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)

Why All Children Must be Taught High-Quality Phonics in the Early Years:

Many teachers and educationalists believe that ”(M)ost children will become accomplished readers whatever the balance of instructional approaches” (Elliott & Grigorenko. 2024). Aside from the fact that phonics is an essential body of knowledge and not one particular strategy or approach for word reading, it’s undeniable that there has always been a small number of children who need little more than a book-rich environment with a helpful, literate adult on hand to become accurate word readers (though not always accurate spellers). These children are the exception, not the norm.

It’s also true that a significant percentage of children who are taught to read using a balance or range of word reading approaches (see balanced approach), survive their school’s early reading demands by memorising scores of common words as logographs and by using a range of partial guessing strategies to read the longer, trickier words in their school’s levelled scheme or ‘real’ books. Superficially, they may appear to be able readers* but a phonics decoding check that uses pseudo words will reveal their true lack of code knowledge, segmenting and blending skills. A high proportion of these seemingly ‘accomplished readers’ will still struggle to decode many novel, multi-syllable words accurately at secondary school (see teenagers) and will remain weak spellers.

*A Reading Recovery (RR) teacher commented that one of the Year 1 boys she taught was at ‘level 17’ in reading books but did not reach the benchmark for the Year 1 phonics check. Books at level 17 in RR’s levelling/banding system are for ”super-confident Year 6” readers.

”(W)riting is a code for the sounds in spoken language and therefore, that has to be fundamental. It underpins word reading, and therefore, phonics isn’t an option. It’s not a pedagogy. It’s a body of knowledge that children need.”
(Ofsted. 2022. https://ofstedtalks.podbean.com/e/reading-talk-from-the-festival-of-education/)

Is phonics a ‘method’ for teaching reading? Monique Nowers.
”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.”

Children with strong visual memories and rich vocabularies typically 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. They ”can score in the normal or even superior range on reading tests in the early school years, despite using a whole-word guessing strategy.” (D. McGuinness. WCCR.1997 p153). 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 eventually discover the essential phonics code knowledge, decoding and spelling skills for themselves. Their reading ability is likely to stall when their memory for whole ‘sight words’ becomes overloaded and the look-and-guess pictures disappear from the books.

”If children receive contradictory or conflicting instruction, most children prefer to adopt a ‘sight word’ (whole word) strategy. This seems ‘natural’, it is easy to do initially, and has some immediate success, that is until visual memory starts to overload…becoming a whole-word (sight-word) reader is not due to low verbal skills, but is a high risk factor in the general population, and something that teachers should curtail at all costs.” (bold in original. D. McGuinness. RRF newsletter 51 p19)

Decoding strategies as predictors of reading skill:
”Children who stayed with the most inefficient strategies had significantly higher vocabulary scores and equivalent phonemic processing ability when compared to readers with more efficient decoding strategies.”

When children taught through the balanced approach get to secondary school, 20-30+% (see teenagers) will struggle to accurately decode the huge number of novel, multi-syllable words they will encounter in secondary-level literature 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.

Is England’s End-of-Primary Reading Comprehension Test Fit for Purpose?

The end-of-primary (KS2) Reading 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). In addition, the KS2 Reading test results are notorious for hiding poor decoding.

”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).

Knowledge Deficits: The True Crisis in Education. Alan G. Kamhi
Prof Kamhi points out that ‘Reading’ tests conflate word decoding and comprehension.

To increase the probability of performing well in the Reading test, pupils require an extensive, knowledge-rich (English) vocabulary drawn from various 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 from 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 in 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)

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

”But as cognitive scientists have discovered, the key factor in comprehension isn’t skill; it’s subject-specific knowledge and vocabulary. Comprehension can’t be taught in a vacuum. It can only grow alongside knowledge. Nor can it be accurately assessed as an isolated factor. It’s impossible to separate comprehension from background knowledge.” (Natalie Wexler)

A three part experiment with children from low-income and middle-income families showed the importance of vocabulary for all pupils in developing their comprehension. Susan B. Neuman:
‘’In other words, the differences between groups were not in the skills associated with comprehension e.g., inferencing but in the knowledge to make these words comprehensible.’’

