the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage to their outcomes at the end of key stage 1. Scores on the check tend to be consistent with, but not the same as, other measures of literacy development during these first years of school. Most children who achieve level 2 in reading and writing at key stage 1 have previously met the expected standard on the check, but there is a substantial minority who have not. In addition, initial analysis by multilevel modelling revealed that positive attitudes and practices towards the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics and the value of the check are reflected in higher scores on the check for pupils. In contrast to the phonics scores, there were no significant associations with school typology on the results for children at the end of key stage 1. Thus attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check,
and by their approach to the teaching of phonics. (Walker et al. 2014)

the last sentence is the most interesting one, in terms of answering a question about the usefulness of the Check in relation to its ultimate purpose:

Attainment in reading and writing more broadly appears unaffected by the school’s enthusiasm, or not, for systematic synthetic phonics and the check, and by their approach to the teaching of phonics.
Now, this seems to me to connect with the study by Duff et al. which concluded:
Although the check fulfils its aims, we argue that resources might be better focused on training and supporting teachers in their ongoing monitoring of phonics.
Their criteria for saying that the Check ‘fulfils is aims’ are clear in this summary of results:
The phonics screening check correlates strongly with teacher judgements of phonic phases (r = .72) and with standardised measures of reading accuracy (nonword reading, single-word reading and prose reading accuracy, r’s = .75–.83) and spelling (r = .72). It also correlates well with phoneme awareness, prose reading rate and comprehension (r’s = .57–.68). In contrast, there are more moderate correlations between the phonics screening check and vocabulary and maths (r’s  = .45), indicating that the check is more specific to the domain of literacy and does not simply measure general abilities. Thus, the phonics screening check shows convergent and discriminant validity.
That is, children who do well at the Check tend to do well in literacy generally, but may or may not do well in other areas such as maths.
This means, that as a screening check it does have validity, in spite of its various idiosyncrasies (as discussed elsewhere).
Various people, however, have questioned what the point of the Check is if there is no followup other than doing ‘more phonics’. This approach would seem to me to run the risk, where SSP practice is not good, into pushing some schools into doing more of the wrong thing, rather than changing and improving their practice.
This post was triggered by a conversation this morning with a Year 1 teacher, who expressed the opinion (I hope I’m paraphrasing fairly) that problems with SSP can often be traced to the implementation, especially in relation to the training and professional development of teachers.
Now, in the second video above, John Seddon notes that in the case of social workers, driven out of a demoralized profession by the burden of paperwork, targets, and lack of professional freedom, the ‘deliverology’ solution is ‘more training’ – rather than, for instance, less paperwork or more professional freedom. So it’s important to be careful, if suggesting training as the solution, that lack of training, and not flaws in the system’s targets, really is the problem.
I’m not sure if the two situations are entirely analogous: I do think that non-ideal practice must lie behind some of the SSP horror stories, if only because people such as Elizabeth Nonweiler and Debbie Hepplewhite, who have contributed so helpfully to the comments section of this blog, are adamant that disconnected, isolated teaching of phonics has no part to play in their view of what SSP should be.
The question is, though:
If the system is flawed, in what way is it flawed?
Schools are a social institution, and their effectiveness depends entirely on the behaviour of the people in them. So:
Does behaviour need to change in terms of the teaching of literacy?
Failure to bring children to accepted levels of literacy suggests that behaviour does need to change in those situations. So:
What is the most effective and helpful way to change behaviour in order to ensure that children are brought to an accepted level of literacy?
High-stakes testing, where teachers and schools are punished for failure to achieve targets, has been the preferred tool of behaviour change in the public sector for the past couple of decades. But, as Seddon warns, if you’re not careful targets will twist your outcomes in all the wrong ways.
My own view is that if a check does not upset children, or take teachers and funds away from other literacy work, and if the results of the check are used to spark positive changes in pedagogical/institutional behaviour, then, well, a valid check is as good a way as any to find where the problems are. But those are some quite big ‘if’s – especially since problems show up in KS1 tests anyway. So:
How effective is the Check in flagging bad SSP practice?
I can see that it would show up failure to sound or blend well; but it doesn’t seem to me to have the facility to show where sounding and blending are disconnected from other literacy work: i.e. the sounding & blending may be OK, but the rest well below par – or, actually, the other way around.
I also think that CPD should really be professional development, not the frontline effects of what Seddon rather cheekily terms ‘Mickey-Mouse command-and-control’. I think, regardless of industry or job, most of us will have seen the negative effects and professional disengagement created by that kind of ‘training’.
My correspondent says that there is not enough focus on teaching teachers to teach reading; she describes ‘a couple of sessions’ in four years of study for a BEd, and also says that the introduction of SSP can amount to teachers being handed the materials for the chosen SSP programme and then told to get on with it. Again, I’m paraphrasing but that does seem to be what she meant.
So, more questions, with apologies for my ignorance:
Is there an agreed standard, during teacher training, for teaching teachers to teach children to read? If so what is it, and how much time do students spend on learning about reading?
How much do teachers currently learn about SSP during training? what specific methods were discussed during training in the past? Were specific methods discussed or was the approach more theoretical/general?
If you are a teacher who has switched to SSP, how much good-quality, helpful CPD accompanied the change? What, in outline, did this entail? What effects do you feel it had on your ability to use SSP well, and integrate it into the rest of the curriculum?
Or do you feel you were just left to try and get on with it?
Is it fair to suggest that CPD (and by association a school’s institutional, behavioural culture) is often the issue?
(NB I’m not talking about behaviour in terms of school discipline, but in the wider sense of the behaviour of the people who make up the institution as a whole.)

