Literacy: A moral right

Written by: Debbie Hepplewhite | Published:
Image: iStock

In a challenging article, literacy expert Debbie Hepplewhite bemoans the conflicting and often strongly held views on how we should teach children to read – and calls for the moral rights of the child to be placed above the professional rights of the teacher

Do teachers share the same professional understanding of phonics provision and reading instruction? No.

This is what I note in every context nationally and internationally (through wider reading, first-hand observations in schools and of video footage, via forums, blogs, networks and the media). Does this matter? Yes, it certainly does.

What children receive should not be left to chance where literacy is concerned. Some schools in England consistently achieve 95 to 100 per cent literacy. All teachers need to be fully informed regarding what the most successful schools do. We need to work collaboratively nationally and internationally in sharing information and we could do this with modern technology.

What we really need, however, is an organisation with the capacity to do this properly and with good heart for our shared professional development – and not in a piecemeal way in the form of yet more and more individual research projects, which often just re-invent the wheel and cost a fortune in time and money. I suggest that we need a proper, non-intimidating, non-judgemental collaborative national review in England to build on.

The need for clear definitions and descriptions of what we understand, or mean when we refer to “phonics provision”, “reading instruction”, “play-based learning” or “formal teaching” is absolutely key. We are in an era when far more attention is being paid to becoming a research-informed profession, so what does the research conclude to date about reading instruction? Are the findings commonly understood and fully acted upon?

Despite our rich English language and collective findings to date, we are failing teachers and children alike because we are not utilising the research and leading-edge practice well enough and we are not using language clearly enough to avoid ambiguity. Arguably, beliefs, philosophies, misinformation and misunderstandings continue to obscure the potential for achieving 100 per cent literacy.

As someone who has been involved in teaching and teacher-training – along with formal and informal debating – for many decades, this is my conclusion. We have a lack of shared, professional understanding, including what the breadth of research shows us, and leading-edge practice and how we can best provide for each and every learner to fulfil their potential.

We speak at cross-purposes everywhere you look – and people get pretty cross with one another’s different positions, views, philosophies, beliefs, provision; their personal “understanding”. That’s the picture.

Surely we should face up to this as part of our CPD and focus on building on research findings to date.

In England, we may well have some of the best phonics and reading instruction provision compared to the global picture – but we’ll never know if academics, politicians and teachers don’t get their act together and welcome objective, large-scale assessment instead of condemning it.

Imagine if we could embrace the use of the same phonics check globally. This simple snapshot assessment would be truly beneficial for informing the teaching profession and moving us towards greater worldwide literacy wherever the complex English writing system is taught.

Not only do I try to support teachers with materials, guidance and suggestions, I find myself defending teachers (and teaching assistants) constantly. They are all really hard-working, but many continue to get mixed messages about how best to teach reading for all – and it is not surprising that they therefore get very mixed results.

What are teachers to believe when academics with the same level of qualifications (to all intents and purposes) challenge one another constantly? What are teachers to think when literacy organisations, intervention organisations, and teachers’ unions write papers with conflicting ideas, and children’s authors sign petitions against the advent of the year 1 phonics screening check?

What is the student-teacher or novice teacher to think when various early years advisors and organisations campaign against “formal” teaching (including structured phonics teaching) before the age of seven? What does this emotive use of the word “formal” really mean? What are teachers to provide for beginners to read independently when publishers continue to publish repetitive and predictable early reading books, in effect fudging the issue regarding the kind of books that will best support beginners and strugglers with building up their confidence, fluency and reading capacity?

What is the general public to think with the mixed bag of information and argument they read via the media and the internet? Myths, misinformation and muddle abound. The three-year survey of the National Foundation Educational Research, commissioned by the Department for Education (NFER, 2012-15,) noted the lack of clarity around year 1 teachers’ views of phonics provision, their support or otherwise for the phonics check, and whether or not they still believed in, and practised, multi-cueing word-guessing.

Research clearly flags up multi-cueing word-guessing (also known as the “searchlights reading strategies” in England and the three-cueing strategies elsewhere) as being detrimental to at least some children – many in fact. Multi-cueing was replaced by the conceptual framework of the Simple View of Reading (Gough & Tunmer, 1986) recommended in the Rose Review (2006) – and now embedded in the statutory national curriculum for English for key stages 1 and 2 (2014). The NFER reports, however, highlight the persistent confusion and the lack of shared understanding among teachers.

It is unfortunate that the statutory year 1 phonics check has been officially presented, in the main, as supporting individual teachers to identify individual children not yet secure with their alphabetic code knowledge and decoding skill. This is not the best use of a national snapshot check – and some would suggest not its real motive anyway.

The benefit of the phonics check for teachers is not to know that little Alex got 29 out of 40 in the check and is not yet secure with the “ue” letter/s-sound correspondence (such minutiae can be assessed in regular class practice), but to know how effectively they are teaching foundational alphabetic code knowledge and the decoding skill compared to the national picture.

It is this bigger picture, including the year-on-year results for each school, including the results of parallel year 1 classes in the same school, including results following staff turnover, that will inform teachers’ professional knowledge regarding their teaching effectiveness.

The provision of phonics and reading instruction needs to belong to the school, not the preferences of the individual teacher, and provision needs to be research-informed, high-quality, fit-for-purpose content and practice and consistently effective regardless of who is doing the teaching and who is doing the learning.

It is the moral right of each child to be taught in the most effective way to raise the likelihood of becoming fully literate – this is life-chance stuff. In this particular field, it is not the right of each teacher to decide what and how to teach that is at the heart of the matter. It is utterly dismaying to witness so many academics and others sticking up for the “professional” rights of the teacher put above the moral rights of the child. This has to be said.

I am aware that this article may present as challenging, but I want to conclude with an encouraging observation that galvanises me to write in this way.

I am contacted every day by individuals who describe passionately the improvements they have found from being supported with good information, resources and guidance. Same teacher, same context, same learners – but a change of method and materials and very rapid and notable strides are made.

With the internet, masses of research findings and a variety of good material to choose from, one-by-one and school-by-school is not good enough and not quick enough to serve all our children well.

We can do much better to raise literacy standards for all with greater support from those with the clout, the money, the access to the teaching profession nationally to study and share in a generic format – definitions and details – to identify and describe what truly works for all the children. Time to get more serious about sharing the practicalities and joining those dots.

  • Debbie Hepplewhite is a phonics consultant and trainer and programme author. She has championed the need for evidence-informed reading instruction for two decades and is a founding committee member of the International Foundation for Effective Reading Instruction. Debbie has recently been collaborating with Raintree on phonics skills development.


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