Can a knowledge-building curriculum really boost reading comprehension?
”A rigorous study involving more than 2,000 students has found that children who got a content-rich, knowledge-building curriculum for at least four years, beginning in kindergarten, significantly outperformed their peers on standardized reading comprehension tests. Students from low-income families made such dramatic gains that their performance on state tests equalled that of children from higher-income families.”

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.”

”KS2 reading tests, PIRLS and PISA assessments are all reading comprehension tests…Lack of progress in reading comprehension scores may be a greater assessment of the curriculum that generates the knowledge to understand the text rather than the programmes and policies that enable decoding of that text.” (Dr. Timothy Mills. Gove’s Greatest Contribution? 2021)

“Reading Comprehension” is a reified construct that has no more scientific standing than
phlogiston.” (Prof Schutz. 2009)

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

There’s No Such Thing as a Reading Test

”(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 2019)
-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. 2000)

”Early reading failure can affect a child’s education and attainment for the rest of their life. A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice pointed out that “significant literacy and numeracy problems are found in between 50 and 76 per cent of children who are permanently excluded from school”.
The report also identified literacy and numeracy problems in 60 per cent of children in special schools for those with behavioural problems, and in 50-60 per cent of the prison population. As the report’s author, Adele Eastman, concluded: “Many display challenging behaviour to hide the fact that they cannot read.”
(Speech by Schools Minister Nick Gibb at the RRF conference 2011)

”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)

”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.”
(Emily Hanford. 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. Reading Fever 1996)

”When children are highly distractible, overly disruptive and unable to stay ‘on task’, this usually means they can’t do the task.” (McGuinness. WCCR. p188)

”Over 50% of adults in UK prisons are considered functionally illiterate, having a major impact on rehabilitation and recidivism. Data published by the Ministry of Justice claims that 57% of adults in prison in the UK have a reading level below that of an average 11 year old.”

The Reading Wars:

You do not have to delve far into education academia to discover the Reading Wars. This is a very long-running and acrimonious debate between those who say that direct and systematic phonics instruction 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. 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, as naturally 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.” (Prof 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)

Casualties of the Reading Wars: “The fault lies in no small part at the university level, in schools of education, whose faculties have turned a blind eye to the science of reading. Instead, they’ve unapologetically and enthusiastically peddled whole language / balanced literacy.”

Multi-Modal Teaching in High-Quality Phonics Lessons:

For true multi-modal 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.
(D. McGuinness. A Brief Analysis of the English Alphabet Code)

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 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.”

”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 1998. p153)

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.” 
(Jo Shadwell. Education for Tomorrow. 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.” 
(Jo Shadwell. Education for Tomorrow. 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. Twitter/X)

The Early Years lobbyists consistently fail to mention the evidence from Denmark, probably 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. 2003)

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 ERI 2004. p41)

Despite having an exceedingly complex spelling code, English is unremarkable phoneme-wise; its 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)

”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 Schutz)

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

”And reading, of course, is a prime example of a biologically secondary skill as Steven Pinker the Harvard psychologist, says we have a language brain, we don’t have a reading brain. So we can acquire the skills of reading. Most of us need to be explicitly taught. Now, of course, there’s a continuum of ability. Some children will pick up biologically secondary skills or some biologically secondary skills more easily than other children will or more easily than they will another skill.”
(Prof Pamela Snow. Chalk&Talk podcast Ep. 27. 2004)

Prerequisites of language acquisition in the newborn brain:

”(I)f a student has learnt to talk, they have, at some point in their early childhood, been able to put sounds together to form words.” (John Walker. Blog: Can’t blend, won’t blend – a reprise)

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

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

2003. Map of Europe (Dehaene 2009 p231 – data from Seymour, Aro & Erskine’s 2003 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 the ‘balanced word reading approach’ (England: NLS Searchlights), not systematic synthetic phonics (SSP).

