Evidence Check 1: Early Literacy Interventions - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by Elizabeth Nonweiler (LI 12)


    — I am an independent trainer for the teaching of reading. — I am an Associate Member of the British Dyslexia Association and teach children with reading difficulties. — I am a committee member of the Reading Reform Foundation.

    — I wrote a review of the evidence provided by government for its promotion and financial support for Reading Recovery, but not synthetic phonics, for Wave 3 intervention.


    — Some claims made for Reading Recovery in England are not credible. — Synthetic phonics should be promoted for Wave 3 intervention.

    — Reading Recovery and synthetic phonics are not compatible.


  The following report has been used by the government to justify the use of Reading Recovery: Comparison of Literacy Progress of Young Children in London Schools: a Reading Recovery Follow up Study (Burroughs-Lange, 2007).

Burroughs-Lange claims that this study:

    (a) "demonstrated... the sustainability of the significant gains made by the lowest achieving children who received Reading Recovery as 6 year olds".

    (b) "provides strong evidence that schools could enable almost every child to read and write appropriately for their age, if those who were failing were given access to expert teaching in Reading Recovery".

    (c) provides "ample evidence... that without RR, children with low literacy understanding do not catch up to age appropriate levels during Key Stage 1".

  None of these claims are credible for the following reasons:

    (a) As there is no data for subsequent years, the first claim is credible only if qualified by the words "until the end of Y2".

    (b) As all the children in this study were less than eight years old, there is no evidence that schools could "enable almost every child to read appropriately for their age if given access to Reading Recovery". I know, from teaching older children with reading difficulties, that sometimes they reach a reading age of seveon or eight years and then their progress stops, because they cannot decode unknown words in more advanced text.

    (c) Children who received Reading Recovery tuition in Y1 are compared with children who received either no extra tuition or "alternative forms of support". The alternatives are small-scale, the author tells us almost nothing about their content or implementation, and there is no information about their results in Y2. It remains plausible that children with low literacy understanding do catch up to age appropriate levels with alternative interventions.

  Burroughs-Lange is responsible for implementation of Reading Recovery in the UK, Ireland and Europe (University of London, 2008), so she is not an unbiased researcher.


    — The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Postnote (October 2009 Number 345), states that "Rigorous evaluations have shown that effective interventions involve work on increasing children's awareness of the individual sounds that make up words... , learning letter-sound correspondences, and applying these skills when reading books". This is how children are taught to read books using synthetic phonics. — The government has promoted the use of synthetic phonics for teaching reading through its support for the Independent review of the teaching of early reading (Rose 2006), the Standards Site Core Criteria for assuring high quality phonic work and its publication of the synthetic phonics programme, Letters and Sounds. It would be logical to promote interventions that use synthetic phonics to help children who are struggling to learn to read.

    — The seven year study, The Effects of Synthetic Phonics Teaching on Reading and Spelling Attainment (Johnston and Watson, 2005) provides credible evidence that synthetic phonics is effective for the initial teaching of reading. It also describes in detail the progress of "one child with severe learning difficulties [who] was able to read well above the level expected for his age and level of verbal ability" following interventions involving synthetic phonics principles. It is plausible that this works for other children with learning difficulties.

    — I teach children from six to 13 years old who have had difficulties learning to read. Without exception, I have found that their difficulties have been exacerbated by their attempts to use context cues to guess words, before trying to decode them. With synthetic phonics, I teach them the alphabetic code and the skill of blending and insist that they identify unknown words by decoding. This strategy has been successful.


  The DCSF and Reading Recovery publications imply that Reading Recovery and synthetic phonics are compatible (Every Child a Reader, 2008 and Bodman, 2007). The following is evidence that they are not.

Bodman (2007) describes a Reading Recovery lesson, which, she claims, "links the teaching actions to the ideas of synthetic phonics": After reading a book, a child observes his teacher reading the word "can" "whilst demonstrating a left to right hand sweep". Then he builds "can" with magnetic letters and reads it himself. It is clear that the child was asked to read a text before acquiring the phonic knowledge and skills involved, and to read a word after being told the pronunciation. With synthetic phonics children read texts after learning the phonic knowledge and skills involved and they are not told the pronunciation of a new word before being asked to read it.

  The National Literacy Strategy promoted the "searchlights" model, where learners are taught to use a range of strategies to read, including knowledge of context and grammar. In Reading Recovery lessons, children are encouraged to use these strategies to read new texts (Video transcript: Reading Recovery lesson). In the Rose Review, the searchlight model is rejected (paragraph 115) and synthetic phonics is recommended for teaching children to read (paragraph 47). Synthetic phonics involves teaching children to use phonics to read new texts.

  "Children in Reading Recovery are taught how to treat new words as puzzles to be solved" (Douetil, 2004). Synthetic phonics involves direct and systematic instruction.

October 2009

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Prepared 18 December 2009