Schools shouldn’t be relying on parents to teach reading.

Most schools rely on parents to teach children to read.
No! I can already anticipate the angry response as teachers explain that they run weekly or bi-weekly group reading sessions and daily discrete phonics sessions…
It will make me horribly unpopular to say it but still I stand by my original claim.

I have spent too many hours on the TES early years and primary forums where teachers discuss their practice to be entirely ignorant. I’ve also read the interminable Mumsnet discussions in which mums compare notes on how much their children read at school. Mums with kids at all sorts of schools join in. There are voices from urban and rural schools. Some of their kids go to schools with mainly middle class intake others underprivileged. Ofsted outstanding and special measures are both frequently discussed. The standard system for reading instruction reflects my own knowledge of schools local to me. In most schools (there are exceptions) all sustained reading practice is done at home.

The middle of the road average model is a Reception or Yr1 child doing two group reading sessions a week and then reading alone with the teacher maybe once a month. In group reading sessions the children take turns to read a few sentences and follow on as others in the group read. Lots of the time is taken discussing the meaning of the text (which is great) but it means a child may only read a handful of sentences a week in this way.

What about the discrete phonics sessions? I am all for teaching reading through synthetic phonics but the vast majority of schools use ‘mixed methods’ which marginalises the use of phonic decoding when reading. This means that phonics sessions are tacked on top of contradictory ‘mixed methods’ instruction that is used when actually reading books. Phonics decoding requires scanning words left to right without guessing before you reach the end of the word. However, when given reading books the child is taught to let their eyes dart about looking for cues from context, picture, word shape or initial letter. This means they don’t tend get sustained practice applying their phonic knowledge to sound out words especially as the most popular reading books are written to encourage guessing rather than being written to allow practice of incrementally more difficult phonics knowledge. Add to this that if schools follow the good practice videos for phonics instruction issued by Ofsted, most phonics sessions will involve delightful games that may be engaging but contain little sustained practice.

I have asked myself what a child can most afford to miss, a handful of sentences and words a week at school or the sustained practice a majority get at home? The answer is clear but uncomfortable. In fact it is line with what the teachers are telling us parents themselves. At my son’s yrR curriculum meeting the teacher showed us a chart of the progress of last year’s class in reading. This was plotted against how frequently their parents had listened to them reading at home in the evening. As she pointed out to us all the conclusion is inescapable. If you want to get your child reading you’ve got to do the reading books at home.

The system is wrong and makes me very cross. I am told in every school newsletter about the delightful, engaging activities my kid is getting up to at school. There is almost a profligacy in the use of time. A numeracy session in which each child gets to throw a dice twice so manages only two calculations in half an hour. An hour of forest school a week. Phonics through parachute games. There is a cost to this indulgence but it is played out behind closed doors. In the family home the experience is a tad less joyful as the parent returns, often dog tired, from a day at work or is wrung out from a day with a fractious toddler. They prepare the meal for the children and then with determination that can only be summoned because they know their child’s future depends on it (they’ve been shown the chart) they coax, bribe and sometimes (to their own shame) threaten the tired child to read. Sure, often it is fun, sometimes delightful but often it is a struggle and that is normal. You are a lucky parent if necessary daily routines always match the child’s inclination.

Before you presume this is a gripe by a lazy mum, I taught my son to read before he even went to school and I would read with him whatever happened at school. I am actually more cross because there is a greater cost to relying on parents to teach reading. There will always be parents that don’t read with their child. It is wrong that schools farm out their core purpose to parents and then wring their hands when children don’t learn to read, blaming their home environment or the child themselves. Learning to read needs lots and lots of practice as my son’s yrR teacher knew full well. It is the job of schools to teach reading. If there is not enough time then teaching approaches and curriculum priorities have to change to make more time. I absolutely don’t blame individual teachers, they are trained in and required to follow standard practices. It is those practices I question. My children aren’t going to suffer. In fact they benefit because of the advantage I can give them and that is wrong – plain wrong. Children should be able to learn to read at school. It is a minimum entitlement and a top priority.

70 thoughts on “Schools shouldn’t be relying on parents to teach reading.

