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Reasons for my Literacy: Part 1

July 25, 2016

Sorry for the title, lyrics constantly go through my head and I was a bit of a fan of Ian Drury and the Blockheads…

Teachers get a rough time of it when it comes to literacy and special educational needs. The SEND reforms are pretty explicit in stating that there has historically been an over-identification of SEN, that (by implication) there’s too many lazy bad teachers out who choose to blame the child rather than their teaching. I don’t doubt that where the teaching of literacy is concerned, there will be an element of this. However, the nature of teaching is hardly a career that one embarks upon because you’re lazy!


If there’s one subject that keeps cropping up on Twitter that polarizes teachers, it’s a good phonics debate. I use that term very loosely since debate would suggest some form of give and take argument, which isn’t going to happen when the debaters are at polar opposites! I also have to say that of the two times I have been actively Trolled on Twitter, once was by a person who insisted on a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching literacy, as her way has, apparently, a 100% success rate. Presumably, if the child then failed to become literate, it must be that the teacher is doing it wrong? (Another ‘argument’ I’ve often seen)


My Troll was a proponent of the notion that all children must be taught phonics and phonics alone. I have to admit, if life was so simple, if humans so un-complex, the first half an hour or so of every morning could be given over to a computer program, a virtual teacher who would have the teaching of phonics word-perfect. I would be happily redundant as no student would ever arrive at my door at 16+ lacking in literacy. Only they do, so something is not working somewhere along the line.


I teach those who have been unable to learn literacy through the usual channels. I don’t teach early readers but I suspect that the following is played out in virtually every Yr1 class across the country:

  • children sit on the carpet and the teacher uses flash cards, to teach sound-symbol awareness /b/ /ai/ /igh/ etc.

  • using whiteboards, children copy a rhyme and add an onset (e.g. c+at, b+at), progressing to simple sentences

  • children are taught ‘cheats’ for irregular words (sh-oh-you-lucky-ducks = should)

  • children undertake guided reading where they discuss various aspects of a story

Reading (through sound-symbol awareness), understanding (guided reading) and reproduction (spelling) are taught simultaneously. It is a good model which is nicely balanced. It works for most children, but not all. All three aspects need to be mastered though if a child is to become literate, but some will struggle with one or more components. It may be that they have not yet reached a suitable level of maturity, or that they may have an issue with a necessary part of their processing kit. It should be borne in mind that in many countries, formal teaching starts at a much later age than in the UK (often 7yrs), but research shows that by 11 years old, children are at the same level. The government reasonably recently conducted research which concluded the same, but ministers dismissed it as being ‘out of touch’ (sorry, I no longer have the link to this, but I guess it was about 4/5 years ago).


One of the main arguments for phonics is that ‘everyone can learn to read this way’, which is simply untrue. Similarly, when reading was taught via the whole word, the majority of children learned to read, but some didn’t. It would therefore be equally untrue to claim a 100% success rate with that method too. What we, as teachers, need to do is to quickly identify those who are struggling, being mindful of the age-span of the class. It would be wrong to assume that all summer-born will be behind or that older children have SEN, but both may be a cause for not making progress.


Experienced Year 1 teachers should be quite adept at spotting if a child is unusually out-of-balance in one or more of the key areas needed for good literacy. However, sometimes issues do not present themselves until later in the child’s school career. The older the child gets, the less likely they are to have a teacher who will have been taught even the basics of initial literacy learning, or what to do if a child struggles to acquire it. Unfortunately, all too often a child finds themselves velcroed to a TA, who reads and scribes for them – or worse, is left to sink. Sinking tends to give rise to disengagement, behavioural issues and mental ill-health. Great for the school who uses a ‘zero tolerance, one-size-fits-all behaviour policy’ because they will move to exclude them. Unless the parent is SEN/D-savvy, or they’re in an LA who are pro-active and SEN/D-savvy, the school will get away with it. Staffroom conversations when I was supply teaching, suggests a within-child blame culture rather than any individual or whole-school introspective approach. Ok, I’m now wandering away from the teacher-me and towards the advocate-me, oops!


When arguing whether or not phonics ‘is best’ and/or if research supports/refutes this, you need to identify what argument you are actually making. Are you suggesting that phonics is the way forward for teaching at school entry phase, the solution for older non-readers or for literacy in general (for reading, understanding and/or spelling)? The answer will not be the same for all these issues – unless you are subscribing to the one-size-fits-all model which, by its very nature, is going to strongly risk running contrary to the Equality Act (like too many school behaviour policies!).


As I’ve mentioned before in other blog posts, when considering the validity of research, you need to closely scrutinise who the participants were and how they were selected. If someone is going to quote research at me, I want to see a range of papers with a good range of participants. I don’t want to see a study of six, with one initial and one follow-up visit, or where those with certain conditions have been excluded. I may be interested in papers that have ASD vs DS vs typically developing children matched to ability and/or age etc. I am also interested in teacher anecdotes and professional discussions with peers (I’m a Level 7 specialist). I want to read research that challenges my learning and beliefs and gives me fresh ideas to try because, at the end of the day, I’m here for the students not the pay and long holidays!


Anyway, this is the intro into what I hope will be a blog or two (or three) on the subject of literacy. It may take me a while as I get easily sidetracked….


































































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Bren Prendergast   Education Advocate (SEND)