Ofsted's Kirsty Godfrey HMI, Phil Minns HMI and Ivana Vidakovic, from Ofsted's research and evaluation team, gave a talk and Q&A at the Wellington Festival of Education held in summer 2022. It covered phonics, the importance of encouraging a love of reading, and helping struggling secondary aged readers.
Hannah Martin 0:07 We recently took part in the Wellington Festival of Education. Here's the session we recorded at the event on reading. Hope you enjoy it.
Kirsty Godfrey 0:20 Well, it's a pleasure to be with you today. My name is Kirsty Godfrey. I am an inspector and special advisor working for Ofsted and I'm joined by two colleagues on the panel today.
Phil Minns 0:32 Morning everyone. My name is Phil Minns I'm also one of the her Majesty's inspectors and I'm a specialist advisor for early years and primary. And my colleague...
Ivana Vidakovic: Good morning, I'm Ivana Vidakovic, I'm not an inspector, I'm a senior reasearch lead at Ofsted.
Kirsty Godfrey 0:46 Thank you. Let's get into our session which is all about reading in schools and I'm going to begin by just talking about reading. So why is reading so important? Well, unless pupils can read, they can't access learning to the full. When pupils learn to read accurately and with automaticity so that they're fluent with their reading, they can learn more, simply because they can read and gain the knowledge for themselves. And of course, reading is the gateway to learning across the whole curriculum. And we know that reading opens doors in terms of opportunity and enjoyment and lifelong success and academic success. Researchers found that being able to read accurately by age six has a strong correlation with future academic success. That's why it's so important that schools and Ofsted are placing our attention on making sure that all pupils learn to read as soon as they should. Focusing on getting early reading right is going to give them pupils the best possible chances in their lives. At the same time, of course, though, we do know that there will be some children who have not hit that important milestone, of being able to crack that alphabetic code by the time they are six. For them and for pupils of any age who are still in those early stages of learning to read, that learning to read must be a really essential priority for them. And it's high quality phonics teaching that secures those crucial skills of word reading that once mastered enable children to decode automatically and accurately. And that is what frees up their working memory to be able to focus on the meaning of the text that they read. So until the pupils are reading both accurately and automatically, their working memory is going to be very taken up with the decoding process. And they'll find it difficult to focus on the meaning of what they read, even if they understand all the words and that is why it's so important that pupils quickly become fluent readers. Because when pupils aren't able to decode well, it also limits the language that they're exposed to. Because they're not able to read independently and gain that new language knowledge for themselves. And and it's also worth mentioning that these two different dimensions of reading, need different teaching in the early stages. And as an example of that phonics teaching and storytime. They're both about reading and really clearly different learning intention. So what we're going to do now is we're going to take each of those two different aspects of Reading, Word reading and language comprehension and look at them in turn, and I'm going to start with word reading which begins with phonics. And when we think about word reading, I think it's really important that we remind ourselves that writing is a code. The letters on the page represent the sounds in spoken language. And the English alphabetic code is a particularly complex one. In other languages where they have a more transparent code, you might have each sound being represented by one letter, whereas the English alphabetic code, we've got around 44 different phonemes and we've got over 150 ways to represent those phonemes as graphemes using the 26 letters of the alphabet, and that's why it takes children who are learning to read in English around two to three years to be able to really learn that that code. But effective systematic synthetic phonics teaching, make sure that pupils do learn to understand these letter to sound correspondences and that of course, is what will give them independence in terms of being able to read and also spell. And that's why understanding the alphabetic code really underpins successful reading. Without it then children can't go on to comprehend what they read even if they do have the understanding of those words. And I want to just take us back to time has gone by briefly now because in the past, learning to read might have involved teaching children using a range of different strategies. But of course we know that they're not efficient. You know, research has shown that that's not going to be a helpful way of being able to know the alphabetic code. So for example, memorising whole words by sight, or guessing words, either using the pictures or the first letter of the word, and not helpful. The research is really clear about that. We know for example that memorising enough words by sight is just impossible and it also relies on an adult telling the child each word, so actually doesn't give them a strategy that they can use independently whenever they come across an unfamiliar word in the future. And of course, things like guessing strategies are only going to work in books that are designed to help children guess using the pictures. And that becomes less useful to them when the text gets more complex. And the books contain no pictures. And that's why the national curriculum requires pupils to be taught phonics as the one and only method for reading unfamiliar words. It is a strategy that they'll be able to use independently and forever. Whenever they come across an unfamiliar word. Now, we do know that there are some people who manage to be able to work out that code for themselves eventually. But also there are too many who do not particularly those disadvantaged pupils. And of course, the impact that that has on their life is so great that it's a real issue for us. So by teaching phonics from the start of reception, that's the way that we can make sure that all pupils including those disadvantaged ones learn to decode and therefore have the best possible life choices ahead of them. Because they're able to access a full curriculum and benefit academically. Now phonics teaching enables pupils to become fluent readers and also spellers. That's because the alphabetic code is a reversible process. It teaches pupils to decode words to read them, but also encode words to spell them. And the very positive news about phonics is that it works for all and it harms none. It makes sure that all pupils learn the code it gives those pupils at a disadvantage that opportunity to succeed in life. And actually phonics doesn't hold children back either. So if you have children that can already read when they begin learning phonics, the research actually shows that helps them because of it developing their spelling too. And actually, we shouldn't worry too much about those children because if they can read independently themselves, they've got the benefit of being able to learn lots of new