CUTTING THE COST OF PRIMARY EDUCATION

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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3vFNzjihQA&app=des

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 http://tinyurl.com/ovz6rwg and Reading for Pleasure case studies: http://fdslive.oup.com/www.oup.com/oxed/primary/literacy/RfP_case_studies.pdf?region=uk 

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.’
https://horatiospeaks.wordpress.com/2014/11/23/330/

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MRI: MATURE READING INSTRUCTION

‘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.’
Horatiospeaks http://tinyurl.com/nlpz6d7

PIPER BOOKS DECODABLE READERS FOR OLDER STUDENTS AND ADULTS
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.’
Horatiospeaks http://tinyurl.com/nlpz6d7

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.

SPEAKERS:

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.

http://www.rrf.org.uk/conference%202015.html

PROBLEMS WITH ‘BALANCED’ READING INSTRUCTION

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.

THE DISASTROUS EFFECTS OF POOR READING INSTRUCTION

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.

DEVELOPING LANGUAGE GOES HAND IN HAND WITH LEARNING TO READ

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
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lF6VKmMVWEc)

 In addition:
Language intervention programs delivered on the basis of late talking status at 18 months alone are not effective.’
http://www.mcri.edu.au/media/817592/crecl_rs3_late-talking-2_final.pdf

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.

Furthermore:
‘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)

BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN ESSENTIAL DECODING SKILLS AND READING FOR PLEASURE: A Personal Journey

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.