How is reading being taught in the wild?

Reblogging for interest…

Filling the pail

Around the turn of the century, a U.S. panel reported on the evidence about how best to teach children to read. They were crystal clear; a systematic phonics programme was best. This was seen by many as the definitive end of the ‘reading wars’ that pitted whole-language advocates against promoters of a phonics-based approach. Whole-language was a theory of learning to read that emphasised whole words, ‘real’ books and students ‘constructing’ their own meaning. As such, it aligned with ‘constructivist’ views of teaching that remain fashionable in schools of education.

However, like Fukuyama’s declaration of the ‘end of history,’ hopes for an end to the debate on reading represented a false dawn. Whole-language advocates rebadged their approach as ‘balanced literacy,’ implying that phonics was now a part of it, but only one component part. Many people have come to accept their rhetoric that spending 5 hours per day doing nothing…

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Phonics and literacy – separate strands, or warp and weft?

One passage stood out for me in the recent report on the usefulness of the Phonics Screening Check:

The most frequently reported change by survey respondents in 2014 was increasing the pace of phonics teaching, and this finding was supported by data drawn from the case studies. As in 2013, an increased focus on pseudo-words was also reported by participants in the survey and case studies, as well as increased assessment of phonics. Analysis did not determine what form this increased focus took.

‘Analysis did not determine what form this increased focus took.’


Let’s just do a thought-experiment. Imagine that what’s going on in [some] schools in the name of phonics is actually not very helpful to wider literacy. Perhaps there are lots of nonsense-word games and very little 1-2-1 reading support. Then imagine that teachers have increased this extra phonics activity as a result of the PSC. Perhaps they are playing an extra hour of nonsense-word games per week. What else might they not be doing as a result? If this were the case, it would be unsurprising if a reported increase in ‘phonics’ would not result in an increase in literacy levels.

I’m sure this sounds like blaming teachers: I’m not, I’m just asking questions. I’m a firm believer that teachers’ motives are good in the vast majority of cases, but an equally firm believer that the contents of a test will skew what is taught. You’d be crazy not to consider the test, really, wouldn’t you?

In the past, I’ve seen many claims of problems for good readers within phonics schemes, where very regimented work apparently prevents children from progressing, or treats children who can read as if they can’t, but until now nobody has been willing to answer my questions about what actually happened.

Around the time of the PSC check this year, though, one parent, on condition of anonymity, agreed to share her daughter’s story. It follows a number of patterns that have been claimed elsewhere as well, so I think it’s very much worth looking at to help unpick what’s actually going wrong in these kinds of case.

Since the report into the check didn’t look at what was actually going on in schools, anecdotes like this one represent the only comparison evidence available.

NB This post is not meant as a criticism of any particular scheme but a question about implementation and effects, and about how schools use and understand the synthetic phonics material that they are teaching.

Here’s the account of her experience:

Hi, my daughter who is now 7 and in y2 didn’t read before school. She was tested at the end of reception by an ed psych (at 5.5) and given an IQ on the 99.4th percentile and a reading age of just under 8. In reception she had a great teacher who skipped her through the [commercial phonics scheme stages] as her reading required. They had separate reading groups and N___ was always in the top group for that (the top group had 3 gifted children including N___ and were way above the rest).

In year one they stuck rigidly to the [commercial phonics scheme], the teacher was inflexible but in the reading group N___ remained in the top group. However in [commercial phonics scheme work] she was overtaken by others who she could read better than. I thought at first it was because of her writing – but no it was explained to me that in order to progress they had to know certain sounds.

They were given in isolated sounds for example what sounds does ou make, however give her an ou word such as group, soup, troupe, she had no difficulty reading it. She also had no difficulty sounding out new words – so wasn’t learning whole words rather than phonics.

She had to repeat [commercial phonics scheme stages], switched off and started to hate [commercial phonics scheme] lessons. In the end I got a copy of the sounds off the Internet and took her through them. We learned them by rote each half term to get to the next stage.

When she started y2 she had 3 stages left. She got her reception teacher again, she was still in the top reading group but one of the middle [commercial phonics scheme] groups, the top reading group was reading novels in class she was then going into [her commercial phonics scheme group] and doing easy books. Her teacher took her off the scheme within a few weeks.

Four things stand out for me here.

1. The mismatch between the child’s assessed reading age and progress, and her assessed progress with phonics sounds;

2. The fact that with a few videos from the internet (provided by the same scheme, I think) her mother was able to teach her daughter sounds which the school had apparently been unable to teach her for close to two years.

3. The different ways in which the various teachers approached the mismatch in progress.

4. The actual lived experience of this child. Imagine how baffling this must have been for her.

1. The mismatch with the reading age might be explained because a test of reading age based on common vocabulary would be testing something different from the ability to use phonics sounds to work out words, BUT I think it’s very interesting that the child could sound out and read words containing sounds which, in isolation, she did not know.

There might be various reasons for this: she may actually have known all the words by sight (though her mother notes that she could also sound out unfamiliar words, so this does not appear to be the reason); or (more likely) she might not have felt able to assign a specific sound to ‘ou’ if she knew that there was more than one possibility. Or there might be some other reason – unfortunately, we can’t know.

2. The mismatch between the child’s apparent inability to learn isolated sounds in class, and her learning of them at home with her mother, suggests that there was no deep learning issue attached to the child herself with regard to this. But it does suggest that something in the way these sounds were being taught at school did not click with her (and this is an intellectually very able child).

