[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, J24, 1998-2, pp28-30]
[See Journal, Newsletter and SPB articles by Chris Jolly and about the National Literacy Strategy.]
The 'Framework for Teaching' from The National Literacy Strategy
Chris Jolly is Chairman of the Simplified Spelling Society and publisher of the
Jolly Phonics initial literacy materials. He here discusses the British
Government's guidelines for a new programme of literacy teaching, which started in
English schools in September 1998.
1. The National Literacy Strategy.The Framework for Teaching comes as a ringbinder and sets out the National Literacy Strategy for teachers. It is described as a practical tool and is separate from the detailed guidance (which came as a box containing a number of binders and videos).
The importance and sense of purpose behind the National Literacy Strategy is huge. As a policy subject it is well chosen by the Labour government and it has a clear objective: that 80% of 11 year olds will achieve the standard of literacy expected for their age by the year 2002, a rise from 57% in 1996.
The sums being spent are relatively modest considering the urgent need, with £50m pa allocated, compared to the much larger sums in the education budget, and the estimated cost of illiteracy in the country. Nonetheless the amount of activity produced by this policy is probably about right. It includes a mushrooming of local literacy consultants to add to the existing advisers and inspectors.
The Framework sets out the teaching objectives for the Primary school years (the 7 years from Reception to Year 6). It applies only to England. Wales is considering a bilingual adaptation, while Scotland has its own Early Intervention initiative.
The Literacy Task Force (associated with the National Literacy Project) claims that there has been "widespread support for the Project's approach to teaching literacy and its success in raising standards". Certainly there has been a widespread support for this overall policy and the importance that has been given to it. However, there have also been some fundamental concerns raised about the approach to literacy, such as from Ruth Miskin, a head teacher and a strong phonics advocate who is herself part of the Literacy Task Force (Times Educational Supplement, 29 June 1998). As for the success of the policy in raising standards, no results have been published despite the claims that it has been tested. It is to be hoped that trial results will be published by the Standards and Effectiveness Unit of the Department for Education and Employment.
2. The 'Searchlights'.The Framework introduces the new term 'searchlights'. These are described as the different strategies which, it is explained, "teachers know that pupils use to become successful readers". They are given as:
- phonics (sound and spelling)
- grammatical knowledge
- word recognition and graphic knowledge
- knowledge of context
It would have been better if the Literacy Task Force had built its 'searchlights' on established research rather than on their view of what teachers know. Teaching grammatical knowledge has not been shown to improve literacy (Harris 1962, Tomlinson 1994, and there is a good summary of the research in The grammar papers, QCA, 1998). The 'searchlights' of 'Word recognition and graphic knowledge' and 'Knowledge of context' are open to interpretation, but compilations of research into reading do not identify them as key predictors in learning to read (Adams 1990, Macmillan 1997). By contrast the research into the importance of phonic knowledge shows it to be of overwhelming importance (Adams 1990, Macmillan 1997 again). If it was necessary for the Framework to give a range of 'searchlight' strategies then it would have been helpful to show their relative importance, and to base the recommendations more on published research and the strategies known to improve the teaching of reading.
3. Phonics policy, as outlined.Elsewhere the Framework does draw on published research, and in a valid and useful way. For instance, early on (§4), the Framework identifies that "research evidence shows that pupils do not learn to distinguish between the different sounds in words simply by being exposed to books. They need to be taught to do this." This is followed by an excellent description of the need for phonics, stating that pupils should be taught to:
- discriminate between the separate sounds in words.
- learn the letters and letter combinations most commonly used to spell those sounds.
- read words by sounding out and blending their separate parts.
- write words by combining the spelling patterns of their sounds.
This description is as good as could be found anywhere. Unfortunately however, this insight is not followed through in the Planning sections later in the Framework where teaching gives way to analogy, and 'separate sounds' gives way to 'onset and rime'.
4. Teaching strategies, in practice.The emphasis on explicit teaching of phonics is lost at a later stage in the Framework (§8) where a list of 10 strategies is given. Only two of these could really be described as skills based. One of them (No.2) covers handwriting, punctuation and use of a dictionary, while the other (No.7) is:
initiating and guiding exploration: e.g. to develop phonological awareness in the early stages, to explore relationships between grammar, meaning and spelling with older pupils.Learning letter sounds and blending is not mentioned. The other 8 strategies given are likely to lead teachers into unproductive use of their time when seen in the context of achieving 80% of 11 year olds reading at their age level. Examples are 'discussing the features of written texts through shared reading of books' and to 'understand, expand and generalize about themes and structures in fiction and non-fiction'. This kind of emphasis is taking the teaching back into the unstructured realms of 'real books'. It is adding a raft of unnecessary and unproductive 'baggage' to what should be a much more straightforward task. As with the work of the Literacy Task Force, established while the Labour Party was in opposition, the Framework give the impression of a good policy that has been diverted in its execution. While the teaching of the sounds in words is given emphasis in the introduction (§4) it is absent in these detailed strategies (§8).
