Home » Can We Teach All Children to Read and Spell?

Can We Teach All Children to Read and Spell?

”Teaching children to read is one of the most important things the State does.”
(UK Parliament’s all-party Science and Technology Committee)

”It is essential that, by the end of their primary education, all pupils are able to read fluently, and with confidence, in any subject in their forthcoming secondary education” 
(Ofsted School Inspection Handbook 2019)

It is still unusual for nearly all of a primary school’s children to regularly finish year 6 able to decode and encode at a level that allows them to deal confidently with the reading and spelling demands of the secondary curriculum. However, some schools (examples below) have managed to overcome this deplorable and needless state of affairs…

A primary school that, through teaching the linguistic phonics programme Sounds-Write ”with fidelity”, has superb reading and spelling results, is St Thomas Aquinas in Milton Keynes.

St George’s is a small primary school in Battersea, London. Half of its pupils have English as an additional language and over half are eligible for free school meals (a measure of deprivation). The school uses Sounds-Write to teach reading and spelling. All its Y1 children achieved the required standard in the phonics decoding check 6 years in a row and all the children in Y1 and Y2 (2018) can spell at chronological age or better; good evidence that top-quality linguistic phonics teaching in the early years actively prevents ‘phonemic deafness’ or ‘dyslexia’ developing.

Why it is Essential to Teach High-Quality Phonics in the Early Years:

Many teachers and educationalists believe that ”(M)ost students will learn to read regardless of whichever approach is employed.” (Elliott. J. 2020) Aside from the fact that phonics is not a method, a strategy or one of a range of approaches for word reading, it’s undeniable that there has always been a small percentage of children who crack the alphabetic code early on and can decode fluently (though not necessarily how to spell) despite receiving little in the way of direct phonics teaching. It’s also true that most children who receive the low quality and limited phonics instruction that is still found in many primary schools, do manage to memorise the most common words by sight and devise a range of partial guessing strategies to read the longer, trickier words in the school’s banded/levelled reading scheme or ‘real’ books. Sadly, a significant percentage of these seemingly successful readers will have had a more difficult time learning to read than is necessary and will remain weak spellers.

”Phonics is not an approach. It is a body of knowledge about the alphabetic code, an understanding of some simple concepts about how the code works and a set of skills that enable us to decode and encode (read and spell)”
(Ann Sullivan)

Is phonics a ‘method’ for teaching reading?
”Phonics is, therefore, not a pedagogy (a method of teaching) but is essential content or curriculum. This distinction is important because the choice you are making when deciding whether to teach phonics is not which method to use to teach children how to read but whether to directly teach reading at all…There is no other way to read English fluently, and it is imperative for all children to know and be able to use phonics.”

Then there are the children with excellent visual memories and rich vocabularies. Typically, they take to reading with ease in a balanced approach classroom and appear to read the school’s predictable-text scheme books with little difficulty, moving swiftly up the levels during the early primary years. A problem occurs if, in the absence of high-quality phonics instruction, they continue to rely heavily on whole-word memorisation and multi-cue word guessing and don’t discover for themselves how to decode and spell all words efficiently using phonics. Their reading ability is likely to stall when their memory for whole word shapes becomes overloaded and the look-and-guess pictures disappear from the books. This commonly occurs when children are between 7 and 10 years old (the ‘4th-grade reading slump’), sometimes later if they have good general knowledge and a wide vocabulary, both of which aid inference.

Delaying direct phonics instruction or providing poor quality decoding instruction in the early years, thereby compelling children to devise their own word reading strategies, proved, perhaps surprisingly, to be most detrimental to those children who had the richest vocabulary, despite them having equivalent PA abilities to those who managed to discover for themselves how to decode efficiently using phonics:
Decoding strategies as predictors of reading skill:
”Children who stayed with the most inefficient [decoding] strategies had significantly higher vocabulary scores and equivalent phonemic processing ability when compared to readers with more efficient decoding strategies.”

”Children are surrounded by print. Many try to read at a very young age. Letting them drift along using their invented strategies, without intervention, may harm them for life.”
(D. McGuinness. WCCR. p153)

When children taught through the balanced approach get to secondary school, 20-30+% (see teenagers) will struggle to fluently decode the huge number of novel, multi-syllable words they will encounter in secondary level literature (school English books contain around 88,500 different words. (McGuinness ERI p216) and in texts for other subjects.
The insidious effects of the balanced word reading approach produce a regular cohort of ‘dyslexics’, generate high numbers of students who dislike reading and writing and cause significant numbers of teenagers to stall in their studies at the secondary stage.

”Multi-syllable problems are decoding problems! The point that I have to make all the time is that if students can’t read multi-syllable words well, we aren’t finished with decoding instruction.” 
(Sara Peden. Twitter)

Is the End-of-Primary Reading Comprehension Test ‘Fit for Purpose’?

The end-of-primary (KS2) Reading comprehension test is not curriculum-based and, unlike the Y1 phonics decoding check, ”the KS2 assessments are designed to produce a normal distribution of abilities and not all children are statistically able to ‘pass’.’’ (David Didau)

”As Beck et al. (1999) observed, the impression is often given in reading development that reading comprehension is the final stage in a hierarchical structure. This, they suggest, results in the assessment of reading comprehension being accepted as the most accurate assessment of reading…SSP can improve word recognition and enhance the development of reading fluency. However, to evaluate its efficacy on an assessment that is also dependent on the development of cognitive maturation and global, cultural and discrete knowledge may be a conflation.” 
(Timothy Mills. p93)

”A reading comprehension test is unable to reveal that a child has not yet mastered the phonic code. A pseudo word assessment can reveal this.” 
(The Reading Ape)

To increase the probability of performing well on the Reading test, pupils require an extensive, knowledge-rich (English) vocabulary, drawn from a wide variety of different subjects, especially the humanities and sciences (Christine Counsell). Schools in areas of deprivation, especially those with a high pupil turnover (these schools often have Y6 cohorts that are mostly different children to the original Y1 cohort), can find filling the knowledge-rich vocabulary gap an enormous challenge. Schools that draw the majority of their pupils from stable, middle-class areas, find it much easier to achieve high scores on the Reading test.

