Why can’t our students read fluently?

Lots of children learn to read well despite very poor or minimal teaching. I think I was probably one of those children. I don’t think my mum ever listened to me read but somehow I now read fluently. I remember seeing my big sister chuckling over an Enid Blyton Image result for child reading blytonand feeling jealous because I couldn’t read and then I remember being able to read Blyton myself. I think I must have read constantly from about the age of six to twelve only surfacing for school lessons. With my sister I spent every Saturday in the children’s section of the local library. I had a long walk home from school and I would hitch my bag straps over my forehead to allow me to read my latest volume as I dawdled along the pavement.
At first sight my experience does seem to suggest that motivation provides the key to growing a strong reader and that is certainly the assumption of our schools. I disagree.

There are, in fact, many factors that make it more likely that children will read well, the area is very well researched, but perhaps the most crucial factor tends to be overlooked – bulk practice. Surely, you may say, we all know children need to read lots. Schools bend over backwards to encourage children to read lots. I’m not so sure we really DO appreciate the importance of bulk practice for reading fluency OR that we do the right things to ensure that this practice happens.
At the heart of the problem is the faulty supposition that the only lever teachers have is exhortation. The assumption seems to be that we must persuade our children that reading is fun and if they won’t listen we just throw our hands up and bewail the situation or embark on ever more elaborate campaigns to entice reluctant readers to open a book. Motivation is important. We do want to ensure our children have good role models, attractive environments and great reading options. Schools are right to ensure these elements are in place. I think though that we forget that it is not motivation that grows a reader – it is reading that grows a reader – bulk reading. The world renowned reading researcher Keith Stanovich calls this the ‘Matthew Effect’.
It is true that I was motivated to read but that is hardly surprising when you consider that my unusual childhood involved no computer screens, no television, no after school activities; nothing to provide higher gratification than I could gain, aged six, from puzzling out the letters that let me into the world of St Clare’s and the hilarious tricks the girls played on their French mistress. I had nothing ‘better’ to do and so I read in bulk. Can we simply cross our fingers that children today, faced with a plethora of instant forms of gratification, will be persuaded to persist with a book?

Image result for child on a screen

One way or another children need to read enough words in a day, a week, a month, a year, to attain fluency. As Quirky Teacher pointed out in a recent blog, at primary level the typical group reading sessions involve very little sustained reading (see here also). At secondary levels teachers try and cut the amount of reading in lessons, using other mediums to make the subject learning more accessible. Thus in the average school day a child does not encounter anything like the number of words they need to read to become fluent readers. To be blunt, currently the education provided through school alone is not adequate to create fluent readers.
The fascinating work of the late Jeanne Chall suggests this drive for accessibility has been very counterproductive. She found that in America schools had been gradually reducing the reading age of subject textbooks to make learning more accessible which correlated with a decline in reading ages. Chall suggested that, as children were less challenged, the reading ages of children gradually dropped, creating a negative spiral in which textbook publishers continued to lower the challenge of text to keep up with the falling reading age of the students.
Children need to read lots because the vast majority of the vocabulary children encounter in text is not used in everyday speech. Written communication follows different conventions to the spoken word. However, even those children who do enjoy some David Walliams aren’t therefore being exposed to more academic forms of writing which build the stamina for engaging with more abstract texts that children will need if they are to succeed academically (as I explain here.) For this they need to engage with the more academic forms of writing they should repeatedly encounter at school.

Whatever children may choose to read should be a bonus. Something as crucial as reading fluency should not be dependent on whether we can cajole children to read for pleasure.  In their schooling they should encounter enough text, fiction and subject based, at the right level of challenge, to ensure they progress towards becoming fluent readers. This may be partly through initiatives like ‘Drop Everything And Read’ although for weaker readers this won’t help –they need more time reading with an adult. Not much of this bulk reading should be in maths or PE lessons BUT sustained reading should be a normal part of most lessons – including science, geography, business and RE etc. At one school (which many on the blogosphere may have heard of it) children read ten thousand words a day. I’ll repeat that with emphasis TEN THOUSAND WORDS A DAY! I think we can rest assured that Michaela school is growing fluent readers! I’d suggest that in most schools children don’t come anywhere near this total. When children present as struggling readers it would be interesting to investigate just how much bulk practice they have had in the past. I’d bet quite a lot that it was not very much!

For a very clear and more detailed outline of the problems of primary see this.

Research and primary education

I took part in a panel discussion at the national ResearchEd conference yesterday. The subject of the discussion was primary education and I thought I would post the thoughts I shared:

At all levels of schooling classroom research is undoubtedly useful but the process of generalising from this research is fraught with difficulty. As E D Hirsch explains, each classroom context is different.

I think ideally we would like to base educational decisions on

  • Converging evidence from many years of research in numerous fields
  • That integrates both classroom research and lab based work so…
  • We can construct theoretical accounts of underlying causal processes.

These theoretical insights allow us to interpret sometimes contradictory classroom research. We actually have this ideal in the case of research into early reading and the superiority of systematic synthetic phonics. Despite this evidence the vast majority of primary schools ignore or are unaware of the research and continue to teach the ‘multi-cueing’ approach to reading.

While research on phonics is ignored some lamentably poor research has been enduringly influential in early primary education and treated with a breath taking lack of criticality. In the 1950s a comparison study of 32 children found that children taught at nursery using teacher centred methods showed evidence of delinquent behaviour in later life. However, this was a tiny sample and there was a tiny effect. No account was taken for the fact the teacher led research group had many more boys than the comparison child centred group – among other fatal flaws. Despite this that piece of research is STILL continually and uncritically cited. For example, the OECD used this study to support character education.  It is also central to the National Audit Office definition of ‘high quality early years provision as ‘developmentally appropriate’.

That flawed research features in the literature review for the EPPSE longitudinal study that has become one of the highest impact educational research programmes in Europe and whose findings underpin billions of pounds of government spending. EPPSE claims to have demonstrated that high quality pre-school provision is child centred and to have shown that such provision has an incredible impact on outcomes at aged 16. However, merely scratch the surface and you find there were obvious flaws with EPPSE. The scales used by classroom observers to discover the nature of quality provision lacked validity and actually predefined what constituted high quality provision as child centred. The researchers admitted problems with the control group meant causal connections couldn’t be drawn from the findings but then ignored this problem, despite the control group issue undermining their key conclusions.

It seems the key principles influencing early years education are too frequently drawn from obviously flawed research. These principles are also the product of misuse of the research we have. For example, it is statutory to devise activities to build resilience in early years education. However, Angela Duckworth, an international authority, admits that although it is a desirable trait we don’t really know for sure how to create it.

What explains the astonishing situation where theoretical research from cognitive psychology is ignored, obviously flawed huge government funded research projects become influential and new pedagogical approaches, based on faulty understanding of the evidence, are made statutory?

A glance along the bookshelves at any primary teacher training institution gives us a clue. There is a rigid child centred and developmentalist  orthodoxy among primary educationalists. This explains the lack of rigorous scrutiny of supportive research. In fact, except on social media, sceptical voices are barely heard.

Reading failure? What reading failure?

“Yes, A level history is all about READING!”

I say it brightly as I dole out extracts from a towering pile of photocopying taken from different texts that will help the class get going with their coursework. I try and ooze reassurance. I cheerily talk about the sense of achievement my students will feel when they have worked their way through these carefully selected texts, chosen to transfer the maximum knowledge in the minimum reading time. I explain this sort of reading is what university study will be all about, while dropping in comforting anecdotes to illustrate it is much more manageable than they think. I make this effort because I NEED them to read lots. The quality of their historical thinking and thus their coursework is utterly dependent upon it.