5. 'Strands' of work.A new term in the Framework is the 'strands' of work. Throughout the teaching there are these three strands:
- word level - covering phonics, sight vocabulary, handwriting, spelling and vocabulary extension
- sentence level - covering grammar and punctuation
- text level - covering reading comprehension and writing composition
The division of the teaching into these different strands will no doubt be helpful. However, considering how much is included in the word level, it would have been better if a separate 'letter-sound level' had been added at the beginning. This would have taken account of the fact that knowledge of letter sounds is the best predictor of a child's future reading ability (Bond and Dykstra 1967; Chall 1967; Tizard 1988). The effect of putting so much in the word level is that the emphasis on learning letter sounds is not central enough.
6. The Literacy Hour.The Framework describes the Literacy Hour, which is expected to be an hour in the morning, devoted to teaching. This is an excellent concept, and will do much to enhance the teaching and avoid the unproductive 'cross-curricular' and 'topic based' teaching of the past.
The Literacy Hour is divided into:At first such advice seems to be very prescriptive, and has been commented on as such by teachers, but nonetheless it is likely to be helpful. A significant shortcoming however is that each 'strand' of teaching is given equal emphasis in each term. In practice the first year will need to be focussed more on word level work, particularly learning the letter sounds, with the text work being needed more in later years.
15 minutes - Whole Class - Shared reading and writing.
15 minutes - Whole Class - Word Level work.
20 minutes - Guided Group and independent work.
10 minutes - Plenary session with whole class.
7. Whole class teaching.The Framework places an emphasis on whole class teaching which is wholly to the good. It explains what this means and the need, for instance, for high quality oral work (meaning more open class questions). In time we may yet return to desks all facing the front in place of the inward facing groups of desks today.
8. The Termly Plans.Much of the Framework is given over to the termly plans. The Reception year has just one of these plans (because children can enter in different terms) but later plans are separate for each term up to Year 6 Term 3. Sadly, it is in these plans that much of the good intentions at the start of the Framework get misdirected. Specifically there are several aspects where the teaching recommended will lower the standards that could be achieved. These are:
8.1. It was mentioned earlier that knowledge of letter sounds is a good predictor of future reading ability. We also know that teaching all the letter sounds early on, in the first term of teaching, leads to much higher reading ability (Johnston and Watson, 1997) and the Framework should have encouraged this. However instead it recommends a much slower pace with new letter sounds slowly added, so that not all the letter sounds are known until Year 2, Term 2 (the third year at school):
Reception Year A-Z, CH, SH, TH8.2. The Framework places a strong emphasis on onset and rime (where a word like stop is considered to have an onset st, and a rime op. The belief is that these will form easier building blocks for learning to read). The reasoning behind onset and rime has now been shown to be flawed (Seymour and Duncan, 1997; Hulme, Snowling and Taylor 1997; Savage 1997). The Framework has no suggestion that children are taught all the possible onsets and rimes to help this process, only that they will deduce them 'by analogy'. As was corrected stated early in the Framework, children learn much better by being taught, than by being expected to distinguish things 'simply by being exposed to them'.
Year 1, Term 2 NG
Year 1, Term 3 AI, EE, IE, OA, long OO
Year 2, Term 1 short OO, AR, OY, AW
Year 2, Term 2 OR, ER.
In Reception Year and Year 1, Term 1, the termly planning starts with rhyming activities. Blending has only a minor mention in Year 1, Term 1. Yet blending ability is much more powerful than rhyming awareness, and has been shown to be a strong predictor of future reading ability (Lundberg, Olofsson and Wall, 1980; Perfetti, Beck, Bell and Hughes, 1987). The Framework should have emphasized the need to teach blending in Reception instead of rhyming.
8.3. The key reason why children do so well when they have been taught phonics is that they are able to work out new words for themselves. They can sound out the letters and blend them together to make the word. To do this, of course, they need to know all the letter sounds, including the digraphs (CH, SH, AI, EE, etc.) The teaching recommended in the Framework suggests that this understanding was not appreciated. In Reception Year there are three instances where children are expected to be taught to 'read on sight' specific groups of words, but there is no mention of their ever being expected to work out the words for themselves. If we look at some of the words that are expected to be read on sight we see that they include very many words that could be worked out even from the limited number of letter sounds already taught. These include such words as: up, and, on, at, this, am, cat, dog, big, mum, dad, etc. By not giving this understanding, the Framework is holding back the potential achievement of teachers and their children.
