Literacy Phonics Reading

Dear Mr Gibb

Guest post from Director of Literacy at the Aspire Education Trust, Megan Dixon @DamsonEd.

On this report:

Click to access RB418_Phonics_screening_check_evaluation_final_report_brief.pdf

Dear Mr Gibb,
Firstly I wish to say thanks for allowing the publication of today’s report into the Phonics Screening Assessment It makes very interesting reading as I am sure you will agree.

I am pleased that we have made improvements in our phonics teaching including “faster pace, longer time, more frequent, more systematic, and better ongoing assessment” (p7). You must be pleased that we teachers are more accepting of the check and have adapted our teaching to ensure that more children pass.  

But there seems to be a problem. It seems that despite all our hard work, making sure we do exactly what you have told us to do, the attainment and progress of children as readers and writers has not improved. Improvements have not led to impact on attainment.

I am disappointed in this. You assured us that if we spent thousands on special resources and training, stuck rigidly to prescribed schemes of work and lesson plans and drilled our children endlessly in segmenting and blending alien words, all children would read. You claimed that was what the evidence said. Well, you must have been mistaken. Maybe you were confusing reading decoding words with reading? Maybe you misunderstood the complexity of learning to read?

As someone who is often involved in helping schools improve, I know that if something doesn’t work, you should change it. Can I make a few suggestions that might have more impact?

1. The money might be better spent developing speech and language for all children. As the Bercow review (2006) noted, many teachers do not feel equipped to support SLC development in their classrooms. As up to 50% of children who start school do not have oral language skills at age related expectations (I CAN), that might be an important focus. It might help them understand the books they read.

2. Give schools money to buy more books – real ones, with proper stories, by proper authors. – this might help children understand how stories work, how books work and how to use the phonics we have always been teaching them (successfully!). Professor Usha Goswami suggests that good phonemic awareness develops as children learn to read (not before) – so maybe we might improve standards that way too?

3. Encourage teachers to focus on the metacognition and self-regulation of reading and writing. The Sutton Trust -EFF highlights metacognition as very effective and very cheap! Maybe we could show teachers how to help children use what they know, evaluate their performance and set new goals, (not just teach them more stuff)? We could help teachers understand just how complex reading is. I find Scarborough’s rope model helps to explain the challenges. I like the way it distinguishes the alphabetic principle from phonological awareness.

I’ll help if you like.

Best wishes,



16 thoughts on “Dear Mr Gibb”

  1. Hi Megan,

    Thank you for your further comments. They lead me to believe that there are many aspects of reading instruction, including the role of SSP, that you have misinterpreted. I suggest that it is not easy to explain if teachers have indeed significantly diminished the act of reading to children because Sir Jim Rose and all SSP proponents such as myself make it clear that children should be abundantly read to and that any SSP provision is ‘within a language-rich and literature-rich context’. What could be plainer? Indeed, I have had to work hard to promote the idea that ’20 minutes’ of phonics provision per day is actually not adequate as that is all that many schools allotted – especially prior to the Year One Phonics Screening Check which has illustrated that teachers can teach more, or less, effectively. Only in the latest NFER phonics survey was there a comment that some schools now give more time to phonics provision.

    The issue of ‘decodable texts’ is that children should not be asked to read INDEPENDENTLY texts that they cannot read without having to resort to guessing. Phonics does not come ‘first’ before comprehension, if children understand the words they can decode in their spoken language, comprehension is automatic – and if the text is more sophisticated than the child’s concept development, then the teacher is there to expand on the child’s language comprehension.

    There has been a ‘debate’ about phonics versus whole word and whole language for many decades and there have been a huge number of studies and research projects focused on reading instruction. We did not need more discussion, we needed teachers to be fully informed and fully trained in how best to teach phonics and how to integrate that with language comprehension and literature-enrichment. This is still the case.

    Many schools did not opt for support with teacher-training with the advent of the phonics match-funded initiative as they felt equipped to teach phonics well enough.

    Successive Governments over many years have tried ‘to promote effective learning (for everyone) but it is clear that there is still some way to go.

    Warm regards,


  2. Dear Debbie,
    Thanks for your thoughts.
    I appreciate you taking the time to respond. You made some interesting points, a couple of which I would like to consider.

