Government’s approach to teaching reading is uninformed and failing children

University College London

The main approach used to teach young children how to read in England needs urgent reform and does not follow the most robust evidence, say UCL academics who have led work on the most comprehensive paper ever published about teaching phonics and reading.

Findings from the paper, which is published today in the Review of Education, include outcomes of an analysis of 55 robust longitudinal experimental trials, and outcomes from a survey of 2,205 teachers in England.

The paper highlights that for the first time in modern history, the teaching of phonics and reading in primary schools in England has changed fundamentally. The National Curriculum and other DfE guidance has shifted, over the last decade, from using a more balanced approach to teaching reading to a far narrower focus on synthetic phonics only. England’s synthetic phonics approach stipulates first and foremost the teaching of phonemes (sounds), and how to blend sounds together. This teaching is now usually done separately from work on whole texts.

Drawing on their new evidence the UCL researchers are among over 250 signatories who have written an open letter to the Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi strongly calling on the UK Government to change their policy on reading. They say reforms should, “centre on a wider range of approaches to teaching phonics and reading, enabling teachers to use their own judgement about which is best for their pupils.”

The letter also says that teachers should be encouraged to focus first and foremost on pupils making sense of texts, and that phonics teaching should be carefully linked with reading of whole texts.

Professor Dominic Wyse (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society), co-author of the paper said: “Teaching children to read and to make sense of texts is crucial to improving their life chances and is one of the most important tasks of primary schools and early years settings.

“Although there are some strengths to England’s current approach to teaching reading, our new research shows that the government’s policy is uninformed because it is not underpinned by the latest robust evidence.

“For the first time in more than 100 years we see that a balanced instruction approach to the teaching of reading is no longer the norm in England. The majority of teachers are now reporting the more frequent use of the narrower synthetic phonics approach. England’s synthetic phonics approach requires a too heavy emphasis on teaching about phonemes (sounds), and so minimises attention to other vital aspects of teaching reading. Our view is that the system doesn’t give teachers enough flexibility to do what they think is best for their pupils, nor to encourage pupils to enjoy reading.”

Of the 634 teachers from Nursery, Reception (ages 4 to 5) and Year 1 year (ages 5 to 6) who answered a question about their approach to phonics, 66% (420) said that synthetic phonics was their main focus compared to 1% (9) who said whole texts were seen as the main emphasis and context for teaching reading.

In addition, the researchers’ analysis of systematic reviews, the 55 experimental trials, and data from international assessment tests such as PISA*, suggests that teaching reading in England has been less successful since the adoption of the synthetic phonics approach.

The most rigorous experimental trials have tested children’s reading some years after the interventions finished. Studies from Canada and Norway, for example, clearly showed that effective teaching of phonics teaching and reading was delivered by class teachers who combined phonics with teaching of whole texts in phonics/reading lessons. As a result, the gains for children were statistically significant resulting in them making better progress.

The study authors say that the Department of Education uses a range of ways of enforcing synthetic phonics: using the phonics screening check (a statutory test of all five-year-old children); vetting reading schemes and only approving those which include synthetic phonics (narrowly defined); and using Ofsted, the schools’ inspectorate, to enforce synthetic phonics.

All but one of the 936 written comments from the teacher survey about the phonics screening check were negative about the test. 237 comments said that teachers had needed to give extra phonics lessons to help children pass the test. The word “pressure” appeared 97 times in the comments: one teacher felt that they had to “live and breathe phonics”, and another expressed a desire for “reflection on the mass of skills involved in reading rather than solely focusing on phonics”.

Co-author, Professor Alice Bradbury (IOE, UCL’s Faculty of Education and Society), said: “Our findings highlight that although there are a range of ways to teach reading, many teachers feel pressured by the phonics screening check to focus on phonics above all.

“Policy changes have led to changes in teaching, including more time being spent on phonics, the separation of phonics from other literacy activities, and a reliance on a small number of phonics schemes. This is an important shift in how children are taught to read, a shift which is not underpinned by the research evidence.”

The authors acknowledge limitations to the research including the possibility there may have been other longitudinal experimental trials on the effectives of teaching that they could not locate.

The authors are both Directors of the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (0 to 11 Years) (HHCP) based at UCL which is funded by the Helen Hamlyn Trust.

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