The interim report* of the Rose review of the teaching of early reading has attracted most attention for its support of the approach, which is generally understood as ‘synthetic’ phonics.

SENCOs will, however, be as interested in its response to another aspect of its remit. Its recommendations are relevant and supportive for the work primary SENCOs do in helping colleagues meet the needs of pupils who have difficulties in learning to read.

The report examines the question of what range of provision best supports children with significant literacy difficulties and enables them to catch up with their peers, and the relationship of such targeted intervention programmes with synthetic phonics teaching.

Additional help always required for some pupils The report concludes that no matter how good mainstream practice is, there will always be a requirement for interventions to meet the various needs of children for additional support. Rose recommends that schools make sure that additional support is compatible with mainstream practice. Where intervention work is successfully taught separately as a ‘catch-up’ or ‘recovery’ programme, every effort must be made to make sure the gains made by the children are sustained. In discussing intervention, Rose distinguishes between two main groups of children:

  • those who are falling behind, either because of issues relating to their personal, social and economic circumstances, or weaknesses in the teaching or teaching programmes they have received
  • those who have, for example, specific neurological problems (for whom Wave 3 provision is likely to be most appropriate), some of whom may be unable to ‘catch up’ with their peers.

For all children, as well as both these groups, the interim report argues that high quality teaching of phonic work is a prerequisite. It suggests that, if this teaching were of sufficiently high quality early on, ie at Wave 1 (quality first teaching for all), there would be far less need for intervention at Wave 2 for those children who fall behind, but who are capable of performing at the level of their peers.

The report claims that evidence from visits to schools that have adopted a synthetic phonics programme show that such systematic approaches to teaching phonics help to identify, early on, those children who are not making progress in line with their peers. Teachers are able to intervene promptly and provide additional support enabling children to catch up quickly.

There will, of course, always be a need for more intensive support for children with complex learning difficulties that is best provided separately.

Continued debate about phonics Despite strong support from the interim report, debate continues about the merits of synthetic phonics. Critics are still sceptical about the research design of the Clackmannanshire study, which is frequently cited in favour of the superiority of synthetic phonics. They argue that it did not include an appropriate control group for comparison and that improvements in reading accuracy are not complemented by improvements in reading comprehension.

There is also debate between proponents of different approaches to synthetic phonics. In a press statement, Alan Davies, pioneer of the widely used phonics programme THRASS (Teaching Handwriting Reading And Spelling Skills) argues for the ‘natural synthesis’ approach used in his programme rather than the ‘artificial synthesis’ approach used in Scotland. He also believes that the interim report is misguided in seeking to look for a new model of early reading to replace the NLS ‘Searchlights’ model. He claims that ‘the main problem with the NLS has been the weak and inaccurate training for the ‘Phonics Searchlight’.

He draws attention to the point familiar to SENCOs but often overlooked in the political debate about literacy standards, ‘It is not that 20% of pupils are illiterate, it is that 20% haven’t reached the preferred standard for their age – Level 4.’

*Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading: Interim Report.
Available online at: www.dfes.gov.uk.

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