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  • Writer's pictureKathy Rastle

Some musings on that "landmark" study

Last week, those of us interested in how children are taught to read woke up to dramatic headlines that England’s approach is “failing children”. The headline appears to have come directly from a UCL press release, which found its way into The Guardian, The Independent and Sky News. The charge relates to a research article by Institute of Education professors Dominic Wyse and Alice Bradbury.

The article and its companion pieces in the press have generated substantial discussion, including critiques by Jennifer Buckingham, Greg Ashman and Julia Carroll. These critiques described the decades of research in support of systematic phonics as part of a wider reading diet and pointed to shortcomings in the target article’s treatment of this evidence base.

I want to focus on the authors’ claims regarding the practice of reading instruction in England’s schools. These claims are based on a survey of 2205 primary school teachers. I focus on claims that the authors have made in the press, and how these relate to their data. Thousands of teachers and parents will have seen these claims, but few will have the ability to evaluate them.

The Claims

The authors argue that something fundamental has shifted in England’s approach to teaching reading. The claim is that schools are now focusing on a narrow diet of phonics to the exclusion of real books that foster a love of reading.

Wyse: “For the first time in more than 100 years we see that a balanced-instruction approach to the teaching of reading is no longer the norm in England. The majority of teachers are now reporting the more frequent use of the narrower synthetic phonics approach.”

Bradbury: “… teaching of the alphabetic code has always been part of learning to read, but our new research suggests that it now dominates, to the exclusion of a more balanced approach involving reading whole texts and understanding the meaning of words.

The authors also have things to say about the phonics screen given to Year 1 pupils each year: teachers feel “pressured by the phonics screening check”, and there is “a focus on nonsense words” in classrooms around the country. The Guardian noted that “all but one of the 936 comments from the survey were negative about the screening test”, a factoid that came directly from the UCL press release.

The authors’ description of their findings in the press was amplified by public figures, including by Michael Rosen suggesting to his 267,000 Twitter followers that children might be discouraged from going to the library and handling “non-approved” books.

These claims are concerning because no reading scientist ever would suggest that phonics is all there is to reading. They are also surprising because England’s national curriculum requires schools to teach phonics alongside reading comprehension. The statutory guidance for Year 1 makes reference to developing “pleasure in reading, motivation to read, vocabulary and understanding” and “listening to and discussing a wide range of poems, stories, and non-fiction”.

The Survey Questions

The reality appears to be much more mundane than the dramatic headlines would suggest. It turns out that the survey asked participants specifically about their “main approach to the teaching of phonics”.

It is unsurprising that 66% of respondents reported using synthetic phonics first and foremost “in my phonics teaching” given that this is what the national curriculum requires them to do. It does not follow at all from these responses that the use of approved phonics resources to teach phonics has been at the expense of children’s exposure to a wide range of books in the broader reading curriculum. It appears as if the study authors are the only ones conflating phonics with reading.

The authors’ claims about the phonics screening check also need to be understood in the context of their survey. Questions about the phonics screen were put to Year 2 teachers between November 2020 and December 2020, a period in which the country was in national lockdown. Pupils in Year 2 had missed the usual screening test in Year 1, and so Year 2 teachers had been asked (for the first time) to step in. Questions posed referred to the impact of the screen on “your teaching this term”.

The authors describe this part of the survey as a means to study an “unprecedented event”; these were teachers under unusual stress being asked to fit an important new assessment into an already packed and disrupted curriculum. Yet, the conclusions pitched to the media make no mention of this; they are about the phonics screen generally.

The phonics screen has always had its supporters and detractors. Yet, formal evaluation published in 2015 showed that 53% of Year 1 teachers felt that it gave them useful information. Just 16% reported that it did not provide useful information at all.

The screen has also driven dramatic improvements in pupils’ phonics knowledge: since 2012, the percentage of Year 1 pupils meeting the expected standard has risen from 58% to 82%, with 92% now meeting it by Year 2. These gains reflect hundreds of thousands of additional children each year that have the foundations to become successful readers.

It is hard to square how these results could be construed as “failing children”.

The Sampling Methodology

The blogs linked above have argued that the survey was non-representative: it was advertised in the authors’ own networks and to their social media followers. This was an open link, so anyone could respond and declare themselves a teacher, and it is unclear whether there was any mechanism to prevent multiple responses. (I was able to access the survey many times).

It’s also been noted on Twitter that the results of the survey appear to have been shared part-way through and used to drum up more responses; perhaps up to 700 more responses.

The website that this Tweet linked to could not have been clearer as to how survey participants had responded thus far. It also shared individual comments: “unwelcome extra pressure”, “finger pointing exercise”, “stick to beat teachers with”.

You don’t have to ace Research Methods to know that a good survey doesn’t tell participants in advance what most people have already said.

Does this Really Matter?

The evidence base around the effectiveness of systematic phonics is strong and increasingly recognized around the world. It is unlikely that this study will make a material difference in England or anywhere else.

However, one might also argue that these authors are faculty in the best Education school in the world, in one of the best universities in the world. They have a unique platform and reach into the media to communicate their findings; and this is a matter of huge public significance.

It's hard to get the mainstream press to take notice of research findings, and the university will be celebrating another successful press campaign. Yet, the disconnect between the authors’ data and their claims raises questions about whether that campaign has properly served the public in this instance.

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