Decodable Reading Books: Ticking All the Boxes

‘Everybody loves a good story…But stories are not just fun. There are important cognitive consequences of the story format. Psychologists have therefore referred to stories as “psychologically privileged,” meaning that our minds treat stories differently than other types of material. People find stories interesting, easy to understand, and easy to remember.’
Daniel T. Willingham

One of BRI’s great achievements lies in shaping the phonics sequence of its books within stories brimming with humour and personality: stories that promote rigorous decoding/encoding and also offer copious practice in blending and segmenting. The first three BRI books contain just five sounds, yet miraculously manage to weave ingenious little stories that carry the storyline through the illustrations (no guessing!). A cast of bubbly, mischievous characters stir the curiosity of children, with their warm friendships, albeit accompanied by occasional spats and bursts of jealousy. At once, the animals engage empathy and understanding and act as a trigger for meaningful conversations and for extending word knowledge. This is vitally important for children with poor understanding and meagre vocabulary.

Here we meet –

Sam the Lion:
As befits the King of the Jungle, Sam is somewhat pompous and self-regarding. He is also rather lazy and gets mightily irritated when disturbed by friends in search of fun. He is, however, as quick to forgive as he is to anger. He perhaps isn’t quite as brave as one might expect of a lion. Hobbies include reading, dressing up, canoeing, lurking in caves, surfing and driving a bus.


Mat the Rat:
A lively little fellow, Mat is never afraid to bite off more than he can chew. The over-excitable Rat loves hats, reading, painting, baseball, scuba-diving and frolicking with his friends – irrespective of whether or not they’re in the mood. He’s smarter than he looks, often taking the initiative to solve problems that mystify his larger friends, and fancies himself as a bit of a teacher. He is, sadly, not above framing others for his own misdemeanours.


Mit the Chimp:
Underneath Mit’s cheery exterior lurks a surprisingly Machiavellian character. This is, after all, the guy who cunningly disguises himself as Sam the Lion, traumatises his friends with a pair of stilts, and literally ties Sis the Snake in knots. He enjoys lurking in trees and – slightly less traditionally for a member of the great ape family – creating kites and snowmen.


Sis the Snake:
Sis makes up in warmth and enthusiasm what she lacks in size. Naturally, she shares an apple-obsession with her biblical ancestor. She’s prone to hypochondria and falling down wells.

…And a whole cast of their friends and acquaintances.

All twenty-two characters in the BRI ‘family’ make their appearance on the fold-out A3 poster of our updated BRI & ARI leaflet – a stimulating visual prompt for conversations about the animals’ habits and personalities.  The poster also presents a daily opportunity for beginner readers to practice sounding out and blending cvc words – Tut, Lil, Dash, Will and the rest of the gang (only Snap is accorded the honour of a 4-sound ccvc name!)

‘One of the great strengths of the BRI decodable stories is that they lend themselves to many of these “prediction” activities so well. The child can follow the illustrations and “predict” where the story is going: “Sam is holding that book up in front of his face! Look, he is going to fall into that big hole!” Having the child verbalize what is happening, and what WILL happen, makes the simple decoding meaningful in the context (on the next several pages, there are only a couple of words, as Sam’s friend anxiously calls his name and Sam’s voice floats up from the depths of the pit), with an opportunity to put prosody and attention to punctuation to work. Moreover, this “prediction” activity helps build the child’s narrative sense, a fundamental foundation language skill, which incorporates sequence, relationship, cause and effect and other variables as well. Prediction is also useful for discriminating word meanings: if the children are reading a story about farm animals, they can confidently “predict” that the word duck in the story will refer to the quacking biped, not to the action of leaning to enter a low doorway.’
Palisade. Yahoo Forum Beginning-Reading-Instruction

Development of the BRI Beginner Reading Programme

The intelligent, well-thought-out BRI beginner readers were developed by a distinguished team of educational psychologists and psychometricians over a number of years. The programme underwent trials in 4,000 classes in around 2000 schools – undergoing a number of adjustments along way. The resultant programme ensured:

  • Robust, clear and straightforward instruction
  • Minimum of teacher/TA preparation
  • Maximum ease of learning with copious cvc practice within stories
  • Low cost and easy to implement under all school conditions
  • Careful choice of words to prevent guessing
  • Illustrations that carry the storyline with no clues for the ‘guesser’


Teaching children to read with Piper Books leaflet
The flexible nature of BRI stories, used in conjunction with Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes, accommodates brief one-to-one, group sessions and differentiation.

Learnign to read infographic

(It is also highly recommended to reread previous books from time to time and not to move on too fast. A minority of children may need many readings of a book to gain fluency.)