  1. Hi there, One of your statements that stood out to me was the one about schools ‘farming out their core purpose to parents’. Surely you’re not suggesting that a school’s core purpose is to teach kids to read (or write, or ‘do’ math)? I believe that the role of a school is support families and communities to raise children – develop the academic aspects, of course, along with social, behavioural and emotional…. (Then there’s health, sciences, creativity, critical thinking and questioning, inquiry, collaboration, etc, etc, etc.). Research has shown that – despite spending a mere 15% of their year at school – schools account for about 30% of what a child learns. The other 70% comes from parents, families, communities, friends, playing, technology, TV, and so on. I wouldn’t change that for the world! I don’t feel, as a teacher, that my students comes to me as vessels for me to fill up with knowledge or skills. A parent is and always will be, a child’s number 1 teacher! Whilst I’d love to claim the credit for teaching kids to read, it just isn’t true. What I can do to support kids to learn to read is facilitate opportunities for practice, equip them with specific skills and understandings through explicit instruction, and identify gaps in their understandings so that I can help amend those gaps or misconceptions. Given, too, that in a 6 1/2 school day, 1 1/2 hours are taken up with recess/lunch, at least another hour taken up with specialist classes, or assemblies, a disappointingly small amount of time is left to spread between reading, writing, mathematics, inquiry, science, humanities and so on. I do agree that the current models of reading education that you described (ie. an hour or 2 a week, a bit of phonics here and there, coupled with the odd, minimalistic chance to read a sentence or two) is absolutely not on! I do sincerely hope that isn’t the norm and certainly is how we teach reading at my school. Sadly, yes, there are going to be some families that due to whatever reason, are unable or ill-equipped to take on that role of a child’s Number 1 teacher. In those cases, it is certainly up to schools to intervene and help give that child the best possible start to life. Any school that steps back and says “well what can we do, that kid is never going to succeed?” is most definitely neglecting what I believe is their ‘core purpose’ (see above). Schools and parents need to work in partnership. Sometimes that will take various forms and see more emphasis placed on either the school or the families, but at the end of the day, we all need to do what we can for a brighter future. I fully agree with you, “school’s shouldn’t be relying on parents to teach reading”… However, I also firmly believe that parents should take a degree of responsibility for their child’s education (as you mentioned you did when it came to your own child’s reading). Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I really am suggesting it is a school’s core purpose to teach kids to read and I don’t think that is much to ask. The other option is to create massive inequality in society. Schools should ensure all children can read because it is essential for them in life.

      1. Heather I cannot agree with you more. I read your posting and wanted to shout from the rooftops “Yes! She is right! Let’s start a revolution – this has to change!”

        All parents should be expected to be involved in educating their children in all aspects of life. However, what we don’t want, is to send our kids to school for 30 hours a week (let me repeat – 30 a hours a week) only to find we’re still having to teach them their timestables and literacy skills when they get home in evening.

        One of my children has a diagnosis of dyslexia (call it ‘difficulty with reading and spelling’ if you like – as a significant number of other children in her class also do). Schools are hopeless at recognising it and limited in their skills of how to manage it. Mixed methods of teaching only serve to confuse these kids and leave their parents to pick up the pieces at home. Why don’t we offer complete synthetic phonics teaching to all children at school ( I know from my own experience of using it at home, that it really works), and bring back some more formal teaching of timestables drills for example, and then send them home at the end of each day to enjoy their relaxation time at home with family and friends.

        I feel very lucky that I have the resources to help my child at home but many parents do not. This creates huge inequality with many children still leaving primary school having not reached the national average in reading and writing. Having been at school for 30 hours a week for 7 years, that is a national disgrace.

      2. Roughly 50% of children referred to me for reading instruction came from families with disabled siblings,parents with poor reading skills,parents with 2-3 jobs to survive, parents with fractious tired children. And then there are children whose parents have little English.Yes, we do need a revolution.
        Thank you for this superb post, |Heather

    2. Um, the reason we have schools is to pass skills and knowledge on to all children.
      A child who can’t read, or do basic arithmetic, is going to miss all kinds of other knowledge, whatever else the school is doing to “support families and communities”.
      Reading is a core competency, without which that child is stuffed. So yes, it’s absolutely a core purpose of a school to make sure every child coming through their doors leaves able to read, because in failing at that the school perforce fails at every other aim.
      Why is that not obvious?

    3. If what you write is true, then you logically imply that schools cannot make up the gap that some underprivileged children bring to school. The poor will be kept poor. And morally, I wouldn’t work in a school system I believe inevitably kept the status quo as it is. As Heather says, we can do so much better, and this starts with ensuring that children can read.

  2. I have taught for decades. At my first school, a low SES in 70’s Inner London, children were heard reading every day. It was prioritised. Phonics lessons were also held daily. I heard readers while the children were doing their daily maths work card, name, date , picture and writing.If they finished that lot, they played. I had a class of 33. Not an impossible task, just a question of organisation. We did not have non- readers, and did not depend on parents to do the job either.
    In my more recent leafy green, much of the practice is left to parents, and no doubt we would have a similar graph to the one mentioned above!

    1. Thank you very much for your comment. I think when teachers have only seen things one way it is so easy to think getting time to listen to reading is an insurmountable problem. As with so many things it is all about priorities. I’m not saying prioritising reading doesn’t come at a cost – just that it should be prioritised despite regrettable loss in other areas of curriculum.