”The average socioeconomic status (SES) of the student body of the school…strongly predicts the average reading achievement of the school’s students.” 
(Dr. Hollis Scarborough)

”Vocabulary size is the outward and visible sign of an inward acquisition of knowledge. It is also a reliable correlate to social class.” 
(Christine Counsell)

”But as cognitive scientists have discovered, the key factor in comprehension isn’t skill; it’s subject-specific knowledge and vocabulary.” 
(Natalie Wexler)

Teacher Tarjinder Gill closely examined the KS2 Reading test’s construction. She concluded that ”By ignoring the role knowledge plays in comprehension and focusing so heavily on measuring reading comprehension skills it does not provide valuable or useful information about the targets or reading.”

”(O)nly curriculum-based tests can be fair and educationally productive.” 
(Hirsch 2006 p108)

There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test

”It appears that literacy, as a skill, is not constant, but is relative to subject matter domain, and it depends upon the extent of the reader’s background knowledge in that subject.”

”All reading comprehension tests are really “knowledge tests in disguise.” 
(Prof. Willingham. italics added)

”(R)eform standardised reading tests so that they are based on a specific body of knowledge taught in the preceding years rather than knowledge selected at random.” (Greg Ashman. Quillette 08/08/19)
-see ‘Louisiana’s remarkable reading test’

Reading Ability Links with Mental Health / Behaviour / Crime:

The ability to read and write well is a major key to a happy and successful passage through life in our society. Professor MacDonald wrote, ”My own research on the psychology of adult illiteracy has amply demonstrated that the ability to read is probably the most significant factor (out of many) in determining a person’s sense of autonomy and self-worth”. Intellectual independence also relies on good reading skills: ”Close reading of tough-minded writing is still the best, cheapest and quickest method known for learning to think for yourself.” (Gatto p56)

”The Centre for Social Justice found there are significant literacy and numeracy problems in 50-75% of children who are permanently excluded from school. Many children were found to “display challenging behaviour to hide the fact they cannot read.” 
(DfE. Evidence paper p1)

”Reading is likely the single most important skill acquired through formal schooling, an essential foundation for educational progress and mastery. In today’s world, a basic level of reading proficiency is no longer sufficient for the demands of the workplace (Vaughn et al., 2003). Reading failure contributes to a host of long-term negative outcomes, including frustration leading to more generalized academic and behavior problems, high rates of suspension, and limited access to employment opportunities in adulthood (Brunner, 1993). Youth with pronounced reading difficulties are vulnerable to marginalization in their schools and communities and a lifelong risk of involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
(Leone, Krezmien, Mason, & Meisel, 2005 p95)

”Struggling readers are more likely to report feeling sad, lonely, angry, anxious and depressed. Their poor reading skills make it hard for them to keep up in other subject areas. They’re more likely to have behavior problems, to drop out of school and to end up in the criminal justice system.”
(APM Reports. What the Words Say)

Can Reading Problems Affect Mental Health?

”Reading failure correlates with aggressive, anti-social behaviour more strongly than any social or economic indicator.”
(Turner & Burkard p13)

Literacy and Behaviour

Trauma and Reading: “…the single most powerful predictor of their ability to overcome the trauma and survive their circumstances is the ability to read.”

The Reading Wars:

You do not have to delve far into the world of education academia to discover the ‘Reading Wars’. This is a very long-running and acrimonious debate between those who say that top-quality
phonics is the most efficient and effective way to teach decoding and spelling, according to all the available scientific evidence, and those who insist that using a range of multi-cueing (guessing) strategies to read words in context, a so-called ‘balanced literacy’ approach, works best. The controversy extends into the progressive education community. Many of its members hold a more extreme belief that virtually all children, given an environment full of books with helpful, literate adults on hand, can teach themselves to read, just as they learnt to walk and talk.

”The essential constructivist principle is that teachers should teach nothing directly, but rather function as coaches while their students basically teach themselves”. American Professor Stephen Krashen, ”a self-described ‘staunch defender” of whole language, believes that, “(A)ny child exposed to comprehensible print will learn to read, barring severe neurological or emotional problems…Kids learn to read by reading.” (Krashen quoted by Charlotte Allen in https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/weekly-standard/read-it-and-weep-14959)

Another of the major exponents of whole language, the late Margaret Meek, famously said that children learn to read, “when there is something they want to read and an adult who takes time and trouble to help them.”

How whole language was let into England:
”If a child guessed a word rather than sounded it out, Meek (1982) suggested that this was the individual child’s decision, should be encouraged as their preferred approach and teaching adapted to the individual’s style. The implicit link to ‘learning styles’ is evident.”
(The Reading Ape)

Australian children’s book author Mem Fox also believes that ”(A)ll children will learn to read if they are exposed to enough books, words, stories.”

Fact and fiction with Mem Fox

The home literacy environment: ”Storybook exposure was not a significant predictor of children’s outcomes. In contrast, direct literacy instruction remained a predictor of reading/spelling skills.”