‘When we talk of closing the word gap, we actually mean something much bigger than that unassuming phrase implies. We mean welcoming a child into a world of new ideas, insights and emotions, into a world that we, the word-rich, take for granted, and which we will routinely guarantee for our own children.’
Geoff Barton, General Secretary, the Association of School & College Leaders


The Making of Exceptional Reading Schools

Top-performing schoolsi come in all shapes and sizes. Schools with high Pupil Premium grants, large inner-city Edwardian schools surrounded by concrete, leafy little village schools and so on. For the first time in decades, the reading scores of eleven-year-olds were detached from other SATs results, allowing greater scrutiny of reading abilities.

By looking at the websites of the fifty most successful schools in 2016 SATs 2 reading, it is possible to find common themes – albeit tentative – concerning early reading instruction and developing a reading culture, in particular.

The majority of top-performing schools:

  1. Selected one of the main Systematic Synthetic Phonics programmes, either Letters and Sounds, ReadWrite Inc or Jolly Phonics, with some schools choosing Jolly Phonics for Reception, followed by Letters and Sounds, and two schools choosing Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Lettersii. Nearly all schools allocated the standard 30 minutes’ phonics period in Reception and Year 1, followed by a longer literacy period.
  2. Quickly moved on to a wide range of books following decodable readers and/or some of the original Oxford Reading Tree levelled books.
  3. Provided copious extra help for children in danger of failing.
  4. Ensured a close relationship with parents, including helpful information on phonics.
  5. Developed a powerful reading culture.

Examples of high performing schools:

Edward Pauling  Feltham TW13    Reading Score 113iii       

ReadWrite Inc    Maximum 220 pupils, c.20% pupil premium

‘From Requires Improvement to Outstanding: Our school has won the regional and national award for 2016. See for more details.

Our parent volunteers come into school to support our pupils with their reading development by hearing individual readers and small guided groups on a weekly basis. Discrete teaching of phonics takes place throughout the Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1. Additionally, the phonics skills are applied through daily literacy lessons and across the wider curriculum.’

St Antony’s  London E7    Reading Score 111

ReadWrite Inc    484 pupils, c.20% pupil premium

‘Lunch-time reading club. Over 20 TAs and volunteers, 9 HLTAs, school therapist, additional phonics and reading support and RW resources across school.’

Thomas Jones  N. Kensington, London W11   Reading Score 112

Jolly Phonics    233 pupils (2/3rds EAL), c.48% pupil premium

‘Analysis of national test data shows there has been no relationship between the achievement of pupils and Free School Meals status since 2006.

The school’s approach to the teaching of reading has been documented in the Ofsted report Reading by Six: How the Best Schools Do It and through the launch of the Ofsted Moving English Forward report and Building an Outstanding Reading School. Our success with the teaching of reading can be seen through our national test results.

Through the Foundation Stage and Key Stage One, our pupils follow a rigorous system of synthetic phonics, based on the Jolly Phonics scheme. Alongside this, pupils in this phase of the school have access to high quality books, both to study in legitimate English lessons and to read independently. The school follows the Pearson Bug Club reading scheme, supplemented with other high quality books banded into the scheme.’

Scotts  Hornchurch, Essex    Reading Score 114

Letters and Sounds  2 form entry (no information re pupil premium)

‘Teaching our children not only to become proficient readers, but to develop a love of reading is of vital importance at Scotts Primary School. Evidence suggests that children who read for enjoyment every day not only perform better in reading tests than those who don’t, but also develop a broader vocabulary, increased general knowledge and a better understanding of other cultures. In fact, there’s evidence to suggest that reading for pleasure is more likely to determine whether a child does well at school than their social or economic background.’

St Stephens  London W12    Reading Score 113

Letters and Sounds with Jolly Phonics and Phonics Play  2 form entry.  8.6% pupil premium

‘Strong emphasis on readers – aspiration: appreciation of centrality of books and literature. V. active school library, author visits and reading events with parents.

Phonics is taught daily to all children in EYFS and Key Stage 1. Phonics is also taught to children in Key Stage 2, who require further support with phonics and reading.

Much of our phonics teaching takes place in small groups which are targeted to the needs of particular learners.

Home learning Policy involves teachers, parents and children working together.’