  3. As a secondary teacher, and head of department, even though I was ‘wrung out’ after a 7am start and a 6pm finish with more work to do in the evening, I made time to read to my son. With the voices. And sound effects. And this then led to sessions on the sofa later when we listened and corrected his reading, helping out with phrasing, punctuation, and stresses.
    As a teacher I come across many parents who, even at secondary school, are utterly clueless: that if they pack their child’s room with technology and games they assume that s/he will magically still read and do homework. Thus on occasion I have to run parenting advice sessions for those people. I find this astounding.
    It’s a question of whether as parents you pour a glass of wine and veg out to X factor or you invest the time in the future of your children. Schools are part of a process of education which starts as soon as a baby draws its first breath and involves all of society starting with parents and relatives and including the wider society.

    1. I am not talking about parents reading to children. I am talking about the job of children reading to an adult. I also make time for both activities and have done with all three of my children. My comment is more that it is indulgent of schools to claim they do learning ‘joyfully’ etc etc when it is on the back of a much less pretty picture across homes around the country in the evenings.
      There is no doubt our commitment gives your children and mine an advantage. School can’t make up all of that but it can and should ensure that enough practice in reading goes on so that all children become literate. That is possible and essential.
      I don’t advocate standing on the moral high ground telling other parents what they ‘should’ do when many won’t or can’t. A school’s job is to ensure all those children learn to read and not punish the children for the failings (if they are failings) of their parents.

  4. Children may be part of single parent families who often have 2-3 jobs to keep financially afloat. Others will be shunted from foster family to foster family, others will be in children’s homes, others will have parents who are not literate, others will have disabled siblings, others will not have the expertise to teach children who do not learn to read without a struggle, and so on.
    If doctors neglected basic medical care for the most needy, they would be struck off for malpractice.
    Thank you, Heather, for writing about this issue with such clarity and thanks, too, Chipperfield. All children – with very, very few exceptions should be reading fluently by 7.

    1. Hi there, Your comment regarding doctors is an interesting one. On one token it is suggested that teachers should be entirely entrusted to, and held accountable for, kids learning to read. But surely you wouldn’t suggest that it is a doctor’s responsibility to keep kids healthy? Shouldn’t that be the parents’ duty, with the doctor giving care – whether it be preventative or reactive – as required. A parent can’t neglect a child, feed them on a diet of McDonalds and let them get no play or exercise, then blame the doctors. Parents, as the primary care-giver, teacher, doctor, councillor, chef, taxi driver, negotiator etc etc etc need to take on the roles as best they can and make all efforts to fulfil their roles (whilst balancing their work and so on, of course!) – not simply palm off those responsibilities to external providers and claim no part. Teachers, as with doctors, are there to provide their support and expertise and help families raise children, but sadly we don’t have a magic wand.

      1. Universal education was to ensure numeracy and literacy. As a parent I do indeed think it is my responsibility to give my child a ‘healthy mind’. But contorting an analogy doesn’t change the fact that you are willing to allow children to fail at reading because their parents aren’t doing enough.

      2. Perhaps the educational context you’re experienced in with private boarding schools, is giving you some skewed perspectives about what we do in public primary schools. We do 100% support families to raise children. Children don’t come to us as empty vessels that we are tasked to fill with knowledge and skills. Parents that take no responsibility for their child’s education make our job harder, but not impossible. Kids benefit most when schools and families work in partnership. It’s obvious. I simply disagree with your view that the function of a school is so that parents can out-source their child’s education. Different views forged by different contexts and experiences. By the way, I’m happy to pass off your offensive comment of “you are willing to allow children to fail at reading because their parents aren’t doing enough” as a moment of heated debate 🙂 You’ve started a great discussion!

      1. Perhaps your dig at the school I teach in (which in no way formed the experiences that made me write this blog) makes us quits…
        Anyway, it is true I made my point bluntly and I don’t condone aggressive unnecessarily nasty comments. However, on this occasion I think I must stand by that comment.

  5. My parents were not brain scientists but they taught me to read and write long before I went to school and so it should be in my view.

    I believe schools should be responsible for improving proficiency in order that as kids grow they are able to access the curriculum.

    A kid born to a parent who doesn’t wish to teach their kids to read and write is at a disadvantage, such is life. Parents are responsible not teachers.

    Using your cost argument, why should people have to bear the cost of teaching kids to read and write at the expense of the education that others deserve?

      1. What struck me was that his words could have been written in the Victorian era, Why waste resources on the undeserving poor, if they can’t be bothered to help themselves?

    1. So what do you say to a parent whose own schooling was so dismally inadequate that they can barely write their name? a parent who was unfortunate enough to grow up in the days of ‘real books’ and who had teachers with the same expectations you do? We once were invited to help in a primary school serving a rough Norwich council estate, and found that after a year and a half of full time schooling, a third of their pupils were unable to read a word. On average, these non-readers knew six letters. One boy, from a traveller family, only knew one. The kids were desperate to learn. Their parents would have loved to help them, but were far too illiterate to be of any use. And then in the staff room teachers would mock these poor parents with the same sort of disparaging remarks we’ve seen above. I’m afraid it is impossible for me to respond to this sort of condescention unemotionally.