Here we go again…

I started this blog with a list of questions; I have some answers, but mostly I’ve ended up with…more questions…..

The latest question is about handling more able readers.

Having browsed around John Walker (Sounds Write)’s blog, I asked him via Twitter if there were any posts about phonics and more able readers, because I couldn’t find anything specifically on that. His answer was that

‘More able’ isn’t an unproblematical term as far as phonics is concerned.

Twitter, as he acknowledges, is not the place to try and get into why that might be, so here I am again, asking questions.

So, for John and anyone else who has the time and inclination to reply,

What is it that makes the term ‘more able reader’ a problematical term in relation to phonics?

In order to clarify, I’d make a distinction between various possible definitions of ‘able reader’:

  • Those who start school having started learning to read;
  • Those who start school as non-readers but pick it up much more quickly than their peers.

Is that a useful distinction? The first, presumably, would divide in terms of practice between children who have started to read in a SSP context and those who have not: I’m interested, in principle, in approaches to supporting all three situations, but from a personal perspective I’m most interested in those who start as non-readers, since this has been our experience with the boys.

So my questions this time are partly a continuation of my desire in this blog to understand SSP practice in general, but they are also partly just me, as a parent, hoping to find guidance in navigating the particular situation in which we as a family find ourselves.

Debbie Hepplewhite’s ‘incidental’ approach goes a long way to create flexibility, of course, but I don’t imagine she’s the only SSP practitioner to have thought about this issue.

(NB I’m interested in how different SSP programmes accommodate prior reading skill or a steeper learning trajectory or both. I’m also aware that ability and attainment are not the same thing, and that all sorts of factors can lead to one child seeming more ‘able’ than another.)

Thank you!




Overthinking again: the Simple View of Reading, system change, and alienation…

Any schematic representation of a human activity will necessarily lose something of that activity in its creation of categories. Any diagram can be as much of a rhetorical strategy, or a theoretical proposition, as is a representation of the same ideas in words. This is not to say that some diagrams aren’t as close to ‘reality’ as makes no difference in most situations – the Life Cycle of the Flea, or the Water Cycle, for instance.

But diagrams always pull us into a rather mechanistic view of the world, when in fact models based on complexity and networks can often get closer to what might actually be going on. These kinds of models, though, are very difficult – sometimes impossible – to represent in a 2-dimensional diagram.

To me, the SVR diagram simply suggests that the ideal is to be in the upper right quarter – the quarter where both concepts, separated for analytical purposes, combine in effective reading. As Debbie Hepplewhite has said elsewhere on this blog, ‘You cannot be a ‘reader’ if you cannot lift the words off the page. You cannot be a ‘reader’ if you can lift the words off the page, but don’t understand them.’ These statements are uncontroversial, as far as I can see.

The problems come when analytical distinctions are treated as real, separate categories for implementation purposes, when in fact they overlap and are mutually dependent. Or when the relationship between them suggested by the diagram leads us to assume that there is a natural, linear process leading from one to another, when actually human intervention, reciprocity, and subtlety are required.

