On Saturday 28th March, I was invited to speak at a conference organised by the Reading Reform Foundation (RRF). The purpose of the event was to highlight the vital importance of systematic synthetic phonics (SSP)*. A great variety of speakers with different areas of expertise were asked to talk on the subject and it seemed many fruitful conversations were had by those who attended. I was invited to talk about my decision to use SSP with secondary school students within SEN, which will be available online shortly.
Systematic Synthetic Phonics (or SSP) is a structured, repetitive approach to teaching reading with a total reliance on the smallest units of explicit sounds – in both spoken form (‘phonemes’) and written form (‘graphemes’) – to teach reading. This method usually starts with the most common sounds and moves through to more complicated ones e.g. knowing a ‘dge’ makes the same sound as a ‘j’, and a ‘tch’ makes the same sound as a ‘ch’.
This is in contrast to analytic phonics, where students are often asked to read beyond a difficult word to the end of the sentence, then attempt to guess it using contextual clues. This approach, while helpful in the opinion of some, does not develop the reading skills of a student nor help them learn explicit sounds, since they have simply guessed the word through their understanding of the rest of the passage. This also often has negative impact for those new to English, since their knowledge of vocabulary at entry point to the UK is minimal, so there are flaws in the reliance of a guessing technique.
While I have been aware of the benefits of using a structured approach to reading for a long time, it has made me more sure than ever that this is the most targetted, reliable, efficient and, without wishing to go overboard, moral way to teach reading.
Unfortunately, official governmental guidance does not stipulate that a single methodical approach to teaching reading is key though does advise this. For me, a directive which would acknowledge the necessity of teaching reading through SSP would be a great step towards ensuring that far more students might have the opportunity to learn to read before they leave primary school.
Not to add fuel to the fire in the debate around the phonics screening check at the end of Year 1, but I am a keen and outed supporter. Ensuring that any individual has a good grasp of the fundamental skills of reading and writing can surely only be a good thing.
With my SEN head on, however, there seems to be a flaw in the system. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but my understanding of it is as follows:
The DfE website states that:
… And after that? What happens then?
If, as educators, we acknowledge that children physically grow at different rates, mature emotionally at different times and adopt new knowledge at different speeds, is it okay that we let so many fall off the radar beyond Y2 simply because their learning of our complex alphabetic code has not fit into our man-made termly organisation?
There seems to be a black hole for those students who have not grasped reading by this point and, in my opinion, this could be one key factor contributing to the situation I’m faced with as Literacy Leader of a secondary school, welcoming in substantial numbers of students arriving in Y7 who are still unable to read. Pass at Y2 or branded SEN. Hereth begineth the dreaded ‘gap’.
I have no doubt that schools in the majority do their best to scaffold the learning of students who fail to pass the phonics check at Y2. It is our moral obligation to ensure that our learners are equipped as best as possible for the education journey they walk. However, there are questions we need to be asking here:
- What does the research suggest and how are we applying it to our own classrooms?
- If there are so many students failing to grasp reading across the UK, are we really using the most suitable approach that meets the needs of ALL our students?
- How else can we support students beyond this stage if they haven’t learnt it by the end of Y2?
- Have we done all we can to ensure this student is able to access the curriculum?
Disclaimer: I have been a primary school teacher. I have seen the amazing job that primary school teachers do, day in, day out. This post is by no means an attack on the teachers who deliver phonics to younger students. My intention is simply to verbalise my thoughts on the current situation I observe from a secondary perspective and explore ways we might overcome some of the flaws in the system.
If we are to see illiteracy in the UK reduce by any significant measure, we have a duty to ensure that:
- the most targetted, research-based, fail-proof, methodical approach to teaching reading is employed
- ALL students are supported to a point where they are able to read and write independently as early as possible (and beyond!)
By achieving these two points above, I am almost certain that we would see numbers of those arriving at secondary labelled as ‘SEN’ dramatically decrease, since there would have been no gap (or at least a much smaller learning gap) to close. I’m sure we would begin to witness less students arrive at secondary who are clearly able in many areas of the curriculum, extremely competent in verbal responses, but branded with a ‘Specific Learning Difficulty’ in reading. I do acknowledge that there will always be some level of need in this area, which is likely to extend to education in the older years. I do also recognise, however, that we are clearly doing something wrong at present and, until it is addressed and corrected, we are failing a great number of our students.