  6. “A parent is and always will be, a child’s number 1 teacher!”

    Erm, so what exactly is to be done in the case of all the kids whose parents are illiterate/hate reading, cannot speak or read English, are too strung out to provide good support (due to multiple poorly paid jobs, several small children, long-term sickness/disability, mental health problems etc.) or are just too stupid to give a damn?

    It is schools’ job to make sure that ALL children without significant cognitive disabilities learn to read and write, even if they are not getting much help at home. Otherwise you will never break the cycle of poverty and illiteracy.

    Sorry to sound like a Grinch, but a bit less time playing with parachutes or endless non-educational dressup days and a bit more time working intensively on phonics might bloody help.

  7. You mistake evidence that reading in the home provides significant advantage to children with a ‘system’ that supposedly expects/demands parents read with their children. By pointing out the former, a teacher is providing support based on the current evidence, support any sensible parent would take notice of.

    Never once – not a single time, have I ever had to “coax, bribe and sometimes (to their own shame) threaten the tired child to read”. Instead, it is they that have sometimes had to coax and bribe me to read to them at bedtime. My eldest is at secondary school now and yet still enjoys a story.

    If you can’t be bothered to read to your child you ought to consider yourself a crappy parent. Nobody, except in the most extreme cases, should ever be too exhausted/busy to spend a few moments at their child’s bedside reading to them.

    1. I did clarify in the comments above that the coaxing is to get the child to read TO YOU, not vice versa. I have never had to coax a child to listen to a story either. At no point do I bring the role of parents reading to children into the discussion. The post is quite explicitly about about when and where children get the sustained practice reading books themselves that they need because in England sustained reading practice i.e. the child reading a book to an adult, is done at home.

      1. But the activity of reading is (generally) inevitably interlinked between all parties reading – you read – they want to read too! My children love taking turns to read. It is only your attitude that would make the activity of them reading to you a chore.

        As for the comment above that some people don’t have the resources/time/energy – what twaddle.

      2. Phil, you are very lucky to have had young children that were always enthusiastic to read their reading book every evening. Amusingly, given your comment, both my daughters won the ‘most enthusiastic reader in the year’ award for their year at primary school last summer – we got something right 🙂
        However, I don’t know why you are so keen to make it all about me when you don’t know the first thing about me, rather than addressing the key argument in the post. Any discussion with mums and dads at the school gate makes it abundantly clear that the reality is that in busy family lives, with tired children getting the reading book done is often not easy. Telling people they are terrible for finding it so won’t improve things or make some children miraculously more cooperative. It will just make sincere well meaning parents feel angry with you or more guilty. The fact is most parents you are accusing of not caring DO get the reading book done, by hook or by crook because they care and most share story time with their children and enjoy it.

        However, what worries me most is the need of some commenters to fixate on what they think parents SHOULD be doing and in the meantime they seem to think it is fine that a situation continues in which lots of kids aren’t getting sufficient reading practice. Until we have a quick miraculous solution to the inevitable problem – that some parents don’t do reading practice with their children, we must ensure those children get enough practice at school. I don’t understand how anyone can disagree with that point.

  8. I very much agree with your post, and would like to describe our experiences with reading in the UK, coming from the Netherlands (Note: we love it here, this is only about reading). Our two oldest kids have learned to read in the Netherlands where formal reading only starts from the age of 7. Up until that age children do not get homework, nor *must* read, but phonics etc. are embedded in a curriculum that is very much about play. There are some in-class tasks, and that’s it. Even from 7 children are *not* forced to read at home. The consequence is that in many homes –but of course there is still the ever influential SES factor- reading is not a struggle and my children (liked to) read a lot.
    Now, it is not an experimental design of course but my three other children had to start to read in English two years ago when we moved here. Some things that are totally different:
    • Phonics and spelling from the age of 5, book reading every day;
    • Homework from the age of 5;
    Especially the middle child has gone from someone who liked reading to not wanting to. Especially not every day. I can confirm that it sometimes is a struggle to get our children to read. And that with parents who don’t mind putting some time in. As I understood it that is one of Heather’s points: what if you don’t put in that effort? Is the message really that you then ‘are a bad parent’? Speaking as a parent I actually think forcing an unhealthy ethos upon my children might be quite damaging as well. Now, you might say ‘so children should have it easy?’. No. The irony is that the goal of good literacy can be obtained in more than one way. We take a ‘casual’ approach in doing this: yes, we do it but the world is not lost if a book is not read. In my opinion, Heather’s conclusion that certain children are advantaged is correct.
    As to the role of the school, Heather’s second main point I thought, we have been very surprised by –when in the Netherlands we do start with formal reading- the lack of actual reading in school. I see no reason why this could not be more in school, especially with literacy and numeracy having so much attention.
    My ‘proof’ of the fact that there are more useful ways to organize reading, to me, lies in the way the Netherlands has organized reading: no force in reading at home, quite informal from 4-7, formal reading from 7, no homework. Yet, one wouldn’t say the Netherlands are poor at literacy and reading, I think. How can that be if they adopt a system that would be detrimental according to some (mind you, including the ‘play’, how dare you have play in a solid UK curriculum!). Sure, there are many more factors that could cause this, including that Dutch is really simple and/or other variables. However, in the meantime, while many people are pointing abroad and to Asia to say ‘look at them, they are doing really well’ that having a broader view might be useful, *even* if it does not concur with your prejudices.
    Again, great blog Heather (although I might have a slightly different take ).