Who am I kidding? This wad of material is the north face of the Eiger to most of my students. Some have just never read much and haven’t built up the stamina. The vocabulary in those texts (chosen by their teacher for their readability) is challenging and the process will be effortful. For a significant minority in EVERY class the challenge is greater. They don’t read well. Unfamiliar words can’t be guessed and their ability to decode is weak. To read even one of my short texts will take an inordinate time. Such students are bright enough, most students in my class will get an A after all, with some Bs and the odd C. They all read well enough to get through GCSE with good results and not one of them would have been counted in government measures for weak literacy. According to the statistics the biggest problem I face day in, day out as I teach A level history simply doesn’t exist. Believe me it exists and there is a real human cost to this hidden reading failure.

Take Hannah. She loves history, watches documentaries and beams with pleasure as we discuss Elizabeth I. She even reads historical novels. However, she really struggles to read at any pace and unfamiliar words are a brick wall. She briefly considered studying history at university but the reading demands make it impracticable. Her favourite subject can never be her degree choice because her reading is just not good enough. She is not unusual, her story is everywhere.

At this point I am going to hand over my explanation to Kerry Hempenstall, senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT. I include just a few edited highlights from his survey of the VAST research literature on older students’ literacy problems that you can consider for yourself by following the link. He says:

These struggling adolescents readers generally belong to one of two categories, those provided with little or poor early reading instruction or those possibly provided with good early reading instruction, yet for unknown reasons were unable to acquire reading skills (Roberts, Torgesen, Boardman, & Sammacca, 2008)…

Hempenstall outlines the problems with the ways reading is currently taught:

…Under the meaning centred approach to reading development, there is no systematic attention to ensuring children develop the alphabetic principle. Decoding is viewed as only one of several means of ascertaining the identity of a word – and it is denigrated as being the least effective identification method (behind contextual cues). In the early school years, books usually employ highly predictable language and usually offer pictures to aid word identification. This combination can provide an appearance of early literacy progress. The hope in this approach is that this form of multi-cue reading will beget skilled reading.

However, the problem of decoding unfamiliar words is merely postponed by such attractive crutches. It is anticipated in the meaning centred approach that a self-directed attention to word similarities will provide a generative strategy for these students. However, such expectations are all too frequently dashed – for many at-risk children progress comes to an abrupt halt around Year 3 or 4 when an overwhelming number of unfamiliar (in written form) words are rapidly introduced…

  1. a) New content-area vocabulary words do not pre-exist in their listening vocabularies. They can guess ‘wagon’. But they can’t guess’ circumnavigation’ or ‘chlorophyll’ based on context (semantics, syntax, or schema); these words are not in their listening vocabularies.
  2. b) When all of the words readers never learned to decode in grades one to four are added to all the textbook vocabulary words that don’t pre-exist in readers’ listening vocabularies, the percentage of unknown words teeters over the brink; the text now contains so many unknown words that there’s no way to get the sense of the sentence.
  3. c) Text becomes more syntactically embedded, and comprehension disintegrates. Simple English sentences can be stuffed full of prepositional phrases, dependent clauses, and compoundings. Eventually, there’s so much language woven into a sentence that readers lose meaning. When syntactically embedded sentences crop up in science and social studies texts, many can’t comprehend.” (Greene, J.F. 1998)

…In a study of 3000 Australian students, 30% of 9 year olds still hadn’t mastered letter sounds, arguably the most basic phonic skill. A similar proportion of children entering high school continue to display confusion between names and sounds. Over 72% of children entering high school were unable to read phonetically regular 3 and 4 syllabic words. Contrast with official figures: In 2001 the Australian public was assured that ‘only’ about 19% of grade 3 (age 9) children failed to meet the national standards. (Harrison, B. 2002) [Follow the link if you want to read all the research listed.]

Hempenstall outlines the research showing that the effects of weak reading become magnified with time:

“Stanovich (1986) uses the label Matthew Effects (after the Gospel according to St. Matthew) to describe how, in reading, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Children with a good understanding of how words are composed of sounds (phonemic awareness) are well placed to make sense of our alphabetic system. Their rapid development of spelling-to-sound correspondences allows the development of independent reading, high levels of practice, and the subsequent fluency which is critical for comprehension and enjoyment of reading. There is evidence (Stanovich, 1988) that vocabulary development from about Year 3 is largely a function of volume of reading. Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that, in school, struggling readers may read around 100,000 words per year while for keen mid-primary students the figure may be closer to 10,000,000, that is, a 100 fold difference. For out of school reading, Fielding, Wilson and Anderson (1986) suggested a similar ratio in indicating that children at the 10th percentile of reading ability in their Year 5 sample read about 50,000 words per year out of school, while those at the 90th percentile read about 4,500,000 words per year”…

Hempenstall explains just why it is crucial to spot problems with phonics in year 1:

The probability that a child who was initially a poor reader in first grade would be classified as a poor reader in the fourth grade was a depressingly high +0.88.Juel, C. (1988

If children have not grasped the basics of reading and writing, listening and speaking by Year Three, they will probably be disadvantaged for the rest of their lives. Australian Government House of Representatives Enquiry. (1993).The Literacy Challenge. Canberra: Australian Printing Office.

“Unless these children receive the appropriate instruction, over 70 percent of the children entering first grade who are at risk for reading failure will continue to have reading problems into adulthood”. Lyon, G.R. (2001).

[The research literature for this finding is enormous – do follow link if interested]

A study by Schiffman provides support for monitoring programs for reading disabilities in the first and second grades. In a large scale study of reading disabilities (n = 10,000),

82% of those diagnosed in Grades 1 or 2 were brought up to grade level.

46%     in Grade 3 were brought up to grade level.

42%     in Grade 4 were brought up to grade level.

10-15% in Grades 5-7 were brought up to grade level.

Berninger, V.W, Thalberg, S.P., DeBruyn, I., & Smith, R. (1987). Preventing reading disabilities by assessing and remediating phonemic skills. School Psychology Review, 16, 554-565.

Hempenstall lists research on what it is that causes such problems for struggling readers:

“The vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level reading difficulties (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002). This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179). [Do follow link for more]

To debate just how many children are functionally illiterate and condemn Nicky Morgan for apparent exaggeration entirely misses the point. Reading failure is endemic. I would estimate that about a third of my A level students have noticeable issues with word level reading that significantly impact upon their progress in history at A level. Reading failure is one of the biggest obstacles I have face in my teaching and I have every reason to comment on the issue. I don’t even deal with all those students who chose not to even attempt A level history because they knew it meant lots of reading.  At secondary school we should be giving students more complex texts to build their vocabularies and reading stamina. However, the research is pretty clear about when difficulties need to be identified if children are to overcome them – way back in year 1. The research is also pretty clear about what it is that struggling readers lack – a grasp of the alphabetic principle that they are able to apply fluently when reading. Given this, the opposition to the year 1 phonics check is hard to justify. We know so much now about effective reading instruction but it can only be used to help children if teachers are willing to adjust their practices. While around 90% of primary schools continue to focus on ‘mixed methods’ (guessing from cues rather than sounding out) that limit children’s chances of acquiring the alphabetic principle essential for successful reading, nothing will change.

The Hydra Part 2

The Hydra Part 2

or ‘Weikart and Scweinhart’s [Perry] High/Scope Preschool Curriculum comparison Study Through Age 23’ and Lifetime Effects: The HighScope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40 (2005) For details of these studies see Part 1

This post begins with the story of two preschool approaches and their fates. One approach was ‘teacher led’ Direct Instruction and the other ‘child led’ High/Scope Perry preschool, already discussed at length in my previous post. As the NIFDI website explains:

There was an enormous educational experiment beginning in 1968 comparing these two approaches called Project Follow Through. It was the most extensive educational experiment ever conducted. Beginning in 1968 under the sponsorship of the American federal government, it was charged with determining the best way of teaching at-risk children from kindergarten through grade 3. Over 200,000 children in 178 communities were included in the study, and 22 different models of instruction were compared.