3.The problems for the child appear to have arisen as a result of inflexibility on a particular teacher’s part: a flexible approach to the system was much less problematic.

4. It seems to me pretty awful that this child was put into such mismatched groups for sounds and for reading actual books, when she was apparently able to learn the sounds perfectly easily and quickly.

This is not the only example I have heard of first-hand of unhelpful placing of children for phonics work. That’s not the fault of the alphabetic code.

If, as Debbie Hepplewhite has said (I think), there are potentially as many different ways of teaching phonics as there are schools, but many of them think they are doing the same thing, examples like this become essential, in order to allow comparison. In this instance, within the same school and one overarching system, there were clearly substantial differences in implementation (and the learning and well-being of the child).

The report into the PSC was necessarily inconclusive because the writers had no decent evidence – this is what they mean when they say they had no comparison (i.e. control) group, no ability to separate effects of PSC from effects of other phonics practices, and no knowledge of what actual methods ‘increased’ in schools. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, of course. Policy makers should be very careful about how they respond to this report.

What’s needed in order to resolve this debate, it seems to me (looking at it from a research perspective) is a much more finely-grained investigation, looking at correlations between different methods and outcomes. Do schools which are heavy on explicit and standardized phonics techniques do better (on a value-added score, not just the PSC) than schools which teach the sounds quite simply but then just do lots of their own kinds of literacy work to embed them? Which changes lead to improved PSC results? Which changes seem to lead to improved literacy results? Are these the same changes? Is it about methods in the abstract, or the quality of teaching regardless of method? Or (as seems most likely) something in between? This investigation would need to be at the level of classes within schools, since as the example shows, a school’s results may mask great variation of approach, even within an outwardly very standardized system.

If this report leads to greater division between phonics and ‘anti-‘phonics people that would be really unhelpful – most ‘anti-‘phonics people are worried more about methods and effects than about the content itself, when it comes down to it. And those methods and effects are not dealt with in this report.

The report does emphasize the clear and obvious benefits of teaching a SSP-style alphabetic code in some form. But what form? In the above example, the method seems actually to have undermined the child’s confidence when rigidly applied, and not even to have taught her the basics very effectively. Is this because of the method, the teacher, or a change in the child? The latter seems unlikely since she picked up actual reading so quickly and so early. So something wasn’t right in the classroom, for her at least.

I have expressed my concerns with the quality of the PSC previously here – though my understanding has moved on since then – and also here. But I find it worrying that a number of people seem to be cheering the inconclusiveness of the report – some even seem to have interpreted it as the PSC itself having no effect, rather than the authors of the report not having access to data which would have demonstrated what sort of effect it has had.

It has clearly had one effect, which the report itself acknowledges: schools are ‘doing more phonics’. But I don’t think anyone’s any closer to knowing what that means in practice.

One more thought experiment:

If your phonics is badly integrated with your broader literacy curriculum, isn’t it most likely that doing more (but dislocated) phonics work is going to improve your PSC results but not your overall literacy ones?

Since this is exactly what the report has found, shouldn’t we really be asking about the issue of how (or even if) phonics knowledge is embedded in good, complex, deep literacy work? And how the DfE can create drivers for this to happen more?

While the PSC has been shown to be a decent proxy for literacy despite its weaknesses, it’s not going to answer questions about how improvement happens. It’s not going to tell you why literacy has not improved in certain schools. It’s not even a perfect test of phonics: an improvement in PSC score could conceivably be accounted for by an increase in the real words score, which could be the result of other aspects of literacy work, not explicit phonics at all (an extreme and unlikely case, but a logical possibility).

Have any schools had their literacy results go down following the introduction of the PSC? Now those schools would be really worth looking at, if there are any.

Phonics knowledge seems to me to be the warp on which the whole of literacy can be woven. It’s integral to reading, writing, and understanding language, and like the warp in a piece of cloth it needs to be strong, simple, carefully laid but ultimately invisible. And if you don’t weave in the weft, or you expect it to just happen by itself, or you try and put the warp and weft onto separate looms, you’ve got nothing useful at all.

Weaving it in means never forgetting what phonics is for. It means never being so proud of your warp that you forget its real purpose is for weaving something far more complex and beautiful. Is this beyond the DfE to comprehend, I wonder?

NB I’m sorry this is so opinionated this time! But really. How on earth do people maintain their patience for years when the real questions needing an answer are so obvious….? If phonics is so embedded in schools, if it is properly integrated into literacy work, why are all the parents I speak to (from various different schools, all at the just-missed-‘outstanding’ end of ‘good’) still in a fog about it?


Books for confident readers, 5 yrs and up

[Disclaimer: this post is not a value judgement on children from whatever circumstances who are not reading at this level at this age. It’s not that children should be doing this, it’s just that these ones are; this is just a response to my own experience of trying to find the right level of book for a number of children aged 5-6 over the past year, and, through that process, finding that modern books for children seem much easier than books aimed at the same ages in the past. I’m also trying to find my way to books they might read once they’re in Year 2 (and 3).]

Children who are confident readers at a young age have probably always tended to find that the books that are written for their age group are way too easy and therefore dull, while the books that actually get their minds working are too old for them from the point of view of emotional maturity.

