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JohnbaldJohn Bald says teaching children to read is crucial for social mobility. But winning the argument for phonics is different to winning the war

Nick Gibb MP's excellent summary of the modern reading wars, begins with the publication in 1955 of Rudolph Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read. This is an attack on the look-and-say approach to reading that had become predominant in American schools, following disputes that Dr Miriam Balmuth, in The Roots of Phonics, traces back to a paper by the Boston School Superintendent Horace Mann in 1841. By this reckoning, the reading wars have lasted as long as the Hundred Years War, the Wars of the Roses and the Cold War put together. If an end is in sight, as Nick Gibb hopes, it is long overdue.

To sustain a conflict for so long requires conviction on both sides. On the phonics side is the fact that English writing is alphabetic, and that the essence of all alphabetic writing is the representationof sounds by letters. To learn to read, we must use the information contained in letters, which is predominantly phonic, and so phonics should be the basis of teaching.

There is also a great deal of research, including the largest study ever undertaken in the UK and several HMI reports, to show that phonics are a more effective approach to teaching than the alternative.

The other side argues that English spelling is irregular, that children need to understand and enjoy what they read, and that phonics are an arid grind, or even unrelated to learning to read. Ros Asquith's Guardian cartoon sums up this view. Some opponents of phonics speak from personal experience of children learning to read before they go to school, with little or no phonic instruction, and of others who get so bogged down in trying to sound words out one letter at a time that they become unable to read.


The results of the government's phonics check show that the pupils who we know are more likely to have reading difficulties have low overall scores on the phonics test. In 2012, pupils receiving free school meals, for example, were less likely to reach the expected Level 2 in reading on teachers' assessments at Year 2, and fifty per cent more likely to scrape in at level 2c, which does not give clear evidence that a pupil can read independently.
They were over twice as likely not to have reached Level 1, and only 13 per cent reached Level 3, compared with 31 per cent of all pupils (DfE additional table 14). Similar patterns apply to pupils with special educational needs, and traveller pupils, and boys in all groups do less well than girls.

This is important evidence for anyone concerned with social mobility. The Guardian cartoon says that children who know phonics can't read books, when this is exactly the opposite of the truth. Good readers have good phonics skills, and those who have to rely on context to work out words do so to compensate for weak word identification skills.

Opponents of the test, against all official guidance, have been cynically and dishonestly announcing on television and telling parents that their children have failed, when in fact, as new minister Elizabeth Truss MP points out, the test is identifying those who need extra help. Winning the argument and winning the war are two different things. So, what is the next steps towards winning the war?

The first is to ensure, as far as possible, that the children who have been identified as having weak phonic skills at the end of Year 1 receive effective teaching to build up these skills in Year 2. At present, too many schools are ignoring the results completely, and blaming the government for making failures of children rather than considering their own teaching.

The carers of one pupil in this position got in touch with me a few days before the tests, as I had taught the daughter of a friend of theirs to read some years previously. Peter, as we will call him, had not learned to read any words at all, and his school blamed this on his difficult home circumstances. He was bound to "fail" the test, would "fail" next year too, and that would be it.

It was roughly 160 miles from Peter's house to mine, so I gave his carers some advice on the phone on how to get him to use information from letters in reading words. This was of some help, and he managed to read a few words on the test, when he had been expected to read none.

When Peter came to see me, during the holidays, I explained to him that letters helped us to read, but didn't always tell us all we needed to know. Starting with his name, Peter, the two es gave us different sounds, and we had to know what they were telling us. We practised making his name with plastic letters, and I explained that letters sometimes worked together in groups, like a team, and sometimes did not behave as we expected, like six year old boys.

We moved to Ruth Miskin's ditties from Read Write Inc, and had a very intensive lesson, in which Peter had to learn not to sound out each letter from each word before reading it, but to keep the information in his head. It took an hour and a half to read two of these simple ditties accurately, but in the end he managed it, and found it easier the next day.

Still, I did not know if this was going to stick, and was relieved when his carer rang me a week later to say that he'd read eight pages. She was not going to be able to bring him back because of work commitments, so I drove to him.
Fortunately, the adjustment to Peter's thinking had worked, and we read quite a number of ditties fluently, as well as starting on a new picture book his carer had bought him, which contained a surprising number of irregular words, each one of which I explained in detail, so that Peter would understand how they came to be as they are. So far, so good.

Writing this article, I thought I hadn't spoken to Peter's carer for a few weeks, and rang her up. This is what she said:

Amazing. He's doing really well and he's flying through the books he brings home from school. He's getting eight spellings a week, and getting seven of them right. A penny seems to have dropped, and he's trying to read words he hasn't met before. It's a delight to get  a new reading book now.
The school hadn't replied to my letter setting out the work we'd done during the holidays, and had told his carer that he'd only be heard reading once a week, and that he might get an extra session with a teaching assistant if he was struggling – which of course the school knew already, both from  its own records and the very low test score.

The key to getting this, and other, pennies to drop is not to grind phonics into a child, but to present them in a way that is accurate and that they can understand. English is unlike other languages, notably Finnish, in that information from letters often has to be interpreted, so that, for example, we know how to vary the sound indicated by a in can and can't. An area of the brain, labelled by neuroscientists as "the word form area" is especially active in English for this specific purpose. However, you can't do this if you don't have an idea of what a indicates most often, which is where the ditties in Ruth Miskin's scheme are most helpful, as they are completely regular.

To work in this way, teachers and assistants providing extra teaching need to be trained to think closely about the child in front of them, and to help the child to adjust their thinking so that they use what the letters are telling them, rather than guessing. This is a complete change from Labour's wave system, in which one formulaic approach after another was to be tried in succession, using centrally written materials. It requires genuine professionalism, based on a thorough understanding of English spelling, the way language develops (or does not develop) before children start school, and the developing evidence from brain research on the ways in which neural networks are formed, and the way memory operates.

It is, as they say in cricketing circles, a big ask. But in the end, the only way we will win the reading wars is by demonstrating beyond reasonable, or even unreasonable, doubt , that children are reading happily and well as a result of what we do. A high political price has been paid to get the evidence from this test. We must not waste it.

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