In July 2021, DfE published The reading framework: Teaching the foundations of literacy which, it says, focuses on the early stages of teaching reading and the contribution of talk, stories and systematic synthetic phonics (SSP); supports primary school leaders to evaluate their teaching of early reading and best practice for improving early reading (especially in Reception and Year 1); and older pupils who have not yet mastered the foundations of reading. Reading the document for myself, a number of issues emerged from the guidance:
- First and foremost is the use of inconsistent terminology, and a lack of clarity as to whether the focus of the document is on reading, writing, speaking or listening, and thus how literacy is defined (read the Introduction on page 6).
- It is poorly pitched for schools, as teachers will already be familiar with much of the content, the majority of which is covered in English ITT courses. Further, the document seems to assume an automatic deficit model of language and literacy practice within all settings; not helped by the inclusion of constant audit pro formas to help “review” provision and practice.
- Similarly, it seems to assume a deficit in relation to the home learning environment, with a repeated theme of the “quality of talk” that goes on at home being fundamental to children’s success.
- There is no reference at all to pre-school input or language interventions that are required to take place from the age of two years following the EYFS Progress Check, nor how primary schools will be building on records of language and literacy development from a child’s previous setting.
Below I discuss in more detail some concerns with the guidance, and make suggestions of additional issues to consider relating to the teaching of reading in Reception and Year 1.
Definitions and conceptualisations
Approaches to literacy education are underpinned by particular ways of conceptualising reading and writing in terms of what reading and writing actually are, and by particular ways of conceptualising how reading and writing can be learned. This document is a prime example of this where reading is conceptualised as the accurate decoding of text to read conventional words; and writing as the use of accurately reproduced conventional text to convey written meaning, ie conventional reading and writing. If reading and writing are conceptualised in this way, it therefore follows that literacy policy, curricula and pedagogy will involve adult conceptualisations of how best to teach children to do this. This is what this document is attempting to do through its “how-to” strategies for teachers.
The teaching of writing within the document is rooted in a fundamental assumption that it can only be developed as the result of age-appropriate, systematic school instruction; thus negating any recognition of children writing independently before this point, and incorporating a notion of writing as only being writing when it is formed of conventional text. It is important to additionally make a distinction between writing and handwriting. In England, children are taught handwriting skills from the age of six years in Year 1. Handwriting is however different from writing in that handwriting practice involves children learning how to form a fluent writing style through being taught effective ways to reproduce letters; in other words, the graphic symbols that represent the English alphabet. This is distinct from using writing as a means of producing meaningful communication.
Becoming a reader and a writer
It is a major omission that the guidance makes no mention of beginner reader behaviour or practice, or building on skills established in the EYFS.
The beginner reader
From about 30 months onwards, most children are at the stage of role play reading. In this phase they are readers in so far as they show an interest in books and the print they see around them. They may recognize environmental print; the sign for a fast food outlet for example, or the logo on a supermarket shopping bag. They imitate the things they see adult readers doing such as holding a book, a magazine, or a newspaper carefully (although they may not hold it the right way around!), turning the pages, and sometimes providing a narrative as they do so. They often retell stories they have heard as they ‘pretend’ to read. They may read to their cuddly toys, dolls, friends, or younger siblings. It is important to develop children’s confidence in themselves as readers and there are several ways that they can be supported and encouraged to develop their early reading skills. The main goal is to instil a love of books and reading. In order to develop and consolidate their reading skills, beginner readers need to be treated as readers from the outset; to see reading as part of everyday life; to have access to a wide variety of resources and activities to encourage, develop and support their interest in print and their reading skills; be encouraged to join in with texts and read too; to see that reading is enjoyable and purposeful. Children who are more interested in reading will make use of the opportunities and experiences that are offered to them such as play-based reading opportunities that are grounded in meaningful contexts, constancy and consistency in terms of opportunities and situations in which to develop their reading skill, and to participate in an environment rich in reading opportunities (Bradford, in Palaiologou 2020:.256-7). Decodable texts are therefore insufficient on their own for learning to read.
The beginner writer
Children learn to write conventionally over a period of time, usually years. Two main elements underpin the development of writing; first, writing skills development (the development of fine motor skills including hand-eye coordination and the physical ability to successfully manipulate a chosen writing tool); and second, compositional skills development (the cognitive processes involved in understanding and applying organisational elements such as genre, grammar and spelling to effectively communicate meaning). Children begin to explore the features of writing from a very early age. They do so with the intention of creating meaning before understanding of the alphabetic principle has developed, and despite the fact that the writing produced is not conventional in that it cannot be read by an adult (Bradford and Wyse, 2010; 2013, Bradford, in Palaiologou, 2020: 260).
