What’s all the Fuss About Early Reading?

“The sharp focus on ensuring that younger children and those at the early stages of reading gain phonics knowledge and language comprehension necessary to read, and the skills to communicate, gives them the foundations for future learning.”
Education Inspection Framework 2021

The EEF have just published their final report into the impact of school closures on the attainment of pupils in KS1 and it is no surprise that attainment in reading was significantly lower than pre pandemic for both Year 1 and 2 pupils, the gap on disadvantaged was considerably wider (Impact of School Closures and subsequent support strategies on attainment and socio-emotional wellbeing in Key Stage 1, December 2021) and that despite signs of recovery in maths, the impact on catch-up strategies has had less impact on reading progress.

Incidentally, speaking to school leaders, many have reported that reading as a remote learning offer, suffered the least as they were able to maintain regular reading through COVID safe book exchanges, eBooks and guided reading sessions during live lessons.

All change for SSPs

Even before the pandemic, we knew the strong correlation between reading ability and performance across all subjects at GCSE (Read all about it, 2020 GL Assessment). However, it’s Ofsted’s sharper focus on Early Reading in the current Education Inspection Framework and the return to inspections, coupled with the shock announcement last April that the DfE would no longer be endorsing the original Letters and Sounds and were introducing a new validated list of Systematic and Synthetic Phonics (SSP) programmes that has created seismic changes in schools.

​When I first wrote to Surrey Headteachers about the changes to Letters and Sounds last Easter, some of you responded directly to me with feedback about what this meant for your schools. For many who had been using Letters and Sounds to good effect for many years and with most Surrey schools using Letters and Sounds, I recognised the need to prioritise this as an area of focus and work to support you.

Understanding our Surrey phonics context

Surrey’s average in the Phonics Screening has always been above national (83% in 2019 compared with 82% Nationally) and I think this has always been seen as a security blanket. However disadvantaged pupils in Surrey do significantly worse than those nationally (64% compared with 71% nationally) so the sense of achievement has really been misplaced all this time. I believe this is partly why unofficially but anecdotally Ofsted’s expectation is that 95% pupils will meet age expectation. National average is no longer good enough!

Ambition for all

Having been a teacher, a Reading leader and headteacher I can remember all too well being faced with a cohort where you knew a significant number were unlikely to achieve the benchmark by the end of Year 1. I worked in a school with a high proportion of pupils with speech and language difficulties and high deprivation, with many pupils starting school language poor. However very rarely did we disapply pupils from the phonics benchmark and we worked tirelessly with pupils starting from Nursery, to ensure that by the time they reached year 1 we had fewer pupils at risk of not achieving the phonics benchmark. Our support for the remaining pupils continued mainly in the form of Reading Recovery programme alongside daily phonics and additional interventions before and after school.

This to me exemplifies Ofsted’s ‘ambition for all’ approach to reading and their challenge to all schools to ensure all pupils can read and therefore access the full curriculum as they continue to progress through their education.

At our recent inspection framework training sessions, our facilitator Sahreen Siddiqui who is a headteacher of a school very similar in context to the school I described above, told an anecdote that when she was first appointed as headteacher, she spoke to the Headteacher of the neighbouring secondary school and asked him, what can I do as headteacher for our pupils that move on to your school. His first response was that she should make sure they can all read. As Alex Quigley recognises, without these foundations we know that;

‘this reading gap between primary and secondary school can see many pupils unprepared for the changing demands of academic reading in secondary school and with too little time to catch up.’ (Closing the Reading Gap, Alex Quigley).

Supporting our colleagues

The emphasis on early reading is also ensuring that schools are training their staff more effectively in the necessary pedagogy. Having started with ITT, I know from my own experience that this has been seriously lacking in the past for me. Starting out as an NQT, I learnt phonics as I was teaching my first Year 2 class using Progression in Phonics that accompanied the National Literacy Strategy. As Alex goes on to say, ensuring all teachers are experts in teaching reading is surely a great legacy for these changes.

“Unfortunately, despite reading proving the master skill of school, teachers receive too little high-quality training on teaching reading.” (Closing the Reading Gap, Alex Quigley)

Whilst I empathise with schools feeling the pressure from New Inspection Framework expectations and impending inspections and DfE guidance encouraging changes to their chosen SSP all on top of an ongoing pandemic, I can’t not but agree with the motives behind this. After all, I am sure as leaders and teachers many of us see teaching pupils to read as one of our moral purposes and indeed this is key to many schools’ curriculum intent. Furthermore, in Surrey more so than some other LAs, getting our early reading provision right for all pupils is essential and this is what many of the newly validated SSPs have strived to do.

The view from the child

My nephew who is now in Year 3 started his phonics journey well in Reception with ReadWriteInc approach, but the impact of the first and then later lockdown during his Year 1 and Year 2 school years, really impacted on his consolidation of those foundations and I noticed he would often guess words and seemed better at recalling words by sight in what I was taught as a trainee teacher was the whole-word approach. I encouraged my sister to keep practicing high frequency sight words with him during the second lockdown to help him. However, after reading The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading by Christopher Such, it changed my whole thinking and I would highly recommend this book to any primary teacher, especially if we are to be experts of early reading! His review of the evidence and his critique of different early reading approaches really do make the case for synthetic and systematic phonics.

“However, there can be no doubt; every person who becomes a fluent reader in English has grasped the links between phonemes of spoken English and the graphemes that represent them.” (The Art and Science of Teaching Primary Reading, Christopher Such)

Consequently, I have now urged my sister to push the school to ensure my nephew continues regular phonics intervention in Year 3 as it is the school’s responsibility to help him get back on track. I am thankful that from birth his parents promoted a love for books, and he has not yet been put off reading entirely.

So where do we go from here?

A ‘reading for pleasure pedagogy’ is in our grasp!
Ultimately as well as being confident and fluent readers, we want children to develop a love and passion for reading so it is also key that whilst we teach pupils to read we are also promoting opportunities for pupils to hear the very best literature whilst also a range of genre types, our Primary Book Review Club is helping teachers cultivate a rich diet of texts for their pupils so they develop an ‘intrinsic motivation’ and our next blog will focus on effective reading for pleasure pedagogy rather than what the Reading for Pleasure guru Professor Teresa Cremin refers to being ‘sucked into performing reading for pleasure’ (Reading Communities: why, what and how?, Professor Teresa Cremin).

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