However (take that, Mr. Gove) as a rule of thumb, from what I’ve seen so far, modern books aimed at, say, 8-9 year olds seem at least two or three reading years’ easier than older books (ie pre-1970s-ish) aimed at the same age. The characters in Beast Quest and Jack Stalwart are very similar in age to the Famous Five or the children in the Narnia books, yet the font size, length of text and complexity of plot are miles apart. I imagine there are all sorts of reasons for this, but it means that for children with a high relative reading age, the disparity is even greater than in the past it might have been, and modern age-appropriate books that actually give them a challenge seem harder to find.

That is, if you are a 6-year-old with a reading age of 9 or10 (for instance), the modern books of the right reading level will be aimed approximately at 12 year olds, and therefore be a bit bemusing. Since there’s a deluge of newly-published children’s books to wade through every year, it can be difficult to find a path through it all.

I’ve estimated that the more modern books listed below are readable in an hour or two by the children I’m talking about. The books are not challenging to them in terms of difficulty, but they do enjoy them (which is at least part of the point…). A major aspect of the speed with which may of these children are reading, though, is the cost, and the importance of libraries and of schools having a decent book budget – buying them all at £8.99 or so is not an option when they’ll go through four or five a week at least during term, given the chance, and more in the holidays.

A Blyton or longer Dahl, by contrast, can often work well spread over a couple of weeks, and have more in it to discuss.

A lot of the things in the list will be familiar, but what I’m hoping to do is collect other suggestions as well and include those in the future. Any ideas welcome.

NB I’ve had some people suggest Michael Morpurgo, but ours just aren’t keen yet. No monsters (all-important at the moment), and the books of his with the right level of vocabulary etc seem just too emotionally advanced for them. It’s a tricky balance. UPDATE: One has just expressed an interest in a MM book. We’ll see how it goes.

Our next books will be some E. Nesbit, so I’ll add some notes on those as we go.

Anyway. The list so far is pretty short, just a drop in the ocean, but here it is. I hope it will grow. I’ve divided it into three sections:

1. Right level, some old-fashioned content; 2. OK content,  more modern books; and 3. Other Solutions. (Our own ranking at the moment is based on the number and kind of monsters, but that’s just us.) I suppose I’m trying to do two things – find some good books, and start to understand why the current situation has arisen (and whether the situation is what I think it is).

1. Right level, some old-fashioned content

Anything by Roald Dahl

Dahl is an obvious choice – but some children find some of his writing just too spooky when they’re 6. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory goes down well though. Some aspects of the books are showing their age. But he’s brilliant, basically irreplaceable and a lot of it is timelessly surreal.

Anything by Enid Blyton

Great in terms of level in many ways – no complex character motivations – but there’s always the problem with old-fashioned attitudes to women and to class. I think most people remember how Anne is treated in the Famous Five – but rereading recently I’ve also noticed the assumed superiority of the children over the servants – as well as the fact that there are servants at all, and that their speech is represented as inferior via phonetic spellings rather than the normal ones. So, again, explanations often needed – a middle-class readership, and certain out-of-date attitudes on their part, are assumed.

Anything by Arthur Ransome

One boy I know, now in Year 2, has been reading these avidly since the end of Year 1, and adores them; I loved them too, but I haven’t tried mine on them yet, the lack of monsters currently being a barrier. Again, though, there’s the problem that it’s not set in the same world that modern children inhabit, even middle-class rural ones like ours.

The Narnia series

Also brilliant, obviously, but also assuming post-war-era middle-class knowledge.

Any suggestions as to recently-published books of this sort of reading level, with this kind of depth, would be very gratefully received.

2. OK content, more modern books

The major problem is that they’re mostly so short, but I’m including them because somebody, somewhere, has loved them. I’m sure there are hundreds, possibly thousands of others in this category – Horrid Henry etc….

Greek Beasts and Heroes – Lucy Coats

A collection of very short books, each a very quick read for children reading at this level – but they’re getting some deep culture in a beautifully presented and appealing form – stories which will underpin all sorts of later reading (including J. K. Rowling, and, you know, Shakespeare…). Nice little books with lovely pictures – good for stretching the imagination. Lots of monsters.

Beast Quest, Sea Quest, etc.

Again, a quick read though longer than the above; lots of monsters, very pulp fiction really, but well done of its kind – lots of dialogue, lots of use of syntax, punctuation etc to create a sense of action in the descriptions. No depth to speak of, but lots of Adventures. Male central character, male viewpoint, but the girls aren’t silly and actually get to do stuff, which is something. One of my boys says there are some tricky words once in a while.

Dinosaur Cove

Lovely books, modelled on Beast Quest but with some paleontology for good measure and less fighting. Shorter & easier than BQ, and with entirely male protagonists, which is unnecessary. I wish OUP would produce some longer more challenging DCs with some girls in! They’re apparently aimed at 8-9 year olds, but they’re too easy for the confident Year 1 readers I know, who were whizzing through them early in the school year. The less confident but capable ones are motoring through them and similar at the moment (ie end of Year 1, mostly 6 year olds, some are still 5).

Rainbow Fairies

Argh. Some of the girls love these as initial chapter books, and whizz through them. Female point of view, obviously, but it’s all a bit Lego Friends for my liking. Luckily they mostly seem to get bored after 5 or 6 of them(!) and move on to Dahl and Blyton.

Jack Stalwart

Very similar level to Rainbow Fairies, very Boy Boy Boy; a smidgeon below Beast Quest in terms of difficulty. No depth, and, again, male protagonist. But fun if you like that sort of thing.

Anything by John Dougherty

Completely crazy – readable in an hour or two, but lots to spark the imagination after the book is finished. Good creative stuff, but so short!