“Balanced literacy was a way to defuse the wars over reading,” said Mark Seidenberg, a cognitive neuroscientist and author of the book “Language at the Speed of Sight.” “It succeeded in keeping the science at bay, and it allowed things to continue as before.”
(Seidenberg quoted by Emily Hanford in https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2018/09/10/hard-words-why-american-kids-arent-being-taught-to-read)

For an idea of the difficulty involved in learning to read using an opaque alphabet code, look at this re-coded, first line of a well-known nursery rhyme and work out what it says: Ytoxto hruxsz ub ldyyuos xtmo (answer at the base of this page): ”This example provides the adult reader with some idea of the child’s first experience with print. If you stared at this passage for years, you wouldn’t have the slightest idea how to decode it. Why then should we expect a child to decipher the English alphabet code, one of the most complex ever designed, without direct instruction?” 
(D. McGuinness WCCR p17)

Multi-Modal / Multi-Sensory Teaching in High-Quality Phonics Lessons:

For true multi-modal / multi-sensory teaching, each phonics lesson should provide multiple tasks that reinforce all possible sensory and motor systems in tandem: listening (phoneme analysis), looking (discriminate letter shapes/learn spelling patterns, visual tracking), writing (kinesthetic movement), and speaking (speech-motor system, auditory feedback) to anchor the spelling code in memory as quickly as possible.

”Be careful with interpreting the term “multi-sensory” – it doesn’t mean shaving cream and sand.” 
(Dr. Jan Wasowicz)

Diane McGuinness explains multi-modal teaching: 
”The cognitive systems of the brain rely on cross-modal processing to form what are known as “routines” or “subroutines” — which are carried out in the dendrites in “neural circuits.” In a complex act, various subroutines/circuits are linked up in the brain (via neural pathways), because each one of them occurs in a different region. Thus, if you teach phonemes linked to letters, and reinforce this via writing, you have connected up the auditory cortex language areas of the medial left hemisphere, (phonemic analysis and synthesis already in place because of language), with something NEW – i.e. visual symbols (not ordinarily part of language processing) which engage the posterior occipital regions of the brain responsible for visual pattern analysis, and then link both to a kinesthetic response by writing what you hear and see, which engages the fine motor processing systems governed by the motor cortex (usually left hemisphere superior motor gyrus). When you link all three as you process text (or generate text via writing), these three systems of the brain “cooperate” and reinforce one another, and this doubles the speed of learning. You have three different parts of the brain (plus their subsidiary regions) acting in tandem.”

Beginning Reading Instruction Around Europe:

On the best age to start teaching children how to decode and spell in English, the Rose review 2006 gave the following advice: ”(F)or most children, it is highly worthwhile and appropriate to begin a systematic programme of phonic work by the age of five, if not before for some children.” (Rose review 2006. para89)  Ofsted’s new Schools Inspection Handbook indicates that inspectors will expect to see that, ”(R)eading, including the teaching of systematic, synthetic phonics, is taught from the beginning of Reception.” An Ofsted spokesperson added, ”We do not expect to see phonic lessons in pre-reception settings.”

As evidence of the benefits of waiting until children are aged seven to start direct teaching of reading, the Early Years ‘play’ lobbyists can be relied on to flag up Finland, where all children become accurate word decoders within weeks of starting formal school, aged seven. What they fail to tell you is that Finland has a very transparent alphabetic spelling code and many Finnish parents teach their children to read pre-school, as it’s so easy to do.

”One-third of Finnish children can already read simple text when they begin school.”

”Currently, the most vehement opponents of synthetic phonics are the Early Years lobbyists. Their belief system has it that teaching five-year-olds to read is detrimental to their physical and mental well-being. They quote Finland where children do not begin ‘formal teaching’ until much later and learn to read easily to bolster their case…But there is nothing ‘formal’ about synthetic phonics teaching. It is multi-sensory and fun and can be achieved in 30 minutes a day, leaving several hours to be filled by child-initiated play, sand, water, painting, outdoor play, you name it.” 
(Shadwell. issue 88. 2006)

”(O)ur alphabetic system is not transparent as it is in Finnish, where there is only one way to spell each sound in the main. Our code needs to be introduced carefully from the simple to the more complex by teachers who understand it themselves. Left until six, our children will already have developed look and stare strategies, along with guessing and be well on the way to making a dog’s dinner of understanding the code.” 
(Shadwell. issue 88. 2006)

”Imagine the state of our education system if children actually had to wait until they were 7 to start their marathon journey into the mastery of the incredibly deep orthography of the English language. It’s not hyperbole to say it would be an absolute catastrophe!!”
(Ryon Leyshon. primary teacher & English lead)

The Early Years lobbyists consistently fail to mention the evidence from Denmark, possibly because it doesn’t suit their agenda. ”Danish shares with English the features of a deep orthography and a complex syllable structure. In Denmark, children do not enter primary school until they are 7 years old. Despite this 2-year age advantage, they experience difficulties in acquiring the logographic [sic] and alphabetic foundation processes which are comparable to those observed in English, although less extreme” (Seymour, Aro & Erskine)

Foundation literacy acquisition in European orthographies. Seymour, Aro & Erskine.

All alphabetic spelling codes are based on grapheme-phoneme correspondences (are graphophonemic), not larger units of sound such as syllables or rimes. English, Danish, Portuguese and French are, in that order, the European written languages with the most opaque alphabetic codes. The Greek, Finnish, German, Italian and Spanish (amongst others) alphabetic spelling codes are much quicker and easier to learn as each phoneme in the language corresponds, in the main, to a single grapheme.

”There is no question that the high functional illiteracy rate in English-speaking countries is largely a product of our formidable spelling code and the way it is (or is not) taught.”
(D. McGuinness p41. ERI).

