Gibb claims rise in number passing screening test is down to ‘relentless emphasis on phonics’. But DfE commissioned research contradicts this.

Janet Downs's picture
‘… 100,000 more 6-year olds now on track to become proficient readers as a result of our relentless emphasis on phonics. Had we not done so, those pupils would still be struggling today.’

School minister, Nick Gibb, Department for Education (DfE) press release.

But DfE commissioned research into the 2014 screening test contradicts this. It said:

‘Teachers were positive about phonics as an approach to teaching reading, and its contribution towards early reading development. In the majority of schools, however, other strategies alongside phonics were also supported.’

The research said the 60% of schools said they taught systematic synthetic phonics ‘first and fast’ but teachers’ answers to questions about using other methods contradicted this finding.

So what were these ‘other strategies’? The NFER, which conducted the research, told me*:

One of the key messages to emerge from the evaluation so far is that many schools appear to believe that a phonics approach to teaching reading should be used alongside other methods. These methods include guided reading, reading for meaning, use of ‘big wow’ words, story book reading and listening, vocabulary and grammar work and use of Big Write materials.’ (My emphasis)

‘Survey and case-study participants have also reported using a range of other schemes or strategies including Reading Partners, Freshstart, Bug Club, Better Reading Partners, the ELS Programme, Success for All, Reading Recovery, and Catch Up Literacy. In addition, a small number of schools have reported that they had developed their own literacy programmes.’

It appears, then, that Nick Gibb hasn’t read research published by his department. Neither has he appeared to ask himself what these ‘other strategies’ are. Perhaps it’s because using other strategies conflicts with his support for the exclusive use of systematic synthetic phonics. This support has proved highly profitable for certain firms publishing phonics material.

And it also doesn’t occur to him that when a test is introduced, teachers will coach pupils in passing the test.

*email from NFER to me dated 22 July 2014
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Michele -Lowe's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 14:21

I have to say, if the schools I help in as a volunteer with reading had a 'relentless emphasis on phonics' they would dread coming to me to do their one-to-one reading. As it is, they don't (have a relentless emphasis on phonics) and the kids, thankfully, are happy to read to me.
Now that I work in two languages (Welsh and English) I can compare the effectiveness of phonics in both spheres. I have to say, phonics suit Welsh because it is a phonetic language and the gap between sound and letters is not that wide - unlike English.
After all my time as a classroom assistant I haven't come across one infallible system and I've found they all have qualities to recommend them. It's just that no one system has all the answers - just to state the glaringly obvious. The English-medium school I volunteer in uses Read, Write, Inc. So I thought I ought to bone up on the pedagogy. Interestingly enough, when I googled it, I could only get limited information about it. I am presuming that copyright issues kick in here. The classroom teacher told me the teaching materials were accompanied by a special course, so I am assuming this was something which the school paid for. Nothing wrong in that, but I see your point about profitable enterprises for publishing firms, Janet.
Something which puzzles me, and I would value your view on this, is what these teaching systems do about deviations from the rule. When children see the word 'thought' and say 'fought', or 'something' and say 'somefink', and even 'other' yet say 'uver', what is the advice on correcting it? I ask this because in my area, Abergavenny in S. E. Wales this kind of estuary English didn't used to be a feature. But with people moving in from other areas and bringing those speech habits with them, things are changing. We even hear it in Welsh these days. Most of our kids in Welsh-medium come from English-speaking homes and when you hear children applying those sounds to Welsh it sounds completely odd. Funny how something in a different context really makes you sit up and notice it. In fact, in the context of the Welsh language, it sounds wrong to the point of being a speech impediment.
But this all begs tricky questions about ironing out children's speech patterns. The question is simpler when dealing with Welsh. Those speech habits are mistakes - the sound is plain wrong. But in English? The advice from school is to remodel the sound correctly, which is clear enough. Teachers have complained that the children do tend to write as they speak, so tackling the problem at that level seems logical. I just wonder how well systematic phonics plays in areas of S.E. England and particularly Essex where half my family lives.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/09/2014 - 07:31

Michele - Read, Write inc was devised by Ruth Miskin who was the only literacy expert on the national curriculum review board. This gave rise at the time about conflict of interest.

Read, Write inc was one of the phonics schemes 'approved' by the Government for its matched-funding scheme. The publishers of Read, Write inc have received £4m from sales.

According to DueDil, cash (bank deposits etc) held by Ruth Miskin's company, Ruth Miskin Literacy Ltd, rose from £384,852 in 2011 to £1,973,955 in 2013.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 27/09/2014 - 07:43

Michele - DfE instructions re administering the phonics test say:

'A child’s accent should be taken into account when deciding whether a response is
acceptable. There must be no bias for or against children with a particular accent.'

The 2014 instructions are here.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Fri, 26/09/2014 - 20:37

I wonder if Nick Gibb could explain why it is that when GCSE and A-Level pass rates increase this is caused by "grade inflation", but when primary school test results improve it is a result of government action?

"Once a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure." Goodhart's Law.

Teachers learn how to prepare pupils to pass a test and as a result the number passing the test increases. Does anyone involved in the teaching reading really believe that this will have any long term beneficial results?

When Standard Assessment Tests were introduced into Primary Schools over twenty years ago the proportion reaching Level 4 at KS2 was below 50% - now it is well above 80%. Does anybody at all think that in general entrants to Secondary School now are far better at Maths, Reading and English than they were twenty years ago? I would really like to know what experienced Secondary School teachers think. Are your new Year 7 pupils much better at the basics than their predecessors were in the past?

