In 2022, the government announced a commitment to improve literacy education as part of its levelling up agenda. The ambition to eradicate issues by 2030 has seen a tight focus on literacy skills and mandated curriculums – which neglect to acknowledge the local and individualised contexts in which teachers teach. A lack of resources, funding and access to training has compounded problems within mainstream, local authority schools, leaving budgets stretched and children at a disadvantage. In this article, Rebecca Simpson Hargreaves discusses the need for reflective practice and a dialogue for change.
- Educational policy makers should remove the formal phonics screening check assessment and use teacher assessments that take into account all aspects of reading.
- The increased focus on teaching phonics skills creates a non-balanced approach to literacy skills – with data showing that more children are not taking pleasure in reading.
- Schools lack the funding to expand on their collection of children’s literature and this includes a limited range of inclusive and representative books
Performance in reading tests, particularly in early reading, has been scrutinised since the introduction of the Phonics Screening Check in 2012. Children between 5 and 6 years old are asked to read a selection of real and nonsense words as measure of their reading ability. Simply put, it tests whether they can recall grapheme phoneme correspondences (how letters are written and their related sounds) to read a word. It is worth noting that these words are not placed in the context of a story, with no reading for meaning skills needed. If the children do not meet the pass rate then they have ‘failed’ and have to re-sit the test the following year. It is not an inclusive approach; it does not differentiate between children who are fluent readers who understand what they read from those who have gained high marks because of their recall skills. The success in the screening check does not transfer seamlessly into end of Key Stage statutory results, with reading test attainment reduced. The phonics screening check is a stressful, time-consuming test and should be replaced by teacher assessment, which provides a truer reflection of children’s reading ability.
In 2021 the Department for Education’s phonics teaching validation programme came into play which saw additional prescriptive measures that schools now needed to follow. Schools had to choose from a list of providers (a costly endeavour) and ensure that the books used to support early reading had to be fully decodable (the children could sound out each word). The proposed purpose for the change was to ensure that all children had secure foundations on which to build, with desired result that they could become active engaged readers who would read for pleasure.
In recently published results from The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS), (a study that is valued by the government), we see an improvement in children’s ability to read and comprehend different texts. England has moved from 6th place to 4th, seeming to indicate that the policy change has been a success. However digging deeper into the data and making comparisons with England’s own performance in the previous 2016 study, it shows that we are on a downward trajectory, with more children not taking pleasure in reading and feeling less confident in reading as a whole. PIRLS 2021 international findings show a direct correlation between higher average reading achievements with those who find reading pleasurable. With only 29% of English pupils saying that they enjoy reading, it prompts the question of where does the problem lie and how can we affect change to ensure happy and knowledgeable readers?
Schools, resources, and reading for pleasure
Early years education policy makers need to ensure that children have access to quality literature, wide ranging and full of variety. The National Literacy Trust (2021) findings indicate that schools are often the place in which children are able to discover how joyful and valuable reading can be, yet 40% of schools do not have a dedicated budget for a school library. Whilst the National Curriculum sets out that there should be library facilities, there is no government provided budget to ensure this. Combine this with 1 in 5 children between the ages of 5 and 8 not having a book of their own at home and local libraries are closing, the results are gravely concerning.
Access to books that empower and inspire should not be down to a postcode or school lottery. The Great School Libraries Campaign (2023) identified that independent schools have more than double the number of resources than local authority-maintained schools. To secure a positive reading future for children, schools should be able to replenish and refresh their stock to include all representations of families, communities and wider society, both in digital and hardcopy forms.
Reading and inclusivity
Schools also lack the funding to expand on their collection of children’s literature and this includes a limited range of inclusive and representative books. In addition, the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education’s Reflecting Realities Report found that only 9% of children’s books published in 2022 include a main character from a minority ethnic background. Children are growing up in an ever-increasing multilingual world, but a focus on linguistic correctness can result in ‘home language stigma and shame’.
- Government needs to acknowledge the funnelling effect of a focus on teaching phonics skills through fully decodable texts as the foreground of early reading. Early years primary school education policy should move to include a broader approach which removes the phonics screening check and uses teacher assessment to take into account reading for meaning and context.
- Schools need secure funding with co-ordination between local authorities and central government. They need provision to expand; to review and reflect on their current children’s literature provision and to enable them to expand on their stock, including the requirement of inclusive and representative books, recognising the value in multilingualism, texts in different home languages and cultural opportunities as vehicles for learning.
- Finally, education policy should recognise and promote the importance of reading for pleasure through ring-fenced funding to enable all schools to have access to high quality children’s literature within a dedicated library space. Council funding could be used to re-establish defunct School Library Services.