The Worst Witch series

Similar to Beast Quest in level, but female protagonists. A wry sense of humour, but very boarding-school plotlines: the Harry Potter books owe a lot to these in terms of atmosphere and setting, though these are far less spooky, scary or complex. Very un-pink.

Dick King-Smith

His books aren’t massively long, but there’s a wryness, a craziness, a love of his characters, which creates depth. I like them. More to them than meets the eye.

3. Other Solutions

Comics, graphic novels, stories derived from these

Tintin a big favourite with some; DC Comics do a series of short ‘Super Heroes’ chapter books (again, an hour’s read at most, but great for kids who are into that stuff); the Phoenix Comic (a weekly comic with beautiful and very cool comic art, a range of levels of story, no advertisements, no weirdly oversexualized ladies…)

Horrible Histories

They like to dip in and out of these. Not for the squeamish child, though…

Usborne Beginners, Lift-the-flap reference books, etc

I’ve just recommended these for a confident reader in Foundation – the Beginners are book band 9+, beautifully illustrated, lots to think about. The Usborne non-fiction stuff is great, and I’ve found our two come back to them and get different things out of them at different stages.

Branded encyclopedias of Lego, etc.

Not a fan of tie-ins really, but our kids and their friends just love this stuff and will pore over them for hours together. They’re learning about reference books, too, and hierarchies of information, in spite of the made-up-ness of the ‘facts’. Great, actually, for feeding into complicated imaginative games in the playground.

Reading, communication, and meaning

Reading & meaning are inseparable. In order to have read a text properly you need to have understood its meaning – and of course there are layers of this in terms of implicit and explicit meanings, hence the subtle gradations of meaning that ‘to read’, as a verb, can have (read a book, read a map, read a face, read between the lines).

However, reading involves procedural skills which are functionally separable from meaning. Reading is not a single monolithic activity: it is a set of activities, all of which need to occur but which may be balanced differently for different readers reading different texts at different points in their cognitive development.

One of the activities necessary for successful reading (itself built out of a suite of yet more specific mental routines and activities), is the interpretation of the visual symbols which represent the words of a language. In modern writing systems these symbols represent the sounds of the language (rather than whole words), whether as some form of phonemic chunk or as syllables. In each case the reader is expected to interpret visual symbols as known sounds, and to combine those sounds to make words.

This interpretation from visual symbol to sound to aural vocabulary may happen in various ways, and at various degrees of conscious granularity. It is currently thought that a skilled reader’s brain processes each letter of a written word in parallel (i.e. simultaneously), but that the process involved is otherwise very similar to that which an unskilled reader performs in series. Some readers may be more aware of this process than others.

In order to interpret the symbols on the page, so that the words can communicate their meaning, the reader has to know the symbol-sound correspondences. Otherwise, since the written words connect with meaning via the sounds of the word, there is no easy way to extract meaning from the symbols on the page, since they are not pictograms with a direct symbol-meaning correspondence. If the word ‘dog’ were represented by the picture of a dog, for instance, we would not need the sounds of ‘d-o-g’ in English to know that a dog is being referred to – in fact, the pictogram could be used for any language spoken by people who know what dogs are.

But since the route to meaning in a phonetically-based alphabetic system such as ours is via sound, then the sounds of the language need to be taken into account when learning to read. It would be close to impossible to do it any other way.

How do you read?

In order to understand the importance of symbol-sound correspondence when reading English, here’s a little experiment. Look at the following, and tell me what it means:

/*~^  )*

This is my own personal script, just for the purposes of this experiment. It has the same kinds of letter-grapheme-sound relationships as our real English alphabetic code. That is, there is more than one way of representing the same sound (and the same letters or letter-groups may represent different sounds).

What does it say? What is the meaning of the words?

If, as a clue to the meaning, I were to show you a picture of a woman looking at a book, can you now tell me what the words mean?

Of course not. You could guess, but I think you’re very likely to be wrong.

If I tell you that /*~^ represents the word ‘read’ and )* represents the word ‘me’, and you learn them carefully, you will know them when you see them:

Which is this? /*~^

and which is this? )*

I would expect you to get them the right way around.

How about this?

/*~^  )*  (#~

Did you recognise the first word? And the second?

So what about the third? What does that one mean?

You have no way of knowing.

What if I gave you a key to crack the code?

/ = the sound ‘r’

* = the sound ‘ee’

*~ = the sound ‘ee’ as well

^ = the sound ‘d’

) = the sound ‘m’

( = the sound ‘n’

#* = the sound ‘ow’

So the third word is ‘n-ow’ and the full phrase is ‘read me now’.

A few more symbols:

& = the sound ‘i’

+_ = the sound ‘ng’

Now look at this word, and find what it means:


If you cannot do this exact same thing when you are trying to read English as normally written, you cannot find any meaning in the written words. If you see @’£ next to a picture of a dog, without knowing the symbol-sound correspondences, how do you know it represents ‘dog’ and not ‘pup’ – or ‘hound’ – or ‘labradoodle’?

Making useful connections

When children are learning to read, they are reading very simple texts. The vocabulary is restricted to subjects that they are likely to understand – home life, nursery animals, vehicles, common foods, simple aspects of nature (trees, grass, sky, rain). The text is accompanied by pictures, for all sorts of important and valid reasons that I have discussed elsewhere.

If a child sees rain in a picture and makes the connection with the written pattern ‘rain’ in the text, they will make a broad link between the sound of that word and its written form.

