Nancy Gedge and Chris Rossiter write a follow-up blog to Through the Looking Glass looking ahead to the issues that need addressing and the questions that school leaders need to ask. 

One of the observations made in the Through the Looking Glass Report, launched on the 23rd March, that caused a stir on social media was, ‘Phonics does not work for every learner. This needs to be accepted and alternative strategies for accessing literacy addressed, recognising that failure to pass a phonics test at age 5 or 6 does not mean a learner is destined for failure.

This does not mean that Systematic Synthetic Phonics (SSP) isn’t a very efficient way to teach young children to read.  It also does not mean that it isn’t an excellent way to empower SEND learners who have literacy difficulties, some of whom may have dyslexia, by giving them the tools to unlock new words in reading when they come across words that they have not committed to memory.

However, it is worth pointing out that our comment, while not being about the worth, or not, of SSP, speaks of issues that we would like to see addressed in position papers by organisations such as Ofsted, the Sutton Trust and the Education Policy Institute. We are, after all, a literacy charity.

Read Through the Looking Glass – “is universal provision what it seems?”

Issues we would like to see addressed in the future are:

  1. SEND learners are not a homogenous group. People with a specific learning difficulty can have conditions as diverse as Severe, Multiple and Profound Learning Difficulties, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Speech Language and Communications Needs, hearing and/or sight impairments, Attention Deficit Disorder and dyslexia, from mild to severe, to name but a few. Learners with requirements as diverse as this will not all reach milestones at the same time, or indeed, in the same way – yet they all have an entitlement to literacy and are all judged by the same standards.
  2. Disadvantaged learners are not a homogenous group. There are lots of different ways in which a child or young person can be disadvantaged, a proportion of which will overlap with SEND of one form or another. Approaching disadvantaged learners in the same way, and making the assumption that they form a separate cohort to SEND learners, could be putting them at a disadvantage.
  3. The teaching of phonics – and of any other form of reading or writing intervention – needs to be critically assessed by professionals in schools. While it is true that the majority of young children are well on the way to reading and writing by the summer of Year 1, when most of them will be six years old, it needs to be acknowledged that some of them, some of whom will be educated in special schools, the majority of whom will be in the mainstream, will not.  Furthermore, that this inability to reach the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check (Y1PSC) benchmark is not necessarily a sign of bad teaching, but could be of a specific learning difficulty that will need to be addressed as the child grows up.

Questions we would like school leaders to ask:

  1. When a learner does not reach the benchmark for the Y1PSC, have they been screened for dyslexia and/or other learning difficulties?
  2. If a learner is still struggling to read and write as they move through the infant and junior years, what is being done to ensure that they still have access to a broad and balanced curriculum?
  3. What is being done to ensure that all teachers and teaching assistants, across all key stages, are able to access and use phonic knowledge in their lessons in order to support struggling readers and spellers?
  4. As a child or young person grows up, the amount of content in other subjects, such as the sciences, humanities and arts, increases. How can schools ensure that, even when a young person is finding reading and writing a huge effort, despite all interventions, have access to learning and opportunities to show what they know?
  5. What can schools do to protect the mental wellbeing of young people with learning difficulties who see themselves failing tests again and again; what can school do to ensure that children and young people grow up to understand that failure is an event, and not a personal characteristic?

We agree that an aim for universal literacy is a noble one, and one that we MUST pursue. Children and young people with literacy difficulties, from the most profound to the sort that you would only notice on a bad day, deserve just as much attention from policy makers as the typically developing. And we, as members of the body of professionals who work within the field of education, have a duty to ensure that, where the needs of the learner require us to, we use our professional expertise to adapt both our methods and curriculum in this aim.