Dear Nick Gibb MP
Your recent claims in the Daily Telegraph about the success of the Year 1 phonics check reveal a startling lack of understanding of effective early literacy teaching. Phonics has always been part of the repertoire of teachers, who understand the value of linking sounds to letters, but they realise that this is not enough. English is a complex language, and many of our most common words are not spelt regularly: phonics does not help with “was” or “once”, nor with “soup”, “out”, “could” and “soul”, nor does it distinguish between the present and past tenses of “read”. As experienced teachers know, early readers learn to decode words in context, and need to experience meaningful text. Children’s individual awareness of environmental print informs their knowledge of words, which are the basis of a growing sight vocabulary.
A recent report* from researchers at Newman University and Leeds Beckett University found that 85% of heads believe the phonics check should not be compulsory, while 65% of teachers believe it should be discontinued altogether. Parents agree: 80% stated that their child could already read well when they took the test and almost two-thirds believe it should be stopped.
Teachers and parents are right to distrust a reliance on the ability to decode non-words as a valid measure of literacy. They confuse able readers, who expect text to make sense, and bewilder children who are in the early stages of linking print to meaning, which is after all what reading is about. It is disturbing that you quote phonically regular text from a Reader designed more than 60 years ago to promote the very approach you advocate, as an example of what you describe as look and say methods. This reveals a poor understanding of the complexity of effective support for early reading; it is disheartening that you use your position to dictate a restricted method of teaching based on incomplete evidence, which ignores the sophisticated understanding of early literacy developed in this country.
It is worth noting that almost all other nations do not start teaching formal reading until children are older, and that there is research showing that children taught to read at seven achieve as well at eleven as those who are drilled from four or five. The claim that reading levels have risen in England as a result of the Year 1 phonics check is not supported by the end of Key Stage 1 reading results a year later, which have changed very little since the introduction of the check in 2012. By contrast, Ireland shows that a broadly based and child-friend approach to literacy is having much greater success, as shown by international tests.
Investing in family support and in-depth training for teachers who are now offered a narrow introduction to early literacy would be a much more effective use of the money currently being spent on promoting a limited and limiting approach to reading.
Wendy Scott OBE
* The Phonics Screening Check 2012-2017: An independent enquiry into the views of Head Teachers, teachers and parents. A Final Report September 2018. Available to download from Newman University. https://www.newman.ac.uk/knowledge-base/the-phonics-screening-check-2012-2017/