But if they then see ‘train’, they will not always see that it is ‘rain’ preceded by ‘t’, and so, with out a picture of a train, they will, without deeper understanding of the letters’ symbol-sound correspondences, be unable to work out the word. Even with the picture, they may well say ‘engine’ anyway (especially if their lunchbox has Thomas on it). Use of pictures as clues to the meaning of the written word can weaken the link between the sounds of a spoken word and the written representation of those sounds.

‘Knowing’ words

Some children have better memories than others. Some only seem to need to see a word once or twice and they file it away ready for next time. Others find this difficult or impossible to do. In the early days, a child with very good recall can appear to be a more able reader than they actually are: some can ‘read’ a book having heard an adult read it to them, not by reading the words but by using the pictures (and occasional words) as memory prompts for the story that they have in their head. They give the appearance of fluent reading, but cannot ‘read’ the pages out of order because they are not, in fact, reading them at all.

Children with good memories can learn a lot of individual words, whether or not they understand the orthographic rules (though one could argue that those who learn to read quickly are those who grasp these rules on some level, consciously or not). However, in order to learn these words, if they have weak – or no – explicit knowledge or understanding of the relationship between written words and their sounds, they will need to be told each word individually in order to ‘know’ it.

This means that they are much more dependent on a supporting adult to advance their reading than is a child who can work out the sounds of a word for him or herself. There will always be some words which the child simply does not know – has never heard, or has heard but does not know the meaning. There will always be a need for a supporting adult.

However, a child can become much more self-sufficient in their reading if they can work more words out for themselves: if they can connect the written symbols with their aural vocabulary.

Some children have a very small aural [English] vocabulary relative to others. This is obviously a huge obstacle to them in learning to read, and needs to be addressed directly: it should not be used as an excuse for avoiding the symbol-sound correspondences when learning to read, but dealt with by helping them to increase their vocabulary.

The dreaded Phonics Screening Check

So what is the PSC meant to do?

The PSC is not a vocabulary test. It is not a test of how many words you know. Learning nonsense-words, because there are nonsense-words in the check, is itself a nonsense.

The Check’s purpose is to discover whether you can work out the symbol-sound correspondences for this:


so that you can ‘hear’ the word and – if it connects with your aural vocabulary – extract its meaning.

The nonsense words are there in order to isolate the symbol-sound correspondence from the sound-meaning correspondence, in order to discover whether the former is strong or weak.

The PSC should not take the meaning out of reading, if reading involves a symbol-sound correspondence. It simply isolates the symbol-sound aspect of reading, in order to ensure that children are able to make that connection.

Problems with the PSC

The PSC has some big weaknesses – its inclusion of real words makes the test result potentially meaningless, if you are wanting to test for procedural skill in working out symbol-sound correspondences. Half of the words (the real ones) may not be testing that skill at all, but simply a child’s power of recall. Recall is important too – but it is impossible to tell whether a sound-blend procedure or recall are being used, so the test has no valid results for either aspects of reading these words.

The other big weakness, in terms of helping children learn to read, is that though it is used as a proxy for reading ability, it does not address the massive issue of poor [English] vocabulary.

If reading problems are to be addressed, then testing one procedural skill, however vital (and it is vital, whether consciously deployed or not), without balancing it by paying equal attention to the development of vocabulary, will skew the system by encouraging those within it to pay attention to that which is tested, at the expense of that which is not.

It runs the risk of devaluing the untested aspects, no matter how often everybody says those aspects are of equal importance. In practice they are not of equal importance within the system, because the consequences of failure are less immediate, and less powerful.

The same kinds of weakness apply to the PSC at age 6 as to the KS1 comprehension test a year later: as Debbie Hepplewhite has argued, the KS1 test does not have the facility to show whether difficulties with the test material are down to poor vocabulary/comprehension, or poor understanding of symbol-sound correspondences (what SSP refers to as the English Alphabetic Code). The PSC has a similar problem: it shows up weaknesses in the application of symbol-sound correspondence, but has no facility to show up problems of vocabulary and comprehension.

As ever, the problem seems to come down to system rather than content: there is nothing wrong with ensuring that children know and understand symbol-sound correspondences. It is essential to long-term self-sufficient vocabulary building and good reading; it is also, in the abstract, good practice for learning procedural knowledge (and potentially translates to learning other procedural skills in the future).


There needs to be equal emphasis on the sound-meaning correspondence as on the symbol-sound one. That is, a child’s aural vocabulary, their store of meaningful sound-combinations, and their understanding of how to fit that vocabulary into a mature syntax, needs to be growing too – to be consciously, actively grown by the supporting adults, whether at school or at home.

Without equal emphasis on this sound-meaning aspect in terms of consequences for all  involved, it is in danger of becoming the weaker element, just as symbol-sound correspondence was the weaker element in recent decades, and obviously national literacy levels will not improve: there will just be different problems, different children falling behind unnecessarily.

Whole words and word learning

A response to this article.

It seems to me that there is something odd about the conclusions drawn from this study, in terms of the usefulness of whole words for learner readers. It states that the brain activity was *different* when subjects were shown (and learned) the words initially, and only *later*, on recognizing the nonsense words, was the brain activity the same as for the real words. The implication is that the real words were also *known* words – though this is not necessarily the same thing.

If the known ‘real’ words had the same effect on the brain as the known ‘nonsense’ words, it seems likely that *unknown* real words would have the same effect on the brain as unknown nonsense words. That is, in both cases readers would be doing something *different* when first encountering a word, compared with what they do when encountering a familiar word.