Evaluation of the project occurred in 1977, nine years after the project began. The results were strong and clear. Students who received Direct Instruction had significantly higher academic achievement than students in any of the other programs. They also had higher self esteem and self-confidence. No other program had results that approached the positive impact of Direct Instruction. Subsequent research found that the DI students continued to outperform their peers and were more likely to finish high school and pursue higher education. The Perry High/Scope approach is on the graph above. It is the ‘Cognitive Curriculum’ approach (second from the end). You can see it wasn’t quite as successful…

So which preschool method was the winner? The answer might seem obvious from the table above but you would be mistaken. The approach that now dominates is the High/Scope Perry preschool approach – and this is to some extent on the basis of two very small and problematic studies.

In my last blog I outlined the problems with these two small studies from 40-50 years ago by Schweinhart and Weikart that examined the impact of their Perry High/Scope preschool methods on the participants into adulthood. I began to explain the staggering influence over education policy these two studies have had. To find out the details of these two studies click back to my last blog but to give you the gist here is Kozloff’s summary some of the problems with the way these studies have been interpreted:

 What is “…just plain bizarre, is that [Schweinhart and Weikart] barely entertain the possibility that: (1) a dozen years of school experience; (2) area of residence; (3) family background; (4) the influence of gangs; and (5) differential economic opportunity, had anything to do with adolescent development and adult behavior.

In this post I will look at the impact of these studies on early years education.

First: These studies have been crucial in building a case for the importance of preschool education in the early years of childhood.

The National Audit Office commissioned a summary of the evidence on the impact of early years’ provision on young children with emphasis given to children from disadvantaged backgrounds in 2004. Such a paper offers a good review of the key research literature that has been influencing public policy.

The evidence of the biggest ever educational experiment “Project Follow Through” does not feature but both tiny Perry preschool studies feature heavily in the report. The second study of 123 subjects is one of six randomised controlled trials cited to provide evidence of the effectiveness of preschool programmes for disadvantaged children. These trials were all small scale and to an extent have contradictory findings. Some found reductions in antisocial behaviour but not academic gains and others had the opposite findings. None of the trials seemed to offer better evidence than the problematic second Perry study of 123 subjects.

The report then goes onto look at the evidence of preschool having an impact on the general population, rather than studies that only focus on those children that are highly disadvantaged. Perhaps it would be reasonable to argue that the majority of this research had positive findings, either for social development, academic development or both. However, there were still many contradictory findings and what seemed to be quite low effect sizes. Often, the preschool methods examined provide limited academic advantage but show positive social effects later in life. Having looked at the literature, I do begin to wonder if the commenter on this American website has a point:

“As the authors note, it is indeed quite a puzzle how pre-school education could possibly not show positive effects during schooling, yet have dramatically positive effects in adulthood. But if you look at the studies that find no effect during early schooling, you’ll find them very dense with objective facts such as testing results, etc. But if you look at those handful of studies purporting to show dramatic adulthood outcomes, you don’t find a lot of such data. In fact these latter studies aren’t scientific – they’re advocacy. They didn’t come up with rigorously selected criteria prior to pre-school to evaluate the outcomes, but instead retrospectively identified metrics to compare the control groups, leaving much room for post-hoc cherry-picking. The most parsimonious explanation of the paradox is that the adulthood-effects studies are flawed, and aren’t actually showing any real positive outcomes from pre-school.”

I’d need to do much more research to comment further. What is very interesting to me is that that there is no doubt the much publicised benefits of preschool education are built on shakier foundations than advocates would like policy makers to think. If you are interested in forming an opinion, this post , this and this post and this riposte are a great starting point.

There is a very concerning reliance on the Schweinhart and Weikart Perry preschool studies in the National Audit Office report.

1. The shockingly ‘dodgy’ first study (see my previous post) is relied upon to define ‘high quality’ child care.

I’ll explain further. One noticeable feature of the research on preschool effectiveness is the reliance on the idea that the reason some studies showed no effect was because the preschool programme was not ‘high quality’. On one level that is sensible as there must be huge variation in the quality of preschool provision but it is also a way of arguing that we should dismiss all studies with weak or no effects, presuming they are not ‘high quality’. I had noticed that the term ‘high quality’ is used frequently in the literature and repeatedly by policy makers and so I was interested to see how researchers had reached a decision on what constituted ‘high quality’. This is what the National Audit Office report had to say (I’ll highlight the key passage but thought I should include the full extract):

“In pre-school education (3+ years), quality is most often associated with the concept of developmentally appropriate practice. Bryant et al. (1994) report on several studies that illustrate the relationship between developmentally appropriate practice and child outcomes. The High/Scope study [Schweinhart’s and Weikart’s] shows that children who attend a developmentally appropriate, child-centred programme are better adjusted socially than similar children who attend a teacher-directed programme implementing a direct-instruction curriculum (Schweinhart, Weikart, and Larner 1986). In North Carolina, Bryant, Peisner-Feinberg, and Clifford (1993) found that children’s communication and language development were positively associated with appropriate care giving. Burts et al. (1992) and Hart & Todd (1995) show that children’s attendance in developmentally appropriate kindergartens is associated with fewer stress behaviours. Educational content is also important for this age group. Jowett & Sylva (1986) found nursery education graduates did better in primary school than playgroup graduates, suggesting the value of an educationally orientated pre-school. The research demonstrates that the following aspects of pre-school quality are most important for enhancing children’s development: Well-trained staff who are committed to their work with children, facilities that are safe and sanitary and accessible to parents, ratios and group sizes that allow staff to interact appropriately with children, supervision that maintains consistency, staff development that ensures continuity, stability and improving quality and a developmentally appropriate curriculum with educational content

  • Oh my goodness! How can the study referred to possibly support the weight being placed on it (see first half of my previous post)? The National Audit Office report writer considers it a central plank in research used to define ‘high quality’ child care when it is hopelessly flawed.


  • Not only this, there is good research demonstrating the academic advantage of preschool methods with approaches which are contradictory approaches to the Perry preschool methods. Why does the definition of ‘high quality’ actually exclude these successful alternative methods? The Perry Preschool method endorsed ‘developmentally appropriate practice’ which means ‘child led’ experiential curriculum rather than teacher led instruction. The National Audit Office report actually mentions the success of a very teacher led approach, used widely in France:

“Studies of children in the French Ecoles Maternelle programme (Bergmann 1996) show that this programme enhances performance in the school system for children from all social classes and that the earlier the children entered the pre-school program, the better their outcome.”

The early results of project Follow Through (with 9000 children assigned to nine early childhood curricula) showed that disadvantaged children who received Direct Instruction (anathema to those advocating child led approaches) went from the 20th to about the 50th percentile on the Metropolitan Achievement Test. Children who received the Perry High/Scope curriculum did not do as well. They fell from the 20th percentile to the 11th percentile.

2. It is a concern that the second Schweinhart and Weikart study is used to demonstrate the cost effectiveness of preschool education in the National Audit Office report.

“The Perry Pre-school Project is the most cited study in this area and its benefits are well reported (e.g. Schweinhart et al. 1993). The cost-benefit analysis for this project (Barnett 1996) is worthy of some consideration as its findings are extensively used for justifying expenditure on pre-school education and care.

This is troubling given the small size and context of the original study. It can’t possibly support these inferences.

Second: This research on impact of education in children’s early years has been used to justify our statutory Early Years Foundation Stage.

