A version of this article has recently been published online by the British Educational Research Association (BERA) http://www.bera.ac.uk/blog?select-blog-category%5B%5D=early-years-primary-education

Reading is one of life’s profound joys. Reading is a way of developing self, identity and our relationship with the world. According to reading expert Maryanne Wolf, reading changes the way we think, changes the very structure of our brain and neural pathways, and allows us to go beyond our own thought processes.

The meaning of reading has changed
Reading is also heavily monitored, assessed and audited within the classrooms of very young children. Policies and government instruction on reading instruction create a certain environment, an experience that is entirely disparate to the essence of what reading actually is. According to the pivotal and much-cited Rose Report (2006) phonics was always meant to be embedded within a rich literary curriculum. However, the sentence taken out of the National Curriculum in 2007 was,

‘Children will be encouraged to use a range of strategies to make sense of what they have read.’ (p.2).

This sentence is more than a sentence; it is an inclusive reading pedagogy that values different learning styles and places the varied needs of every child as primary concern. Without this sentence, how are the best needs of the child a primary concern?

While the theoretical debate between phonics and whole language approaches has been raging under the surface of pedagogy and policy for years, recent research with children raises important questions for all of us working with young readers. These questions are about how the methods of teaching reading could impact upon the experience of learning to read.

Many academics warn us that decisions about decoding should be left to teachers, as they are the ones inhabiting the lifeworld of the children every day, teacher’s professional judgement is, and should be, paramount in decisions concerning teaching reading. However, there is evidence from the case study schools involved with the Phonic Screener Check Evaluation Reports in 2011 that phonics policy has filtered through into schools and has conceptually separated reading for meaning from the process of decoding words: four schools spoke about ‘finishing’ phonics so they could move on to ‘reading comprehension’ in Year Two.

We all need to be wary of this distinction. Can we really isolate the skill of decoding from the experience of learning to read? Such a distinction, or a separation if you like, has the potential to significantly alter the experience of learning to read for young children. This is especially critical for those children who do not come from a literacy-rich household. For some children, without the emotional backdrop of the meaningful reading experience, simply seeing reading as decoding could be detrimental to their enjoyment of learning to read and their view of what reading actually is.

We all want children to read, and to read more. Opening the doors to the magic inside reading is the way to do this. We need to seriously evaluate how we are defining what reading is within primary schools: the implicit message we are sending children about what it is to actually read. As recent research has highlighted that real children’s books (with pictures, like Not Now Bernard, for example) contain more high frequency words than reading scheme books, there is an argument to encourage schools to use real books alongside reading scheme books. This could help with the tacit message about reading – showing children the magic we want them all to feel.

The most profound and deleterious environmental change wrought by phonics first and fast, is the introduction of ‘ability setting’ or grouping for explicit phonic teaching within Reception and Year 1 classes. The data from University College London’s recent survey report in 2017, laid bare a very worrying picture for our youngest readers: with phonics now a subject in its own right, the pressures of performance have made Year 1 particularly prone to ‘ability’ setting practices. For example,

‘grouping is most common in Phonics (76%), Maths (62%), Reading (57%) and Literacy (54%)’

As a programme, systematic phonics is sequential and broken up into stages – starting with the easiest sound and then moving on, in order – children do not move onto the next phonic ‘stage’ until they know all the sounds in the first one, and so on. Thus, the authors of the UCL report suggest that it is this sequential, staged-based structure that, in the eyes of the teachers they interviewed, have made ‘mixed-ability’ teaching redundant and created this new and worrying trend. To exacerbate this, the guidelines of Miskins’ Read Write Inc (RWI) openly instruct that ‘ability’ grouping be used across the whole school when using this programme. For example,

‘…the pupils are grouped across the school in terms of their reading ability…the homogeneous groups in the Phonic lessons help us to focus the teaching and ensure pupils learn to read quickly’ (Ruth Miskin Training, 2017, p.6).

Self concept
The deleterious impact of ‘ability-setting’ upon children’s self-esteem has been highlighted within research for the last fifty years. This topic has received media coverage recently and is especially significant in the light of the chilling warning made to the government by BERA’s panel, regarding the impact of baseline tests for children in Reception, especially for those with special educational needs and those with English as an additional language,
‘[these children] could be unnecessarily labelled as low-ability at the beginning of their education, with the risk that premature judgements about their abilities may then become ‘self-fulfilling’ (Goldstein et al., 2018., p.4).

Pause for thought
If we are mindful of children’s developing self-concept and the consequences of ability-grouping, we can navigate our way through the policy we are provided with. We can pay attention to our language, our groupings, our perceptions of developing readers. They are not accelerating through coloured-bands, they are growing into readers, readers we want to still be readers long after their phonic assessment. We can all make significant differences to the inner world of young children’s reading experiences simply by acknowledging that reading is an emotional milestone for many children and not all children have the same reading experience at home.