If the ‘familiar word’ response is some kind of all-at-once processing (which could cover a multitude of complex and parallel processes in practice) and the ‘unfamiliar word’ response is *different* from this, then logically the approach to unfamiliar words must include piecemeal recognition (the most likely being letter-by-letter, or perhaps as clumps of letters, eg syllables or graphemes).

This means that the usual approach to unfamiliar words, even for experienced adult readers, is a matter of breaking the word into constituent parts. Which, in turn, makes the recommendation that some people who find reading difficult might find it helpful to attempt to *bypass* this step rather bizarre. Surely it makes more sense to give them support in finding ways to make this step work for them?

It’s equally likely that the recognition of familiar words is, like the recognition of faces used as an analogy in the article, a matter of recognizing the relationship of the constituent parts *to each other* as well as individually, but at great speed. When we see faces, we register the constituent parts of the whole: if the Mona Lisa’s nose were painted out, we would notice. There’s a good summary here of the issues in terms of face recognition, which are very useful to think about in relation to word recognition: especially in the evidence for ‘holistic’ recognition (which does not mean simplistic recognition of the whole face as a single object, but something much more complex and subtle).

It seems that people who suffer from prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’ have to use ‘piecemeal’ recognition strategies, and that the disorder may stem from a deeper inability to perceive the visual relationships between the parts and the whole (many sufferers have problems with landscapes and orientation landmarks, too). Learning each face ‘as a whole’ (and how, really, does one do that without elements of piecemeal and relational processing?) is apparently not an option for sufferers.

When thinking about how best to help young beginner readers, Result 17 from the linked survey is very suggestive – if children of 6 years old are still in partially in a ‘piecemeal processing’ phase with faces and are therefore far less accurate at recognizing faces than are 10-year-olds, this must have implications for the processing of words when they are learning to read, if the analogy posited in the article stands. That is, recognizing words as wholes is likely to be *harder* for them than piecemeal processing via sounding out letters, and so the best way to help them would be to engage with this developmental stage.

Complaints about SSP – content or system?


How much are the perceived/anecdotal failures actually a result of failures in the system, rather than a flaw in the basic approach and the content?

In my various posts and questions so far I have had a remarkably consistent experience. Somebody, somewhere, makes a claim about SSP which seems to suggest that it is a problematic approach. The most prevalent have been:

  1. Children being taught via SSP are sounding whole pages or whole books and having no clue as to the content;
  2. Children being taught via SSP are sounding out separate sounds but have no clue as to the words into which those sounds combine;
  3. Children being taught via SSP are being prevented from progressing in their school reading books because SSP demands that they not read any words containing sounds which they have not yet been taught in that particular standard scheme.
  4. Children are not allowed to use pictures, context or grammar when reading within the SSP regimen.

I have discussed various of these issues elsewhere in this blog, but in this post I’m interested purely in the possibility that if people are observing these problems, then thinking systemically we need to consider what aspects of SSP as a system, and what aspects of the circumstances in which SSP is implemented, might be allowing erroneous practices, or misunderstandings, to continue.

This is particularly important because the problems and misapprehensions listed are, presumably, things which anyone in favour of SSP should want to eradicate from the system. In spite of the DfE’s statements to the contrary, for instance, SSP advocates are happy for pictures, grammar and context to play a part in children’s reading – it’s just that in their view sounding, blending and listening must come first, and take precedence. Pictures, grammar and context help towards meaning, but in a secondary role, especially as disambiguation. So for instance if some people believe that SSP excludes pictures, grammar and context completely, we need to look at why that might be (DfE, I’m looking at you…).

There is a huge variety of opinions among people who have expressed doubts about SSP as currently prescribed by the DfE, ranging from ‘I’m not sure the Phonics Screening Check is as useful as it might be’, to Michael Rosen. Labelling all of these people ‘phonics denialists’, as some have done, is not only unhelpful in taking any debate forward, but it also misunderstands the nature of the study of language and literacy itself, and of the arguments being made for and against SSP (those claiming the existence of ‘phonics denialists’ should understand that people with concerns about SSP are not, in the vast majority of cases, against the use of phonics in reading instruction generally).

People who are in favour of SSP will tend to counter the complaints about problems by saying that these things should not be happening, that SSP does not require these strictures, and that they would not occur if teachers and parents were properly trained in the ways of SSP – including the fact that SSP is supposed to be embedded in a rich, broad and deep literacy curriculum.

However, these things have been said for a while, and problems continue. So I feel it’s actually not much good just saying that the reported problems ‘should not’ happen – or even that it’s down to deficiencies in understanding or training. Many teachers are clearly doing SSP in an imaginative, engaging and effective way. Others are not, if parents’ complaints, especially, are to be believed. It is necessary to look in detail at why the problems are happening, and then decide what needs to be done.

If the system does not function appropriately under certain circumstances, it is important to be clear what those circumstances are, and to be equally clear about the feasibility of altering those circumstances in ways that might allow effective functioning of the system.

  • If training is lacking, what would need to be put in place so that correct and sufficient staff training can occur?
  • Is it simply that training is lacking? Or are there other influences on the effectiveness of SSP?
  • How much extra time, knowledge and funding is required in order that all relevant adults can know enough to create optimal functioning of SSP as a system?

