Reading should be a primary school’s biggest priority, says Steve Mynard, editor of Primary Headship

‘The most important skill any child can leave primary school with is the ability to read independently and effectively for meaning.’ This is not a quote from one of the many reviews of the different strategies for teaching reading that have appeared over the years. It is not an assertion from a government think tank or an organisation promoting their particular approach to teaching reading. It is simply a statement for myself on the occasion of my return to full-time class teaching and taking responsibility for the learning of a class of Reception children. Twenty-five years ago, during my initial teacher training, I received one lecture on the subject of teaching children to read. One lecture! There seemed to be an expectation that we would somehow pick it up as we went along. When I went into the classroom as an employed teacher it was rather fortunate that my first few classes were in upper Key Stage 2 and so most of the children were able to read – more or less. Those who couldn’t read were given various forms of one-to-one and small group support. Just occasionally I would experience a breakthrough with a child and the head would come into my classroom to tell me that a certain child had leapt up two years in her reading age in the last term and how proud I should be. Of course, I was proud, but I didn’t really feel confident that I could claim any responsibility for this occurrence. After all, I didn’t actually know how children learned to read! As I moved into deputy headship and the National Literacy Strategy came into being I began to get a better understanding of a structured approach to the teaching of reading. As my management responsibilities began to grow and I took on the role of literacy coordinator I found it necessary to understand what was happening in the Reception and KS1 classes. I found opportunities to go on training courses with our teaching assistants to help prepare them to support children who hadn’t mastered reading as they moved into Years 3 and 4. Bit by bit I put together a reasonable level of understanding of how to get a child from non-reader to reader. SAT scores at the end of KS1 and KS2 for reading improved and all was well with the world! Supporting my own children with their development as readers helped tremendously; but also added to the confusion, in a way. Children whose parents immerse them in books and visits to the library in the pre-school years and who read with them every day at home during their first years at school will inevitably have a better chance of being strong readers as they enter Year 3 – so it was with my own daughters. They just seemed to learn to read – quite how they learned was still a bit of a mystery!

Will power

As a primary head for three years I became convinced that the biggest single factor in helping children to develop as readers was sheer willpower! Sure, everyone was following the NLS and delivering the material, but children seemed to make the best progress when we simply urged them enthusiastically and wholeheartedly! Not very scientific, I know, but I am sure there is an element of truth in this. We do seem to want there to be a single panacea for the challenges of teaching children to read. At one time I thought it was the searchlights approach of the NLS. This seemed to make sense and appeared to settle the argument between the various warring factions of the reading debate once and for all – a simple solution where everyone could be right! But searchlights didn’t bring the longed-for dream of universal literacy with every child leaving primary school clutching a Level 4 or 5 in English. After three years of headship I took a career break and spent a couple of years working for myself delivering training courses for teachers and workshops in historical drama and storytelling for children around the country. I found, however, that I was missing the day-to-day routine of school and so started doing some supply work at one of my local first schools. A teacher went off ill and I found myself with a mixed Reception/Year 1 class for three days a week. I have taught this class for nine months now and have enjoyed it so much that I am returning to full-time class teaching. During my time with this class I became even more convinced that will power and enthusiasm really are big factors in teaching children to read.

The Rose Review

Of course, there does need to be a structure in place too and in Jim Rose’s independent review of the teaching of early reading I think we may just have been shown that structure. Jim Rose conducted his review during 2005 and published his findings and recommendations in March 2006. The Rose Review recommends that phonics can be a valuable tool in teaching children to read and write: High quality, systematic phonic work as defined by the review should be taught discretely. The knowledge, skills and understanding that constitute high quality phonic work should be taught as the prime approach in learning to decode (to read) and encode (to write/spell) print. Like a lot of people who started teaching pre National Curriculum I have never quite been able to treat the word ‘phonics’ with anything like respect. Phonics is fine for c-a-t but it does rather let itself down when it comes to l-i-g-h-t, and my prejudice really has been as simple as that! I guess that is why I was keen on searchlights – it allowed phonics its due status, but still allowed me to recognise children who simple picked up reading through word recognition and picture cues. The Rose Review also says that it is important this work starts early and that it is carried out with the needs of young learners in mind: For most children, high quality, systematic phonic work should start by the age of five, taking full account of professional judgements of children’s developing abilities and the need to embed this work within a broad and rich curriculum. As a newly reinvented early years teacher with a great desire for the ‘learning through play’ approach to spread ever more widely (and further up the school) I very nearly consigned Jim Rose to the recycling bin at this point. Then my Sounds and Letters pack arrived together with the new Early Years Foundation Stage Guidance. These two publications, I believe, will make a real difference to the experiences of young children and will lead them into KS1 and KS2 better prepared for reading than they have ever been before. The key point is the one about embedding this work ‘within a broad and rich curriculum’. I am prepared to deliver Sounds and Letters. It certainly looks well thought out, and I will deliver it with all my professional ability – while at the same time willing and urging the children with all my heart to become readers! ‘The most important skill any child can leave primary school with is the ability to read independently and effectively for meaning.’ This is the single biggest achievement I can have as a teacher. When I used to teach Year 6 I would sweat blood trying to get them all to read independently by the end of the year. My move to the early years is founded on a desire to give children the best start I can in their learning life and in particular in beginning to develop the crucial communication skills of speaking, listening, reading and writing. I am really excited about the challenge!

The Rose Review can be read in full at: Literacy statistics

Trying to pin down a figure for literacy levels in Britain can be difficult. The OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) uses PISA (the Programme for International Student Assessment) to assess education levels among 15-year-olds in schools in the principal industrialised countries. The first PISA study was conducted in 2000 and focused on proficiency in reading as well as literacy in science and mathematics. The United Kingdom came seventh out of 32 countries. Finland came first, with Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Republic of Ireland and Korea also finishing ahead of the UK. France and the USA were half way down the list and Italy and Germany even lower. This placing for the UK does not tally with another OECD study that concluded in 2000 after 10 years of research. The UK was found to be in the bottom half of 20 western industrialised countries for reading levels – we topped the league for hours spent watching television, though! In a more recent study conducted by the DfES in 2003 entitled Skills for Life: A National Needs and Impact Survey, 5.2m people aged 16 to 65 were found to have a reading level equivalent to the level expected for an 11-year-old. A further 12.6m can only read as well as someone who scored a grade D to G at GCSE. These combined figures mean that 56% of the adult population are poor readers – many of them very poor.

As a primary school teacher for 17 years I have become increasingly embarrassed by these kind of statistics. The children in my first class are now aged 27. If a significant number of 27-year-olds cannot read I am at least partly to blame!