knowledge from reading books themselves. It also of course works for all people with special educational needs. And that same curriculum applies because of the fact that the writing is a code for the sounds in spoken language, that that's a fact that we can't get away from. It's that same body of knowledge that those children with special educational needs will need to read just as their peers will. Any pupils that are not at the point of being able to read words accurately, are going to need to be taught phonics. And broadly speaking, it will only be those that have got severe cognitive difficulties that are not able to be taught phonics code. And interestingly, I think, is to is to think about that they are still on that same curriculum journey, but they're at a much earlier stage. So for example, in their expressive and receptive language. What could change though for those pupils that do have special educational needs is is when we think about the pedagogy so the curriculum is the same, the pedagogy you might need thinking about differently. So it may be that teachers need to think about the choice of activities and resources to teach that same grapheme phoneme correspondence knowledge. So it's likely that those pupils might need to be taught in smaller groups and free from distractions. There's undoubtedly going to need to be a lot more repetition and over learning to develop that fluency and it could be the resources needed adapting so that the more age appropriate or linked to a child's interests to really engage them. But the important thing is a curriculum doesn't change the pedagogy might.
Phil Minns 9:05 We've talked about phonics already. And then of course, we've got to consider comprehension. And sometimes comprehension is thought of as a key stage two reading activity. But of course, comprehension starts right from the very, very very beginning as soon as children start to learn words, and we know that that ability to understand what they're hearing and then learn what those words mean and say them and use them is a significant advantage for our children to be able to use that. So even before they're they're meeting the phonic code. They're developing that significant piece of information. They need to understand what words mean when we think about the advantage or we think about disadvantaged children, and I'm going to talk about that a little bit. But the advantaged children come in when they arrive at practically reception possible ready, enjoying books. There's all sorts of research into the differences in the number of words that children are experienced by the time they reach the age of four or five is huge. Millions of words one child will have heard millions of words more than another child so two children stood in front of you on their first day of reception class, one might have heard 4, 5 million words more than the other child. Now the way they heard those words is because they've been in an environment where people talk to them, they talk to him about stuff, they hear things that are going on. They've had lots and lots of opportunities to absorb that information. And people have engaged with them and listened to them as well. And the other child hasn't had those advantages. That child, he's heard all of those things because of the number of words and things that's going on. They've had to develop faster processing speed, so they can assimilate that information more quickly as well. So you've got a child, those two children stood in front of you, on that first day in reception, one understands more words and can understand them more quickly. And the other child can't. That child who is can do more isn't more intelligent. The other child hasn't got special needs, that child's just lucky. That's an advantage. And we need to identify that and if those children come into us without that advantage, we need to do something to help them. And I think sometimes it's really worth remembering what the advantages does only help us to perhaps be motivated more to look at those children, because of course a child who can talk, it has all that confidence talks. They are the one that actually we are more likely to talk to, because we're much more likely to talk somebody who's chatty than somebody who isn't so we actually have to identified that so we go out of our way to support them. Now the reason we need to do that is because of the huge impact of vocabulary on children's well being at school and that life, a child with a lower vocabulary at the age of five or six times less likely to do well in their SATS, and they're twice as likely to be unemployed by the time they're 34. Really really significant for the strongest information or research that we've got in education is that link between vocabulary at that early age, and how well they'll do as they carry through. And when we think about comprehension, we really need to remember that it's not simply a reading skill. If we got children in key stage two who are struggling with comprehension of reading? And we've got to question what are they understanding in all of the all of the instructions that they're being given, all of the explanations in the stories and if we don't consider their comprehension of the spoken language comprehension from a very, very early stage, making sure that children understand the words that they're using, and really understanding those concepts that we tend to link. And the last thing that I was gonna talk to you about as far as comprehension is concerned, is just really the importance and the impact, particularly of the fiction the books and the nonfiction that children come across, right from their very earliest time, whether that's at home with their families, or whether that's in a setting or in school. Stanovich said that 90% of language that we learn is coming from those books, particularly for more complex texts. Up until about the age of eight, we'll learn new words by hearing them after that we learn by reading them. And that's because on the whole generally we use language around the level of an eight year old, we don't tend to get into that level of complexity. So if a child isn't able to read by the time they're eight, they're going to lose some of that access to that early vocabulary that they otherwise would have. And it's also why we need really need to choose the books and the songs and the stories and the rhymes that we share with children from an early age. Because one of the things that we want them to get is an understanding of what complex vocabulary more complex language structures, and that's what quality books will give them. So we share those books with them that are beyond their own ability to read even if you have not yet read it yet, but we're also stretching their ability to understand and they will continue to extract information out of it is why you get those young children who will want the same book over and over and over again. If I read the latest Ann Cleave's Vera I'll read it once and I'll put it down because I've got everything else that I need. I know who was the murderer, really in it while I'm reading it, but once I finished it, it's gone from me, because I've got it and if I start reading it again, I'll remember it I'll remember who did it. Unfortunately! The teachers, pre-school providers, all of those people choices they make around the books that you'll get access to are really really important.