The EPPE study was an enormously significant longitudinal Study funded by the DfES from 1997 – 2004 and with findings in support of our ‘child led’ EYFS curriculum. It actually cites the first highly flawed Schweinhart and Weikart study where, among other problems, findings were the result of changes in outcomes of two or three people. This  is what it says of a study that should never have been taken seriously:

Previous Research on the Effectiveness of Pre-School Education and Care: The vast majority of longitudinal research on early education has been carried out in the U.S.Two of the studies cited most often are the Abecedarian Project and the Perry Pre-school Programme (Ramey & Ramey, 1998; Schweinhart and Weikart, 1997). Both used randomised control trial methods to demonstrate the lasting effects of high quality early intervention. These landmark studies, begun in the 1970s, have been followed by further small scale ‘experiments’ (see the Early Headstart, Love et al., 2001) and larger cohort studies (See Brooks-Gunn, 2003; Melhuish, 2004a, for reviews). This huge body of literature points to the many positive effects of centre-based care and education.”

The EPPE refers to the first Perry study as having been ‘admired for decades for its internal validity.’ I am not sure the writer has actually looked at the study. Amusingly, the EPPE report writer seems bemused when their own findings contradict those of the Perry study:

“ It appears therefore that the beneficial impact of pre-school on cognitive attainment is more long lasting than that on social behaviour. Social/behavioural outcomes may be more influenced than cognitive outcomes by the primary school peer group. Still this finding is at odds with the Perry Pre-school study, which indicated that the social outcomes of pre-school were more salient than the cognitive ones by adolescence. Data from the EPPE continuation study, will follow children into adolescence, to shed light on this.”

The influence the Perry study has had on understanding of what might be meant by ‘high quality’ provision is quite concerning given these contradictory findings.  Our national EYFS curriculum presumes ‘high quality’ provision means:

“…all areas of learning [are] to be delivered through planned, purposeful play, with a balance of adult-led and child-initiated activities… Professionals should therefore adopt a flexible, fluid approach to teaching, based on the level of development of each child. Research also confirms that the quality of teaching is a key factor in a child’s learning in the early years. High quality teaching entails high levels of interaction, warmth, trust, creativity and sensitivity. Practitioners and children work together to clarify an idea, solve a problem, express opinions and develop narratives.

However this is problematic:

1. We know the first flawed Schweinhart and Weikart Perry study contributed towards this idea of ‘high quality’ provision but it did not actually improve academic outcomes for its young participants. Evidence such as Follow Through (from the same era is) not even mentioned which did improve academic outcomes. The Perry programme was viewed as worthwhile because it was believed this intervention limited adult anti-social behaviour.

“The Perry program initially boosted IQs. However, this effect faded within a few years after the end of the two-year program, with no statistically significant effect remaining for males, and only a borderline significant effect remaining for females.

2. I believe good parenting makes a difference to children and so, although the studies seem unconvincing it is not outside the realms of possibility that the committed teachers involved in the second Schweinhart and Weikart study had some positive impact on their pupils. They were a highly committed team of extremely well qualified teachers. They must have involved themselves deeply in the lives of their very disadvantaged, very low IQ pupils, given they made 90 minutes visits every week to their homes as well as teaching them. Such a scheme is not really more widely replicable though.

Also, given the range of possible benefits the children experienced it is quite a leap to pin point the child-led learning as a crucial factor and suggest it provides a model of ‘high quality’ pre-schooling for all children today.

However some sort of  model is what the Perry preschool at Ypsilanti Michigan seems to be:

3. The use of these studies to justify ‘developmentally appropriate’, ‘child led’ practices is concerning. If children are not highly disadvantaged or at any great risk of engaging in felonies (most children) it is hard to see how these studies can justify the use of such approaches. This is particularly given the success of other methods. [The results of project Follow Through (with 9000 children assigned to nine early childhood curricula) showed that all groups made greater academic gains than using the Perry High/Scope approaches.]

Some of the many subsequent studies on the effectiveness of preschool education record academic gains and others don’t. Some record social gains and others don’t. However, partly thanks to the Schweinhart and Weikart studies the importance of the ‘high quality’ preschool education is a mantra repeated by all politicians. The Perry approach has become a model for ‘high quality’ preschool education around the world and currently, about 30 percent of all Head Start centres in America offer a version of the Perry curriculum (ICPSR 2010). For those, like myself, concerned that ‘child-led’ approaches are not the most efficacious, the impact of these studies is an enormous cause for concern.

So why are two small, context dependent flawed studies still widely cited? Why are the results of the largest ever educational experiment from the same era ignored in early years research literature? There is only one possible explanation. The small studies said what educationalists wanted to hear, that a child led curriculum could be proved to effect life outcomes.  The enormous Project Follow Through had more uncomfortable findings – so it was ignored.

I examine the evidence base for what is deemed ‘high quality’ pre school education here: https://heatherfblog.wordpress.com/2015/07/09/a-truism-that-needs-questioning/?relatedposts_hit=1&relatedposts_origin=626&relatedposts_position=2


King Solomon’s judgement

As a child I was bemused by the apparent wisdom of King Solomon. You may be familiar with the story. Two mothers from the same household came to the king both claiming that a baby was theirs and that the other mother’s baby had been accidentally smothered. Solomon called for a sword and proposed to cut the baby in half to resolve the conflict over whose baby it was. At this point the real mother agreed to relinquish the baby, preferring it to live, even if it was no longer her own. So far, so sensible. It was the other woman’s attitude that never made sense to me. Her jealousy meant she preferred to prevent the other mother keeping the child, even if that led to the death of the baby and so she agreed to Solomon’s proposal.  But how could anyone agree to the destruction of something as precious as a baby? Surely the woman must have been aware that such a disregard for the child’s well being would give her away?

A recent twitter discussion made me reappraise my childhood dismissal of Solomon’s judgement. If you are not regularly on ‘teacher twitter’ you may not be aware that no holiday is complete without a phonics spat. The phonics screening check was the topic of discussion. This check in year one is strongly supported by advocates of Systematic Synthetic Phonics and condemned by opponents as pointless and harmful. I think the reason discussions become so heated is because everyone involved really cares about getting the teaching of reading right. What is most interesting is that both sides claim to really value giving children a knowledge of phonics and decoding (sounding out) as a means to decode words, whether as the exclusive strategy or one of a number of possible approaches. So phonics decoding is my metaphorical baby, both sides claiming to love it but how will they respond to Solomon’s test of their commitment?

On twitter recently someone who claims to support phonics complained about the need to ‘learn’ the practice non words set home. (In the check children are told these are made up words and they are used to check a child really can ‘sound out’ and hasn’t just memorised enough words in the check as wholes. Non words have been a standard part of tests conducted for many years by educational psychologists to detect reading problems in children.) I had never before heard of children being asked to learn non words as wholes. It is pointless because the non words used change each year. It also displays an ignorance of how you might improve children’s performance in the check. You can get better by practicing ‘sounding out’ words with growing confidence. I tweeted back that:

“Learning non words will not help you pass the phonics check at all. Total waste of time.”

To which she replied:

“I know that – it’s using whole word techniques for decoding but the system is rotten.”

One reply to the original tweeter said that:

“it’s bad practice but high stakes-ness means inevitable.”

I cannot begin to comprehend how anyone that believes it is useful for children to be able to decode text by ‘sounding out’ could describe this approach as just ‘bad practice’ and then in the next line suggest it is the pressure of having a check which is the problem, not incompetence.

1. Why is there desperation to get enough kids passing the check? Over 600 schools had 95% or more children pass the check, including schools with pupils drawn from areas with high levels of deprivation/ high FSM.