  • Additional teacher providing daily phonics teaching for groups of pupils. Targeted Phonics Teaching: School Leader deployed to support Phonics teaching. Focused groups of children daily. Additional learning assistant deployed in the Early Years.’
  • ‘The teaching of reading, both the technical aspects of decoding language and the opportunity for pupils to develop a love of literature, is one of the most important aspects of school life here at Thomas Jones.’
  • ‘All children engaged with Library service for personal, group and whole class reading for pleasure sessions. Enhanced by additional curriculum hand on resources for children.’
  • ‘To improve pupil reading level, confidence, lifelong love of reading and increase range of reading.’
  • ‘Parent workshops to be held in local library and parents encouraged to sign up their child; visits by authors for story-telling sessions (including POETS), and a visit by theatre groups performing shows to link with focus books will be arranged.’
  • ‘Each child’s phonics knowledge is assessed every term.’
  • ‘Children are particularly encouraged to improve their communication skills by speaking and listening carefully.’
  • ‘Two well-resourced libraries – group sessions with librarian- who also runs a number of popular lunchtime Book Clubs for both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, with over 100 children currently attending across the school. Each month [the Librarian] selects a book that is suitable to be read aloud to children in both Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Details about the book will be published together with links to associated activities and games that can be enjoyed as a family. Read Aloud initiative. Parents encouraged to read to their children including yr 6.’
  • ‘Across the school, children from older year groups go to a younger class to read with them. This helps the younger children to develop confidence in reading aloud and hopefully inspires them to become independent readers.’
  • ‘Our school book collection is vast and varied encouraging all readers to find excitement and pleasure in the books they read. Children are invited to take home at least three books a week, and our effective Home/School diary enables good communication between parents/carers and teachers, where learning and targets are shared regularly.’
  • ‘Our curriculum promotes a love of reading, through events, a wide range of teaching resources and texts to engage readers.  In our independent learning environment, pupils continually use their reading skills to research and apply knowledge into their writing.’
  • ‘Letter to parents: Welcome to our last term in Year 1. You will notice that the emphasis in the weekly spellings will change as we progress through the term. I have nearly finished teaching the children to recognise the different ways of writing the 40+ phonemes we use to read and write.’

i  Find and compare schools in England – GOV.UK

ii  There are c.6-7 excellent SSP programmes in the UK – performance tables in the future may well reflect this wider choice.

iii  Average reading score for England (2016) was 205. Scores of top performing reading schools ranged between 210 and 215 (only two private schools achieved a higher score: 216). 


Nearly one million more pupils will be coming into the school system over the next decade and as pressures mount for more expenditure –and more and more of EVERYTHING – Primary cuts are worth looking at. For starters, the teaching of reading is a candidate for severe pruning, preferably with newly sharpened secateurs (e.g. Magical Spelling, Learning Styles, Multiple Intelligences, fluffy phonics add-ons, iPads, so-called “phonics” readers – not least the first four sets of Biff and Chip). Without thorough professional training in early reading instruction, teachers continue to be attracted to mixed-methods expenditure – a smidgeon, or even a dollop, of phonics stirred in with guessing strategies, onset and rime, consonant blend games, and Uncle Tom Cobley and all… Yet, recently, only 20p per pupil was invested in essential, high-quality synthetic phonics training through the government’s Phonics Matched Catalogue. The mandatory requirement to teach synthetic phonics is often circumnavigated and the waters horribly muddied. See Alison Clarke, Spelfabet, on how to confuse children:

This vicious circle continues as more and more effort and money are spent attempting to unravel the damage done by muddled initial instruction. The best primary schools use systematic synthetic phonics with beginner readers and Reading for Pleasure case studies: 

But most ‘catch-up’ programmes still continue with the mess of pottage known as ‘mixed methods’, leaving secondary schools to pick up the pieces and restore the shattered confidence of students. It is these students who, after 6-7 years of primary education, are left with low esteem and accompanying attitude problems –disruptive and diversionary behaviour, after all, goes a long way in disguising poor reading skills. Some secondary schools robustly tackle the problem with evidence-based instruction. But intervention programmes should never have been necessary. It’s so much harder to teach foundational skills to older students than to little ones and turning around large numbers of under-performing students involves huge effort and expertise. It also means that SEN staff have less time for special-needs children who require all the help they can get. We need to look after the most vulnerable in society – not act as trouble-shooters, unpicking the fun-laden damage done by earlier mal-instruction.

Why not make it a requirement that all children are taught to read during their seven years in primary school? At the moment, stumbling readers are increasingly lumbered with outlandish labels resulting in heavy financial investment, in the – often forlorn – hope that they will ‘catch up’ before leaving primary school. Phonics-focused primaries have demonstrated conclusively that the overwhelming majority of pupils can become competent readers, growing into enthusiastic and wide-ranging book lovers, however inauspicious their background. Where is the evidence for 97%+ of competent, fluent readers emanating from phonics-lite schools in deprived areas? Such schools seem remarkably coy about sharing this information.

Were all ITTs to provide comprehensive information on evidence-based instruction, with the Alphabetic Code at its centre, there wouldn’t be a need for expensive catch-up programmes, or time-wasting, budget-devouring materials. Children thrive on learning when they understand how reading works and see their progress. And foundational evidence-based reading instruction, taught with rigour, frees up time for art, drama, discussion, writing, poetry, music, and so much more.

‘Consider: what you would want if you were the child who cannot read?
You would want someone to teach you, and teach you well.
It is not a lot to ask.’


