Britannia Village Primary School is in the grip of a revolution.
In a series of reports for Newsnight, Jackie Long goes back to school to find out whether the introduction of a very traditional method of teaching children to read is working.
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Britannia Village Primary was built in 1999 in a deprived area of east London. Its first Ofsted report was glowing - citing happy pupils and committed teachers. But that was all five years ago. Now, the school has some of the worst national curriculum results in the country.
Three quarters of its six to seven-year-olds are failing to reach the required standard for reading. By Year Four, 70% of its eight to nine-year-olds are two or more years behind where they should be.
In January this year, new head teacher Linda-May Bingham inherited a school which had struggled hard to combat huge discipline problems.
Members of staff who have worked at the school since the beginning admitted they had been so busy combating poor behaviour they had hardly had time to address the fundamentals.
But with much of the worst behaviour now under control Linda-May was able to begin her headship by focusing on the basics - reading and writing.
"Until the children can read and write," she said, "they won't succeed in the other subjects either.
"In a way you just have to think about doing away with quite a lot of the richness of the curriculum and come down to the brass tacks of the basic skills of reading and writing."
In a break away from the National Literacy Strategy, Linda-May has turned to Ruth Miskin and her commercial programme of synthetic phonics to try turning the school around.
Ruth Miskin's approach is to teach children the pure sounds created by each letter of the alphabet and to then blend those sounds to read words.
Ruth Miskin has 16 weeks to turn the school around
Before the children can be taught, however, it is the teachers and teaching assistants that need instruction. The programme will completely change the way they teach reading.
Staff at the school are clearly determined to make this work and early lessons have won some noticeable improvements.
It is hard work, however, and teachers have to remain committed if they are to avoid the worrying trend of children slipping through the net year after year, unable to attain the level of literacy they should be at for their respective ages.
Linda-May has placed a lot of trust in Ruth Miskin and Ruth has 16 weeks to show Linda-May and the staff that her programme can work.
"I'm not saying that in 16 weeks we're necessarily going to get every child to that level," says Ruth, "but even with the ones who, at the end of the 16 weeks, are reading simple texts, we know exactly where they are and we'll keep on going until we get there."
She, like all those at the school who have put their trust in her, seem resolute that the results will eventually speak for themselves.
Newsnight will be returning to Britannia Village Primary across the 16 weeks to see if the programme is turning the school around.
Jackie Long's first two reports were shown on Newsnight on Thursday 26 May 2005 and Monday 20 June 2005 respectively - online viewers can watch again by clicking on the media links at the top of the right-hand column.
PHONICS - YOUR FEEDBACK
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I was behind in reading when I was six until I was taught phonetically. By eight, I was developing views of the world reading encyclopaedias and books written from an animal's point of view. After food there isn't anything more important than reading. What was done to generations of children, particularly working class children, is appalling. Also, when I was 11 I taught my sister to read when she was three, using phonics. At her fourth birthday she read from the Daily Express. It doesn't matter if you don't understand at first, that can develop later.
Tony Hargreaves, Keighley
I use phonics with my adult learners in an FE college and also with young children privately. Phonics works - teaching people of all ages to read better and works amazingly quickly. I have loads of students who could not read at all who now can. I also use the rules of letters sounds to teach spelling, again enormously successfully. Students tell me they wish they had been taught this at school. The strategy they use most of all is to guess the word, which rarely works. Phonics gives them a system at last.
Evelyn Freeman, Edinburgh
This intervention is unlikely to tell us much. The children will probably make better progress on tests of word recognition than previously, because of the novelty of the approach and the glamour of being videoed and "on telly". But will they go to books more readily? Will they understand the texts they "read"? Children certainly need to learn phonics, but they also need to learn many other lessons about reading, such as its power to give you both information and enjoyment, and the role it can play in taking you beyond the limits of your first hand experience and also aiding your thinking.
Henrietta Dombey, Brighton
As a specialist reading teacher I'm very interested in the current debate around "synthetic phonics". I would urge caution, however, about adopting a simplistic approach to the teaching of reading by focusing exclusively on phonics. Of course, phonic knowledge is needed but it's not the whole answer e.g. some of the most commonly occurring words in English are not phonically regular. I welcome an informed debate about teaching reading, particularly to the lowest achieving children as we're all agreed that becoming literate is vitally important for each child.
Fiona Lawson, Cardiff
I was taught with a simple method of phonics some 50 years ago, it worked for me. I don't understand why the interfering do-gooders had to change it for "modern" developments.
M Gentle, London
I am a nursery teacher in a bilingual (French/British) primary school in south west London. Our school has used Letterland as a method of introducing letters to English children and to children with English as an additional language for the last five years. It has proved both effective and extremely popular with both children and parents alike. Children show huge amounts of interest in the different characters, which have logical links to the letter sounds, making them easy and fun for children to remember. We at the school believe that this method is not only an approachable one, but one that builds up the children's desire to read at a young age. Surely this is what we are striving for? A desire to read.
Saskia De Paolis, London
The literacy Strategy has introduced some very good materials for teaching phonics and it is up to schools to use a variety of approaches to suit the needs of each pupil. In addition, the most effective resource, which we have encouraged schools to use in our LEA, is 'Jolly Phonics' which combines sounds and movements and therefore caters for a wide range of learning needs. This programme supplements the Literacy Strategy materials as we feel no one programme can meet every child's needs.
