Recommended links for student teachers X
The failure to teach phonics explicitly, systematically and as the
sole decoding strategy in the early years of primary school has had
serious long-term consequences for vast numbers of students, including many
who are academically very able.
Secondary teacher Heather Fearn explains, ''Reading failure is endemic. I
would estimate that about a third of my A level students have noticeable
issues with word level reading that significantly impact upon their progress
in history at A level..At secondary school we should be giving students more
complex texts to build their vocabularies and reading stamina. However, the
research is pretty clear about when difficulties need to be identified if
children are to overcome them – way back in year 1. The research is also
pretty clear about what it is that struggling readers lack – a grasp of the
alphabetic principle that they are able to apply fluently when reading.''
Reading failure? What reading failure?
“I think it’s reprehensible that students can get through 10,000
hours of primary school without learning to read, write and spell''
The KS2 'Reading' SAT taken in the final year of primary school is a
comprehension (English vocabulary and general knowledge)
test. A primary SENCo pointed out that both the old (pre-2016, SATs were
graded using levels) and the new 'Reading' SATs ''focus heavily on
vocabulary knowledge and inference, not accurate word reading''.
The results cannot be used as a reliable guide to how well a primary school
has taught phonics decoding, spelling or, in many cases, a knowledge rich curriculum.
''Those who do particularly well without a knowledge rich curriculum succeed
because of the knowledge and vocabulary they have acquired outside school'' (Anthony
''What our data shows us is that
the SAT reading level is in reality no reliable indicator of reading
ability. In other words, transferring to secondary school with the expected
level 4b does not mean that you are a competent reader''. Furthermore,
''Research demonstrates that less than half of ‘poor readers’ (reading age
under 8) are identified on secondary SEN registers – with the result that
they fall further behind and leave school functionally illiterate, having
received no help'' (Mary Meredith.blog 30/10/14)
''It's my observation that too many of the top students who ace
every benchmark & state test can't handle multisyllabic words. The issue of
illiteracy in secondary school flies so under the radar and that must
''Decoding skills were assessed with the Single Word Reading Test (SWRT).
The SWRT involves reading aloud a series of words that are graded in
Rates of decoding difficulties in English secondary
state schools 2011. p3.
Year 7 - 16.9% attained a reading standard score
Year 10 - 20% attained a reading standard score below 85
16% attained a reading standard score below 85
Every year a significant percentage of children start secondary school with, at best, the reading skills of an average seven-year-old**. ''At the age of 14, 63% of white working-class
boys (a euphemism since most of them are jobless like Bulldog) and more than half of the black Caribbean boys have a reading age of seven or less'' (Harriet Sergeant.Fixing Broken Britain) Few will receive anything in the way of evidence-based remedial teaching at this stage of their education even though, ''Ensuring that as many children as possible are able to 'read to learn' is not a responsibility that ends when children leave primary school'' (Rose 2009 p108).
**2010: One in 11 boys in England - one in seven in some areas - starts secondary school with, at best, the reading skills of an average seven-year-old.
Michaela Community School (http://mcsbrent.co.uk/)
is a state secondary Free School in Wembley (an area of high
deprivation), London. In 2017 it received its first Ofsted inspection and
was awarded 'Outstanding' in every category. About a third of their pupils
start in Y7 with reading ages below chronological age. By Y9 not a single
child reads below their chronological age. This remarkable turnaround is
achieved by the combination of a synthetic phonics intervention (Ruth
Miskin's Fresh Start), lots of reading in class (for example: each science
lesson, pupils encounter over 1,000 words of scientific prose pitched to
GCSE, A Level and beyond), and the least able readers stay for 30 minutes
after school every day for
Reading Club. The SENCo does not use the dyslexia label,
saying that it is unscientific and reduces potential.
