Assistant headteacher, Kate McCallam, shares how primary and secondary providers can work together to improve word reading.

Phonics teaching is commonly associated with Foundation and KS1 practitioners, with some dip-ins by KS2 teachers, yet with ‘almost 25% of Y6 pupils failing to meet the expected standard for reading by the time they reach secondary school’ and Ofsted calling for ‘the explicit teaching of reading in secondary schools’,1 phonics has well and truly entered the secondary domain.

Not many secondary school teachers understand what the teaching of phonics actually is, nor indeed what the term actually means – and why should they? Being a secondary subject specialist in Maths, Chemistry or even English does not necessitate an understanding of how pupils decode and encode our English language. And, although some secondary school teachers may have a basic understanding of phonics, it is most likely to have been derived from a parental perspective rather than a professional one.

Let’s examine phonics and where it sits in the reading spectrum. With this reading house from the EEF, we can see how the business of ‘reading’ contains several different components which come together to make a good reader. Let’s focus on the ‘Phonological Awareness’ part of the house.

EEF’s Reading House. Access full details and functionality at https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/education-evidence/guidance-reports/reading-house

How do we learn to read?

Our English language is a code. Certain letters, both in singular form and grouped together, make a unit of sound, and we learn which letters make which sound in order to read a word. Primary school pupils are taught the code in a systematic way, building up from singular letters and sounds like ‘s-a-t’ in Reception, to 3 and 4 letter sounds like ‘dge’ and ‘tion’ in Years 1 and 2.

For example, if we take the word ‘determination’, a pupil must first segment the word into the appropriate sound bites and they might do this via phonemes as in ‘d-e -t-er-m-i-n-a-tion’ or syllables as in ‘de-ter-mi-na-tion’. The reader must know how to pronounce each part of the word before blending those sounds or syllables together to be able to read a word correctly.

This is the decoding part of reading, and as we come across the same words repeatedly, we don’t need to decode anymore. The word becomes part of our sight-vocabulary, which means we look at it and say it automatically. In the past, reading instruction used to heavily rely on the ‘look and say’ method where words were taught as a whole and were memorised and, to some extent, this method works.

Children have an extensive memory bank in which to place all these words; however, without understanding phonics, a child will eventually be unable to ‘hold’ all the words in their sight memory as it fills up, and if they have not been taught the phonological code, they will then be unable to decode new words.

This is why, since 2012, the Government has insisted that every primary school teaches a Systematic Synthetic Phonics programme from Reception. Alongside the phonetic code, children are taught ‘tricky words’ that do not adhere to the code, such as ‘because’ – and this is when words are taught as a whole by sight. Decoding words leads to full sight recognition, which leads to fluency. If we can read a word easily, we free up our working memory to focus on its meaning, e.g., the ‘Language comprehension’ part of the house.

Reading in Secondary

For Y7 pupils, the requirement to read well increases:

“The decoding skills (Y6) pupils do have may not be fluent enough for the demands of the secondary curriculum…Without additional help to address the gaps in their reading knowledge, pupils with poor reading fluency may get left further behind as they progress through school.3

‘Reading for Pleasure’ and ‘Bridging the Vocabulary Gap’ have been high on the education agenda for several years now, and secondary schools have responded with initiatives such as ‘Every teacher is an English teacher’ and appointing ‘Whole School Literacy’ leaders to SLT. However, often, tackling ‘the reading problem’ has focused predominantly on the right side of the reading house (language comprehension), rather than the left (word reading). Language comprehension strategies are obviously a key component of good reading, but the precursor is the ability to decode and encode words. To comprehend a word, we must first know how to read it. For an excellent example of how comprehension is blocked by a lack of fluency, see Ofsted’s webinar and scroll to 15.15 minutes in.

Ofsted highlighted best practice in schools that had success with improving poor reading, stating:

“…these schools recognised that although cross-curricular, school-wide initiatives improved reading, there were pupils who first needed specific teaching in phonics. Once pupils could read accurately, they were better able to access and benefit from what schools did to improve the reading of all pupils.” 3

The problem with transition

Children leave primary school with a Year 6 SAT result in reading, but this assessment only tests comprehension, not fluency. Similarly, most Year 7 baseline reading assessments follow a similar format, when what teachers really need is a breakdown of both reading fluency and reading comprehension to obtain a full assessment of reading ability. Some primary schools and additional assessments at KS3 provide a reading age, but reading ages only guide secondary school teachers as to where they might have to pitch a shared text or how best to scaffold it; they do not tell us what the specific underlying reading problem is, nor how to tackle it.

Even without a fluency assessment, it is more than likely that a pupil with a higher standardised score will be a pretty decent decoder, just as a pupil with a lower standardised score will be more likely to have decoding problems that hindered their comprehension. Teachers can tell from simply listening to a child read (or from a pupil’s steadfast refusal to read aloud) who the poor readers are, but sometimes pupils are very good at masking and can slip through the net.

Assessment and intervention

Rigorous processes need to be in place in all year groups to identify who the weaker readers are and their respective difficulties. These can be varied and will require bespoke interventions. Did a pupil miss out on a specific part of the phonological code? If so, what part? Can they segment but not blend? Has their eyesight been checked? Can they decode well but not understand because they have a poor bank of vocabulary? Is the problem one of inference?

From Ofsted’s research in March 2022, the secondary schools supporting their struggling readers the most had very specific diagnostic assessments in place and could put in place targeted intervention programmes to help pupils read.3 Secondary schools need to invest in training all their staff in phonological awareness, the English department needs to be given the budget and time to ensure it has the correct assessments in place, and selected teachers should be provided with the training and resources needed to deliver intervention programmes effectively.

There are several phonics intervention providers with excellent metrics who offer catch-up programmes, such as Lexonik and That Reading Thing. These are specifically aimed at older pupils basis either one to one or in small groups, with a teacher from the school who has undertaken the training. This targeted private provision avoids any potential embarrassment or masking, and typically sees struggling readers quickly progress to competent age-appropriate reading so that they can confidently rejoin the class.

However, firstly (and especially if a new programme is not within budget), secondary schools could contact their primary school colleagues. Whilst it is important that a phonics intervention programme is delivered in an age-appropriate way, the most expert teachers of phonics are primary school teachers, and some of them will be more than willing to adapt their teaching methods to help struggling readers in KS3 and KS4. Secondary staff could exchange some of their own teachers in return so that the supporting primary school benefits from a specialist in a subject they feel less confident teaching in primary. It’s a win-win.

There’s a Team Primary/Team Secondary divide that we need to bridge, for if we are to make headway in improving literacy levels for all, then we need to make full use of our collective expertise.

Author

  • Kate McCallam

    Kate is assistant head at the British Section of the Lycée International in Paris. She is also a published writer and a proud trustee of Arvon, the UK’s leading creative writing charity. Kate also provides writing training and workshops.
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