Friday 20 July 2012

Early Years Teacher/Consultant writes...

Dear Michael,

I have been following your blog and twitter feed with great interest in relation to first, fast and only phonics. I also read Helen Bromley's letter to you with great interest regarding the impact that phonics may be having in the Early Years.

For a number of years, I worked as a consultant for a Local Authority, involved in the roll out of Letters and Sounds to schools. From the beginning I, like you, was well aware that to get children to be fluent readers and writers, it would take far more than phonics. I was very clear to the schools I worked with that this must be done within a broad, rich, Literacy curriculum; not at the expense of real reading and purposeful writing activities as part of play based learning in the Early Years. I also worked closely with our Every Child A Talker and Early Years consultants to ensure a joined up approach with clear messages about what good Early Literacy practice, particularly in the Early Years, was. The work in schools proved very successful, with all schools seeing good benefits in their Early Years data as well as impact on children's oral storytelling and reading and writing for purpose and pleasure and development of the learning environment, including making and maintaining inviting book corners.

I was also aware that a large number of schools in our LA were using first, fast and only phonics, where some teachers had been given the idea that real books should not be introduced before several pages of text-only decodable texts could be mastered. [ When I say this, the Phonics people say, where's the evidence?! Your witnessing is the evidence! Ed. ] This, to me, seemed the complete opposite of what Early Reading should be about. After watching some of the sessions in schools, I was also concerned that this didn't follow the principles of what good Early Years practice should be and was worried about the distinct lack of real reading opportunities and, in some cases, lack of access to real books and reading. As Helen Bromley said in her letter, some of the teachers reported that they did not have time for daily read aloud sessions because they had to fit in phonics. I also saw many children who were becoming frustrated by being forced into phonics and handwriting before they were developmentally ready or who were 'set' for phonics; having to go to another classroom and being mixed with children from other year groups for very directed sessions that lasted much longer than their attention span was ready for. It concerned me that this may have a negative impact on their independence as learners and their enjoyment of reading as well as in their personal, social and emotional development.

I hope that you can carry on investigating, as you are, the impact that 'first, fast and only' may be having on our children, as I feel that it may lie even deeper than the effect on comprehension. I feel that children's independence as learners, natural inquisitveness and personal, social and emotional development may be affected by the narrowing down of the curriculum. [ This is a very important observation and perhaps it's something that UKLA could take up...Ed. ]  The time pressures of accomodating extended and over-prescribed phonics sessions also seem to have a real impact on the opportunities for self initiated learning and the ability of teachers to follow the needs and interests of their children more fully. As we are becoming increasingly aware though, comprehension is also clearly an issue. A group of 'able' Year 2 children I read with in a first fast and only phonics programme school I started working with could decode perfectly a Michael Morpurgo book about a farm visit, but when questioned, could not tell me what a lamb was - the nearest guess, from a picture cue of a newborn bloodstained lamb, being "when a sheep has hurt itself really badly". My concern here was that the child had no idea, from using the context or any wider reading skills, the word class, let alone the meaning. [ This is precisely what we are saying about being able to 'decode' but able to understand. Ed. ]

I have since returned to the classroom, teaching in Reception and as Early Years and Literacy Co-ordinator in an inner-city school which was in notice to improve, to 'practice what I preach', as I feel, like many others who have written to you, that this is the only way to reflect fully upon what works best. Thankfully, my class that have just finished Reception have achieved the highest results in the school data history across the EYFSP (moderated by the LA). More importantly, through a broad, rich Literacy Curriculum, they have developed a love of reading and writing for purpose and pleasure. Every day we have an open storytime for children to share their favourite books, stories, songs and rhymes from the classroom book corners (we have the advantage of a double classroom so have fiction and non-fiction areas - always well stocked and books changed regularly through consultation with the children about what they would like and are interested in) and from home. We have at least five books brought in from home to share everyday and YouTube videos of your poems and 'Bear Hunt' are on the children's choice lists nearly every day. We also use websites, such as the fantastic ITV signed stories site (, to share at school and with parents as well as trips to and information about local libraries to give parents and children better access to good quality texts at home. My nursery nurse and I also bought each child a book for Christmas and at the end of summer term (this worked out at only £1 per child through the great pack deals available from the Book People), as we are aware that many of our children do not have access to a wide range of books at home. We recently had an Ofsted inspection and, as well as the school coming out of category, practice in the Early Years was reported as outstanding, with the EYs inspector commenting strongly on children's attainment and love of learning.

I feel that these children are now well equipped to have an excellent start in their journey as learners and as rounded readers and as Ofsted commented:  'Pupils are eager readers, enjoy reading aloud and talk animatedly about their favourite authors and books'. This has been due to a real push on the reading for pleasure agenda, including giving all classes £100 to spend on improving book corners; having a Reading week culminating in the celebration of World Book Day; installing listening centres in every classroom with quality audiobooks, so the children can listen to books read aloud; writing a read-aloud policy to ensure all teachers in the school dedicate time daily to read aloud to their class and regularly sharing books and ideas in assemblies and school newsletters - for example, sharing the story of one busy parent who worked three jobs and was rarely able to put her children to bed, so  recorded a number of stories on a mobile phone so they could still hear her read each night. I am aware that these all seem like things that should be pretty standard and non-negiotiable in primary schools, but they are things that we have had to re-introduce as they were either squeezed out or not as high-priority as other directed initiatives in the past. Phonics is taught throughout the school, but in a sensible and moderated way that supports and is not at the expense of reading for purpose and pleasure; there is no point merely focussing on the skill if our children do not develop the will to read.[ Again, a vital point. Ed. ]

In September, I will be embarking on a new job where hopefully I will have more opportunities to help push the real reading agenda further. Before I leave, I am working with my school throughout the summer on having the library reinstalled as it was dismantled, prior to me working there, to make room for an extra classroom to set Year 6.

I look forward to following your progress and offer you my full support. I hope you will be the thorn in the side that will enable reason and clear thinking to win out and that your blog, and the contributions of others to it, gives teachers in the classroom the confidence to pursue what they believe in and know to be right for their children.

Very best wishes,