  9. “However, what worries me most is the need of some commenters to fixate on what they think parents SHOULD be doing and in the meantime they seem to think it is fine that a situation continues in which lots of kids aren’t getting sufficient reading practice.”

    This is my issue with your argument. Rather than tackle the problem (that parents should have a responsibility for the education of THEIR children), you present an argument that allows them to absolve themselves of their responsibility.

    Busy, difficult, hectic lives. All that time stuck to our smartphones, watching the television, going to the gym… how could we possibly expect parents to actually parent their children? No, lets leave it to the state. Education: that’s a schools responsibility, and when not in school we can pass the responsibility to a childcare provider. Nonsense.

    It’s an argument that becomes an excuse; an excuse that is not acceptable and we all should have a duty to challenge any parent that attempts to weakly argue they do not have time to sit for a short while with their child.

    None of my arguments are directed at you personally as a parent as I do not know you. They are directed at your arguments that I disagree with.

    None of this absolves schools of their responsibility to educate either. However overall we should be in a situation whereby it is the parents that have responsibility for ensuring their children are educated, towards which school is a significant (but not the whole) part. Currently we appear to be approaching children’s education the other way round.

    1. Well said, Phil. Yes, no one in their right mind thinks it’s ok for any child to fall through the cracks. What’s important is that we – parents and schools – all do our best to give all children the best life-chances. We (teachers) are not trying to pass-the-buck by claiming no responsibility. Of course we play a part in a child’s education (of which Reading is one aspect of many), otherwise why send kids to school? However, kids spend just 15% of their year at school. Parents need to realise that they are indeed their child’s first teacher. We understand that there are going to be particular circumstances which prevent a very, very small number of children whom cannot receive a quality at-home education, and in those cases the teachers/schools/systems work tirelessly to give them extra assistance. It must be said, though, that too many parents think the extent of their responsibilities – when it comes to their child’s learning – ends the day they enrol that child in school.

    2. parents should be expected to parent – in an ideal world – and teachers should teach kids to read and practice, that is their job and what they are paid to do. what do you think schools are for? I find your arguments bizarre. why should I bother sending my child to school if the academic component is largely my responsibility. the only excuses i see is one being made by teachers whose kids can’t read or do maths because they haven’t learnt their times tables by heart and who then go on to blame parents. if you can solve all the problems of society so that each child has an equal chance then please do. back in the real world we need all kids to read and this is the sole purpose of schools. it is not a parents responsibility.

  10. I’m intrigued by the comment that children spend only 15% of their time in school. Of the remaining 85%, am I right in thinking they spend 50% of their time asleep?

  11. I hope you’ll take this in good spirits – it’s meant to be a light-hearted response to your post:

    “Mr Perkins: This is preposterous!
    Headmaster: Yes, it is. Or at least, it would be…if it were true.”
    (Rowan Atkinson, Fatal Beatings)

    Just to clarify, when you write, ‘most schools rely on parents to teach children to read,’ it appears that you are actually suggesting that most schools don’t make time for ‘sustained reading practice’ and you suggest that, on the whole, this ‘is done at home’ rather than at school. I don’t think that relying on parents to hear children read is quite the same as relying on parents to teach children to read, is it?

    You then add in discussion about ‘group reading sessions’ and ‘discrete phonics sessions,’ which somewhat confuses your first assertion, but your main point seems to be that most schools don’t make time for teachers to hear children read. And you suggest that, ‘if you want to get your child reading you’ve got to do the reading books at home. The system is wrong and makes me very cross.” This would be entirely reasonable, if it were true of every school in England. I’m fairly sure it is not. Here’s why:

    In the past ten years, I’ve taught in five different primary schools in three different local authorities, and whilst the plural of anecdote isn’t data, my experience suggests that the situation is, to paraphrase, Dylan Wiliam, a little more complicated than you suggest. For example, two schools in which I have taught asked parents to hear their children read at home every day, and to fill in a ‘reading diary’ to record this, which was then marked by the teachers in the school at least once a week. One did not ask parents to hear children read at home at all. One had adult reading partners who attended the school once a week and read with a specific Key Stage 2 child during their lunchtimes (both reading to the child and listening to the child read). One school insisted that we teachers heard children in our class read three times a week, on top of the daily Reading Diary entry by parents.