It would seem clear that that SSP is not a simplistic silver bullet which ‘solves’ literacy regardless of circumstances, but that the knowledge which it represents is nevertheless a fundamental part of learning to read and write well and independently.

Therefore, thinking pragmatically, we need to ask not just what would need to be done to get the circumstances right in an ideal world, but:

How feasible is it to ensure that

  • Schools have the necessary culture, knowledge, ability and leadership;
  • Parents have the right level of engagement; and
  • Children have the necessary health, strength and attitude for everyone to get the most out of SSP’s perceived potential?

Although such changes might represent pretty small tweaks in practice, we need to be prepared to discover that it is not feasible, at least in all (or enough) cases, to get the circumstances right for SSP as currently envisaged – or, at least, for SSP as represented by the DfE.

SSP exists within a wider system, which contains not just the rest of the literacy curriculum in a school but the character of the national economy and society as well: if, for instance, gorgeous phonics readers are available for children to take home, but they stay unread because parents/other carers are under too much pressure of time, or lack the skills to help, and children do not get enough 1-2-1 reading at school because full-class sounds learning, including working towards the screening check, is taking up the time and effort which could otherwise be devoted to 1-2-1 reading, this would be a weakness in the current SSP system within the real-life context, quite separate from the (obviously great) value of the phonemic understanding which SSP promotes.

NB This is just a for instance, not an allegation, but I think there is an issue of balance, and of equity which needs serious thought: we know that children who get 1-2-1 reading at home (especially if carers understand what the phonics sounds are for) will get much more out of learning via SSP than children who do not, especially if they get no 1-2-1 reading at school either.

If the success of the system as implemented (even if only in some schools) is predicated on most one-to-one reading being supplied outside school, this is, at present, a very serious and socially inequitable weakness in SSP as a system.

Of course, this weakness would apply to any other approach to reading instruction, when looked at from a systemic point of view, unless that system prioritised one-to-one reading practice in school time. I only have anecdotes to go on, but it seems as if the burden of one-to-one reading is often expected to be carried by parents.

This issue is not about the value of using the body of knowledge which SSP represents, but about the systems through which it is implemented and whether those systems help those who cannot help themselves.

So, how to define the perceived weaknesses? It’s not easy, since it seems difficult to get clarity about what is actually going on in different schools: the impression I have is that schools may well think they are doing very similar things, but in fact there may be substantial, and hidden, differences on which the use of SSP or not might succeed or fail.

This is my attempt to list potential weaknesses in the system, as opposed to the content:

1. Balance of class/group time v. 1-2-1 reading time. It is often said that ‘more phonics’ is the answer where children are not learning to read at the required pace. But if the phonics that is being done is not having the desired effect, then more of that is not necessarily what’s needed. One does not have to reject SSP as the focus in order to ask:  What if ‘different phonics’ or ‘more 1-2-1 support in applying phonic knowledge’ is what’s needed? 1-2-1 is my own particular focus, and I have noticed that the DfE fails to emphasise the crucial importance of 1-2-1 reading support as a technical activity – all the rhetoric is about parental engagement and reading at home, which of course is very important, but still not the same thing at all. This leads to the next weakness, which is…

2. Reliance on carers to provide 1-2-1 reading (to put it another way: use of off-site, unsupervised, untrained/barely-trained non-specialists to provide core teaching work).

3. DfE guidelines which (by appearing to ban picture, context & grammar prompts) undermine effective integration of sounds teaching with deep literacy, future grammar work, and children’s cognitive development.

4. DfE guidelines which, though lack of explicit policies for advanced/fast-learning young readers, hamper the development of their literacy by implying that they should not be allowed to progress faster than the rate of class sounds teaching. The new DfE document about promoting reading once children are basically competent completely fails to address this issue; it seems to assume that children reading at this level will only be in KS2 onwards, for a start. Where is the policy for dealing with situations where the vast majority of a class are free readers by the end of Year 1? Why is funding for book clubs directed at specific year groups, rather than allowing the school flexibility to create clubs at the most appropriate points for their own cohorts – or across cohorts? Assumptions are being made which constrain the future effectiveness of the system.

6. Fear (especially of Ofsted, and failure in the screening check) is a great system weakness because it can create a counterproductively inflexible and risk-averse approach which leaves children either bored or lost, and turned off in both cases. Since the system seems basically designed for the middle attainers, I’ve been told (and have observed in an inexpert way myself) that without flexibility and intelligence on the part of staff it has the potential to go far too slowly for some and far too quickly for others. Approximately two thirds of a cohort are underserved by an approach which caters for the middle third. Personally, I’ve seen this mostly avoided through careful differentiation and imagination on the part of staff – but I get the impression from online forums [yes, I know, ‘fora’…] that it takes great confidence and good leadership to create flexibility in the face of Ofsted and high-stakes testing.

7. Any system needs to take careful account of variations in its input and if SSP does not do this explicitly then this is a serious weakness. There have been assertions from a number of people that SSP does not allow for children who start ‘already able to read’. Now, this description can cover all sorts of levels of attainment and ability, but it is presumably the case that the number of children starting school with a reading age of, say, 8 or 9 is likely to be really very small, even in economically privileged areas. Of course, those children’s needs must be taken account of within a classroom context, and special approaches are needed. Of the others, there is presumably in general a range of reading level from a few words to perhaps a blue or green band level; all of these levels (and in fact the kids reading at age 8 level) can benefit from good understanding of the building blocks of words, in sound and on the page – but they need a different approach which takes what they know and expands it, rather than refusing to acknowledge that they have learned anything to do with reading at all, simply because they do not possess explicit phonemic knowledge as laid out in SSP (by that definition, most adults would not be considered ‘able to read’ either!). The DfE materials do not address this issue at all.