Despite having an exceedingly complex spelling code, English is unremarkable phoneme-wise; its circa 40 phonemes (number depends on accent) is around the international average and ”all children growing up speaking English learn these sounds from even before they leave the womb (biologically primary knowledge)” John Walker. https://theliteracyblog.com/2021/10/28/how-to-teach-spelling-the-story-continues/

”The thing is infants learn to discriminate speech sounds in learning to communicate using spoken language…The crux of reading, made possible by the English Alphabetic Code, lies in the correspondences, not in the sounds”
(Prof. Dick Schutz. The ‘New Science of Reading’ is Pseudo-Science’)

Prof. McGuinness responds to Usha Goswami’s TES article ‘The Language Barrier’ where Goswami conflates English first language learning (biologically primary knowledge) with learning the English spelling code (biologically secondary knowledge). McGuinness points out, ”Language is a biological imperative. Reading is not.”

“If a child can speak, they can learn phonics.”
(Prof. David Kilpatrick. LD presentation. Australia)

Education isn’t natural – that’s why it’s hard

2003. Map of Europe (Dehaene 2009 p231 – data from Seymour, Aro & Erskine’s study) showing % of errors in word decoding at the end of the first year of formal school by country. The UK children in the study lived in Scotland. At that time, nearly all children throughout the UK were taught using a ‘balanced word reading approach’ (England: NLS Searchlights), not best practice phonics.
2019 update: England’s DfE (but not Scotland1, Wales2 or N. Ireland) introduced synthetic phonics after the 2006 Rose review. After a slow start, all of England’s state primary schools now teach a daily, discrete phonics lesson from the beginning of Reception. At the end of year 1, after nearly two years of phonics lessons, all children are examined on their word decoding accuracy using the DfE’s phonics screening check (PSC). In 2019, 82% achieved the ‘expected standard’ score in the Y1 PSC. England’s recent phonics check results provide some evidence of a rise in children’s alphabet code knowledge and phonics skills since its introduction in 2012 when nearly half (42%) failed to reach the expected standard.

Caution: despite the steady rise in England’s PSC results (presently plateaued), many children, post the Y1 PSC, have insecure code knowledge due to minimal phonics instruction and a lack of practice. Furthermore, unlike in European countries with transparent spelling codes, much of the common advanced English spelling code still remains to be taught at the end of year 1; because of the PSC’s necessary timing (it is designed to flag up, at a prudently early stage, any pupils who are falling behind and need extra practice to consolidate and master the content of the phonics programme), only 85 of the 176 common GPCs are usable in the check.

Comprehensive information on England’s phonics screening check

1Why Scotland is getting it wrong on phonics. Anne Glennie.

2Does Curriculum for Wales leave reading to chance? Rob Randel.
Does CfW Leave Reading to Chance? (Part 2)

Children in many European countries learn to decode words accurately in just a few weeks once formal instruction commences because their spoken languages are written using transparent spelling codes. In addition, European countries with transparent alphabetic codes teach children to decode all words using phonics. ”Phonics is the only rational method with a transparent orthography.” (Uta Frith. NY Times). Furthermore, children are not taught letter names pre-school or asked to memorise any words as whole shapes. The combination of a transparent alphabetic code and phonics used as the sole decoding mechanism means that ”(P)oor readers (children who can’t decode) are rare to nonexistent in many European countries.” (D. McGuinness GRB p240)

”In the initial teaching of reading in languages with highly consistent orthographies (e.g. Spanish and especially Finnish), phonics is used without comment or dispute as the obvious way to give children who are not yet reading the most effective method of ‘word attack’, identifying unfamiliar printed words.” 
(Torgerson et al 2018)

”(W)here American first and second graders receive an eclectic blend of whole language, whole word and phonics-based approaches, their German counterparts are taught by an intensive synthetic phonics approach.”
(Mann & Wimmer 2002)

”In countries with a straightforward alphabet writing system, where each sound is represented by only one symbol, learning to ‘crack the code’ takes about twelve weeks for all children.” 
(D. McGuinness GRB p9)

It is important to differentiate between reading problems which are due to a range of severe perceptual and cognitive deficits3 (2-3% of children in all countries, including those with transparent spelling codes), and the extremely common problem (20->30+% of children in anglophone countries) of persistently slow and inaccurate single word decoding and spelling. Evidence from European countries (Seymour, Aro & Erskine) and from England’s schools that teach decoding using a high-quality phonics programme with fidelity, strongly indicates that the latter problem occurs almost entirely as a result of inadequate phonics instruction and not because large numbers of English-speaking children have inherited a neurodevelopmental defect ‘dyslexia’.

All written languages (spelling codes) are cultural artefacts and have to be taught. Some spelling codes, such as Finnish and Georgian, are really quick and easy to teach as they are very transparent. English has one of the most complex (opaque) spelling codes in the world and it requires around three years of expert teaching, using a top-quality phonics programme if it is to be learnt successfully by all but a tiny percentage of pupils.

3”(C)hildren with general language delays, weak auditory or verbal short-term memory, or other perceptual and cognitive deficits could have problems learning to read and spell.  But these are language and memory problems, not ”reading disorder” problems. These children are few and far between, constituting less than 5% of the population” 
(bold added. D. McGuinness)

Children with SEND in mainstream may be slower to learn phonics than their peers. They may not complete the school’s phonics programme by the end of KS1. When this happens, ”we shouldn’t say ‘phonics hasn’t worked’, we should think ‘phonics isn’t complete’. We need to plan for that provision to continue into KS2.” (Ann Sullivan)

Sounds-Write’s longitudinal study of 1607 pupils indicates that virtually all mainstream pupils can be taught to decode and spell by the end of KS1 if they have teachers who are trained to use a high-quality phonics programme with fidelity – see p17 only 2.6% were experiencing great difficulty with word decoding at end of KS1. 