Many of the concerns expressed to me about SSP (not all, but a lot) relate to perceived lack of subtlety in implementation. This is what seems to me to tie together concerns about EAL, children with hearing difficulties, differentiation for those already reading when they start school or who pick it up more quickly than their classmates, and what seem to be attempts to make a functional separation between decoding and comprehension.

This is why I’ve asked about what works in implementation and what doesn’t: If new procedures are presented as monolithic and unchanging, a magic pill, a silver bullet, without engaging those who are to carry out the work so that they feel ownership of it, then a framework can become a cage in any setting, not just schools.

The cases of children being stuck sounding out and not blending, or being held back from reading more difficult books, both seem to me to suggest that somewhere along the line they have ended up in a situation where somebody has abdicated responsibility to the system.

This is not a question of blame: it’s a natural human response to things which feel beyond our control.

The question is how has this situation arisen, how common is it, and what can be done to solve it?

The state school system is mind-bogglingly big, so it’s unsurprising that change is difficult. Bashing with an ever-bigger hammer just makes people feel squashed. Obviously change needs to be led and created, not enforced. People in schools will know this, although the DfE seems yet to learn it.

But where do people go when something’s not working? How, in fact, when something is new and its methods are unfamiliar, do they know it’s not working?

How can we all, as parents, teachers, academics, managers, civil servants, even politicians, help to support permeability in the system, and prevent a sense of powerlessness in the face of it?

How can we all make sure that the system works for us, rather than the other way around?

This, really, is why I waded in with this blog in the first place. It seemed the only way to start engaging with this particular system was to wade in and poke it gently with a stick….

For anyone losing the will to live, or nearly, in relation to SSP/no SSP

I really am interested in the details of how the different SSP programmes work in practice: how they are implemented, and what other changes need to accompany the implementation (including to SEN or EAL).

If I seem to be picking holes, it’s because I have questions about how the various issues are handled, not because I am deliberately trying to put SSP down.

If I end up putting off people who have found SSP to be a successful model, then I would be very sorry, and to be honest there wouldn’t be any point in continuing this blog, because I absolutely don’t want it to become one-sided.

Anyone is welcome to put their views, no matter how irritating to other readers (or even to me!) as long as they are polite, and not dismissive out of hand of others’ perspectives.

[Edited to add this comment which I managed to bury elsewhere, and which might clarify what I’d like to hear about from successfully SSP schools:

I’m really interested in the specifics of the success stories: what worked, what didn’t? How was change managed? How were changes integrated with/adapted to SEN & EAL support? What changed in terms of wider classroom practice (for instance, what knock-on effects did SSP have on other literacy work, but also was there anything else that changed)? How does that flow through the school – do teachers in the upper school find that they’re picking up on different issues post-implementation, and if so what are they? How is the PSC handled? How were parents informed of/engaged with the changes? That sort of thing….]

Differentiation and Systematic Synthetic Phonics

Debbie Hepplewhite recommends what she calls ‘incidental’ teaching of phonics during other aspects of literacy work. She says, here:

Teach a planned, systematic synthetic phonics programme and, in addition, adopt a rigorous approach to incidental phonics teaching – RATIONALE:
Incidental teaching is ESSENTIAL. Systematic programmes take a long time to deliver because there is a lot of alphabetic code to teach explicitly! Children cannot ‘wait’ to learn about a ‘full’ alphabetic code until it happens to occur in the planned programme. Teachers and learners need to be proactive and ambitious and teach incidentally to supplement the structured programme for reading and spelling skills!
Incidental phonics teaching should occur as the need arises naturally and where it is common sense. This may well be on a daily basis or several times a day including whenever children are asked to read aloud.
Incidental teaching should be a feature of general class teaching. It significantly increases and accelerates knowledge of the alphabetic code and personalises the teaching, addresses differentiation and provides constant revision.
This time I only have one question: to what extent does this approach match the experiences people have had of the teaching of reading via Systematic Synthetic Phonics in schools?

Phonics and denial

I have never seen anyone deny that synthetic phonics is useful to learner readers.

I have seen some who believe it is enough, and many more who believe it needs to be combined with comprehension work, or contextual work, or other approaches to decoding – a pretty wide range of views.