2. If so few of the children in your class are likely to pass that you opt for desperate measures the children must be relying on ‘other methods’ such as guessing from first letters, pictures or context and not even likely to resort to ‘sounding out’ when other methods fail. In other words they have not been taught to use phonics as even a regular, let alone primary or exclusive, method to decode words. It is actually statutory for phonic decoding to be THE method used for decoding.

3. Anyone that thinks learning non words will help must be ignorant of why it is a waste of time which shows ignorance of even basic understanding of phonics teaching. Lots of schools don’t prioritise ‘sounding out’ when their children read books and so their pupils use guessing strategies. Most at least of these schools realise that lots of sounding out practice is the way forward in the run up to the check.

Rather than condemning the check for adding pressure anyone that wants children to use decoding (even as one strategy among others) would surely be relieved that the check has highlighted any failure to teach confident phonic decoding or even appreciate it is the solution to passing the check.

I have used these tweets as examples but the attitudes they show are very common. If you in any way value the teaching of phonics such practices would horrify you and you could not possibly be satisfied with your own children being taught using any methods that mean they cannot use phonic decoding with confidence to read. It seems that here we have another version of king Solomon’s test. If anyone promotes reading strategies that, by their nature, mean children are unlikely to develop confident phonic decoding skills, they simply are NOT supporters of phonic decoding.

I have often wondered how teachers can so openly show that they do not teach in ways that will lead to children confidently decoding with phonics and yet still claim to value it. I think Solomon was onto something. Perhaps people really do hide their lack of real concern for things they claim to value in plain sight. Really that lack of value is shown by all schools that encourage ‘mixed methods’. To learn and confidently use phonic decoding requires systematic practice which is not provided by the books used in most schools. We all know perfectly well that the majority of children faced with the option of guessing with books specifically written to encourage this, or a slightly more laborious approach of sounding out will opt for the former. To decode with phonics eyes must scan left to right through each whole word. With ‘mixed methods’ eyes jump around looking for cues to guess from. The two approaches are not even compatible. Children that are thrown by the words in the check will also be unable to use phonic decoding to read unfamiliar words in their reading books. You cannot get young children (or anyone) to use two different strategies as habit, simultaneously. Generally either they guess from cues or they read through the word. If they are in the habit of reading by guessing (mixed methods), they will have very limited practice of sounding out and are significantly less likely to do so confidently when reading books.

When the evidence for the importance of phonics became too overwhelming to ignore many teachers had a strong ideological commitment to other methods or had always used them. It made sense to tack on some token phonics to your usual whole word approaches. The screening check picks up where this is happening and so I am not surprised it is so vehemently opposed by some who claim support phonics.

Update 5/4/15 Although the material in the original version of this post was all in the public domain I have again edited this post, on request, to protect privacy.

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.

Phonics – is there much evidence?

A small but exciting study was completed recently. Dr Marlynne Grant has been working with a cohort of students learning to read from Reception to Year 2 with her own systematic synthetic phonics programme called ‘Sound Discovery’. She followed a Reception class of 30 students in a catholic primary school designated for travellers of Irish origin. Here are a few of the findings:

  • By Year 2 the class were 28 months above their chronological age for reading and 21 months ahead for spelling. The overall achievement range was 7.07 years to 13.09 years for reading and 7.01 years to 14.09 years for spelling.
  • By Year 2 children eligible for Free School Meals were on average 24 months above their chronological age for reading and 20 months above for spelling.
  • By year 2 the boys in the class were on average 36 months above chronological age for reading and 27 months above for spelling.

So, given the number of times I have read the assertion that there is no evidence in favour of SSP (systematic synthetic phonics) to teach reading, surely SSP proponents might be expected to be crowing? Their ‘method’ finally has some proof.

There is a good reason why this study was greeted with great interest but not a fanfare. We’ve seen it all before. Dr. Grant’s study is actually small scale and not prepared for peer review. However, for those of us only too familiar with the success of SSP the results are unsurprising. They match the vast body of converging evidence that SSP is a better approach than the methods used in most British classrooms. Personally, I don’t leap to implement the latest piece of educational research because individual studies are narrow and classrooms and the children in them are complex. However,

“that direct instruction in alphabetic coding facilitates early reading acquisition, is one of the most well established conclusions in all of behavioural science” (Stanovich, Progress in Understanding Reading p415.)

In science it is rare that anything is proved in one defining study. Data is evaluated from dozens of experiments, each containing some flaws but providing part of the answer”

award winning cognitive psychologist Keith Stanovich explains in his fascinating article Using Research and Reason in Education p15-19. He goes on:

“This is a gross misunderstanding of scientific process… one experiment rarely decides an issue…issues are most often decided when the community of scientists gradually begins to agree that the preponderance of evidence supports one alternative theory rather than another… when a conceptual hypothesis survives many potential falsifications based on a different sets of assumptions we have a robust effect…taken collectively, a series of partially diagnostic experiments can lead to a strong conclusion if the data converge…”

He explains that:

“The principle of converging evidence has been well illustrated in the controversies surrounding the teaching of reading…the results of [a variety of] studies have been synthesized in several important research syntheses:                                                                                                                                                               (Adams, 1990; Ehri et al., 2001; National Reading Panel, 2000, Pressley, 1998; Rayner et al., 2002; Reading Coherence Initiative, 1999; Share and Stanovich, 1995; Snow, Burns, & Griffin, 1998; Snowling 2000; Spear-Swerling & Sternberg, 2001;Stanovich, 2000).                                                                                                                                                                             These studies were used in a process of establishing converging evidence, a principle that governs the drawing of a conclusion that a particular educational practice is research-based.”

A research synthesis draws on many studies, for example the National Reading Panel 2000 synthesis draws on the results of 66 comparisons from 38 different studies to indicate:

“… solid support for the conclusion that systematic phonics instruction makes a bigger contribution to children’s growth in reading than alternative programs providing unsystematic or no phonics instruction.”

So where does Dr Marlynne Grant’s study fit into this body of evidence?

To appreciate its place you need to be aware of some of the main areas where there has been converging evidence in favour of SSP (systematic synthetic phonics). I will only explain some in more detail but do follow the links.

  1. Evidence to disprove the theories behind the method used in the vast majority of British classrooms (see here and here ).

This approach is confusingly called ‘mixed methods’. It was theorised in the 1960s and 70s that fluent readers used prediction. Therefore in approximately 94% of British classrooms (see p61) although children are taught to recognise how letters correspond to sounds, when actually reading books children are encouraged to guess what words might be. They are taught to look for ‘cues’ such as knowing the initial letter in the word, overall shape of word, context and pictures. In fact the theories were wrong. Fluent readers don’t guess.

The term ‘mixed methods’ is very misleading. It is a method which encourages children to attend to word shape and context, at the expense of attention to all the letters in the word and their order. Saying you support ‘mixed methods’ is rather like telling people they can drive their car on the left and also drive on the right simultaneously. When reading you can teach children so: ‘eyes are darting about for clues’ (mixed methods) or ‘eyes go  left to right to decode’ (SSP). A child can’t do both simultaneously…

However, mostly the reading books used in schools aren’t designed to help children practise to read words left to right through decoding with the letter sound correspondences they are familiar with. The books are designed so guessing works. Many children initially learn this easy shortcut in preference to ‘sounding out’. It is those that gradually lose the guessing habit that will become fluent readers. Too many don’t – as the booming dyslexia industry demonstrates.

To be clear an approach to reading based on an entirely debunked theory is still the basis for reading instruction in possibly 94% of British schools. Ignoring all the evidence Reading Recovery, the National Literacy Trust, International Literacy Centre and United Kingdom Literacy Association still advocate ‘mixed methods’. It is this bizarre state of affairs that provoked Stanovich’s whole article above and Stanovich is a good starting point if you are interested in the research in this particular area.