2006. England’s DfE (but not Scotland1, Wales2 or N. Ireland) introduced SSP after the 2006 Rose review. It met with fierce resistance from the teaching unions, the majority of union members and many ”high profile academics” (see ‘The Fightback’ in ‘Gove’s Greatest Contribution?’ Mills. 2021). Worried, rightly, that primary schools would be very reluctant to move to SSP from the strongly embedded NLS balanced approach, England’s DfE produced a series of sticks and carrots*. The major ‘carrot’ was its own free, non-mandatory SSP programme Letters&Sounds (L&S) in 2007. Under heavy government pressure to begin teaching SSP as quickly as possible (they could use either a commercial SSP programme or the DfE’s free one), the majority of schools took up L&S 2007. Evidence indicates that most teachers continued to teach using the NLS balanced approach when literacy activities took place outside the daily discrete SSP lesson.

*For an outline of the DfE’s ‘sticks and carrots’ after the Rose review 2006, see Mike Lloyd-Jones’ book Phonics and the Resistance to Reading (2013) Ch 9. Climate Change: the Rose Review and After.

2021. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until 2021 that the DfE acknowledged that L&S 2007 was ”not fit for purpose” as it did not provide the ”support, guidance, resources or training needed” and withdrew the programme. This diagram illustrates the wide-spread poor phonics practice which occurred in the intervening years:

2024. With L&S 2007 gone, nearly all of England’s state primary schools now teach phonics using one of the 45 self+DfE-validated commercial programmes from the beginning of Reception. Mills (2021) warned ”Schools may have selected the lowest cost option or more usually the most ubiquitous programme in the hope that its very ubiquity indicated efficacy.”

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)

Report into literacy policy and practice in the United Kingdom and Ireland. Dr Jennifer Buckingham

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 ”poor readers (children who can’t decode) are rare to nonexistent in many European countries.” (D. McGuinness. GRB 2004 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. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/227216676_Phoneme_awareness_and_pathways_to_literacy_A_comparison_of_German_and_American_children)

”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 2004 p9)

It is important to differentiate between reading problems which are due to severe and multiple learning disabilities (found in 2-3% of children in all countries, including those with transparent spelling codes) and the very common problem, found in 20->30+% of children in English-speaking countries, of slow and inaccurate word decoding and spelling. Evidence from European countries with transparent spelling codes (Seymour, Aro & Erskine. 2003) and from England’s schools that teach decoding and spelling 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’.

**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, over the first three years of primary school: only 2.6% were experiencing great difficulty with word decoding at end of KS1. https://sounds-write.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/A-longitudinal-study-of-literacy-development-using-Sounds-Write.pdf

**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). All its Y1 children achieved the required standard in the phonics decoding check several 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 phonics teaching (Sounds-Write) in the early years actively prevents ‘phonemic deafness’ or ‘dyslexia’ developing.

‘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)

All written languages (spelling codes) are cultural artefacts and must be taught. Some spelling codes, such as Finnish and Georgian, are 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.

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.”

”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:

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

The most important socialising force for a child is their peer group. Its influence is especially strong during middle childhood, which falls between the ages of 6 to 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); 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 by the Early Years ‘play’ lobby that any formal phonics instruction before the age of 6-7 is ‘developmentally inappropriate’ and ”a recipe for disaster” (Whitehead 2009 p76). There is no scientific basis for this belief.

Should reading instruction begin in Reception/Kindergarten?
”What we do have is a lot of data showing that literacy instruction improves the literacy skills of the kids who receive that instruction in preschool and kindergarten, and another body of research showing that early literacy skills predict later reading and academic achievement (and, of course, there is another literature showing the connections between academic success and later economic success).”

”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)

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 reading 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.” 
(B. Macmillan. Illiterate Boys. RRF newsletter 51 2004)

”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.” (B. Macmillan ’97). ”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/X)

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:

‘Learning to read is not child’s play’ writes Prof. Pamela Snow:

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, the 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 ’95). In a much 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. 2012). 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).

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.