Michele -Lowe's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 13:17

Thanks Janet. Your information regarding Read,Write Inc comes as no real surprise. I seem to recall a "Newsnight' feature examining synthetic phonics with a cynical eye. This was a while back, but it sticks in the mind for the doubt it cast on there being any one answer to the thorny problem of teaching reading English. Who'd have thought literacy was such a goldmine?
The DfE advice I find a little vague. Is accent carried in vowels or consonants - or both? I need to drill down into the detail of the tests to know or even, should it be worth my while, press them on the point. I have to say, I feel secure on my Welsh literacy ground, because you simply can't import the speech habits of one language into another and declare all is fine. But English is a language which evolves all the time. I know that if I hear a child reading 'I heard' as 'I yerd' (a local speech habit) I would ask them to tell me what sound the aitch made. This is partly because as a kid, I spoke like that, too. Learning to read probably ironed out some of my speech habits, but I don't think it affected my accent hugely.
But of course, as you have noted in previous posts, all this focus on phonics can wring all the joy out of reading.

Maggie D's picture
Sun, 28/09/2014 - 13:47

The survey of teachers carried out by the NFER is indeed 'research' but it is research into the attitudes of teachers, not research into the efficacy of synthetic Phonics (SP) instruction. People can have all sorts of opinions but their opinions may not actually be correct when set against the facts; as this rather scary study demonstrates

The research that Nick Gibb relies on is the several decades worth of research studies by cognitive scientists and neuroscientists which demonstrate that most children learn to read best when they understand the relationship between the individual sounds in words and the letter, or letters that represent those sounds in the written word. Additionally, studies show that more children learn to read when they are explicitly taught these relationships than if left to intuit them for themselves.

I think that in view of the huge emphasis that is placed by phonics sceptics on the 'banning' of 'other strategies' people commenting on SP instruction should be very clear about what 'other strategies' consist of and which ones are compatible with SP instruction and which are not.

The list of 'other strategies' which Janet has obtained from NFER is interesting in that not one of them is precluded by the use of SP for teaching word identification (which is its only purpose).

What are missing from the list are the 'other strategies' for word identification which are hotly defended by many in the teaching profession and which SP proponents do, indeed, come out very strongly against. Under the old National Literacy Strategy (1998 - 2006), which many of our current teachers were 'trained' in and which was supported by most education 'academics', three other routes to word identification were taught. 1) Use of pictures to try to work out what an unfamiliar word 'said', 2) Use of the first letter of the word and 3) Use of context - "read the whole sentence and see what might make sense". Phonics was also suggested as a method of word identification but was not given any particular prominence. As these 3 'strategies' were those that had been commonly used before the implementation of the NLS teachers mainly just carried on using them as they had always done. Additionally, the NLS perpetrated the teaching of a number of High Frequency Words (HFWs) as 'whole words', to be taught by Look & Say methods, a practice which SP proponents also do not support.

In essence, the 3 'other' strategies amount to nothing more than guessing and provide children with no reliable method of independently working out unfamiliar words. anyone with a modicum of sense should be able to see that not all words can be identified by a helpful picture (and what happens when there are no pictures?), that the initial letter of a word can present you with a wide range of possibilities and that 'context' (apart from in specially written early reading scheme books) is equally unreliable. The practice of teaching word recognition as 'wholes' places a greater cognitive load on children and leads to confusion as to which method of word identification they are supposed to use when confronted with an unfamiliar word.

Besides which, if a child has been explicitly and systematically taught letter/sound correspondences and how to use them for decoding and blending words they do not need any other strategies for word identification. The only exception is use of context to identify homonyms (words which are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meanings e.g. wind, read & row) and then only after the word has been decoded.

The National curriculum, introduced by the Conservatives long before the imposition of the NLS did raise attainment in english to a certain extent but around the time if the NLS the attainment plateaued at about 80% of children achieving L4 for English and the NLS did nothing to improve on this. As the resistance to SP instruction is so strong even the abandonment of the NLS and the issuing of official guidance on SP instruction in the Letters & Sounds document (2007) did little to improve early reading instruction.

The implementation of the Phonics Screening check and the new National Curriculum for English are the only measures I can applaud the current government for. At least they are brave enough to disregard the sensibilities of teachers (and teacher trainers) who refuse to accept decades worth of scientific evidence and introduce measures which have a good chance of improving the educational chances of the 20% of children who have consistently failed to learn to read competently.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 29/09/2014 - 07:24

Maggie D - the research cited by Gibb supports the systematic teaching of ANY phonics method not just synthetic as I point out here. It appears that Gibb doesn't differentiate between 'systematic' and 'synthetic'.

The mandatory Phonics Screening Test is unnecessary. There's no reason why teachers shouldn't test, of course, but this should be done at a suitable time for individual pupils and used to plan strategies for those pupils. The only purpose of Phonics Screening is to judge schools - the Govt doesn't publish individual schools' results but it does use them to compare free schools, sponsored academies, converter academies and LA maintained schools. A waste of time and money.

'...brave enough to disregard the sensibilities of teachers...' I look forward to the same comment being applied to Department of Health instructions laying down how illness should be treated: Ministers are 'brave enough to disregard the sensibilities of doctors...'

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