    Your first point- “Why are teachers allowing themselves to decrease their storytime knowing it is so important” is easily to explain. The PSC and the teaching of phonics has always had very high stakes attached to it (reported to parents, included within school data sets, assessed and reported on by Ofsted and often linked to teacher PM targets). Teachers have been told to follow prescribed schemes (one of which might be yours). They are told that they must teach reading through phonics, “fast, first and only”. They are told that the SVR says phonics first (and only through decodable texts -you have written many), comprehension later. The NC has only 2 pages about spoken language, which cover Year 1-6. If you bear this in mind, I think it is easy to see how the wider aspects of literacy become sidelined.

    You encourage teachers to take responsibility. I agree, they should. I believe very strongly they should provide a wide, balanced literacy curriculum. Interestingly I have heard from several experts on SSP that a balanced curriculum is wrong, According to them, children only need SSP and “lots of reading” and they will all read. I think we might have a problem there.

    And thirdly – you claim the Government needed to focus on SSP and all children are benefiting. There I have to disagree. This report states there has been no impact on the attainment of children in reading, despite the focus on the PSC and SSP. That suggests to me that the focus might have been wrong. Teachers have been teaching phonics for a very long time. Admittedly, not in the way you would prefer, but nevertheless they have. I will agree that this has not always been very successful. But, as the report states, teachers have made improvements and are now using the prescribed schemes (one of which is yours). Unfortunately, we still have children who fail to learn to read (not just decode). We still have children who fail to decode (despite “outstanding” SSP). And now, in primary schools, we don’t teach reading, we teach “phonics”. I would like to tentatively suggest that this wasn’t what was needed. What we needed was a debate which highlighted the importance of phonics (but not just SSP) within the context of speaking, listening, reading and writing. We needed approaches to teacher learning that encouraged an expert understanding of the complexity of teaching reading (and writing) and helped teachers to develop a toolkit of effective strategies to draw on. We needed dialogue that focused around the best tools to teach “that child” not all children and flexibility to be able to make appropriate decisions about learning. We needed accountability that focused on progress for children, not performing from a prescribed script, or reading a list of words. We needed an approach that acknowledged the complexity of learning to read and how children learn. We needed the Government to promote effective learning (for everyone).

    Best wishes,

  3. Why are teachers allowing themselves to decrease their storytime knowing it is so important – and equally their speaking and listening activities? Take responsibility for ensuring that all of these things are provided as well as any phonics provision. Don’t keep blaming the Government for promoting Systematic Synthetic Phonics – it needed promoting and children are benefiting by being able to decode – all the children – whether teachers acknowledge this or not.

  4. I lead on phonics in my school and it’s been amazing to see my year one children learn to read from few children blending at all at the start of the year to the majority decoding at age related expectations. The demands of the new curriculum have pushed out things like story time so our children have less time to enjoy being read to and this shows which is incredibly sad but seemingly is not important to this government. We use books from the CLPE power of reading strategy so use some quality texts but no longer follow the CLPE teaching sequence. I guess they ignore the proven impact on attainment of reading for enjoyment because you can’t test enjoyment

    1. Such an important comment. How can story time be pushed out? This is a complaint I hear from many teachers. Also really important for children with poor language and less print exposure than others. Thanks for commenting.

  5. As a reading recovery teacher, the children are taught and encouraged to see the ‘whole picture’ when learning to read. The emphasis is very much on meaning, structure, understanding letters make words, words go together to make a sentence and that sentence means something. Some of the poorest readers I have taught have been amazing at phonics but read everything as a sound and had never experienced the excitement of reading a story and understanding it! The phonics part of their learning comes in writing, where they are encouraged to use what they know, think about sounds in a sequence and how that makes a word. Reading is so much more than phonics and this should be the emphasis – then we’ll start to see the benefits.

    1. Thank you Claire – I too teach many children who are good at phonics yet cannot read. I think stamina comes into reading too – some children can decode single words but struggle to read sentences.

  6. I believe that we need to devote sufficient time to developing a love of reading and teaching comprehension – through daily shared and guided reading, where children have the chance to talk about and deepen their understanding and appreciation of great literature/high quality picture books, etc. Secondly, phonics should be taught through writing (into reading). Teachers should be doing daily phonics but also daily shared, guided and independent writing SO THEY CONTINUALLY APPLY AND USE phonics. We need to rebalance teaching so that comprehension and composition are taught.

  7. At last a voice expressing the blindingly obvious, a shame Mr Gibb did not realise this earlier and spent the money on the right stuff, good engaging books and financially backed, well motivated teachers. Let’s get this sorted out asap before we loose yet another generation of children to a teaching fad or worse political dogma.

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