‘To read is to have access to the store of human knowledge’

‘The difference between a student who reads throughout primary school and a student who does not is in the magnitude of 30,000 to 50,000 words. [The] capacity… to engage well with the curriculum has been really significantly compromised.’
Parliament of Western Australia, 2012

‘To be unable to read is to be locked out, to be isolated from discourse, to grasp the edges of conversations, to be without the knowledge of one’s companions. It is to be terrified of failure, and haunted by its presence. It is humiliation and frustration, and it builds into anger, or despair. It is loneliness and a formless sense of injustice.’

Good interventions focus on reading foundations, on acquiring both an ability to decode and on ‘higher order’ skills. But, for many older students, some materials may exacerbate, quite unintentionally, ‘the soft bigotry of low expectations’. While the knowledge deficit still remains, students need plenty of encouragement (and practice) to inspire more ambitious reading. The purpose of MRI: Mature Reading Instruction is to expand the acquisition of knowledge in tandem with mastery of vital decoding skills.

‘Nobody needs education more than the kids with the biggest mountain to climb. When they do reach the peak, the view is more incredible than you – or they – could have ever imagined.’
Katie Ashford Michaela School

In order specifically to address the knowledge gap MRI: Mature Reading Instruction covers a broad range of themes from history, myth, folk tales and literature. The short, pithy stories are darkly comic, sometimes irreverent, sometimes tragic, providing a platform for lively, probing discussion. Some of the stories invite discussion of ethical dilemmas or simply of bad behaviour; some offer a glimpse of other cultures and histories; some provide a window into the richly complex world of literature. The all-too-familiar style of easy readers for older students, dominated by simple narrative and simple sentence structure (adjective, noun, verb, adverb or adverbial phrase) is replaced by multi-layered stories with increasingly complex structure. At the same time, like all good decodable readers, MRI pounds away until decoding skills are secure.

It goes without saying, that evidence-based Synthetic Phonics, introduced from Reception onwards, with decodable stories providing essential practice, would eliminate the need for Secondary interventions. But as long as universally good instruction remains a pipe-dream, we often compound the problem and – in place of good Synthetic Phonics or Direct Instruction programmes – we:

waste money on interventions that babysit failure, or label students instead of helping them…’

And so:

‘…The great scandal continues, and our multi-billion pound education system continues to churn out tens of thousands of students every year who cannot read or write adequately. What the educators and the sponsors, by and large, do not seem to understand is what it is like to be fourteen and unable to read and to be denied the rich depository of knowledge possessed by peers who have read widely for years.’

And the educators and sponsors, by and large, fail to understand just how severely poor initial reading instruction damages the self-image and blights the future of millions of weak readers.

Research: Gathering Information from Several Sources

Elizabeth Nonweiler, Teach to Read, posted this summary of research approaches on LinkedIn. Given the controversy about some EEF research trials, the challenges to peer review selection committees, and the ease in which even the most widely used of Catch-Up Reading programmes can ‘manage’ trials, this advice is timely.

“Back to the question of research: My view is that we use several pieces of information to decide what teaching methods are best. One is peer-reviewed research. Others include personal experience, anecdotal evidence from people we tend to trust, logic and studies that have not been peer-reviewed. If all of these agree with each other, fine. If they do not, we have to question them. For example, question the research more carefully. Being peer-reviewed is a good sign, but just because it is peer-reviewed, it is not necessarily valid. Question our experience and whether our methods were the best. We may not have tried better methods. Question the stories of others. Question our logic.

Looking at all of these, one method for teaching reading and writing wins easily. That is teaching sound-letter correspondences at a fast pace and putting them immediately into action to read words by blending sounds and spell words by identifying the sounds in them, combined with handwriting, and continued long enough to include all common sound-letter correspondences and common words with unusual correspondences.”

Elizabeth Nonweiler, Consultant and Trainer, Teach to Read

Reading Reform Foundation Conference, Saturday 28th March, Birkbeck College, University of London

It really is very simple to teach a young child to read. Those of us who teach struggling readers should be redundant by now. What are required are knowledge and understanding of the Alphabetic Code and its practical application for young children- oh, and patience and – yes – love, coupled with lots of practice for these struggling readers. We’ve known for decades how to teach the Code, how to link sounds and letters (Correspondences) but after a slash-and-burn putsch, this body of knowledge was largely suppressed and many of those responsible for teaching student teachers ignored the Alphabetic Code. Fashion succeeded fashion: Look and Say, Whole Language, Real Books and an inevitable reading crisis ensued. By 1997 in KS2 SATS only 67% of readers were competent. Some school students with poor/non-existent reading skills have ended up in behavioural units, Youth Offenders Centres and, later, many thousands have languished in prison.

As the reading crisis deepened, the DfE proposed to restore phonics through the National Literacy Strategy. But, during consultations, opposition was so vocal that an uneasy compromise was reached. Watered-down phonics was introduced, intermingled with fun, games and questionable instruction. The Strategy begat a myriad of ‘catch up’ programmes, some involving considerable expense.