2. Evidence that fluent readers need to recognise that words are composed of sounds and match letters, or groups of letters, to sounds. See here

3. Evidence that “the vast majority of school-age struggling readers experience word-level difficulties” (Fletcher et al., 2002; Torgesen, 2002).

This “bottleneck” at the word level is thought to be particularly disruptive because it not only impacts word identification but also other aspects of reading, including fluency and comprehension (LaBerge & Samuels, 1974). According to Torgesen (2002), one of the most important discoveries about reading difficulties over the past 20 years is the relationship found between phonological processing and word-level reading. Most students with reading problems, both those who are diagnosed with dyslexia and those who are characterized as “garden variety” poor readers, have phonological processing difficulties that underlie their word reading problems (Stanovich, 1988)” (p.179). [Links and more detail here]

4. Some evidence that reading is accomplished with letter-by-letter processing of the word. See here p26.

‘Fluent readers do perceive each and every letter of print. Thus, we can distinguish casual from causal, grill from girl, and primeval from prime evil.’

5. Evidence that learning to recognise whole words is ineffective. See here 

“The evidence against such an account of reading behaviour is by now incontrovertible. Accurate and fluent word decoding is a pre-requisite for efficient reading for interest and information”  ‘Dyslexia, literacy and psychological assessment‘, the British Psychological Society 2005 p26

6. Evidence showing that countries with ‘shallow orthographies’ (words are easy to decode) do not have a problem with ‘dyslexia’ as we know it. See here

7. Evidence that decoding should to be taught separately from comprehension. See here and here.

Those opposing SSP criticise it for focusing on children’s ability to decode the text rather than comprehend the text’s meaning. These criticisms again ignore the overwhelming evidence regarding decoding and comprehension.

a. It seems perverse to criticise a method that nearly eliminates dyslexia type problems (see links in part 7) because it doesn’t also solve children’s comprehension problems.

b. There is lots of research showing children will comprehend writing if it is within their spoken vocabulary and understanding. This is known as ‘the Simple View of Reading’. There is little difference in comprehension whether a passage is read to you, or you read it yourself but you can only lift the meaning from the words if you are able to decode them. Therefore to improve comprehension it is essential that children have broad and rich exposure to written literature, much of it at the higher level of children’s oral comprehension, to enrich their vocabulary and knowledge of the world.

Critics of SSP suggest it leads to children decoding without attending to the meaning of the words because they are not using ‘prediction’ to read. However, fluent readers don’t guess and it is simply incorrect to suggest SSP leads to poorer comprehension than other methods. In fact comprehension is generally better than average with SSP (see studies in next section) because children read more books so learn more about the world. All children should have exposure to plenty of good literature to improve comprehension then the choice is between a method leading to most children decoding effectively or one where too many struggle to decode and thus comprehension is a real challenge.

 So the research on phonics is by no means minimal…

However, all this does not prove that specific SSP approaches do actually work better. So finally we have:

8. Evidence that in the classroom SSP leads to results that are startlingly better than is generally expected.

Marilyn Jager Adams’s writes in her 1990 book synthesizing research to that date, Beginning to Read: Thinking and Learning about print:

‘Perhaps the most influential arguments for teaching phonics are based on studies comparing the relative effectiveness of different approaches to teaching beginning reading. Collectively these studies suggest, with impressive consistency, that programs including systematic instruction in letter-to -sound correspondences lead to higher achievement in both word recognition and spelling, at least in the early grades and especially for slower or economically students.’ (p. 31)  

Studies that leap to mind are the enormous ‘Project Follow Through’ and the Clackmannanshire longitudinal study but there are many others, see here and here.  Dr Grant’s study is interesting because it breaks down the performance of different at-risk groups. Her findings suggest a full study would be fruitful. What does she say led to those results? Simply good SSP from the beginning of Reception (waiting until the phonics screening check in year 1 leaves many behind). Children that struggled were not given ‘other methods to use’ (because they don’t work) they had extra time in catch up groups with the same programme to consolidate their learning.

When SSP approaches are taught faithfully, systematically, and without guessing from contextual cues or an emphasis on learning some words by sight, the results can be astounding. Surely things have to change? Can those blinded by ideological bias, misinformation and habit really continue to ignore the weight of evidence and stop others from finding out? Can children be deprived of that most vital skill and precious gift by those unwilling to even look into more successful methods?


Thanks to Anna Worthington and others at the Reading Reform Foundation for links and helpful comments.


Why I became radicalised – the sequel. Frying pan to fire.

This post follows on from ‘Why I Became Radicalised’

“Handwriting books?”

“The quaint, ill-informed notions some parents have,” said the smile that crossed the face of Miss Dover, the acting head of my second daughter’s new infant school.

“No, children learn through play but we do model correct letter formation when we see children choosing to write…”

I was a seasoned veteran now and knew it was counterproductive to challenge what seemed nonsense to me. I wanted to ask:

  • How children could possibly get enough practice from optional writing activities and minimal formal instruction?
  • Didn’t this approach widen the gap between the keenest and the uninterested?
  • Didn’t it just reinforce bad habits if children weren’t corrected?

However, I had just moved my daughter mid-year because of the problems at her last school and besides I felt really sorry for poor Miss Wilton the Reception teacher. She was flanked at this parents’ consultation by Miss Dover because the parents had been giving her so much flack. She was a failing NQT and looked like she was near a breakdown.

It had turned out I wasn’t just lucky to get a space mid-year at an oversubscribed ‘outstanding’ village school. Year One and Two were lovely but I soon found out that two children had been withdrawn from Reception after a term by worried parents.

EYFS advocates are right, Reception isn’t just about academic learning it is about learning to be one of a group, to cope with routines, to manage clothes, toileting, friendships and behaviour. Poor Miss Wilton needed some off the peg structures to give the children but no one seemed to have let her in on the secrets of the trade, clearly her training had focused on letting her find her own way when she didn’t even understand where she was trying to go. Her class were feral and parents couldn’t see progress in the basics. This combined with a series of shocking incidents among the children while they were apparently being supervised by Miss Wilton (involving, scissors, strangulation and nudity) led to the acting head, Miss Dover, calling a meeting of Reception parents to ‘allay concerns’.

I struggle to feel sorry for Miss Dover because she was most culpable for the problems. She had actually trained reception teachers in the county but she was rarely in the classroom with Miss Wilton and she suggested that to help Miss Wilton would require extra funding. That said, the meeting must have been horrible, managing articulate, aggressive parents. Miss Dover explained that we were wrong to think the children were not learning, they were learning intangible things – through play. As she read out a pre-written explanation of play based learning, a sort of ‘Gospel of Play’ as followed by true believers, a beatific smile spread across her face, the special sort of rapt expression I had already encountered on the face of my daughter’s old head teacher who also believed she was saving other people’s children from psychological harm by building a relationship with them over the stickle bricks, instead of teaching them.

I had learnt over the previous year that it was not enough to believe, as I did, that young children need to spends lots of time playing and that they can learn from play. Believers in what seems more like a ‘Cult of Play’ go further and claim ‘real learning’ only really happens through ‘extending children’s thinking’ as they play. So one play choice might be a shop set up to encourage children to count with coins. The role of the teacher is not to teach but to observe the 30 children playing and promote learning by joining in and pushing the children’s thinking in new directions mathematically. Teacher initiated activities must be playful and kept to a minimum (20% is often quoted).  A shop role play to support mathematical learning of 4-5 year olds is an eminently sensible idea but I do seriously question an approach which precludes any systematic or deliberate practice – and this approach is actually enforced by law in England for reception aged children. Do look at this official guidance for the assessment of reading and maths at the end of reception. It clearly illustrates that the most novice of learners are expected to master reading and number with minimal teacher instruction, using discovery methods.

