Select Committee on Education and Skills Eighth Report

1 Introduction

1. 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.

2. 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. Moreover, 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.[1] This differential achievement suggests that problems do exist, either in the implementation of the Government's strategies or inherently in the methodology it promotes.

3. The main issue for this inquiry was to examine current practice in schools. We engaged with the ongoing debate concerning the best method of teaching reading. 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. Many of those who contacted us during this inquiry argued passionately for or against these different methods. Our aim was to determine objectively which method worked best, based on the available evidence, or, if the evidence was insufficient, to recommend steps that should be taken in order to reach a conclusion.

4. 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. Some of the other factors involved in early childhood development are discussed in our recent report on the reform of children's services, Every Child Matters and in previous reports on Pupil Achievement and Early Years.[2]

5. Before setting out our conclusions and recommendations, it is necessary to clarify the central terms concerned in any discussion of 'teaching children to read'. 'Reading' is a term that is often used as if were self-evident. But a number of different processes can be understood to make up 'reading'. These include:

  • decoding: the ability to translate letters on a page into known sounds that correspond to a word;
  • comprehension: once a word has been sounded out, understanding the meaning of that word;
  • narrative: Knowing that a story has innate progression and coherence: a beginning, middle and end;
  • familiarity with books and other printed material: a culture of wanting to read and enjoying it.

Most would agree that being a reader involves all these elements. But when discussing the teaching of reading it is sometimes useful to distinguish between them.

6. In addition, 'literacy rates' are often referred to without a precise definition of what constitutes 'illiteracy'. Sometimes, reading ability is measured against a specific benchmark, such as the Government's Level 2 skills standard (equivalent to the reading ability expected of an 11 year old), which measures adult literacy. Elsewhere, illiteracy is simply a synonym for any reading ability below that expected of a child's age (as measured by Key Stage tests). In these cases, it is possible for a child to have a significant mastery of reading and to be able to cope with quite sustained texts whilst still being described as 'illiterate'. In this report, we have attempted to be as precise as possible when dealing with measurements of literacy and to state on each occasion which measure is being used.

7. We announced our inquiry into methods of teaching children to read in November 2004. In the course of this inquiry, we took oral evidence from Dr Morag Stuart, Reader in Psychology, Institute of Education, University of London; Mrs Debbie Hepplewhite, Reading Reform Foundation; Mr Stephen Twigg, MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Schools; Mr Andrew McCully, Director of School Standards Group, Department for Education and Skills; Dr Kevan Collins, National Director, Primary National Strategy; Ms Sue Lloyd, Co-author, Jolly Phonics; Professor Rhona Johnston, Professor of Psychology, University of Hull; Ms Ruth Miskin, ReadWrite Inc.; Mr Neil McClelland OBE, Director and Ms Julia Strong, Deputy Director, National Literacy Trust; and Ms Jo White and Ms Melian Mansfield, Early Childhood Forum. We received 55 written submissions. We would like to thank our Specialist Adviser, Professor Kathy Sylva, for her valuable assistance.

1   Reading for Purpose and Pleasure: an evaluation of the teaching of reading in primary schools, Ofsted, HMI 2393, 14 December 2004. Back

2   Education and Employment Committee, First Report of Session 2000-01, Early Years, HC 33-I; Education and Skills Committee, Seventh Report of Session 2002-03, Secondary Education: Pupil Achievement, HC 513; Ninth Report of Session 2003-04, Every Child Matters, HC 40. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2005
Prepared 7 April 2005