A critical approach to the guidance
Bearing these points in mind, the following areas of the guidance may need to be reconsidered:
- “The guidance also considers the role of poetry, rhymes and songs in attuning children to the sounds of language” (p7). This is correct, but is additionally fundamental to successful language development in children which then leads on to the development of sound awareness and phonic understanding to prepare children for learning to read (and write) conventional text.
- “Pupils who fail to learn to read early on start to dislike reading” (p8). The document emphasises reading for pleasure at the outset – but paradoxically states that this can only happen after children have worked their way through ‘appropriate’ levels of decodable texts. There are many ways to read together with children, including shared Storytime and book corners where children must be allowed to access favourite and other texts independently so that they are active participants in their choice of text rather than being ‘held back’ because they are not allowed to move on from prescribed levels of decodable texts. This approach will not instil a love of reading.
- “Phonics sessions might be only ten minutes long in the first few days. However, by the end of Reception children will need about an hour a day to consolidate previous learning, learn new content and practise and apply what they have learnt, maybe split into different sessions for different activities” (p47). The phrasing here is misleading and needs to be qualified. Learning to read (and write) should of course move beyond literacy sessions per se and extend to the wider curriculum, for example recording in maths or science, or writing non-fiction historical accounts. The current phrasing implies children sitting down for phonics sessions for an hour from the age of five years. What about practising and applying what they have learnt split into different ‘subject’ area sessions beyond literacy for different activities – moving away from a new, prescribed Literacy Hour; which never worked as a successful literacy strategy, and emphasised the need for a more holistic approach in the classroom.
- “Dictation is a vital part of a phonics session. Writing simple dictated sentences that include words taught so far gives children opportunities to practise and apply their spelling, without their having to think about what it is they want to say” (p49). I would argue that even if children are writing simple dictated sentences they are still thinking about what they want to say because this is an intrinsic part of the writing process – they still have to think of the individual letters, how they are formed, graphemes, phonemes. I cannot see how this exercise will support their writing development in the way it is suggested. Writers write best when they are writing about something that interests them. At the age of four, my great nephew decided he wanted to write his own Christmas cards in December 2020. He sat down for two hours to do so, with the support of his mother. Here is the card he wrote for me and my husband:
Note Ethan’s attention to detail! How he conveys his (very meaningful) message. What he already knows about writing a Christmas card. Think about how much more Ethan learnt about writing that afternoon! Intrinsic motivation to write is critical in the overall trajectory of a child’s writing development. How will dictation, where he is required to write what he is told to, help him in his future life?
- “Children’s writing generally develops at a slower pace than their reading” (p50). This statement is, quite simply, incorrect. Children’s writing always develops at a slower pace than their reading.There is no mention in the document of the complexities of learning to write and the effort that is involved for young writers, for example the ongoing development of working memory, a comfortable pencil grip, or the critical significance of competent hand eye coordination. In short, children’s ability to write fluently develops over a period of years and they work through a series of well documented and defined phases and stages. This is fact, established within a consistent, evidence-based research base.
- Activities that can hinder learning (p52) – I disagree with the comments on whiteboards. They can be used successfully in the classroom, with the teacher scanning children’s responses, or TAs or other assistants focusing on individual children’s responses. Whiteboards can be photographed as evidence, for example during guided writing sessions. Whiteboards are particularly helpful for children who are not keen on writing or who are still developing their fine motor skills; the whiteboard provides a no-risk space in which to practice, and the non-permanence of written text will support some children, for example repeated attempts at getting a letter or word ‘right’ without fear of crossings out on paper. Writing with a felt-tipped pen rather than a pencil will also help some children as they develop their fine motor skills and dexterity.
While there are also helpful aspects to this document – such as the continued importance of phonics after KS1 in relation to spelling – it does need to be used with caution. Teachers need to retain confidence in what they are already getting right in the teaching of reading, in the great strides that have been made in the teaching of phonics since 2006 and the Rose Review. Most importantly, they must not feel professionally undermined by the content.
Helen Bradford is a freelance early years consultant and an Early Education Associate
Palaiologou, I. (2021). The early years foundation stage theory and practice. 4th Ed. London: Sage.