But, since the Rose Report of 2006, hundreds of schools using systematic synthetic phonics have been successful. In these schools, the ability of all children to decode and read fluently has often gone hand in hand with a stimulating and ambitious curriculum. And, as foundational skills encompass reading fluency, children find it easier to inhabit the imaginative and magic world of literature. At Thomas Jones school in North Kensington, for instance, Year Six pupils study Dickens, Shakespeare, Larkin, Hughes and Wilde – this with an intake of 65% EAL pupils, and 50%+ children on FSM. St George’s Battersea, with an above average Special Needs intake – and working with the inspirational Pie Corbett – achieves outstanding results. Yet my local school in Oxford pours thousands of pounds into ‘balanced’ catch-up programmes leaving over 15% of children unable to read properly. Who, I wonder, is responsible?

The failure of strategies for struggling beginner readers, and their effect on older poor readers, are the reasons why the Reading Reform Foundation continues to campaign. We hold our fifth Conference on March 28th and believe that, like previous Conferences, it will be an informative, stimulating and thought-provoking occasion.

From the Rose Review to the New Curriculum

A growing number of schools successfully teach every child to read; the majority still don’t. Why?

Conference Chair: Derrie Clark

Derrie is an experienced Educational Psychologist and teacher, currently completing her professional doctorate. She has been training teachers in the Sounds-Write linguistic phonics programme for ten years.


The Right Hon. Nick Gibb, MP: Minister for School

Jaz Ampaw-Farr: A complete guide to phonics (in 40 minutes)!

Jaz is simply a teacher with a passion for preventing literacy failure that led her to become a literacy consultant and director of Which Phonics Ltd, a group of expert trainers offering highly practical literacy Inset.

Debbie Hepplewhite: Does it really matter if teachers do not share a common understanding about phonics and reading instruction?

Debbie is a former primary head, consultant and trainer and author of online Phonics International. She is a phonics consultant for the Oxford Reading Tree Floppy’s Phonics Sounds and Letters.

Josie Mingay: Phonics in the Secondary Classroom

Josie is Literacy Leader in a large Secondary school Greater London. She has taught at both Primary and Secondary level, and now dedicates much of her time to teaching and leading schoolwide intervention programmes for struggling readers across Key Stages 3 & 4.

Sam Bailey: Transforming the life chances of our children – simple methods, great results

Sam was formerly Head teacher at a school which adopted systematic synthetic phonics. From starting points well below national expectations, her experience proved that it is possible to quickly transform outcomes. Sam is already half way to improving outcomes for pupils in her current school, The Forest Academy in Barnsley, listed as number 32 on the Primary School League table’s worst results. With expectation, challenge, autonomy and rigour, transformation is inevitable.

Gordon Askew: Assessment, including the Phonics Screening Check and assessing reading at the end of Key Stage One

Now largely retired, until April 2014 Gordon was phonics advisor to the DfE. He is a former Primary headteacher, consultant, lecturer, inspector and phonics trainer. His delightful and elegant blog about children’s literature is a testament to his abiding passion for children’s book.

Marj Newbury Teacher Training

My personal favourite-Marj- is a recently retired Early Years teacher with 37 years teaching experience. She has delivered synthetic phonics training extensively in schools, both in the UK and worldwide. She has been a regular guest lecturer at Leeds University and most recently at Bradford University College, teaching Primary English.

Angela Westington HMI CV: Angela will be talking about the Ofsted Report, ‘How a sample of schools in Stoke-on-Trent teach children to read’

Angela is a Senior HMI leading a team of HMI with extensive experience of inspecting maintained, independent and SCE schools, PRUs/ EBD schools, local authorities and has particular expertise in school improvement work. She has considerable experience leading and participating in national surveys, especially surveys concerned with literacy and various aspects of social exclusion.

And that’s it! It will be great to connect with teachers who believe that it’s time to eliminate illiteracy and semi-literacy.


Mega-decibel alarms immediately rang as ‘balanced’ instruction was endorsed by Professor Angela McFarlane, head of College of Teachers, in a recent Twitter exchange. Does this mean that Professor McFarlane could recommend the dismantling of logical instruction for early readers, i.e. systematic synthetic phonics? And might other endorsements include fuzzy maths, exploratory classrooms, teacher as facilitator, return of brain-gym? What hope can there be for an objective, evidence-based professional college if evidence-based teaching of a subject as vital as reading instruction, is dismissed at a stroke by no less than the leading contender for the top post of the Royal College of Teachers? What sort of criteria will the new college have? Shouldn’t we expect a professional with depth and breadth of research, extensive classroom teaching and leadership – Tom Sherrington springs to mind?