‘Narrowing the Third-Grade Reading Gap’ Research Brief:
”The National Institute of Health (NIH) indicates that nearly all children have the cognitive capacity to learn to read, estimating that only 5% of young readers have severe cognitive impairments that would make acquiring reading skills extremely difficult” (bold added)

”Reading, writing and spelling is biologically unnatural. It requires specific instruction.” 
(Prof. Pamela Snow)

What the Georgian alphabet can teach us about teaching reading and writing:
”The relatively easy thing about learning the Georgian script is that it has thirty-three letters, most of which represent a single sound. In other words, the writing system is very transparent”

”If language development really played a causal role in learning to read one would expect to find the same incidence of reading problems everywhere, because human language is a biological trait.” 
(Prof. D. McGuinness. LDLR p206)

”The other important thing to tell kids is that their difficulty in learning to write is not their fault. Aside from a tiny percentage (2%?) of children with very special needs, the reason why kids struggle with getting stuff down on paper is that the process of linking sounds to spellings has not been automatised in the early years and that’s the fault of poor pedagogy.”

”All humans have the same brain architecture, and therefore how we learn is the same in all countries.” 
(Prof. Stanislas Dehaene)

Beginning Phonics Instruction in England’s Early Years:

Explicit Instruction in the Reception Classroom

”English reading can be challenging so I encourage as early a start as possible (and, no, research reveals no harm in this).”
(Prof. Shanahan)

Prof. Daniel Muijs: Bold beginnings and the importance of reception

The most important socialising force for a child is their peer group. Its influence is especially strong during middle childhood, the years 6-12 (Harris p226). This factor needs to be considered in the reading equation. A child, whose everyday companions, in school or out, consist of other children who think that reading is boring, unpleasant or ”only for girls” (https://srcd.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/cdev.13359), will copy those attitudes, ignoring those held by parents, carers or other significant adults. This is another important reason for most children to begin a systematic synthetic phonics programme by the age of five (Rose review 2006. para89); before any anti-reading, peer-group influence takes hold.

Parents may be concerned that their children will be damaged if they start to teach them to read and spell pre-school using synthetic/linguistic phonics, having been told that it is dangerous to impose anything ‘developmentally inappropriate’ by the Early Years ‘play’ lobby. There is no scientific basis for this belief.

”Endless, unstructured play until they are 7 will not enable children to magically develop a readiness to read or write (these are biologically secondary). This kind of thinking, albeit loving, disadvantages the disadvantaged the most.” 
(Quirky Teacher. Blog)

Many parents have successfully taught children much younger than five to read using a direct and systematic phonics programme. If you are uncertain about how well the schools in your area teach early reading and spelling, then this isn’t ‘hot housing’ but a wise precaution. Intellectually able children may also benefit from an earlier start and enjoy the experience. Chartered psychologist Professor Joan Freeman writes, ”In my practice, I see several children a week who can read, write and make excellent conversation, and who are well under school age, some as young as 2. No parent or teacher can make a child do this if they are not capable. The children are otherwise normal, happy and keen to learn. The numbers of them that I can see could doubtless be multiplied by many hundreds around the country. The proposed prohibitions by the anti-early-literacy group to stop enthusiastic children from getting the basics of literacy at nursery would be a cruel blow to their lively searching minds.” (Guardian. letters. 25/07/08)

Parents of children with learning disabilities should also be cautious if members of the Early Years ‘play’ lobby suggest that their children would benefit from delaying the start of direct phonics instruction. On the contrary, as these children usually require much more time and careful, explicit teaching to achieve functional literacy, sometimes delaying phonics instruction may leave them far behind their mainstream, typically developing peers. SEND tutor Ann Sullivan explains, ”Children with moderate to severe and complex needs can learn to read via phonics if it is made accessible and for some pupils, significantly adapted. For these pupils we are looking at a different time frame and are in it for the long haul.”

Teaching reading pre-school
Recommended resources for parents and carers to teach pre-schoolers -> 6yrs. old to read and spell.

Delaying the start of formal instruction, even if only for a year, can be detrimental, especially for boys: ”(D)elaying the start of school for a year has no benefits and is likely to lead to a substantial drop in IQ…the largest reading ability sex differences in the world occur in countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden where children don’t start school until age 7.” (RRF 51. 2004. B. Macmillan)

”The 2018 Pisa survey results showed Finland has the widest gender gap in reading among the 79 countries that participated in the assessment…Finland is an interesting case because it has a particularly transparent orthography i.e. there is a very clear and consistent relationship between the written letter of Finnish and the spoken sounds they represent. That helps us whittle-down the possible causes of the gender gap.” (Greg Ashman. Blog. The cause of Finland’s educational decline.)

”(A)t age eighteen, children who started school a year later had I.Q. scores that were significantly lower than their younger counterparts. Their earnings also suffered: through age thirty, men who started school later earned less. A separate study, of the entire Swedish population born between 1935 and 1984, came to a similar conclusion.”