Hannah Martin 14:11 As part of the session, our speakers challenge the audience to pronounce some tricky words.
Ivana Vidakovic 14:16 Can you give it a go? Can you try reading them out? So being able to read words accurately, automaticity to read them with enough speed and prosody to read with meaning is why fluency is so important because it's a link it's a bridge between reading and comprehension. And research has shown that higher levels of reading fluency are linked with best comprehension is usually expected to children in other primary school age. Most of them build fluency quite early on, but it is a fact that some pupils walk into secondary education without being fluent readers. They still struggle and this needs more research really on fluency that we're seeing the secondary education phase. The fluency is very important because it really frees up our working memory to focus on some other reading processes. It allows us then to more securely draw out background knowledge of reading to enrich our understanding. It allows us to process and understand larger chunks of text. To understand the nuance the details if you focus all the time on trying to decode words, word or letter by letter, then you're not going to have enough capacity to to do all of those higher level processes that feed into comprehension. So how do we ensure progress in reading? Through practice? Yes, reading lots, but that's not the end of the story. We also have to think about the types of knowledge that we need to become more proficient readers. So for example, vocabulary working on increasing the vocabulary range, syntactical knowledge as well the range of sentential structures that she can encounter in a variety of texts, narrative structures and things familiarity with it is also important, and I'll kind of go back to it a little bit later. Context as well as the background knowledge - if you think about reading subject specific texts, right. So all of this can really help increase pupils readiness for reading ambitious literature, which is the point of the national curriculum. Where is the place of reading comprehension strategies in all of this? So we spoke about the different types of knowledge that we should nurture and develop in pupils. And what about those? So reading comprehension strategies such as summarising clarification, prediction, you know, read the heading or the facts and then predict what's going to come next. Or kind of what do you do to check your own understanding of the text, how you relate sentences to try their height and then go back and monitor your own understanding. These are all interesting and useful, but they can't be an end to themselves. Research has shown that they can be taught reasonably quickly, and pupils can benefit very early on from them. But as long as they can decode words accurately and as long as they're fluent readers research has also shown there are no benefits in continuous teaching of reading strategies. What about an effective reading curriculum? As you see there are three main elements to it. An effective reading curriculum would provide pupils with the knowledge they need for comprehension, vocabulary, syntax, subject specific concepts and so on. What makes one text more challenging than another one? It's not a single factor. Obviously, it's a lot of factors to take into account. So one of them's the linguistic complexity, again, vocabulary, syntax and vocabulary that could be archaic, or sophisticated, or academic that brings up this kind of complexity, again, different syntactic structures, which can also really vary in terms of complexity, narrative structures. For example, some of them are linear in the development of action or concepts. Some of them are - not messed up. But for example, think of the Sound and the Fury, the stream of consciousness and those temporal lines moving back and forth between the past and present, so this really also increases the complexity, the number of characters, the genre is a description, narration, argumentation, and so on and so forth. So these are all the factors, or some of the factors that we should take into account when selecting the text and when trying to vary and increase the challenge. What happens when we have struggling secondary readers? We've known for a while that there were and there have always been some pupils who hit that secondary school age, but they still struggle with reading. The problem is they as a result can't access the curriculum, which is why reading is a priority. COVID has aggravated things further. And our education recovery report has shown that teachers are doing a lot of work on that front for the pupils to be able to access their secondary curriculum. They should be reading accurately and fluently. A range of fiction and nonfiction texts as well. How do we go about it? Well, assessment is crucial. And we know that lots of teachers use screening tests and screening tests are helpful in that they allow you to identify the strong readers, versus the weak readers, they don't tell you what the struggling readers really struggle with. So anything that's screening should be followed up with a diagnostic assessment to identify where the problem lies. Is it about accurate decoding of words? Is it about increasing fluency or something else all together? Ideally, that any extra reading support should be effective enough to rectify reading issues reasonably quickly, but we do know that this requires some arrangements as we know that there are timetabling constraints. What is important to bear in mind though, it's there are multiple ways to do it. Like for example, when people needs to be miss some class time in making sure they didn't miss the same lesson every time. We're doing it during breakfast, break times and during registration time right after school or you know there are different options, but this is important not to neglect.