‘Balance’ is one of those weasely words that is so elastic, its use as a put-down for any knowledge-based subject is considered fair game. We’re all in favour of balance so that anyone who disputes ‘balanced’ early reading instruction can be patronised in a dazzling number of ways. But anyone who has studied the history of the ‘Reading Wars’ over the last half century will know exactly what ‘balanced’ literacy means and will be cognisant of its devastating effects. Perhaps the most pernicious manifestation of Whole Language/Balanced Literacy is the widely used ‘multi-balanced’ programme, Reading Recovery. Schools with focused instruction, including those in areas of high deprivation, do not require Reading Recovery; in itself, a decision that saves millions.

Unfortunately, Reading Recovery + clones contribute mightily to charity promotions as they set about producing initiative after initiative and corral the great and the good to put their names to empathy-intuitive, but ill-informed, initiatives. @HoratioSpeaks puts it with far greater elegance:

‘We see sponsors lining up to support charities that seek to foster a love of reading; we see much made of disorders and disabilities, and great soothing oceans of sympathy for the afflicted.

And all this is a sham. The great scandal continues, and our multi-billion pound education system continues to churn out tens of thousands of students every year who cannot read or write adequately. What the educators and the sponsors, by and large, do not seem to understand is what it is like to be fourteen and unable to read.

To be unable to read is to be locked out, to be isolated from discourse, to grasp the edges of conversations, to be without the knowledge of one’s companions. It is to be terrified of failure, and haunted by its presence. It is humiliation and frustration, and it builds into anger, or despair. It is loneliness and a formless sense of injustice. It is to be without the words to evince my despair.

And that is why I know the educators and the policy-makers do not understand. Because if they did, they would ensure that in all the billions of pounds spent on education, enough was used wisely to ensure that no one leaves school unable to read. It must be that they believe that some people are destined to fail, and they must feel that this is somehow acceptable, whatever their speeches and sound-bites may say. It must be that because they were privileged enough to learn to read, they do not understand the despair that is the heritage of the excluded. If they understood, they would invest in solutions, not sticking-plasters. They would understand that imposing silent sustained reading on children who cannot read does not promote a love of reading, but an aversion to it.’

Quite simply, it is reading instruction based on an understanding of the alphabetic code that enables virtually all children to become readers. The misleading teaching of most ITTs results in student teachers being led along the highways and byways of multi-cueing, learning styles, and guessing strategies. Alternatively they are simply advised to immerse children in books (neatly ignoring the fact that authors, editors, poets, BBC presenters, have all resorted to specialist synthetic phonics tutors when their own offspring have been failed by ‘balanced’ instruction). Children need immersion in nursery rhymes, riddles, chants, fairy stories, folk tales, rich and imaginative narratives and non-fiction. But none of the above teaches struggling children how to read.

As @websof substance said last week:

We knowingly and wilfully use strategies that are not the best ones; whole-language reading instruction dressed-up as ‘mixed methods’ or ‘balanced literacy’ and discovery learning approaches to mathematics.


Many training institutes fail to equip their students with the professional knowledge and practical guidance necessary to teach virtually all children to read. Added to the travesty of poor pgce instruction, the tragedy of poor literacy is embedded through inappropriate ‘catch up’ programmes. As a result, billions of pounds are squandered.

Once children reach the age of 11 still lacking secure decoding foundations and fluency, the majority have fallen years and years behind their peers creating singularly unfit people for secondary education. At this stage, and even earlier during primary schooling, a plethora of ‘catch up’ programmes kicks into action. The most widely used and damaging offer an eclectic choice: a confusing mix and match of perfunctory phonics, Look and Say, Whole Language and ‘real reading’. Children and students who have already struggled, and attempted to negotiate their way through a sticky multi-strategy quagmire, are given more of the same, with a cost to schools running into millions. In addition, there are specialist programmes for children and students that do include more phonics but lack the coherency and simple logic of systematic synthetic phonics. Often they overburden children with complex rules. To top it all, there’s the optimistic ‘hands-off-instruction’ approach, offering ‘high interest’ stories with simplified vocabulary intended to kick-start students’ engagement with reading. These initiatives mean that many students are still devoid of the necessary skills to decode any word they encounter. Equipped with a small ‘sight’ vocabulary, they are likely to join the 5-6 million adults, forever guessing, and desperately concealing a reading deficit. The problem is that all ‘catch-up’ provision, however inappropriate, undoubtedly helps some students and so the show goes on….