”When children learn to read at an early age, they develop:
– Greater general knowledge
– A wider range of vocabulary
– More fluent reading skills
– Improved attention spans” (DfE. 2022)

”Once a child can read independently, the growth of many other skills is promoted.” (Research cited. B. Macmillan p7) ”Reading…opens some important doors…it gives the young learner a degree of autonomy and independence…also gives a child access to the whole culture of literacy. Reading makes it possible… to have access to vast quantities of stored knowledge.” (Howe ’97 p154) ”The increased reading experiences of children who crack the spelling-to-sound code early..have important positive feedback effects. Such feedback effects appear to be potent sources of individual differences in academic achievement.” (Stanovich. Matthew Effects p364)

Does Learning to Read Improve Intelligence?
A Longitudinal Multivariate Analysis in Identical Twins From Age 7 to 16

”(W)hy do we insist on waiting for children to be ‘ready’, only to then label them SEN when they don’t miraculously discover or do what everyone’s waiting for?” 
(Quirky Teacher. Twitter 26/07/18)

What reading does for the mind: Cunningham & Stanovich
Reading is uniquely efficacious for developing crystallised intelligence

Teaching advanced academic content in the early years is ‘’associated not only with improved math and English/language arts achievement but also with improved social-emotional outcomes.”

Death of a dogma? ”The dubious concept of developmental appropriateness has had its day”

The dangers of over-emphasising play-based learning:

Early reading acquisition and its relation to reading experience and ability 10 years later.
”(R)apid acquisition of reading ability might well help develop the lifetime habit of reading”

Research: Impact of a play-based curriculum in the first two years of primary school: literacy and numeracy outcomes over seven years. ”It appears that no extra positive effect can be found for the play-based approach on reading and maths outcomes, and that perhaps a slight negative effect is evident.”

2018. Effectiveness of Preschool-Wide Teacher-Implemented Phoneme Awareness and Letter-Sound Knowledge Instruction on Code-Based School-Entry Reading Readiness.
”Overall, preschool-wide, teacher-implemented, phoneme-focused PA and LSK instruction can support code-based reading readiness skills for children with SLD and TD”

Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood and chair of Upstart Scotland (see below), is one of those who tar the teaching of early reading using synthetic phonics with the ”formal and risky” brush, once describing advocates as, ”(A) rabble of back to basics diehards.” (Palmer. TES 10/11/95) In a later article, she opined that it was ”cruel and mad” to expect the majority of five-year-olds to be able to write simple sentences. (Nursery World 11/1/12) But, as Sir Jim Rose said, ”The term ‘formal’ in the pejorative sense in which phonic work is sometimes perceived in early education is by no means a fair reflection of the active, multi-sensory practice seen and advocated by the review for starting young children on the road to reading.” (Rose review. 2006 Summary p3)

”I can’t help thinking that Sue Palmer, the literacy consultant and author of Toxic Childhood, doth protest too much, too often. This time she’s complaining about the government’s new EYFS writing target.”

Upstart Scotland is actively campaigning to introduce a Nordic-style kindergarten system between the ages of three and seven, with learning being undertaken through ‘creative play’ rather than ‘formal’ learning.” (Anne Glennie)
Unravelling Upstart: Upstart make many misleading claims, but their statements tend to rely on false assumptions, selective use of research, and weak or isolated research studies.

Steiner / Waldorf Education and Teaching Phonics in the Early Years:

”Steiner was very clear about why delayed reading was a good idea – not because older children can learn to read better, but because memorising and reading interfered with the incarnation of the etheric body. It could damage a spiritual protective sheath around the child leading to illness and spiritual degeneration. ‘Developmental needs’ in the Steiner world are to do with the incarnation of spiritual entities. Only after adult teeth have appeared is a child spiritually ready to learn to read.” (italics added)

Dr Richard House is a Steiner-trained teacher, a former university lecturer on ‘Early Childhood’ and an author of books on education including ‘Too Much, Too Soon?’. He was a leading figure in the Open EYE anti-early-years-schooling campaign, organising three press open letters in 2006, 2007 (both with Sue Palmer -see above) and 2011. On the subject of children starting ‘formal schooling’ in Reception year (age 4-5), Dr House says, ”(T)he evidence is now quite overwhelming that such an early introduction to institutional learning is not only quite unnecessary for the vast majority of children, but can actually cause major developmental harm, and at worst a shortened life-span…Young children’s “runaway” intellect actually needs to be slowed down in the early years if they are not to risk growing up in an intellectually unbalanced way, with possible life-long negative health effects.” 

The following ”non-experimental” study is commonly quoted by those who suggest that it’s unnecessary, even detrimental, for children to begin to be taught how to read in Reception year, as we do in England, and we should wait until age 6-7. The main author, Dr Suggate, is a strong supporter of Rudolf Steiner’s theories about education. Steiner educationalists strongly advocate for delaying the start of formal education for ‘spiritual’ (see above), not pedagogical reasons.
In the following RRF message board thread, educational psychologist John Noble and Simon Webb, an author and blogger, comment on the Suggate study:

Sight’ Words:

People interpret the meaning of the term ‘sight word’ in different ways. The most common understanding is that sight words are high-frequency words (HFWs) with so-called ‘tricky’ spellings. Many infant teachers believe that these particular HFWs are ”non-phonetic” or ”too irregular” to be decoded using phonics; they must be visually memorised as whole units (customarily using look-say flashcards) as ”they can’t be sounded out”.

High-quality phonics practitioners say that a ‘sight word’ is any written word, real or nonsense (see books by Lewis Carroll and Roald Dahl for nonsense word examples), that a reader has consciously and accurately decoded using phonics a number of times before. This enables them, whenever they subsequently encounter that particular word, to phonically decode it at a speed that falls below conscious awareness. As a result, it can seem to the reader as though they now read that word as a whole unit, without any phonics decoding taking place. This is an illusion. The commonly held belief that fluent readers have ”moved beyond reading most words using phonics” (the late sight word theory) is incorrect.