Advocates argue that there is robust research to support their views. The research I’ve read seems far from robust and the conclusions/extrapolations drawn from that research are decidedly shaky. Because there is plenty of evidence that play is important for children’s development does not mean they must learn to count through child led activities or that teachers need to hover about finding ways to develop kids ‘creativity’ as they play. To even assert that attributes such as creativity can be learnt generically and readily transfer, contradicts what rigorous research we do actually have and yet play based learning is built on this premise.  Please feel free to follow the references in this document and make up your own mind about the research. The biggest irony is that many of those that most vociferously argue that play based learning is the only acceptable approach generally dismiss research in education as reductionist. However. many are happy to talk about robustly scientific conclusions when it comes to play. I’d argue that play based learning is more of a belief system. As a method it was not mainstream 15 years ago but it is now orthodoxy. The practices of a previous generation of nursery teachers have been dismissed and virtually disappeared. New teachers are indoctrinated and anyone who questions the tenets of the faith must be at least heartless and possibly evil. When it comes to play, zealots are willing to claim, as the ATL document ‘Playing to Learn’,  (a good summary of the ideas behind play based learning) explains on p17:

“A highly structured approach to early years (birth to seven) does not foster or support the self-regulation or growth mind sets that we know are required for children to become motivated, independent and innovative thinkers… Children will in most cases remember and repeat what they are taught but have very little understanding or mastery over the concepts embedded within it… In some cases we can see how this type of teaching has led to children having a dislike of reading and writing and learning in general and worryingly high levels of stress.”

That is EYFS orthodoxy but it is an astonishing claim. The reason children must learn through their play is that otherwise they won’t really understand. That explains the bizarre and statutory requirement to assess reading when you discover children reading spontaneously, rather than just asking them to read and seeing what they can do! This assertion, integral to the approach, contradicts the clear evidence that children can learn very effectively through direct instruction. In fact for the ATL, direct instruction (a teacher explanation and giving some practice)is beyond the pale. The document even condemns ‘highly structured forms of play’ which, perish the thought, are driven by an adult agenda to achieve ‘fixed learning outcomes’. (see p17)

Learning to read is a fixed outcome imposed by adults and if Miss Wilton had absorbed one thing from her training it was that children would learn to read when they were ‘ready’. I soon realised how disastrous this assumption was.  I had started to teach my daughter at home, systematically, using phonics. Her ‘advanced’ level was a talking point at a parents’ social and I found myself next to a rather desperate mum whose son was making no progress and becoming increasingly unhappy when asked to read. When she found out I had taught my daughter she asked for help. She was at her wits end as Matthew seemed unable to learn the sight words or get anywhere with his reading book. I told her I wasn’t a teacher of reading, just someone who had read the research. She pointed out that I had more experience than Miss Wilton and she only wanted some advice so in the end I agreed to read with her son, in case I could offer any guidance. I saw Matthew at the start of the Easter holiday and discovered he only recognised 7 graphemes. In lay man’s terms he was being asked to learn words and read books but in two terms he had only learnt to recognise seven letters of the alphabet! He couldn’t sound out words with the graphemes he did know.  I showed him how to blend( c- a-t) and after 20 minutes he proudly showed his mum the words he had actually, really read! He found it hard to concentrate but by the end of the holiday he knew all the basic graphemes and some digraphs (ch, sh, th) and was confidently blending simple words using these. On return to school Miss Dover, a fully paid up developmentalist suggested that his sudden progress was probably because he was a ‘spring bloomer’.

Matthew had been taught ‘phonics’ in discrete lessons but had not learnt much. Fine, said the play based learning approach Miss Wilton had been trained in, expose them and they will learn when developmentally ready. As the ATL guide explains:

“If we are looking for superficial evidence of learning like colours, numbers and shapes then we miss a child’s potential for deeper thinking which involves them concentrating, being involved, possibility thinking, meta-cognition etc… (p31)

Miss Wilton was following the manual (so to speak) – not common sense. Most reception teachers know that children need plenty of exposure to ensure they recognise graphemes but Miss Wilton had been told that judging learning by such superficial indicators as knowing your numbers (or indeed your letters)  comes at a cost of ‘dumbing down the real potential of children’ (p31). Regular practice is ‘drill and kill’ after all.

I volunteered to hear reception readers and so knew that by July at least half the children still didn’t recognise many basic graphemes readily and they were just memorising their books and reciting them. Virtually none of the children could blend confidently and it was not a strategy they used to read. I cannot think of a better way to breed dyslexia than encourage children to ignore the phonological basis of words they read. None were forming letters correctly, (although they had actually been doing some structured writing tasks) and I had started teaching my daughter maths at home because she wasn’t learning anything at school.

Miss Wilton was struggling and needed more support. I think that whatever method she used she would not have succeeded. However, my point is that she was following ‘the manual’ but in its purest form, unleavened with common sense, the doctrines of  play based learning are sure to fail. Quite simply many children need more explicit instruction and more practice than play based learning provides or will allow and so this approach entrenches inequalities as some children cope better without guidance or get more outside help.  I’m not sure the most fundamentalist play based learning zealots would care about this failure to teach the children the basics. They have redefined learning away from mundane outcomes such as ability to read or add up and you can’t actually measure improved generic thinking skills (largely because they don’t exist – thinking is dependent on knowledge of the context).

Some teachers need to help more damaged little ones that don’t seem to know how to play. If you are able to help these children then you are indeed stars and I can even summon up the beginnings of a beatific smile when I think of what you are doing. However, my children, like most, don’t need help to play and have plenty of opportunity. I wanted them to spend lots of time playing in their Reception class and I am sure it can make good sense to introduce or support what is taught with play based activities. However, elaborate approaches can simply distract from the learning intention and waste precious time and many children need a systematic approach with plenty of deliberate practice to become confident readers and mathematicians.

Children don’t need to learn numeracy and literacy through play. They will learn well, be happy and flourish even when teaching is not even playful.

Some readers will have no idea how heretical that statement is…


Post script: Miss Wilton did get extra help – with her end of reception assessments. All that my daughter had not learnt to do at school was carefully observed and recorded…  Both Miss Dover and Miss Wilton moved on that summer. Year one was infinitely better.  I can only hope Miss Wilson got the support she needed at her new school.


Why I became radicalised or the problems with discovery learning.

“That’s not real reading”

It all began four years ago with that sharply worded reaction to my earnest and naive question.  I was sat in a meeting for new reception parents. I didn’t quite understand why the new head was changing the way reading was taught. When my eldest had done reception , two years previously, we had been amazed and thrilled by how quickly she had learnt to read.  Why were they going to jumble up all the easier books, rather than take each child systematically through a scheme that carefully added new difficulty incrementally? It seemed I had asked something that was not an acceptable part of the script. The deputy looked at the head and she swiftly moved in to close down any dangerous debate. She was actually shouting at me and I began to shake. Later the deputy told me, with shining eyes, that I should look on the TES website (she knew I was a secondary teacher) where I would find lots wonderful descriptions of success with their methods.

I did look, but it must have been in the wrong places. I found out that schools were meant to be teaching reading using methods outlined in the government  ‘Rose Review’ which advocated systematic phonics. That was what lovely Mrs Williams had done with my eldest but Mrs Williams, an experienced reception teacher, had now been moved to year 5 and I found my second daughter was getting taught using quite a different approach.  I was a parent volunteer and went in to do reading with the reception class and I could see the kids weren’t taking off as they had previously.  Among parents whose elder children had been taught by Mrs Williams there were increasing rumbles of discontent. Their younger children weren’t making the same progress and there were more tears as kids tried to read books they couldn’t access. Some parents reasoned that perhaps it was because child 2/3 was a boy or younger in the year. A few actively pressed for their child to be given those ‘Jelly and Bean’ books Mrs Williams had used. I had already been savaged once so I kept my head down.

