The Phonics Blog

A commentary on issues and topics relating to the teaching of literacy. By the author of 'Phonics and the Resistance to Reading'

The Knowledge Deficit

It is generally recognised that for decades the training of teachers in the matter of how reading should be taught was concentrated mainly in the hands of people firmly rooted in the pre-scientific age. This historical background of incompetent training has of course helped to create in schools a dead weight of pedagogical inertia – an inability to come to terms with contemporary evidence about the teaching and learning of reading. So, the average primary teacher will never encounter within their school any questioning of the utility of teaching word-guessing or hear any of their colleagues challenge the prevailing culture of mixed methods. As a result, teachers work in a kind of protective bubble that isolates them from up-to-date knowledge about the reading process. Indeed, this bubble is so isolating that some teachers have convinced themselves that engaging with knowledge of any kind is somehow distasteful and demeaning. This shows itself in the 'professional' reaction against the focus on knowledge within the National Curriculum. Just pause for a moment and reflect on that: Teachers who sneer at the transmission of knowledge…

Because primary teachers are commonly isolated at work in communities which keep at arms-length the lessons of research into reading, it has been tempting for many of those who are sternly critical of word-guessing to absolve teachers from any blame for their current state of professional ignorance. The idea being that teachers shouldn't be blamed for their lack of knowledge when they have been trained and have worked in a culture in which this knowledge was never made available to them.

I disagree. I accept that there was a time when teachers could reasonably be excused - because they did not have easy access to the relevant facts. This is no longer the case. Teachers can now without much effort locate accurate knowledge about the teaching of reading and they have only themselves to blame if they do not take the trouble to acquire that knowledge and put it to use. I believe that teachers should act as professionals and be held responsible for ensuring that their knowledge and understanding are up-to-date and securely rooted in evidence.

When Nick Gibb became Minister of State in the Department for Education in 2010 he proceeded to push through a raft of measures intended to ensure that schools received clear and consistent messages about the place of phonics within national policy. One of those measures was a reworking of the Teachers' Standards that lay down the minimum requirements for teachers' practice and conduct. Those Standards came into force on September 1 2012 and include a requirement that teachers must "if teaching early reading, demonstrate a clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics". Since early reading is a stage of development and not an age, this requirement applies to all primary teachers who may find, even as late as Year Six, that they are teaching a class that includes one or more children still at the stage of 'early reading'.

Nearly five years after the introduction of this requirement it seems only right that teachers should have been expected by now to have taken steps to ensure that they do have a "clear understanding of systematic synthetic phonics". It is not self-evident that the responsibility for ensuring that teachers have this clear understanding rests solely with the school and it seems to me entirely reasonable to expect that teachers should have taken the trouble to undertake some private professional study to ensure that the state of their knowledge is sufficient to enable them to teach competently. A few hours spent reading Diane McGuinness's 'Why Our Children Can't Read and What We Can Do About It: A Scientific Revolution in Reading' would be a good start. For those who need a simple introduction, prior to moving on to more demanding texts, my book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading is deliberately pitched as an 'easy-read'.

For those whose propaedeutic needs to be in small bites online, there are plenty of sources of sound knowledge on the internet. Here are some that are immensely helpful:

Susan Godsland's website is almost an encyclopaedia of high-quality information about the teaching of reading and writing and includes plenty of pointers to other good sources for further study.

John Walker's website is masterly – a huge compendium of articles that draw on his deep knowledge and bring together theoretical insight and practical guidance.

Debbie Hepplewhite not only runs two extremely helpful websites and, but also seems to be constantly on-hand to offer information and friendly advice to teachers looking for help in online discussion forums.

Gordon Askew, a former colleague of mine and one-time Phonics Adviser to the DfE, has a website, that is commendably down-to-earth and ably sets out to clear up a great deal of the confusions that typically cloud the minds of teachers who promote word-guessing.

The International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction (IFERI) is an organisation whose aim is "to contribute to raising standards of literacy in the English language based on robust research and high-quality instruction in the teaching of reading, spelling and writing". Its very useful website includes a helpful set of 'factsheets' and a forum that handles discussion of relevant issues.

These websites – and there are plenty of other good ones too – point to the fact that teachers have ready and easy access to good, reliable sources of knowledge about the teaching of reading. There are no longer any excuses for professional ignorance.

But, of course, we cannot ignore the fact that one of the major roadblocks in the way of improving teacher knowledge about reading is nothing to do with access to improved understanding - it is about the institutional persistence of low expectations. The 'Teacher Development Trust', an independent charity focused on the role of professional development in improving pupil outcomes, states that "professional learning should be driven by the aspiration teachers have for the children they teach and the passion they bring to their work". This is well-intentioned as a principle, but has the probably unintended effect of highlighting one of the major obstacles to improvement. There is no spur to improving professional understanding of the teaching of reading in most schools, precisely because there is a lack of what the Teacher Development Trust describes as an "aspiration" to raise standards. Teachers are generally content with outcomes as they are and accordingly content with their own practice.

So, the consequence is that teachers carry on teaching in the way they always have - the only way they know. The 'way they know' systematically and routinely excludes about 20% of children from fully-functional literacy. Teachers' professional self-belief is completely undented by these damaging outcomes and they take no steps to inform themselves of where they are going wrong and what they should be doing instead.

The fundamental weakness in the teaching of reading in so many primary schools is the entirely misplaced professional confidence in the mixed-methods approach to the teaching of reading – the arrogant insistence that the teachers of word-guessing know best and shouldn't stir themselves to know better.

Mike Lloyd-Jones 10 January 2017