”As a competent reader becomes more fluent, their automaticity masks their dependence on phonics.”
(Monique Nowers. Twitter)

”The ability to sound out words is, in fact, a major underpinning that allows rapid recognition of words. (This recognition is so fast that some people mistakenly believe it is happening “by sight.”).” 
(Dr. Louisa Moats)

Prof. McGuinness points out, ”One should never think that just because “it seems like” we read instantly, this is, in fact, what we do. Our brain processes millions of bits of information all the time that we are not consciously aware of, because the processing speed far outstrips our ability to be conscious of it. An efficient reader has “automatized” or “speeded up” the decoding process to the point where it runs off outside conscious awareness. (italics added)

Highly skilled readers may feel that they are bypassing phonological decoding but, in addition to lacking a credible research base, the Dual Route / Late Sight Word theory was challenged convincingly by Glushko back in 1979. He argued that the brain automatically processes ALL the information available about the input signal from each word in parallel, processing multiple modalities simultaneously (much of which does not reach consciousness) and processing is not carried out along two separate routes or pathways. (D. McGuinness ERI p289)

”Learning does not occur in ‘‘pathways,’’ but via anatomical and neurochemical changes in dendrites and adjacent cell membranes”
(D. McGuinness ERI p339)

Modern eye-movement studies confirm that skilled readers, even when reading silently, process nearly every word, and this processing always includes the word’s phonological information. Researchers Ashby and Rayner explain: ”The word-superiority effect demonstrates that skilled readers process all of the letters when identifying a word” and ”represent complex aspects of a word’s phonological form, including syllable and stress information.” (italics added. Ashby/Rayner p57/p58), but this is done at a subconscious level. Only when the skilled reader comes to a previously un-encountered word do the skills of phonological decoding come back into consciousness.

”There is abundant proof that we automatically access speech sounds while we read.”
(Prof. Dehaene. Reading in the Brain)

Handbook of early literacy research Vol.2 -see Ch. 4 by Ashby and Rayner on eye movement research.

Diane McGuinness discusses Dual Route in ‘Early Reading Instruction’ p287-> including Glushko’s insights.

Silent reading isn’t so silent, at least, not to your brain.

”(R)ecent brain studies show that the primary motor cortex is active during reading, presumably because it is involved with mouth movements used in reading aloud. The process of mentally sounding out words is an integral part of silent reading, even for the highly skilled.”
(p90 www.psychologicalscience.org/pdf/pspi/reading.pdf)

Literature review on eye movement & word identification:
”(R)eaders naturally access the sounds of words while reading silently.” p16

”For skilled readers, phonological coding may be consciously experienced as inner speech, or the voice they hear in their head during reading.” 
(Ashby/Rayner p54)

”We have known for about a century that inner speech is accompanied by tiny muscular movements in the larynx, detectable by a technique known as electromyography. In the 1990s, neuroscientists used functional neuroimaging to demonstrate that areas such as the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area), which are active when we speak out loud, are also active during inner speech. Furthermore, disrupting the activity of this region using brain stimulation techniques can interrupt both “outer” and inner speech.”

Read the following (real) book title to examine your own phonemic decoding skills. As an expert reader who implicitly understands how the Alphabet Code works (whether through direct phonics instruction or deduced over time) you’ll find yourself tracking through the unusual words slowly left to right, segmenting one GPC at a time, mentally sounding out as you go, blending (synthesising) the sounds as you proceed. ‘Nonscience and the Pseudotransmogrificationalific Egocentrified Reorientational Proclivities Inherently Intracorporated In Expertistical Cerebrointellectualised Redeploymentation with Special Reference to Quasi-Notional Fashionistic Normativity, The Indoctrinationalistic Methodological Modalities and Scalar Socio-Economic Promulgationary Improvementalisationalism Predelineated Positotaxically Toward Individualistified Mass-Acceptance Gratificationalistic Securipermanentalisationary Professionalism, or ‘How To Rule The World‘. Brian J. Ford (Wikipedia. Nonscience)

Do fluent, adult readers read whole words as sight words?
”(W)hat the proponents of [Dual Route/Late Sight Word] theory fail to recognise is that the tests conducted by Cattell could just as easily have to do with the speed of motor processing or the rate of speech output NOT the speed of processing visual input.” (John Walker)

Three reasons why segmenting is the mother of all skills in learning to read and spell
”As a literate adult, you may not realise that when you are reading, you are segmenting words into their constituent sounds and then blending them to form words.” (John Walker)

Prof. Share: On the Anglocentricities of Current Reading Research and Practice. Includes extensive discussion of the late-stage sight word theory.

Phonics Decoding, SEND and Intelligence:

There is a ”widespread and pervasive misunderstanding that poor decoders are, in some way, intellectually inferior” but, ”we can make no judgements about an individual’s intellect based upon their decoding skills.” (Elliott. LDA Bulletin p13) Alexander Faludy, described as ”so severely dyslexic that he can barely write”, won a place at Cambridge University at the age of 14 (Times 17/01/98). Another high IQ ‘dyslexic’ (he has the spelling ability of an 8-year-old), Ben Way, was a multi-millionaire businessman by the age of 20 (Telegraph 10/01/00).

Children with hyperlexia are self-taught, fluent word readers (they are not necessarily phonemically aware -see below) from an extremely early age, but when hyperlexia is accompanied by an intellectual disability (it is commonly linked to autism) reading comprehension suffers. A parent on Mumsnet reported that her son with hyperlexia could read the Financial Times at age three. She also said that he was badly handicapped by a lack of phonics knowledge as he progressed through school and this resulted in him being unable to spell: ”What happened with my son was that because he was an exceptional reader he was never taught phonics and in Y6 he was still not writing anything! His teachers and numerous Ed Psychs were totally fooled by his apparent fluent reading (if only the PSC had been around) and dismissed his difficulties because of this.”