But I have seen a few who, when faced with stories of problems in schools using a purely SSP approach, deny that the problems described are even possible.

There are two main reasons given when denying the possibility of problems:

  • The person telling the story has misinterpreted what they have seen.
  • The person telling the story has ideological reasons for disliking phonics, and their story cannot therefore be trusted.

It is possible that in some cases either or both of these things may be true. But I have heard stories from people I trust (including educational professionals I know personally), and the stories from other people sound similar enough for me to wonder whether there is a pattern of issues which needs to be confronted.

If something is potentially going wrong with SSP in some schools, denial is definitely not a sensible response.

So I’m asking, here, for specific anecdotes about any problems which you have come across, and any specific benefits you have seen, either as a parent/carer or as a teacher/teaching assistant, and which you would be happy to share and discuss via this blog.

NB I know SSP has all sorts of good characteristics, and others that are up for debate. I’m not asking for theoretical reasons why SSP might go wrong, or for reasons why it cannot go wrong, either: there’s a quite enough of that about as it is.


SSP and context

This warm Sunday evening I have mostly been driving a SSP advocate to distraction in my attempt to clarify what role context might play in reading via a SSP method.

I have had emphatic assurances that

  • Once a word has been sounded and blended, there is no problem, in her view, with using the surrounding context to disambiguate homographs.
  • Reading back over the same sentence to get context for a word that a child is struggling to ‘hear’ as a real word rather than just a blend of sounds, is also absolutely fine.
  • Context is also fine for the sort of disambiguation that I’ve talked about before, when a grapheme is ambiguous, such as with ‘head’, where context could confirm that it’s ‘head’ not ‘heed’.

This is all very cheering. But I still feel that some issues are slightly unresolved in my mind, partly because the acceptableness of context in the process seems to hang on how one defines decoding – and many definitions seem to me to be a bit woolly and inconsistent in terms of what is actually happening in practice, eg:

 Successful decoding occurs when a student uses his or her knowledge of letter-sound relationships to accurately read a word. (From here)


The goal of all phonics instruction is teaching our students the most common sound-spelling relationships so that they can decode, or sound out, words. (From here)


That is, in one case ‘decoding’ seems to refer to actions which take the reader relatively far through the process towards a meaningful word; the other seems to refer simply to using the graphemes to create the sound of the word. Neither, of course, may mean exactly what I’ve ascribed to them; and this ambiguity has come up many times when I’ve been reading up on SSP.

My question is, if it is OK to use context ‘after’ decoding, where is ‘after’? Is it once sounds have been made and before the word is recognized? This would seem to be the only logical interpretation.

But what about words where the possible sounds themselves are ambiguous, rather than the meaning of the word? If the word has not yet been sounded out correctly, because contextual disambiguation of grapheme-phoneme correspondence is yet to take place, would this be considered to take place ‘after’ decoding?

In the ‘head’ example, which my SSP correspondent considered to be an acceptable use of context, I would see the context as being used during decoding rather than after it.

(Otherwise, it would suggest that the sounding and blending of more than one possible word-sound, in readiness for disambiguation, would constitute ‘decoding’ of the graphemes in the word. For instance, would SSP define the sounding out of o-b-j-e-c-t as both ‘OBject’ AND obJECT’ or of r-e-a-d as both ‘reed’ AND ‘red’ as ‘decoding’ those words? That seems to me to be unlikely – but maybe I’m wrong.)

All this leads me to wonder about the anecdotes I’ve heard, about children sounding & blending without meaning. Does this result from a misunderstanding of SSP’s ‘first’, fast, and only’ mantra? Leaving aside the sheer difficulty of creating plausible word-sounds without reference to contextual meaning, especially beyond the earliest stages, is creating a near-plausible word-sound mistakenly being considered to be enough for a child to be ‘reading’? And if so, what can be done about it (given that the screening check will not bring this problem to light)?

The study which looked at the screening check’s effectiveness, and decided the check did what was asked of it, also concluded that in fact putting more money into supporting teaching staff might be a better use of the funds. If the adoption of SSP is leading to negative consequences in some cases, surely putting money into investigating this and sorting the problems out might be a good idea, too.

And if SSP allows sounding & blending to be appropriately but explicitly interwoven with context and meaning, then this would seem to me to be a very good thing.