Minister tries to reassure teachers that the Government isn’t being “doctrinaire” about phonics. She fails.

Janet Downs's picture
“…many experienced, skilled and successful teachers of reading are a bit concerned about an over-reliance on phonics. What can she do to persuade them that the Government are not being a little doctrinaire in this area?” John Pugh MP asked schools minister, Elizabeth Truss.

Truss cited “a large body of research evidence” which, she said, “shows that phonics is the most effective way of teaching literacy to all children.”

But literacy is more than decoding – it comprises comprehension as well. And much of the “large body of research evidence” points this out. The National Reading Panel, for example, cautioned against the over emphasis on phonics which was “one aspect of the complex reading process.”

When Truss talks of “phonics”, it is not clear what she means. The DfE pushes systematic synthetic phonics via its matched funding scheme. But the word “synthetic” doesn’t appear in the National Curriculum Framework Document and “systematic” is used only in relation to struggling pupils. Nevertheless, the Document makes it a statutory requirement that pupils should be taught to “apply phonic knowledge and skills as THE route to decode words” (my caps for emphasis).

So, according to the DfE, phonics is not just “one aspect of the complex reading process” but THE only method of teaching reading. Ex-HMI Colin Richards has argued that reclassifying teaching methodology as content may be in breach of the Education Reform Act 1988 which forbids ministers from laying down particular methods of teaching.

But Truss seems unaware that including phonics teaching in statutory requirements could be breaking the law just as she seems unclear in her pronouncements that there’s a difference between systematic teaching of phonics (any method), systematic synthetic phonics instruction (one method) and teaching of phonics (any method whether delivered systematically or ad-hoc).

Truss said phonics (method unclear) was essential because “Last year’s phonics check identified 235,000 children who will now receive extra help”. The DfE earlier claimed that 43% of pilot schools identified "pupils with reading problems of which they were not already aware". But this means that 57% of pilot schools found the test was no help in identifying struggling pupils. Perhaps the 43% which needed an external test to reveal struggling readers ought to receive training to hone their assessment skills. This would be more effective than imposing a statutory screening test on all schools.

Extra help was important, Truss said, because PIRLS showed that England had one of the largest gaps between strong and weak readers. But what Truss didn’t say was that English pupils were only outscored significantly by just five countries. Neither did she say that England had one of the largest proportions of pupils reaching the Advanced International Benchmark (18%). And while it’s true that only 5% of English 10 year-olds reached the lowest level it’s also true that 7% of young Australians and 8% of New Zealand 10 year-olds didn’t reach it either.

So, the large gap in attainment is caused by the large number (18%) of English pupils reaching the Advanced International Benchmark and a long, narrow tail of underachievement (5%). And though it’s quite correct that efforts should be made to improve the reading of weak readers it should not be by imposing particular methods of teaching reading onto teachers whose strategies have meant that the reading skills of English top-performing 10 year-olds in PIRLS 2011 are among the best in the world.

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