    The obvious point to be made from this anecdotal information is that each school works differently, depending on its context and the decisions of those who decide the policy of the school. In some schools in which I’ve worked, the policy has been drawn up exclusively by the school, in others the parents were very vocal in their shaping of policy. There simply is no one-size-fits-all model, as far as I am aware.

    As an aside, and because I am more than happy to lay the blame for many the failings of the English schools system at their door, I’d suggest that Ofsted have a significant role to play in shaping policy and practice in school. I’m willing to bet that no Ofsted inspector in the past ten years has seen a primary school class teacher hear a child read during an inspection. What would the other 29 children in the class be doing during this time? How would progress have been guaranteed every twenty minutes whilst a child received such one-to-one teaching? And even with the new Inspection Handbook, it would still be a brave teacher who did this with an Inspector in school. This, added to the bloated curriculum of recent years, has meant as far as I can see that schools, in general, have not prioritised listen to children read – unless they have, and some clearly have prioritised listening to children reading, as I’ve shown above – in their desire to standardise their Ofsted-focused ‘improvement’. But I digress.

    So, yes. ‘Children should be able to learn to read at school. It is a minimum entitlement and a top priority.’ Agreed. But surely that means that there should be no one-size-fits-all prescription, and schools should tailor what they do to support children as they learn to read, depending on the context in which they find themselves? And if parents think the balance is wrong, they should speak to the school and lobby for change. If we all want children to learn to read, we all have to take responsibility for ensuring that happens in the schools in which we have a stake, and not blame ‘the system’, surely?

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment at length. It is much appreciated. First I do pretty much agree with all of your final paragraph. I also agree that there is enormous variaton between schools in how they approach reading practice and I should make clear that my focus is on YR R and year 1 in this blog. I am pretty confident to stand by my original assertion that despite great variety a good majority of schools leave significant sustained eading practice to be done at home.
      Finally your point about teaching versus practising reading. It was an entirely conscious decision to conflate the two. I tried to explain why in my post when I talked about which I thought was more necessary for progress, the school provision or home practice. I do believe that given that only a little reading happens at school it really is the parents that provide the most significant teaching to children as they help them read their reading books each evening.

  12. An hour of forest school? If it’s only an hour it may be all sorts of things but it certainly isn’t forest school. Anyone who tries to tell you that you can ‘do’ forest school in an hour clearly has no idea about forest school at all. The learning that goes on at forest school is in my view much more powerful than the learning that goes on in many other settings, so I don’t think it should be cast aside so casually as a waste of time- though of course an hour is not ‘it’ anyway.

    1. I do question the idea of ‘powerful’ learning as opposed to ordinary bog standard learning. How do they differ? It is a very big claim that what children might do in the woods is so ‘powerful’ that hours a week should be devoted to it. What school activities are less important that can be sacrificed for hours of forest school?

  13. I have been looking for a way to help my children have a head start reading, I am dyslexic so know first hand how bad schools can be teaching reading and spelling. this article really struck a cord with me.
    During my searching I found this video and was amazed by the children reading really worth seeing

    1. @lambshank67 nice bit of spam! Are you suggesting kids are taught to become dyslexic?! Interesting in the film you linked to that the kids have obviously memorised the word “the”.. oh but that doesn’t work apparently..

      1. Your point about dyslexia is interesting. Given that there is no agreed meaning for the term beyond ‘struggles with reading’. Try googling for advice to help with ordinary (non dyslexic) problems with reading to see what I mean. Because dyslexia is a catch-all term, if any school fails to teach children effectively they are creating ‘dyslexia’ as that is the term that will be used to describe the difficulty of practically all children struggling to read.
        Also interestingly, I remember seeing some research on ed psych reports and it was found that poor instruction was never used as an explanation for difficulties. These were always ascribed to the child.

      2. The SEN industry is largely composed of well-meaning, and even earnest, teachers who’ve been brainwashed into looking for problems within the child to explain reading failure. And of course, factors within the child can indeed make it much more difficult to master the English spelling code–but these are not factors which cannot be overcome with a good synthetic phonics approach and a bit of determination.

        In 1998, Minette Marin visited Kobi Nazrul Primary School, where all pupils legitimately achieved at least 2b in Reading at 7+. They achieved this despite having 60% FSM and over 80% EAL. And only 3% of their pupils were on the SEN register. In her Daily Telegraph article, Minette commented “Something stands out a mile here: a negligible rate of SEN registration seems to go hand in hand with a very high rate of reading success”.

        Unfortunately, the SEN industry has a logic of its own, and such evidence is simply ignored. People who believe in “the gift of dyslexia” become furious if you take away their excuse. And the final irony is that Kobi Nazrul achieved their success with slow learners by using the same synthetic phonics teaching that they used with all pupils: they just got a lot more of it, and they got it when it counts–before the child has experienced failure.