”There are not now, and there never have been data showing any damage to kids from early language or literacy learning.” (Prof. Shanahan)

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 supporter of Rudolf Steiner’s theories about education. Steiner educationalists advocate for delaying the start of formal education for ‘spiritual’, not pedagogical reasons.
Educational psychologist John Noble and Simon Webb, an author, comment on the Suggate study: https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/Suggate-NZ-research.-RRF-forum.pdf

Sight Wordsand the Late Stage Sight Word Theory:

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 early years 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” is incorrect.

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

”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. 

Highly skilled readers may feel that they are bypassing phonics decoding but, in addition to lacking a credible research base, the Dual Route / Late Stage 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 2004 p289).

”Learning does not occur in ‘‘pathways,’’ but via anatomical and neurochemical changes in dendrites and adjacent cell membranes”
(D. McGuinness ERI 2004. p339)

Modern eye-movement studies confirm that skilled readers, even when reading silently, process the sound-spelling correspondences in nearly every word, and this processing 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 2006), but this is done at a subconscious level. Only when the skilled reader comes to a previously unencountered word do the skills of phonological decoding come back into consciousness.

”Skilled reading happens so quickly and efficiently that it seems as though words are recognized as whole units. But the evidence is clear that readers do attend to the inner structure of words (Adams, 1990; Ehri, 2005), assembling the letters and sounds very quickly—in as little as 150 milliseconds for a word (Shaywitz, 2003). We know that the “immediacy of reading is an illusion based on the extreme automaticity of these word-assembly steps, which operate outside our conscious awareness” (Dahaene, 2009).”
(Laura D. Stewart. What We Know About Beginning Reading. https://shorturl.at/kFGIS)

”There is abundant proof that we automatically access speech sounds while we read.”
(Prof Dehaene. Reading in the Brain 2009)

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

Diane McGuinness discusses the Dual Route theory 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…(T)he process of mentally sounding out words is an integral part of silent reading, even for the highly skilled.”
(2002. p90 https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Mark-Seidenberg/publication/11503766_How_Should_Reading_be_Taught/links/588a0c4745851570120367cf/How-Should-Reading-be-Taught.pdf)

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

”For skilled readers, phonological coding may be consciously experienced as inner speech, or the voice they hear in their head during reading.” 
(Ashby/Rayner. Handbook of Early Literacy Research Vol 2. 2006. 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 understands how the Alphabet Code works, 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 Stage 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, Special Educational Needs 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” (Prof Elliott. Dyslexia: Diagnoses, Debates and Diatribes). Alexander Faludy, described as ”so severely dyslexic that he can barely write”, won a place at Cambridge University at the age of 14 (Times ’98).

Children with hyperlexia are self-taught, accurate word readers from an extremely early age (they excel at the statistical learning of the visual spelling patterns embedded in words), 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 explicit 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 ’08)

Can ALL children learn to read? 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.”

Children with SEND in mainstream schools 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)

Are SEND children different? Monique Nowers.

”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. Ch4 TV documentary 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)

‘Is there an alternative to phonics?’ Spoiler alert ‘not really’
”There is a very small number of children who are unable to access phonics for different reasons. I trawled the DfE SEND data a couple of years ago and I estimated these to be less than 0.001% of all pupils.”

Pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities who have fallen behind with reading:
Ofsted strengthens the message from the Reading Framework and specifically states that pupils with SEND:
• should be taught using systematic, synthetic phonics
• learn to decode using the same processes as other readers
• do not benefit in the long term from learning sight words (memorising whole words or word shapes) and teaching these alongside phonics may confuse pupils
• will need a lot more practice than other readers to secure knowledge and master skills
• if older, will need age-appropriate instructional materials
• may require adjustments and adaptations to enable access to phonics.

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’ 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. Progress in Understanding Reading. Romance and Reality. https://www.dyslexics.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/RRF-50.-Extracts-from-Romancereality.-Stanovich.pdf)

”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)

Parents, Poverty and Reading:

2019. 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. Inside the Secret Garden. 2007)

”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/X)

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.” (Greg Ashman. italics added)

Calling time on parent-blame and children’s reading success:

”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)