The new literacy framework

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Jennifer Chew discusses some core papers relating to the new literacy and numeracy frameworks.

At the start of the new school term, the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) published on its website some ‘core papers’ relating to the new literacy and numeracy frameworks. The ‘core papers’ for literacy reflect the recommendations of Jim Rose’s Independent Review of the Teaching of Early Reading, published by the DfES in March 2006. They represent the biggest step forward that I have seen in my quartercentury of being concerned about literacy standards – a concern which started when I realised that too many of the teenagers I was teaching were handicapped in their reading and writing because they had not mastered the alphabetic code properly at primary school. When sixteen year-olds spell ‘exaggerate’ as ‘acuraage’, ‘equipped’ as ‘epitt’ and ‘committee’ as ‘commenit’, alarm bells ring! In this article, I will comment on key points about literacy from the ‘core papers’, using the titles of the papers as abbreviated in the DfES announcement.

Phonics and early reading: an overview

Part 1 of this paper consists of ‘guidance for headteachers, literacy leaders and managers’. It starts with a section on the ‘simple view of reading’ which now replaces the ‘searchlights’ model.

The key difference between the ‘searchlights’ model and the ‘simple view of reading’ is that the ‘searchlights’ model did not distinguish clearly between decoding and comprehension whereas the ‘simple view’ makes a clear distinction. When children start learning to read they already understand spoken language well enough for early reading purposes. Their prime need is to learn lettersound correspondences and the skill of blending sounds together so that they can translate written words into spoken words whose meanings they already know.

The ‘overview’ paper states that ‘High-quality phonic work can be achieved by using a commercially produced programme, or Primary National Strategy materials’, or locally produced materials. A new Primary National Strategy programme is promised for spring 2007, but several commercial programmes are already available which achieve excellent results and are very beginnerfriendly, in keeping with Jim Rose’s finding that phonics can be started early without compromising a rich curriculum. My own recommendations would include Jolly Phonics (Jolly Learning Ltd.), Fast Phonics First (Heinemann) and Read Write Inc. (Oxford University Press).

Part 2 of this ‘core paper’ is headed ‘A sequence for teaching high-quality work for practitioners and teachers, and underpinning guidance’. It starts with a clear account of the sounds of English and the nature of alphabetic writing, and it then outlines a series of simple-to-complex stages for introducing decoding skills.

There is a welcome recognition that decoding is ‘prime’ in all reading, including shared and guided reading. Equally welcome is the advice against ‘the use of unreliable strategies such as looking at the illustrations, rereading the sentence, saying the first sound or guessing what might “fit”’. These ‘unreliable strategies’ should never have been recommended in the first place – they have done a lot of harm and I am delighted that official documents now advise against them. From now on, both shared and guided reading should be used to reinforce decoding skills in the early stages: ‘practitioners and teachers should adhere to letters and sounds already taught so that children experience how to apply their knowledge in the context of reading texts’; ‘early on, new readers will be focused on the application of phonic skills and word recognition, but as they grow in confidence and skill, the emphasis will move to comprehension’.

The new conceptual framework for teaching reading: the ‘simple view of reading’

This ‘core paper’ repeats and expands the information about ‘the simple view of reading’. It makes the important additional point that even ‘a store of sight vocabulary’ is more easily acquired through the decoding route than by learning words as ‘sight words’. In other words, lots of practice with sounding out and blending is the best way of helping children to build up a store of words which they recognise instantly.

The ‘simple view’ recognises, rightly, that comprehension should not be ignored in the early stages but that it will usually be automatic, because most reading material for beginners is made up only of language which is already familiar in speech – if children decode the words accurately, they will understand them. Furthermore, the way that comprehension is extended after the early stages is not entirely specific to reading – new vocabulary, more complex grammatical structures and more general knowledge need to be acquired for the purpose of general language comprehension.

Children may not show equal performance in decoding and language comprehension. Teachers may need to focus more on decoding with some children and more on language comprehension with others.

Guidance for practitioners and teachers on progression and pace in the teaching of phonics

This paper again mentions programme choice. Annex A offers ‘Criteria that define an effective phonics programme’. It is particularly good to see, for the first time in a policy document, that programmes should emphasise ‘blending phonemes in order all through a word to read it’. They should treat blending and segmenting ‘as reversible processes’ and should also ‘be multisensory, encompassing various visual, auditory and kinaesthetic activities that actively engage children…’. All the programmes which I mentioned above fulfil these criteria.

Annex B outlines six phases:

Phase 1 is preparation for, rather than part of, phonic work: ‘It paves the way for a programme of phonic work to begin. This starts when grapheme-phoneme (lettersound) correspondences are introduced in Phase 2’. Perhaps, therefore, Phase 1 should come under ‘Speaking and Listening’ rather than under ‘progression and pace in the teaching of phonics’. Many reception teachers using ‘synthetic phonics programmes already move straight to Phase 2 and find that it works very well.
Phase 2 starts the introduction of grapheme-phoneme correspondences: children start to work with simple words as soon as they have learnt the first few correspondences, reading them by sounding out the letters and blending the sounds, and spelling them by segmenting them into phonemes and representing the phonemes by letters.
Phase 3 completes the teaching of one grapheme for each of the 44 phonemes.
Phase 4 focuses on words containing adjacent consonants, but there is a caveat against treating consonant blends (e.g. /sp/) as single units, because this can be a barrier to learning for some children.
Phase 5 introduces no new phonemes (all 44 have been covered by the end of Phase 3) but involves teaching children alternative ways of pronouncing the graphemes already learnt and alternative ways of spelling the phonemes already taught.
Phase 6 focuses on longer and more complex words and on working towards automaticity in reading and writing.
The pace suggested is certainly faster than it has been in previous National Strategy guidance, but it is still slower than in leading commercial programmes. Teachers using commercial programmes should follow the pace suggested in those – this is part of implementing a chosen programme ‘with fidelity’, the need for which is stressed under the heading ‘Choosing a programme’.

Developing reading comprehension

This is probably the most ground-breaking of the four papers, but also the one which is least relevant to beginners, so only a brief outline is given here. The paper is ground-breaking because although the importance of ‘reading for meaning’ has been stressed for many years, often with the implication that phonics diverts children from understanding what they read (not true, of course), teachers have been given very little guidance on what is involved in good comprehension of spoken and written language. This paper gives some much-needed guidance. It deals with the need to develop vocabulary, grammatical
skills, pragmatic abilities (those which ensure that communication is taking place as intended – for example that the ‘register’ is appropriate), metalinguistic awareness (the ability to reflect on the structure of language), and knowledge of idioms and figurative language. There is also some useful information about strategies for reading comprehension which go beyond those normally needed for comprehending spoken language.

Much of this is clearly applicable only to older children, but this in itself helps to show why the ‘simple view of reading’ is important. Most beginners have enough comprehension of spoken language to be getting on with when they start learning to read, and the focus therefore needs to be firmly on decoding, which is new to them. As they become proficient at decoding, the focus can start to shift towards developing the more advanced language skills and knowledge of the world that they need in order to understand more difficult spoken and written material.

Conclusion

The new literacy Framework will mean that many teachers, particularly of beginners, may have to change the way that they teach reading in order to put more emphasis on decoding. Their reward will be that they see children becoming better at reading (including comprehension) and spelling because they have a better understanding of how the system works.

Jennifer Chew, OBE, is a retired teacher of sixth-formers, a long-time literacy campaigner and the Editor of the Reading Reform Foundation Newsletter.

This article is taken from the Oct/Nov 2006 issue of Teaching & Learning.

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