Select Committee on Education and Skills Eighth Report


The ability to read is the key to educational achievement. Without a basic foundation in literacy, children cannot gain access to a rich and diverse curriculum. Poor literacy limits opportunities not only at school, but throughout life, both economically and in terms of a wider enjoyment and appreciation of the written word. This inquiry was motivated by the Committee's firm belief that all children should get the best teaching possible in this crucial area.

This inquiry has focused specifically on the methods used in schools to teach children to read. We fully acknowledge that the acquisition of reading is an extremely complex subject, which is influenced by factors outside a school's control, such as socio-economic background, neurological development, the language of instruction and the experiences and stimuli a child encounters at a very early age, as well as many others. These factors deserve a thorough treatment which has not been possible in the limited time available to us. However, we do consider that teaching methods have a significant impact on a child's chances of becoming a fluent reader.

The Government tells us that primary school children have never been more proficient readers. It claims this achievement as the outcome of its National Literacy Strategy (now Primary National Strategy), introduced in 1997. Others question the true extent of this success, claiming that the proportion of children experiencing significant difficulties with reading is larger that these figures suggest. As data generated through Key Stage tests can be skewed by associated factors, such as teachers 'teaching to the test', we recommend that the DfES commission an independent evaluation of trends in reading standards among primary school children which would make clear the scale and nature of the problem faced, and provide a basis for further policy work.

Even if Government figures are taken at face value, at age 11 around 20% of children still do not achieve the success in reading (and writing) expected of their age. This figure is unacceptably high. Furthermore, there is a wide variation in the results achieved by schools with apparently similar intakes. This differential achievement suggests that problems do exist, either in the implementation of the Government's strategies or inherently in the methodology it promotes.

During this inquiry, we took evidence from witnesses who argued that phonics programmes should have more prominence in the early teaching of reading (these programmes concentrate on establishing an early understanding of sound-letter correspondence). We took evidence from others who questioned the utility of this approach, preferring to focus on the development of vocabulary and the enrichment of linguistic experience, as well as from those who support the current Government advice in the form of the Primary National Strategy.

It is unlikely that any one method or set of changes would lead to a complete elimination of underachievement in reading; however it seems that at present around 20% of eleven-year-olds are not reading at an age-appropriate level. We recommend a review of the NLS to determine whether its current prescriptions and recommendations are the best available methodology for the teaching of reading in primary schools. Further large-scale, comparative research on the best ways of teaching children to read, comparing synthetic phonics 'fast and first' with other methods (for example analytical phonics and the searchlights model promoted in the NLS) is necessary to determine which methods of teaching are most effective for which children. It may be that some methods of teaching (such as phonics) are more effective for children in danger of being left behind. This research should be commissioned by the DfES. As far as possible, this study should use control groups to take account of factors which may have a bearing on reading outcomes, for example, teacher knowledge and ability, socio-economic background and gender.

Corresponding research into other factors affecting reading acquisition, such as the development of cognitive skills and the age at which reading is first taught formally, is also necessary. But research cannot be of use unless teachers are fully informed of its findings and consequences for classroom practice. Improvements to teacher training are necessary to ensure that all teachers of reading are familiar with the psychological and developmental processes involved in reading acquisition. In addition, we note that the pre-school sector is generally characterised by a low skilled and low paid workforce. Upskilling in this area would result in important benefits to children's development and reading readiness.

Other factors implicated in underachievement are the early development of literacy, oral and communication skills, as well as a love of literature and reading, and parental involvement in teaching children to read. The stimuli a child experiences before the time he or she enters primary school and begins to be taught to read formally are vital to success in reading. Early childhood development of communication skills and experiences of literacy in its widest sense have a significant effect on a child's preparedness to learn to read. Opportunities can be enhanced through pre-school programmes, but the engagement of parents to provide educational development in the home is key. Recent initiatives aimed at fostering this engagement have been shown to significantly improve outcomes. In this context the Government's 'Every Child Matters' reform of children's services has a central role.

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