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John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Vice-President of the Conservative Education Society.

“If I can’t read well, I can’t do most of my work in junior school, and barely any in secondary. I go to school every day, knowing I’m going to fail. So I go and am miserable all day (or misbehave). Or, as this is a race in which I’ve got no chance at all, I don’t go. What would you do?”

I tweeted just before Christmas and got an immediate response from across the English-speaking world.  The truth of it first hit me when a pupil bunked off my lesson in Holloway School in 1974.  I was reading a book with an English class – from memory, Ginger Over The Wall – and he couldn’t read.  So why should he come?  The Deputy Head, a distinguished-looking man, assured me that many pupils in the first year of secondary school “couldn’t read”.  I’ve told the story many times.  No one in the school was doing anything about it – failure was the fault of social conditions and Margaret Thatcher – and I felt I had to.  I became a teacher of reading – initially, not a very good one, but I found I had an aptitude for the work, and learned quickly.

In the early nineties, before I became a Conservative, I discussed the issue with Labour shadow ministers, pointing out to Jack Straw that reading failure at seven was statistically linked to truancy, which in turn was strongly linked to crime. They were interested – particularly Win Griffiths MP and David Blunkett – but the idea of a national initiative, which I put to them in a private meeting, was taken over by advisers and became their National Literacy Strategy. This replaced phonics as the basis of learning to read, which I had helped insert into the national curriculum, with “Searchlights”, a rebranding of the “guessing game” theories of reading.  It failed, despite sustained efforts to massage the figures – towards the end, a company that would not do as it was told, was sacked – but Labour wasted over 10 years before ditching it.

The phonics revival started in the early ’90s, when St Clare’s School, in Handsworth, Birmingham, won a national award for using phonics to teach reading successfully in a difficult inner city context.  Around the same time, Sue Lloyd, a teacher, identified a strong correlation between using phonics and high reading scores in Suffolk.  The Major government decided to revise the National Curriculum to take account of this, and I was engaged as a consultant.  The collapse of the National Strategy brought about another surge of interest in phonics, backed by a Labour government publication, Letters and Sounds, which presented every possible correspondence between letters, groups of letters and English sounds, and used this as a basis for teaching.

This is “whole phonics”.  It is accurate, but makes learning more difficult than it need be by presenting children with too many alternatives at once, and by failing to explain that some combinations of letters do not reflect the order of their sounds in English (eg centre, circle, in which the last two letters represent the order of the sounds in French).  It also treats large numbers of the most common words in English as “sight”, or “tricky”, words, which requires children to suspend what they had just been taught, in order to read them.  As they do not know in advance whether the new word is tricky or not, the approach is also unreliable.  At worst, they resort to sounding words out one letter at a time, which does not work with the single most frequent word in the language, “the”. All of these issues are likely to result in an assessment of dyslexia.

I tackle the issue by explaining why phonics do not always tell us all we need to know about a word, and how to deal with this. I explain that the language is about a thousand years old, and that if we were a thousand years old, we would have a few wrinkles. I then explain the wrinkles, beginning with the Norman conquest – as a result of which almost a third of English words are shared with French, though pronounced differently. I show how letters usually indicate a sound, but that some give us information about others, and some work in groups. That leaves historical issues to be explained, and patterns used. For example, manger, from the French manger, unlocks danger, stranger, arrange and many more.  There is a slight modification for spelling. I do all of this in plain English.  Pseudo-Greek words – grapheme, morphine, digraph – add a layer of complication that some children can handle and others not.

Since the mid 1990s, I have used this approach consistently to turn serious problems round in one lesson, followed by practice.  The result was first reported by Sue Palmer in the TES in 1996, and has been independently witnessed by teachers, parents and pupils.

Here is the latest comment, from the deputy head teacher and parents of an eleven year old, assessed as “severely dyslexic” and unable to read at all:

I’m the Y6 teacher of J and am amazed at the turnaround we have seen since working with John Bald and using his expertise/method. My LSA has taken on board this concept too and together, reading with him every day, we are seeing more and more progress and more confidence  He has changed the way he thinks. At the start of the year I didn’t think this was possible. I’d encourage anyone to try it and read the article. Thank you, John

and from J’s mother:

Good morning John,

J is really starting to enjoy reading. He’s seems to be coming home wanting to do homework and reading more. We are so pleased with him. We thank you for all your help.

and father:

It’s an emotional tear that I’m wiping away now.

Other former pupils include a first-class honours physicist with a PhD, a young person diagnosed as dyslexic who got A* in English and English literature after a writing block was removed in two lessons (now a medical doctor), a young man with a physical handicap who saved the country  £150m as a fraud buster with customs and an “impossible (SENCO) pupil who arrived in school in full leathers with a crash helmet for a demonstration lesson and left having read a paragraph from a book on motor cycles. Many more have achieved or exceeded the modest grade they were expecting at GCSE.

The introduction of phonics as the vehicle for early reading teaching has prevented many problems, but “whole phonics”, pushed by the DfE in  non-statutory guidance and through its authorised materials, is not enough to give all children the reading skills they need to succeed in junior and secondary school. Six year olds identified as struggling by the phonics check do not need a dyslexia assessment, or “intervention”, but more careful explanation of how English spelling really works, and how they can learn to use it. I am happy to demonstrate on request, pro bono.