        So my heart goes out to all the SEN specialists who’ve been taught that you have to diagnose the child’s disability before you can start teaching them effectively. From the standpoint of learning to read, a diagnosis is largely irrelevant, and it only serves to convince all parties (including the hapless child) that learning to read is a major challenge that requires specialist intervention. Senco’s training can also serve to convince them that some children “can’t learn phonics”, or that they need a whole word approach because they are “visual learners”.

  14. “Because dyslexia is a catch-all term”:

    That it is used as such (in part by those that self-‘diagnose’ and by those that misdiagnose) does not make it a “catch-all term”. It makes it a term that is misused by some.

    I don’t believe teaching can in any way be attributed to any form of dyslexia. There is far too much evidence of people learning to read perfectly well in the absence of “good instruction” for this to be true.

  15. I’m not sure what you mean by teaching being attributed to dyslexia, but there are plenty of schools that teach all children to read. It is highly unlikely that these schools are just so fantastically lucky as to have avoided any pupils with dyslexia, ASD, ADHD, ADD, EBD, bad parents, emotional abuse, Tourette’s, etc, etc.

    Of course pupils vary greatly in their ability to learn an alphabetic script, and most will eventually learn how to read no matter how inept the instruction. However, one of the most striking findings of research on synthetic phonics is that all children learn to read far more quickly in a good synthetic phonics classroom. By “good”, I mean one where children are not taught to use various cueing systems to identify unfamiliar words. And as Stanovich has stressed, all cognitive development tracks success in learning to read. This is especially crucial when you are teaching children whose own parents are poorly educated, and hence have almost no chance of making good any deficiencies in their teaching.

  16. Tom – my comment was in response to the comment above yours which suggested that because the term dyslexia has become a throw away comment used for those that don’t/won’t read, schools are apparently “causing dyslexia” (which is nonsense).

    It matters little which approach is used to teach a child to read other than that it needs to be a method that works for them. Any good teacher applies such an approach to all their teaching regardless of current fashions/brands/bandwagons.

    1. I take it as read that you have limited familiarity with the research on reading pedagogy. It does indeed matter which method you use. It is absurd to assume that any skill can be learnt more effectively when it’s taught haphazardly, just because some people manage to pick it up without much formal instruction. The evidence from the cognitive sciences overwhelming indicates that all good readers have good decoding skills, and that these skills are learnt most efficiently when they are explicitly taught.

      By contrast, there is virtually no evidence worthy of the name to support the contention that different methods work better for different children. This canard is still being put about in some Primary English ITT courses, but as far back as 1990 Marilyn Adams summed it up thus:

      “…it was reasoned, not all children are alike. Some are global perceivers by nature, some are analytic; some are auditorily attuned, and some are visual…wouldn’t it be wise to tailor instructional processes and materials to children’s perceptual styles or dominant modalities?

      “So appealing is this argument that it has been broadly advocated and adopted. In a study of special education teachers in Illinois, Arter and Jenkins found that 95 percent were familiar with the argument. Of those familiar with it, 99 percent believed that modality considerations should be a primary consideration in devising instruction for children with learning difficulties.

      “Arter and Jenkins also found that 95 percent of their special education teachers believed that the modality argument was supported by research. Unhappily, it is not. Although many empirical studies have been conducted on the issue, the hypothetical interaction between program effectiveness and preferred modalities is not supported by the data.”

    2. You can’t misuse a term that has no agreed definition. My point is simply that poor teaching will mean some children are more likely to have reading difficulties. This is surely not a contestable point?

      1. That poor teaching equals poor learning is a non argument. Your point seems to be an attempt to make a case to suit your view that dyslexia can be a term attributed to anybody struggling to read. This is not a definition of dyslexia, merely your own viewpoint.

  17. I take it as read you spend more time reading and regurgitating pedagogical waffle than teaching.

    Do all good readers have good decoding skills prior to learning to read… or after?

    If there is no evidence that different methods work better for different children, does this mean the highest achieving children across the world have each been taught with the same approaches? If so please share, I’m sure we’d all appreciate…

    My simple point was that all good teachers use the methods that best suit themselves and those they teach. This varies by far more things than could ever be accommodated by scientific analysis – environment, culture, resources, relationships, moods, circumstances…

    1. Kebab–For the last 25 years I have been teaching children who have been failed by teachers who, like the 95% in the Arter and Jenkins study, believed as you do. Fortunately, the percentage in the UK is falling fast, according to feedback I get from colleagues who are still teaching in maintained schools.

      The comprehenisve where I taught had an intake which was above average in ability on non-verbal reasoning tests, about average on FSM, and no EAL. Yet it was near the bottom of Norfolk’s league tables in GCSE results. They hired me because I was already privately teaching a fair percentage of their SEN pupils to read and spell, and they thought I might as well teach the rest.