Canadian SEN teacher Susan S. notes ”You find the phenomenon of children who decode very well but understand almost nothing in only two populations: children with intellectual disabilities and children with very limited English.” 
(Kitchen Table Math blog 30/12/08)

Can ALL children learn to read? # 1 Thinking about learners with special educational needs.
”Schools should also avoid the temptation to declare that ‘phonics isn’t working’ because pupils, especially those with mild to moderate needs, have not achieved literacy in the same timescale as their mainstream typically developing peers.”

Can ALL children learn to read? #2 Can children with special educational needs learn phonics? https://www.phonicsforpupilswithspecialeducationalneeds.com/post/can-all-children-learn-to-read-with-phonics

”Reading is really a very basic process. And it turns out that even children who might have really quite severe learning difficulties can nonetheless learn to read well. But when I say that, what I mean by ‘learn to read well’ is that they learn to decode well.” 
(Prof. M. Snowling in Mills. The Dyslexia Myth)

”We need to be honest that for some students our aim is not to ‘read novels’ but to become functionally literate in order to be independent in adult life.” 
(Ann Sullivan. SEND tutor)

The DfE’s new (2021) ‘Reading Framework – Teaching the Foundations of Literacy’ has a section on teaching ‘Children with special educational needs and disabilities’ pp55-57
Ann Sullivan provides an outline:
• Focus of that section of the document is on good practice for those with moderate to severe SEND and complex needs, most (but not all) of whom will be in specialist provision.
• Schools are expected to enable access to appropriate phonics instruction for children with complex needs.
• SSP, rather than a whole-word approach, provides children with moderate to severe and complex needs the best opportunity to gain functional literacy.
• Children who have a hearing or visual impairment are generally able to access phonics teaching if they have some hearing or vision.
• Instruction should be accessible to all these children.
• Includes how SSP should be matched to the child’s needs.
• Includes the need for additional strategies for children with complex needs.
• Includes pre-formal phonics for pupils with PMLD who are working towards formal phonics instruction.

Word Calling / Barking at Print:

There is a widely circulated myth that too much emphasis on decoding through phonics causes children to ‘bark at print’ aka ”Ron Burgundy Syndrome” (see link below) but, as Prof. Stanovich explains, ”There is no research evidence indicating that decoding a known word into a phonological form often takes place without meaning extraction. To the contrary, a substantial body of evidence indicates that even for young children, word recognition automatically leads to meaning activation…when the meaning of the word is adequately established in memory” (K. Stanovich. RRF 50 p8)

Ron Burgundy Syndrome (‘Old Andrew’. Twitter)

”Experienced practitioners and teachers point out that, in the course of phonics teaching, as children ‘start to get the hang of it’, they begin to self-teach and ‘need to read a lot to consolidate their skills’, that is, to develop effortless reading and focus more and more on comprehending the text. At this point, children may appear, some would say, to be ‘barking at print’ without fully understanding what they are reading. Although this is often levelled as a criticism of phonic work, such behaviour is usually transitional as children hone their phonic skills. Given that even skilled adult readers may find themselves ‘barking at print’ when they are faced at times with unfamiliar text, it is hardly surprising that children may do so in the early stages of reading.” 
(Rose review 2006. para 49)

Why ‘just reading’ to children might make more of a difference than teaching comprehension skills such as inference and analysis: https://learningspy.co.uk/featured/why-just-reading-might-make-more-of-a-difference-than-teaching-reading/
”Once children can decode fluently, comprehension is a language problem rather than a reading problem per se…For some time now I’ve been of the belief that one of the best uses of an English teacher’s time is to ‘just read’ to their classes…A new study by Jo Westbrook, Julia Sutherland, Jane Oakhill and Susan Sullivan suggests that ‘just reading’ made a significant difference to students’ standardised reading comprehension scores”
(David Didau)

Parents, Poverty and Reading:

2019. Gill Jones, Ofsted’s Deputy Director for Early Education, wrote about Ofsted’s new ‘deep dives’ into schools’ teaching of early reading: 
”Some schools in disadvantaged areas help all their children learn to read well from the start. Some schools have said that this gap in the PSC between poorer and more affluent children is because of the lower levels of cultural capital among disadvantaged children. However, as we know, the successful learning of systematic synthetic phonics is not dependent on cultural capital.” (bold in original)

”When teachers don’t teach, the education children receive from their parents becomes of paramount importance, and the children of ill-educated parents are at an overwhelming disadvantage.” 
(Burkard. 2007.p30)

”Most schools rely on parents to teach children to read…”

”I still can’t help but be concerned about the fact that only 44% of disadvantaged, white working-class males achieve an acceptable outcome by the end of reception year.” 
(Quirky Teacher. Twitter 06/03/18)

In education, is poverty destiny?
”At an academic level, we should again focus on the agency of the school. An approach to early reading that places heavy emphasis on children taking lists of sight words home to learn is inequitable. So is an approach that hinges on practising reading at home. Instead, children need to be explicitly and systematically taught to read while they are in school…As teachers, we cannot cure poverty and inequality but we can choose the best methods to address their effects” (italics added)

”Avoid parent-blame. It is not the job of parents to teach children how to read.” 
(Prof. Pamela Snow)

Why do wealthy kids usually do better in school than poor kids?

Why poor kids are more likely to be poor readers (and what we can do about it)

Answer: the first line of the nursery rhyme is ‘London Bridge is falling down’