Meanwhile I was on a journey, voraciously reading everything I could find. I bought ‘Beginning to Read ‘ by Marilyn Adams and ploughed through its complexities in only 5 days, outrageously neglecting my 2 year old in the process. I surfed the TES comments and read articles by Stanovich and Gough and Tunmer. I discovered the Reading Reform Foundation which was treasure trove of information on reading research. I went on Mumsnet and joined the endless debates on reading in the Primary Education section.  I tried to find out about the other side of the debate but it always seemed to be based on anecdote and didn’t address the research on reading. I was soon a fully paid up ‘phonics phanatic’. When the ‘ph’ word was mentioned the mists would descend and my friends would run a mile to avoid the inevitable rant.

However, it wasn’t my 5 year old in reception I was really worried about.  My eldest was in year 2 and didn’t seem to be learning anything. The new head stated proudly that children learnt best through ‘doing’. Most of the tables had been taken out of the year 2 classroom and after some whole class work, sitting on the mat, the majority of the day’s activities were optional. My daughter could choose between a lovely outdoor role play corner, Play Mobil and similar imaginative topical play stations or the literacy table and the maths mat. The literacy tasks were relevant to daily life and the maths was practical and hands on. For example for maths there was a water tray with gel filled numbers floating in it and fishing nets. Kids were meant to fish out answers to word problems. I think this was so the kinaesthetic learners could learn too. Work sheets were banned right up to year 6. At a meeting for parents we were given a worksheet with A level maths on it and asked how we would feel if we were asked to do it. We were then told that this demonstrated the problems with using work sheets. In year 2 the children chose what to study each half term. One half term they chose castles and the next they chose knights. Apparently they then chose ‘hot and cold’. The head told the children in assembly how much they now enjoyed learning and they then told prospective parents ‘how much they now enjoyed learning’.

But – arghhh – it was all so irrational!

-I was meant to believe that my daughter ‘chose’ her topics when I knew she had actually suggested other ideas.

-How could children choose stuff they didn’t even know existed, didn’t that just narrow their horizons? My friend’s daughter was learning about the Celts in her school and I was SO jealous!

-If teachers were actually free to interpret the children’s suggestions wasn’t the choice just a trick anyway?

-My daughter seemed like a dry sponge, thirsty to learn but just being given drops when there were floods of great stuff to learn.

-Wasn’t it exhausting for teachers to be continually preparing topics from scratch on the whim of six year old children who might say something different five minutes later? I knew that I taught a topic better second or third year running so although I had no problem with responding to student interests, why were primary teachers being forced to ceaselessly innovate?

-It was surely delusional to believe 6 year old kids offered their favourite play obsession, would then choose to do some extended writing or work out a few maths problems. The teacher finally stuck a sticker chart up to reward children that ‘chose’ maths and literacy options. The chart didn’t have many stickers on it and I was saddened that my daughter was being bribed to do something she would have done willingly, and enjoyed, if it was compulsory.

-Didn’t learning have to build on previous understanding so how could such a non -systematic approach achieve this?

-I could see that the lack of tables in the classroom meant it was never possible to do any form of desk work as a whole class. A teacher plus assistant can only ever work with two small groups. Were all those unsupervised six and seven year olds really  learning that much from a week playing with a marble run?

-There were big claims of all the different skills being learnt through these optional play activities but a strong feeling the justification came after the teacher chose the activity. I could as easily claim my children learnt skills such as cooperation, cultural awareness and problem solving when they agreed to watch Scooby Doo on a Saturday morning, or helped me clean the house. If skills could be picked up so easily, from activities my child also did at home, why should she go to school to do them?

-Can children really learn all about gravity from a marble run? When I took my kids to science parks they had fun with the hands on displays but did they really intuit many scientific principles? Surely a teacher explanation and a chance for everyone to have a go was more effective and enormously more efficient than a week (however lovely) of playing at the marbles play station?

-What about practice? I had no problem with my six year old having some time for free play in the school day and I thought playful learning was lovely but my daughter was not writing much or practising much maths.  Surely this approach was enormously inefficient? I knew as a secondary teacher that you can’t afford to waste whole stacks of time on one thing.

-Weren’t work sheets often an efficient way to provide practice and didn’t their effectiveness depend on their quality?

-I was continually told that because learning through play was fun it would create a love of motivation for life-long learning but I never saw the evidence. What if it just led to kids that could never knuckle down? I hadn’t got my qualifications by only do stuff when I enjoyed it.

-I was pretty sure that the head teacher would consider learning by some methods as ideologically unacceptable (learning with systematic phonics teaching wasn’t ‘real reading’) and so wasn’t she accepting poorer progress from the students because this was the best that could be gained with the methods she approved of?

I was one of a concerned huddle of year 2 parents, by no means all ‘Middle class’. I still felt a strong emotional loyalty to the school I had chosen for my first child. It was not the popular school in my small, affluent town because the travellers went there. I had decided it was good and been disgusted by the snobbery and, for a year or so, I had been right! But every week I now heard of another child leaving to go elsewhere. Then, in response to an invitation to parents I went in and looked at my daughter’s books. For a whole month she had done no writing whatsoever. Perhaps she hadn’t done much maths either but the writing was the one thing there had to be a record of. Another mum had complained and been told it was her problem that she was over anxious about her child. I was fired up as much on my friend’s behalf as my own and finally stuck my head over the parapet with a letter of complaint. The head knew that no writing for a month was indefensible and I got a properly apologetic letter but some rather awkward moments with the class teacher who knew she’d got it wrong. However, if there had been a few short pieces of written work for that month I would have been unable to complain and would that have been much better?

My daughter’s school had so lost its focus on the 3Rs that it was possible to pass a month without noticing a teacher had neglected her core duty to her class. The school had got so caught up in how to teach they had lost sight of the end product. They focused on whether the children were happy learners, not what they managed to learn. The school had got a ‘good’ from Ofsted and been praised for their pupil centred learning. When I looked on TES chat rooms  I could see that schools across the country were trying to emulate their approach or principles with little interest in what was actually being taught to the children. As long as they learnt it joyfully, actively, independently, collaboratively, in small groups not as a whole class and following the children’s own interests, it was good teaching. I teach secondary and cocooned in the private sector, without the pressure to produce Ofsted lessons, I somehow manage to get good learning with none of the above approaches.  My own research had now shown me that these methods are grounded in ideological assumptions about how children learn that can and should be challenged.

I have come across good, effective, teachers who would defend some of the methods I have described. I think they are good because they have a subconscious bottom line. They expect a certain amount of learning. They do not focus on the means for their own sake.  They do not consider jumping through some Ofsted boxes as the key to a good lesson. If primary teachers have success (rather than having to redefine the criteria because their students have not acquired the basics) good luck to them. However, as Tessa Matthews wrote in a recent blog, many of the most needy children are being short changed by a focus on methods whose innate effectiveness is highly questionable and so once more I will stick my head over the parapet to say I agree.


I moved daughter number two to a local village school. Daughter number one began year 3 at the local prep school where I can get  fee remission. She didn’t seem to miss her old school. Mrs Williams, possibly the best teacher in the school, left the next year. The results at the school gradually went down and so in the next Ofsted the school was given ‘requires improvement’ and the head took early retirement.

The story continues with part 2 here