Michaela school's SENCo describes in detail how the school gets all of
its pupils reading at or above chronological age by Y9:
you have your reading age results, get all the pupils with a reading age
below their chronological age to do a decoding test''
''If students do not leave school reading well, it is not because of
their genes, their social and economic background, or the 'bell curve'; it
is because we, the teaching profession, have failed to deliver''
(Murphy. Thinking Reading p30)
Secondary English teachers are very unlikely to have received training in teaching the essential phonics decoding component of reading. English teacher David Didau observes, ''As long as kids pick [decoding] up in Year 1 or 2, they’ll be fine. Problems arise if they arrive a secondary school without being able to do this with much facility as most of us secondary trained English teachers lack the training or time to do much about it'' (http://learningspy.co.uk/2012/02/29/the-teaching-of-reading/)
Mr.Bunker wishes he'd received some positive and practical synthetic phonics training as part of his secondary English PGCE course in 2011: ''Despite being an English teacher, I consider my knowledge of phonics teaching to be incredibly poor. We didn’t actually learn about it at Uni, we were just made aware that teaching reading through phonics completely undermines the nature of ‘meaning’. We read a lot about this as well – a lot of Literature supporting the same point. Yes, we knew a lot about why Synthetic Phonics was wrong, without really being told what it was or how it is used in Primary Schools''
English teacher and author Phil Beadle once won a Teacher of the Year
award but he is, ''...a very angry man, because he knows that the teaching profession is letting down countless numbers of children. He knows that he was never trained how to help children who couldn’t read in secondary school. Just give them a word puzzle and sit them in the corner. Send them off to the special needs rooms to fill in more word puzzles. Send them to the restart room or sin bin when they kick off. Oh, and give them a word puzzle. Not my job to teach them how to read, that’s what primaries are for. This used to be the same attitude in primaries where junior teachers were concerned. If they haven’t learned in the infants they must be special needs or it's their parents fault'' (Shadwell.Teaching: the fourth factor)
''There is often an expectation in secondary schools that if
students haven't learned to read well by the time they begin Year 7, it's
probably indicative of a lack of ability, or a disability'' (Murphy. Thinking Reading p72)
Journalist Harriet Sergeant wrote, ''I have spent the past nine months
interviewing youngsters who are now on the streets or in and out of prison
because no one taught them to read and write between the crucial ages of
five and seven. And no one, in seven subsequent years of education (most
dropped out of school at around 14) addressed the problem. One young man
explained: “For my first two years of secondary school, I was in the top
sets for maths and science, but rubbish at everything else because of my
lack of literacy. That kills you in every subject. Even in maths you need to
read the question'' (Sunday Times. 08/02/09)
''The secondary curriculum isn't made up of high frequency words.
A year 8 who can't decode, even one with a decent sight vocabulary, is
likely to flounder'' (Tricia Millar. Twitter.)
When a secondary school lacks staff with expertise in teaching basic
literacy skills, students with reading difficulties will often be set to
work on computers with 'remedial phonics' software installed. Using a
computer as a phonics tutor is, as Dr.Philip MacMillan explains, unlikely to help them. ''Computers are fine for practice but if your students have still not acquired facility with phonological analysis and synthesis by age 11/12 then you might be better off using a competent adult who can direct attention to the articulatory process and how it relates to reading.
It will also help establish connections between letters and sounds if writing (by hand) is a part of the process. The kinaesthetic activity involved in writing integrates visual, oral and aural activities, keyboarding is less effective as it uses a different part of the brain and is less fine grained. In those with significant difficulties learning is best mediated by another more competent human being as a large component of learning involves social processes..We all lip read when listening to speech if the face is visible and in circumstances where there is ambiguity in the incoming speech signal lip reading will assist with extracting the sounds. In those with undeveloped phonological analysis, for whatever reason, there needs to be as many sources of input as possible, a disembodied voice will provide less information than a human face visible to the listener. I have yet to meet a computer that can respond to the mood state of the individual and attempt to alter it, a perceptive human will do just this and amend how they respond accordingly'' (EP. P.MacMillan SENCo forum 8/2/13)
of many actual trials showing that technology does not improve and often
'A randomised controlled trial of the use of a piece of
commercial software for the acquisition of reading skills'
If your child is already at the secondary stage it will be
more difficult to undo the damage from faulty or missing
phonics instruction. ''Older poor readers have the same basic problems as younger
poor readers and need to learn the same skills. Their problems,
however, are complicated by years of frustration and failure'' (Hall/Moats p213) They suffer from 'The Matthew Effect', from the biblical verse
in St. Matthew 25:29: "For unto every one that hath shall
be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath
not shall be taken away even that which he hath", which
can be summarized as, "The rich get richer, and the poor
get poorer." Early development of reading skills leads to faster rates
of skill improvement with the result that the disparity between
more skilled and less skilled readers widens over time.
Disregard anyone, or any *organisation, who suggests that children will have been ''phonicked up to
the eyeballs'' by the time they enter secondary school and therefore, if
they are still struggling to read and spell, they need ''something completely
different (from synthetic phonics)''. Most primary schools are still using multi-cue decoding methods in the classroom
and for intervention - see primary school options
*For example: the government funded EEF says that ''children aged 10 or
above who have not succeeded using phonics approaches previously require a
different approach''. The TES reported that the Driver Youth Trust
‘'...a literacy charity specialising in dyslexia, says the focus on phonics
has shut down discussion on alternatives for those children for whom phonics
proves ineffective. “Phonics does not work for every learner”
(examples provided by Debbie Hepplewhite)
X Gordon Askew writes about the role of
phonics in 'catch up'
''I am often asked about the role of phonics in
'catch up'...Phonics is the basic mechanism of all reading...There are no
''Phonics is the
only game in town''
Down to practicalities: if you are the desperate parent or carer of a
teenager struggling with reading and spelling and you want to do something
effective about it (assuming that the teenager is willing), first assess
their ability to accurately decode pseudo-words, their alphabet code knowledge
and spelling -use the
free tests here (scroll down). The vast majority of poor readers
of all ages
have big gaps in their knowledge of the alphabet
code, especially the advanced code and struggle with reading and spelling
multi-syllable words. In addition, struggling readers are prone to guessing whilst reading, using a mixture of inefficient strategies. These unhelpful strategies are the result of past teaching methods (see- mixed methods) and need to be replaced by a phonics
only, left to right, all-through-the-word decoding reflex. An intensive,
remedial programme which rapidly and systematically teaches the English Alphabet Code along with decoding and encoding skills, is likely to
be necessary. You may decide to take this on yourself. Use
a programme suitable for older children/teenagers from Resources. If the task seems overwhelming then a specialist reading
tutor who uses an advanced synthetic/linguistic phonics intervention programme could be the answer
- see Choosing a remedial tutor.