NB It should be obvious that none of the above potential weaknesses relates very much at all to the content of SSP approaches. Yet all of them are fundamental to the success of SSP in helping children to learn to read. I think they need further discussion, separately from the content.

What I do when I listen to FS2/Y1 children read

Once again, a post prompted by a twitter conversation. This is what I do each time I read with a child. Hardly rocket science, and I’m sure unsurprising – but this is how I do it, always using sounding and blending as the way in, and pictures/context to follow up in various ways.

1.Find child’s book bag & look at status of books/diary: do they need a new book? Where are they in the book, if not? Any relevant comments in the diary from carers, teacher, TAs? Consult with teaching staff about any issues arising (often at  later point, if decision not needed prior to session). Get a selection of possible new books to read if need be.

2. Find child, chat with child about whatever’s in their head.

3. If a new book is needed, get child to choose from the selection (let them know they can take the others home if they want to as well). I make it a bounded choice, but choosing a book for themselves generally gets even reluctant readers interested.

4. Listen to them read. This involves beginner readers sounding out words and learning to blend them, and more confident readers reading straight off but sounding out words they’re not sure of. Once a page(ish, depending) has been read, we tend to chat about what has happened so far, and – look – the squirrel is up the tree in the picture, etc.

5. I always ask at some point about what the child likes about the book, what sorts of stories they like, etc, partly so I can choose books which are likely to appeal to that particular child.

Some children get the sound/blend process straight away. Others find it harder, and if this is the case I do the blending quite a lot of the time at first, modelling the sound-to-blend, and gradually they get it. On rare occasions a child may be unable to hear the word from the blended sounds: on these occasions I use further prompts such as going back over the sentence, or, even more rarely, a picture to make sure they’ve understood (if for instance I feel there may be accent issues causing confusion and preventing them from connecting the sounds with their own vocabulary).

I do sometimes tell them words that they don’t know, but the way in is via the sounding and blending process – I model the whole thing.

If progress is slow, the balance in the session is towards chat and talking around the story – my main aim is for the child to feel that we’re finding out about the story together; when they read, this is always via the route of sounding/blending, but if that’s hard going I use general chat and modelling to maintain a feeling of momentum, and interest from the child.

I often ask the child if they want to carry on or not – sometimes they might seem really to be struggling, but when asked they smile and bounce and say Yes, yes, carry on! (That is, they were just concentrating hard and not, as had appeared, miserable!) NB If a child wants to stop, we stop. I’ve found that reluctant readers respond well to this and actually want to come and read next time! I think it’s a question of their sense of control, or reverse psychology, maybe.

The next broad stage of reading tends to involve focus on sounds that may be conceptually trickier for a particular child: split digraphs, or the need to decide which ‘oa’ or ‘oo’ or ‘ou’ sound is right in order to make the word they need to read. If there is a word that a child hesitates over, and it becomes clear, for example, that they aren’t clear how to cope with i_e in a word (of course this is done in class, but doesn’t always stick), then we break off and I do some writing of examples on scrap paper, showing the sound in various words, and helping them work them out. I keep it as short and simple as I can.

[Edited to add: I stick to the newer decodable books for absolute beginners, partly because there are more books of this sort in the lowest book bands, then later on I look through the older books before handing them out, to check the vocabulary in relation to the number of familiar ‘learned’ sounds: the further on in the book bands, the easier the cross-matching becomes, of course, and some books I just don’t use).]

If a child is a very confident reader, they tend only to need a bit of prompting to slow down, sound out unfamiliar words and listen: the main work tends to be on rarer sounds and multisyllabic words – techniques of breaking longer words down to sound out in chunks – and talking more about the interactions and events in the more complex stories – Why do you think they did that? What do you think she is feeling? etc. Often children will have questions, and offer unprompted analyses of what’s going on.

Free readers still need prompting/help with some unfamiliar words: they are coming across much less common vocabulary, and rarer orthography, so the technical work tends to be on recognizing morphemes, to break words down & work them out – I tend to chat to them about examples of (eg) un- or -less, etc, and they generally give examples that come to mind as we’re talking. [Edited to add: in a sense this is an extension of the ‘two-pronged approach’, since we’re looking, one-to-one, at reading techniques which come much later for many children.] With the free readers, on Famous Five etc., it tends to be much more a case of talking about the book in relation to comprehension, structure, characters, plot, etc. They do tend to like going back and showing me new words they’ve found out the meaning of, too, though.

[Edited to add: although I know that in many schools bigger chunks of words – prefixes, suffixes, etc – come under ‘Phase 6’ of phonics-based teaching, I find myself needing to talk in those terms with children at points when the class teaching might be focussed on phoneme-based work. Again, it seems Debbie Hepplewhite has already thought a lot about this issue, as you can see from her post here. I’ve ended up treating the role of bound morphemes as a parallel strand to pick up as needed – probably because it’s what I know, so it’s the easiest way for me personally to explain some aspects of words and reading to the children.]

Once we’ve finished a session – which is variable depending on how much the child wants to read (within a window of up to 15-20 minutes) I write up what we have read, and put comments relating to the child’s responses to the book plus brief notes to explain a particular technical issue we looked at. This is for the parents, but also for the teaching staff’s reference.