Hannah Martin 20:53 We have time for some questions from the audience at the end.
Kirsty Godfrey 20:56 These are the questions that we ask our inspectors to consider on inspection to determine how well leaders are prioritising reading so that pupils in secondary can access that full curriculum offer. So our inspectors will focus on how effectively assessment is identifying those pupils that are struggling and precisely what is it they're struggling with. So that appropriate support can be put in place that's targeting their needs, and is helping them to really quickly catch up and get on track. So they're accessing our core curriculum. And of course, that's going to be very much down to the leadership and how well that's been prioritised and whether those leaders have got the expertise to be able to really choose the right programme, support staff in using it and monitor its effectiveness. And also just wanted to highlight that we have got our blog. So if you do want to find more about secondary and struggling readers, then we've recently published a blog on our website and do have a look out for that.
Q: In secondary school too. We've got a huge number of students who have reading ages below where they should be. What is Ofsted's expectation in terms of secondary teachers phonics knowledge?
Kirsty Godfrey 22:09 More and more now secondary schools finding themselves in a position where they haven't necessarily got knowledge because that expertise because it wouldn't be expected you know, you would expect that children would come to you already having fluent reading skills, and given the impact of pupils being able to read on them being able to access the full curriculum. And of course, the impact on later life, then there is that expectation that it will be prioritised and that, you know, we do have one of our evaluation criteria in the education inspection framework, which is around evaluating how well leaders prioritise reading so that pupils can access the full curriculum. It's very much time for people to think about if they haven't got that phonics expertise on staff then then it may well be needed because it's the only way out for these pupils to succeed.
Q: If you're in a school that already has developed it's own scheme, you've got books that you you've got three schemes of books, but you've ordered them in the same level as the children are accessing their systematic synthetic phonics. You will find this results are incredibly high your reading results are high. The teacher subject knowledge is high, but they draw upon different schemes - would Ofsted frown upon that?
Kirsty Godfrey 23:19 No, is the quick answer! There's no requirement for schools to use a validated programme. We know that there are many schools that are using programmes not on that list and they've developed them themselves over time. They're working really effectively. What we will do as inspectors is evaluate how well that programme has been implemented and ultimately the impact that it's having on all pupils being able to learn to read well.
Q: just following up on the question about secondary readers because students come to us not fluently reading, what is the research some of you've carried out as to whether phonics is actually the most effective way of achieving that outcome fluency?
Kirsty Godfrey 23:59 As I sort of mentioned earlier, we can't get away from the fact that, you know, writing is a code for the sounds in spoken language and therefore, that has to be fundamental. It underpins word reading, and therefore, phonics isn't an option. It's not a pedagogy. It's a body of knowledge that children need. Your your question, though, around why children have gone through primary and perhaps not received that is because actually, similar to you were saying in secondary schools, that staff wouldn't necessarily have that phonics expertise. We know that in the past, key stage two teachers wouldn't have had that expertise either. And actually, you know, there's a there's an expectation that children will go into year three with that knowledge. And that's not always the case. So they may well not have had the quality and the quantity of the practice that they need to embed that alphabetic code knowledge. That's the issue really, it's not that it's the wrong approach. It's that it hasn't been effective.
Q: What are the best strategies at secondary for those who aren't enjoying reading?
Phil Minns 24:56 I was just gonna go back to what I've said already, really, which is that we teach children to love reading really early. And so we you know, we're dealing with children in the secondary school or pupils in secondary school...it's a really tough call, it's a really tough thing to actually get them to that level of love. That will carry them over learning it whereas that's why we've got to focus on it when they're very young. If we've you know, our children in reception Key Stage One we really need to be getting these key things in because it carries them through the next stage. It's a protective factor that prevents the likelihood or reduces the lucky that they're having those troubles lecture.
Q: So just as a follow up on that one, if if the most crucial factor then in developing and maintaining fluency and reading is to get that love of reading, would you say that for those secondary pupils who have come through who are struggling, who've got no belief in themselves, taking some time out to focus on developing a love of stories and books is something that you would encourage even though that would perhaps, delay the start of the progress.
Phil Minns 26:02 One of the things you got to remember with those, those young people in the secondary school who are feeling unsuccessful, is to teach them to read is going to drive up their feelings of self esteem. Because we teach them to do something they can't do. Now. They need to go back to some of the basics. Sometimes you might want to do that out of the way of others, but teaching them to do that will generate a feeling of positivity towards that and also helps them to learn that if they can do that, they can do other things.