Older teens and adults:
Back in 2008, Phil Beadle taught a class of illiterate adults for the Channel 4 TV programme series 'Can't Read Can't Write' using a self-devised phonics programme,
with advice from 'dyslexia' and reading specialists. He was scathing about the government's adult literacy provision:
“At present, the provision for people who can’t read at all is a series of
activities for the mentally deficient; they say it’s all about balance.
Speaking and listening doesn’t help you decode the building blocks. They
don’t need speaking and listening. They need the code. These people have
huge barriers to overcome just to get to the class. The Entry 1 materials are designed for people who can only read a tiny bit. In the first module, phonics appears on page 14 and teaches the “sh” sound. It appears 16 times before they reach that point. The materials are illogical and incompetent.
**A proper Adult Literacy programme desperately needs to be written, and
made statutory” (RRF newsletter 61)
**2019. The Education and Training Foundation (ETF)
now offers CPD in
'Approaches to the teaching of phonics post-16' Entry
In 2011, the Director of the National Literacy Trust wrote on the
subject of adult literacy,
''(T)here are still 15% of adults at or below entry level 3 [equivalent
to the National Curriculum's 11 year olds]. Worryingly, the number with entry level 1
[equivalent to the National Curriculum’s 5-7 year olds] has grown slightly between 2003 and 2011, from 3.4% to 5%. The research estimates this group to be 1.7 million.. “Low hanging fruit” is an ugly term, but the statistics do suggest that the approaches of the last decade have been successful in improving the literacy skills of adults who have already mastered the basics, whilst not impacting significantly on the 1 in 6 for whom the issues are more complex''
Tricia Millar, author of a linguistic phonics intervention programme for older students,
doesn't think the problem is insurmountable. She says, ''In the past 10 years I’ve met a few older strugglers who will always find decoding difficult due to a learning difficulty. However, many of those '1 in 6', with or without a diagnosed learning difficulty, simply don’t know that the squiggles on the page represent the sounds that we say out loud. Instead, they have memorised loads of little words by sight and they guess (badly) at the longer content words'' (TRT blog
The almost universal assumption that older teenagers and adults would find phonics-based literacy classes
'infantile' and boring was tested back in 2008. A small project, using synthetic phonics with adults, was set up by the
'National Research and Development Council for Adult Literacy and Numeracy' because, as they acknowledged,
''The research base for knowing how to improve the teaching of adult literacy is markedly deficient'' (Burton et al intro.)
Despite the fact that the project was done with small groups, rather than
one-to-one, and the DfE's primary school programme,
Letters and Sounds (for 4-7yr.olds), was used (see Resources for programmes
and training suitable for adults), synthetic phonics proved to be a huge success with teachers and learners alike. ''The learners (mainly Entry 1-3) made significant progress in reading comprehension and spelling'', and ''This progress was achieved in a very short time (on average..between five and six sessions)'' (Burton et al p9)
X ''If a student
leaves secondary school unable to [decode] it is the school’s
X 5 things every new (secondary) teacher should
know about reading
On Reading: ''The great scandal continues, and our multi-billion pound education system continues to churn out tens of thousands of students every year who cannot read or write adequately. What the educators and the sponsors, by and large, do not seem to understand is what it is like to be fourteen and unable to read''
X How to help secondary pupils with reading and writing complex words
7 Misconceptions About Teaching Adolescents to Read
I haven’t got my glasses: the adult
Stanovich: Romance and Reality extracts
Report: Using Phonics International as an intervention in a secondary school.
Why phonics for older teens and adults?
Phonics for adult
functional skills. Six pitfalls and how to avoid them
Jim Curran's conference talk on using synthetic phonics at secondary level.
“Wasted Lives” - Jim Curran
A view of Education in Northern Ireland
23% of 16-18 year olds and 17% of 19-24 year olds are
at the lowest levels (Entry Levels & Level 1) of literacy: Entry Level 1
= NC 5-7 yr.olds. Entry Level 3 = NC 11 yr.olds. Level 1 =GCSE grades D to G
WASTED: The betrayal of white working class and black Caribbean boys. READ IT and weep.