      The teachers at our feeder schools were, like you, dismissive of all evidence from the cognitive sciences. Fortunately, several HoDs (and the Senco) at Costessey High realised that they were wasting their time arguing with these ideologues (one of whom had disastrously failed my own son).

      Of course we had our share of high achievers, This doesn’t mean that they wouldn’t have been ever higher achievers if they’d learned to read even earlier than they did. And we had one high achiever who was almost illiterate when he entered our school–he came from a rough council estate, and we were the first to realise his potential and to unlock it with an intensive phonics regime.

      You ought to read a letter I received from Jim Rose on 13 March, 1990. He stated that “I am firm in urging an eclectic methodology”. Yet 15 years later, after he had a very close look not only at the most successful primary schools in the UK but also the research published in the cognitive sciences during this time, he changed his mind. When I met him in 2005, his only concern was how it might be possible to disseminate his findings to a wider audience. He understood that the eclectic concept appealed to infant teachers who believed that their intimate association with children and their ‘professional’ training were essential to successful outcomes; after all, this was the position taken by Lord Bullock’s commission in 1975. And he understood that I was giving TAs very brief INSET along with structured synthetic phonics programmes which I wrote myself, and they were succeeding were the professionals had failed, frequently with disastrous consequences for the hapless child.

  18. I don’t dismiss cognitive science, in fact I find it fascinating and understand enough of it to understand that those who understand it best are most open about how little is as yet understood of it.

    I am more dismissive of those claiming to have discovered “teaching solutions”, usually on the back of what they hope to sell.

    Of course there’s benefit to exploring ideas from which we can all take what will best work for us given our own skills along with all those things formerly mentioned – environment, culture, circumstances and those very complex beings – children.

    But ultimately we are people, not robots. There is no magic formula – it would be depressing if there were.

    1. There may not be a magic formula, and there is still a huge range of opinion amongst advocates of synthetic phonics as to the best ways to teach children gpcs. But know them they must, and the evidence leaves no doubt but they they are most efficiently acquired by all children when they are explicitly taught. I am on record as saying that the most effective means of teaching children to read may look nothing like the synthetic phonics programmes which are now producing the best results. However, I think it unlikely in the extreme that more effective methods will eschew direct teaching of gpcs. Nor is it at all likely that there will be a comeback of ‘meaning-emphasis’ teaching or the dreaded ‘searchlights’. I’ve encountered too many victims of this kind of thinking to imagine that this could happen.

      Your emphasis on the variables within the child is irrelevant. The only significant variable is genetic endowment. The notion that all children learn differently is not supported by the evidence–you’ve offered nothing to refute what Adams wrote 25 years ago (which has subsequently been bolstered by further studies). You’ve offered no explanation of how Kobi Nazrul could succeed in teaching all children–children from one of the lowest-performing ethnic groups in Britain–to read, outstripping schools in white suburbs, despite offering an unvarying diet of synthetic phonics.

      Your comment that “I am more dismissive of those claiming to have discovered “teaching solutions”, usually on the back of what they hope to sell.” is deeply offensive not only to myself, but also to Sue Lloyd, the principal author of Jolly Phonics. We both endured decades of abuse from people like you while we were developing our synthetic phonics programmes. In my case, I didn’t even have a salary to support myself during the time I was writing my materials (and I never abuse blogs by naming them or posting a link), and I have no index linked pension. I hate to say this, but “check your privilege”.

  19. This: “Your emphasis on the variables within the child is irrelevant”…
    is the most ludicrous statement I’ve read in a while.

    I have not suggested children learn differently – instead I stated the undeniable fact that children’s circumstances of learning (and teachers circumstances of teaching) are very different – and this is a very critical factor of what can be most effective.

    Rest assured that you did not “endure decades of abuse” from me. I’m interested in all tools, just don’t suggest yours is the only one anybody needs.

  20. I had an interesting conversation with someone awhile ago, she left school at 16, she gained a few GCSEs – didn’t get a C in English or Maths. She’s all grown up now and has a job that provides for her and her children.
    She asked me how on earth she was meant to help her daughter read at home. She likes reading herself – but doesn’t read anything tricky (her words) – she cannot read out loud. When she comes across a word she doesn’t know, she just skips it because it doesn’t matter in her world.
    Now each night – she and her daughter sit down and struggle with reading together.
    Her lack of confidence has multiplied and now she feels like she is a poor parent.
    Her comment was – I love being a parent, I am great at it, until they expected me to teach Gemma to read.

  21. My child has started reception this year. Couldn’t agree more with this post, she has learnt sound to letters through school, I give them that, but if I had not spent hours per week teaching her reading, she would not be able to read. I did not expect when she started school I would have to do over 40-60 mins a day of homework to make sure she can read. She is 5 and spent a whole day at school, we should be able to enjoy family time, park and sports after school!

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