It’s difficult to understand the consequences of sub-optimal instruction and its effect on poor readers. Lacking secure foundations students can spend years hiding their inadequacies. At secondary school they acutely feel the humiliation of failure. Confronted daily with the futility and boredom of a curriculum barely accessible to them, they become frustrated and resentful. Many hide behind subterfuge, excuses, feigned boredom/genuine boredom, disruptive behaviour, low level ADHD. They may take refuge in becoming the class clown, or class bully or, more likely, shrink into existential nothingness, enduring name-calling and bullying. And so, driven by newspaper rallying calls, and parliamentary lobbing of politicians desperate for a quick fix, still more millions are poured into sub-optimal schemes. The estimated £85 billion per year continues to burn holes in pockets and diverts funds from genuine special needs and from much needed school libraries. And dealing with the fall-out of disaffected students devours time and space with the near inevitable result that creative subjects are squeezed and short funded. It need not be thus.


The growing problem of children entering Reception with poor communication skills is a matter of huge concern:

‘Childhood language and early literacy impairments affect 17% of 4 year olds.’
Reilly, Wake, Ukoumunne, Bavin, Prior, Cini, et al. (2010)

‘The ability to use oral language effectively impacts the child’s ability to learn in the classroom, to interact with their peers, and to develop literacy and numeracy skills. Oral language competence is unarguably crucial for academic success.’
Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin (1999); Nation (2005); Snowling (2005)

A third of children start school without basic language and communication skills. In poorer areas, this rises to more than 4 in 10.’
Charlie Taylor, Chief Executive, NCTL

The solution advocated by many Early Years campaigners is to delay reading instruction, yet delay can seriously damage the cognitive development of children:
Matthew Effects – Does Reading Make you Smarter?
Dr. Keith Stanovich, Children of the Code

 In addition:
Language intervention programs delivered on the basis of late talking status at 18 months alone are not effective.’

When our 4-6 year olds lack oral competency and are not given sufficient instruction in basic reading skills they will, in future, lack the potential to read widely, fluently, accurately and with understanding. A yawning gap starts to open up in Reception between the book-rich and the book-poor which in many cases is well-nigh impossible to close:

‘Early and modest reading weakness impedes enjoyment and deters practice. Soon [children’s] small reading problems spiral into devastating ones.’
Preventing Early Reading Failure and its Devastating Downward Spiral. Joseph K. Torgesen (2009)

What is more, learning to read by a systematic synthetic phonics route teaches children to listen to sounds, and gives them ample practice in reproducing these sounds and refining their articulation. Synthetic phonics helps, not hinders, those children with poor communication skills.

‘A new study, Arya & Maul (2012) provides fresh evidence that putting to-be-learned material in a story format improves learning outcomes.’

Daniel T. Willingham
Beginning Reading Instruction: BRI does exactly this and is ideal for struggling readers. Combining lively, linguistically-structured stories that support children’s language development, this reading programme also engages them with multi-layered strands of story-telling. As an adjunct to any mainstream synthetic phonics’ programme, these incrementally organised stories provide the extra experience of language that struggling readers lack.
The potential power of narrative to help students understand and remember complex subject matter…

Daniel T. Willingham
It requires extremely subtle detail within the linguistic structures and story-telling of a programme to inspire a love of story and, at the same time, to develop children’s awareness of how our written language works. The team of linguists, educational psychologists and psychometricians at the Southwest Regional Laboratory for Educational Research and Development (SWRL) fulfilled these criteria and created stories that provide practice in rigorous decoding and, crucially, involve children with stories that engage their emotions, sense of fun and natural curiosity.

Photo of SWRL Building

During children’s early years, literal comprehension involves the understanding of concrete information either in stories that children listen to, or in something they hear. This is the first type of comprehension to develop because the information is concrete and explicitly stated.

But BRI extends language development much further. As well as presenting examples of ‘concrete’ language, it helps to develop the complexities of thought and language. These little tales act as a trigger for a range of dialogue: the animals’ behaviour – sometimes wise, sometimes recalcitrant – their adventures, touching friendships, and so on. Larger than life characters spill out of the books. There’s boastful and vain Sam the lion, his inquisitive and hyperactive little pal Mat the rat, and a whole cast of engaging animals. The books also teach language concepts. The questions What? Why? Where? Who? and the prepositions under, over, and behind, for example, aid the vital job of language development and understanding as stories unfold.
One of the great strengths of the BRI decodable stories is that the child can follow the illustrations and “predict” where the story is going: “Sam is holding that book up in front of his face! Look, he is going to fall into that big hole!” Having the child verbalise what is happening and what WILL happen makes the simple decoding meaningful in the context (on the next several pages, there are only a couple of words, as Sam’s friend anxiously calls his name and Sam’s voice floats up from the depths of the pit), with an opportunity to put prosody and attention to punctuation at work. Moreover, this “prediction” activity helps build the child’s narrative sense, a fundamental foundation language skill, which incorporates sequence, relationship, cause and effect and other variables as well….’
Senior Primary Teacher working in disadvantaged schools