9. Handwriting included.The Framework is right to include Handwriting, and from Reception (the school year for 5 year olds, Kindergarten in the US). It includes an emphasis on the formation of letters and on joined writing. These are important points and by and large they are well understood by teachers in the UK, though, in my experience, not by teachers in North America.
However the pace proposed is really too slow. While the Framework rightly encourages letter formation 'in a script that will be easier to join later', it should be in Reception rather than in Year 1, Term 1. Joins between letters are proposed only in Year 2 when again they should start in Reception. In the many schools where it is taught, children are readily writing joined-up in Reception, and their writing (and spelling) is much better as a result.
10. Grammar from Reception.The Framework has an emphasis on grammar which starts in Reception with expectations, for instance, for 'written text to make sense'. This is eminently sensible. Nonetheless it is a departure from The Grammar Papers, recently published by QCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) where grammar is not considered until Key Stage 2.
The concept of a sentence is introduced in Year 1, Term 1, but surprisingly the first of the parts of speech to be taught, the verb, is not introduced until Year 3, Term 1, despite the fact that it is an easier concept for children to understand.
Teaching of the parts of speech usefully serves as a means of extending the child's vocabulary.
11. Sentence construction and punctuation.Making proper sentences and using correct punctuation are important skills which are rightly included in this document. They start in Year 1, Term 1 with capital letters taught for the start of a sentence and a full stop for the end. The pace is relatively slow, so that the comma is not introduced until Year 2, Term 1 and other punctuation marks later.
12. Conclusions.Overall the Framework is a disappointing document because it has missed the opportunity to apply the understandings we now have of how best to teach young children to read. Before the Framework was published I had two members of the National Literacy Project tell me that they did not believe they could incorporate these understandings because they did not believe it would be accepted by the teaching community. They felt they had gone as far as they could go. In the event the criticism now being made about the Framework is that it is not radical enough. The view is being expressed that, if the government does achieve the targets it has set, it will be because of the emphasis it has placed on improving literacy rather than by the teaching guidance in the Framework document. It is to be hoped that the Framework will be revised for future years to make it more effective.
Adams MJ (1990). Beginning to Read. Boston: MIT Press.
Bond GL and Dykstra R (1967). The cooperative research program in first-grade reading instruction. (1969) Reading Research Quarterly, 2, 5-142.
Chall JS (1967). Learning to read: The great debate. New York: McGraw-Hill.
The grammar papers, QCA, 1998. Ref: QCA/98/052 ISBN 1 85838 301 3 Available from QCA Publications, PO Box 235, Hayes, Middlesex UB3 1HF.
Harris, RJ. 'An experimental inquiry into the functions and value of formal grammar in the teaching of English, with special reference to the teaching of correct written English to children aged twelve to fourteen', unpublished PhD thesis, University of London, 1962, summary of research published in Use of English, Vol 16, 1965.
Hulme C, Snowling M and Taylor S (1997). Segmentation, not Rhyming, Predicts Early Progress in Learning to Read (1997). Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 65, 370-396.
Johnston RS and Watson J (1997). What sort of Phonics? Literacy and Learning, Issue 1, Autumn 1997, p9-11.
Lundberg I, Olofsson A and Wall S, (1980). Reading and spelling skills in the first school years predicted from phonemic awareness skills in kindergarten. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 21, 159-173.
Macmillan B (1997). Why Schoolchildren Can't Read. IEA Education and Training Unit, 2 Lord North Street, London SW1P 3LB.
Perfetti CA, Beck I, Bell L and Hughes C, (1987). Phonemic knowledge and learning to read are reciprocal: A longitudinal study of first grade children. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 33, 283-319.
Savage RS (1997). Do Children Need Concurrent Prompts in Order to Use Lexical Analogies in Reading? J. Child. Psychiat. Vol 38, No 2, p 235-246. Cambridge University Press.
Seymour PHK and Duncan LG (1997). Small versus Large Unit Theories of Reading Acquisition. Dyslexia Vol 3, 125-134. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Tizard B, et al. (1988). Young children at School in the Inner City. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. p168.
Tomlinson, D. 'Errors in the research into the effectiveness of grammar teaching', English in Education, Vol 28, No 1, 1994, pp 20-26 NATE.
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