John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the teaching of reading and spelling.
Towards the end of my time with Ofsted, I led the inspection of an unusual primary school in London, where nearly all of the pupils spoke English as a second language. All of them – except for some who arrived just before they took the tests – met the nationally expected standard in English, maths and science, and two-thirds of them exceeded it. No fewer than seven of the staff were guest lecturers at the Institute of Education, and our report was used as evidence when the school won the Evening Standard School of the Year award.
We were neither the first nor the last to recognise the excellence of Gateway Primary School, but what was really interesting was how they did it. Careful and intensive initial teaching of reading, using the Jolly Phonics scheme, was followed by systematic use of reading in virtually every lesson in the junior school, using texts designed to extend the children’s vocabulary and understanding beyond the everyday language that they met outside the classroom.
The outcome, in sharp contrast to the “first-hand experience” that I’d seen preached in Essex, was that the pupils developed the linguistic understanding they needed in order to make sense of the rest of their work, and to succeed in secondary school. They were, as Nicky Morgan has put it, “secondary ready”, at a time when most of the pupils we were seeing in other schools were not.
Behind this success lay brilliant planning by a senior member of staff, who understood paths of language development, guided her colleagues with great clarity, and subsequently became the headteacher. How, though, could we extend this excellence so that all children could benefit from it? The guest lectureships were clearly not enough – Gateway’s principles needed to be understood and applied throughout the school system, and there was no easy path.
Doug Lemov, managing director of the US group Uncommon Schools, and author of Teach Like a Champion, has provided such a path in his new book Reading Reconsidered. He began with an unsolved problem. The good discipline and hard work of his organisation’s pupils were not leading to the “march of triumph” they had expected when they went to college, and their inability to handle the demands of advanced, independent reading, was the main cause. Mr Lemov and his colleagues, Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, have tackled it by recognising the importance of all types of sustained reading to the development of pupils’ intellect, and putting into their book a very wide range of source material and techniques that make it the most significant contribution to reading teaching since the Clackmannanshire research on early phonics.
The technique behind Teach Like a Champion was to analyse excellence and present it clearly to teachers in training, with the aim – largely successful – of putting old heads on young shoulders. Reading Reconsidered does the same for reading. Many of its techniques – for example, on ways to prompt pupils when they are hesitant, on developing phrasing in reading, and in selecting texts that go beyond their immediate experience, are ones I’ve found valuable myself, though I had to learn by stumbling into them. This concentrates so much outstanding material in the space of a book, plus an excellent DVD showing the approach in practice, that it should be read by every headteacher and English co-ordinator in the country and incorporated into training for new and practising teachers.
Two pupils I’ve been teaching over the past few weeks bring me back to phonics, and its limitations as well as its strengths. They are aged nine and 14, have parents of mixed Spanish and English nationality, and had been assessed as dyslexic because of severe problems with reading in English with, in one case, an apparent weakness in memory. Spanish is one of the most regular languages in the world, with no surprises in spelling and only one silent letter – h, at the beginning of a word. What you see is what you say, and what you say is what you write. English, as I discovered some years ago by trying to have a pupil sound out a word that could not be sounded out, is different.
We need not only to know and blend the most frequent sounds indicated by letters – synthetic phonics – but to understand and use the variations between words such as should and shoulder, and interactions between letters that change the indicated sound, such as cat and centre. Evidence from brain scans has shown that English speakers develop activity in an identifiable area of the brain – (Blakemore and Firth, The Learning Brain 2005) that is not needed in a regular language.
Fluent readers often adapt to these variations spontaneously. Others, like these two girls, need to have them pointed out and explained, and then to practise. Allowing them to choose their own books, reflecting the interests of children of their age, led them to meet the variations in English as they occur in the normal run of writing.
Explaining these and their origins, usually by switching to a word with a similar pattern to the word that had caused the difficulty, allowed words such as neighbour, and tinier, to be unpacked, explained and learned. The parents were, as usual, delighted. “I’ve never heard my daughter read so fluently,” said one, and the other, having seen me move from shine, to shiny, to tiny, to tinier, described the process as “amazing”. Not a split digraph or phoneme in sight, and no more mention of dyslexia.