Threaded throughout BRI is a profound understanding of how children learn. As well as a concentration on interaction between child and story, the learner’s memory is boosted by the limited number of words used in the early books. The first three tales, for instance, contain only 3 words and 5 sounds and yet these little books create stories and extend children’s language, through humorous, cartoon-like illustrations while showing them ‘how reading works’:
‘According to a number of eminent cognitive psychologists – John Hattie, John Sweller, Paul Kirschner, Daniel Willingham and Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboem – Presenting anyone with too much new information at one time is likely to overwhelm the learner. Working memory is what John Hattie refers to as the ‘workbench’ of the conscious mind and the problem with it is that it can only hold on to a limited number of items at a time or it suffers cognitive overload. Moreover, unless the material in the working memory is being put into productive use, it is quickly lost.’
The Literacy Blog. John Walker (28.7.2014)

Tragically, we have a teaching force and a citizenry that does not fully understand ‘how reading works’ and appropriate instruction is missing from the majority of training institutes. The media is long on reporting reading failure but short in saying how to deal with that failure. Better training and enlightened information is needed, but meanwhile the long-tail of struggling readers goes on and on.

Teaching children correctly right at the beginning – rather than blaming parents and/or children’s ‘deficits’- could save billions of pounds and simplify the process of enabling the ‘have nots’ as well as the ‘haves’ to read by 7:
‘As teachers we need to know that if we’re not explicitly addressing the needs of ‘have nots’, then the gap between the word-rich and word-poor will get ever wider.’
The Matthew Effect – why literacy is so important. The Learning Spy, David Didau (30.9.2012)


Curiosity about the thousands of children in the 70s and 80s unable to read properly prompted me to sign up for a mainstream Dyslexia course: one year of hard slog with informative lectures and tutorials alongside the creation of increasingly elaborate board-games. This was certainly an advance on the non-instruction sweeping the country. But, ringing in my ears, were the words of the youngest student in our tutorial group: ‘we haven’t actually been shown how to teach children to read.’

Not long after the acquisition of said qualification, when my first guinea-pig children were being bombarded with short and long vowel ‘string cards’, home-made rhymes and games, tactile alphabet sequencing with wooden letters, games for each of the consonant blends (‘never do more than one a session’), air writing, sandpaper letters and so on … curiosity was piqued by a distinguished American researcher into early reading instruction. Professor Diane McGuiness emerged, out of the blue, on Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ succinctly explaining her sound-based organisation of the Alphabetic Code. Here was a simple, logical way to organise and teach reading that made complete and utter sense. Teaching children to read was rewarding at last : children ‘got it’, they understood the logic of written language, were given the space to practice their foundational skills and flourished. The rest should have been history. Except that…

A stroke had left this reading tutor temporarily pretty useless. However, now there was time to browse the growing number of informative US reading forums. Here I became fascinated with the Yahoo Beginning-to-Read-Instruction forum – tutors, teachers, and parents sharing their experiences and practice of teaching children to read with the ‘I See Sam’ books. The books ensured rigorous decoding procedures while simultaneously engaging young children with the rich, layered world of ‘real books’.

Something that claims to be this simple can be suspect but initial scepticism quickly gave way to an appreciation of the attention to detail and understanding about how children learn embedded within these carefully calibrated stories. This should have come as no surprise as a large team of educational psychologists, linguists, and psychometrists had researched and developed the Beginning Reading Instruction programme over a number of years. The programme itself had been trialled in hundreds of schools. (poss pic. of SWRL building – v. impressive and gives opportunity to add a caption about SWRL where the programme was developed).

These 78 tiny books encouraged language development and instilled rigorous decoding from day one while the expressive, humorous stories delighted young children. Moreover, the books worked effectively on their own or in conjunction with the main UK Synthetic Phonics programmes. Many children could read a number of the stories each week while others, who simply took longer to understand ‘how reading works’, and EAL pupils, had plenty of time to build essential foundations. Instruction was focused and kept to a minimum – taking only a few minutes for any teaching assistant, volunteer or parent to master.

So I plunged in at the deep end. With all the business skills of a particularly dense aardvark, I hadn’t exactly been planning on setting up a publishing company, but needs must when the devil (or at least Mat the Rat) drives. And, in place of full colour, the black line drawings full of character, meant that the books would be delightfully economic to print.

After a pleasant year spent updating and revising the books for a British readership, I unleashed them on the market. They did not exactly set the world on fire. Sam the Lion, Mat the Rat and chums face an uphill battle against the Whole Language, Reading Recovery, every-child-is-different, ‘of-course-we-teach-phonics… (along with an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink)’. But I have faith that these effective, economic, simple-to-use books will eventually triumph and if not…some battles are worth fighting.

In future blogs I’ll be analysing how children can decode efficiently and ‘extract meaning’ from Day 1, through these lively stories (or in conjunction with a reading/spelling synthetic phonics programme from around Week 6) and how it is possible to develop language and love of story-telling while giving children the tools to become fluent readers.