Dawn Shearsmith, Sunderland
Jackie's report on Thursday evening was very interesting. I do agree with Ruth Miskin and all the current reports and publications that recommend the teaching of pure sounds as the most important first step in helping children to be able to read. I believe teaching them to enjoy the experience is important too.
Well trained teachers can, and do, inspire and that should be every teacher's goal. It was interesting to see the commitment of the whole staff and the support that Ruth was prepared to give to this school. Can every 'needy' school expect this same level of input without the camera watching?
Personally I recommend Letterland's fun, multi-sensory approach introducing pure phonic sounds in a very child friendly way. Letterland has a proven track record over a number of years and, if properly taught, can be introduced to pre-school children to start them on their discovery of the joys of language. At the same time its story approach helps children unravel the mysteries of more complex spelling patterns as their needs develop. Whichever commercial product is chosen the end target should always be for our children to be happy, well adjusted and literate.
Lesley White, Birmingham
Phonemic awareness and phonological knowledge are essential to learning to read and write but they are not sufficient. Phonics is one strand in a complex web of thinking activity and perception that new learners of literacy have to master. For most children this is mastered in the context of meaningful and 'real' literacy tasks. For some children extra help to acquire this phonic knowledge can help speed up this learning, usually those who are just a little behind their peers. Years of working and researching children who have very great difficulty in learning to read and write confirm for anyone to takes the trouble to check it out, that there is much more involved in becoming a fluent reader than knowing sounds!
Sue Lange, Westcliff-on-sea
I truly believe that the problems so many children are encountering with learning to read are due to the lack of support given at home. I think more emphasis needs to be placed on the role of parents in teaching their children to read. Parents are SO ready to blame the teachers & the methods they employ but what are they doing about it? Parents need to spend more time with their children reading rather than putting them down in front of the TV & leaving it all to the school!
Rebecca Cudby, Leighton Buzzard
50 years ago we were taught to read by this method. 52 kids in a class (mostly working class) and we could read very well and enjoyed books. This method is common sense and our children latterly have been short-changed by fancy radical theories which don't work.
C Smith, Mansfield, Notts.
I am an experienced teacher and literacy consultant for the Primary National Strategy. There is too much confusion regarding the teaching of phonics. The Ruth Miskin programme described above teaches phonics in the same way as Progression in Phonics, Playing with Sounds, Jolly Phonics, THRASS and other schemes. In my opinion, it is not the scheme that is important - but systematic, direct teaching. If you place too much trust in one scheme, you may not offer a balanced curriculum. Having seen Ruth Miskin's materials, I am concerned about the lack of teaching of writing and contextualised learning that is present. It is time that government and the media recognise that low standards in reading are not caused by a lack of a particular teaching method or scheme - but by a lack of teaching!
Claire Platt, Newton Abbot
I have a six year old son who is clever but so far has not grasped the concept of reading. It doesn't seem to make sense to him as he does not have a solid grounding on the sounds the letters make. He has been taught very differently from my older son and I feel this has held back his progress. Instead of repetitive simple reading books they have been given books way above their level and I have been told not to expect him to be able to read them but to persevere with reading them to him and eventually he will be recognising words and developing an interest in reading. I feel this has the opposite effect and simply puts him off reading as he sees big words and doesn't want to attempt to try to read himself. I will be very interested to follow your programme as I feel strongly that teaching now is skipping the basics of reading and writing and children are not getting a good grounding at an early age.
Wendy McCrorie, Ayrshire
I am a Reading Recovery Tutor in Northern Ireland, where a variety of synthetic phonic programmes have recently been introduced, including "Jolly Phonics" and "Graphophonics". We have found these programmes to be helpful to the broad spectrum of children in that they have reduced the number of children requiring the Reading Recovery Programme. But they have not succeeded with the very lowest achieving children, who still require an individually tailored one-to-one programme in order to succeed. These children succeed in the Reading Recovery Programme when nothing else has helped. In fact it is painful to listen to some of the children who have failed in the synthetic phonics programme and are trying to sound out every word in reading, including irregular high frequency words such as "you", "are", "have", "come". As your introduction states, synthetic phonics is a traditional method, it didn't just "fall out of fashion", it has already been proved for a very long time that it fails if it is the only method used for teaching children to read. All children need a broad and balanced instruction in reading, using various methods, in order to be successful readers.
Gillian Dalton, Carrickfergus
I have been teaching synthetic phonics for over 30 years. It rescues strugglers, dyslexic or not. For infants, it prevents dyslexics becoming word-blind. It should be used everywhere and would cut education costs dramatically, with vast improvement in results, and no loss of potential. Teacher job satisfaction would rocket.
Mona McNee, Whiston, Merseyside
I started school when I was four and learned to read using the very efficient c-a-t spells cat and so on. About two years later, mother took me to the town library where I was allowed, as it was my first visit, to take out "Oliver Twist" from the adult section. This was not unusual in those days because we had reading and writing every day at school and parents wanted to know what we had learned. I feel so sorry for the children in many schools who are not taught properly, not through any fault of the teachers but because of all the half-baked ideas which are imposed from Whitehall. My daughter recently got out of teaching because of all the restrictions and programmes after 30 odd years. Welcome to Blair's Britain.
Charles Taylor, Bristol
My first introduction to phonics was when my mother taught me to read. That was in the days when phonics was not named as such, and was certainly not in vogue. In the 30 odd years of my mother's teaching experience she has seen many waves and is not surprised to see phonics come back. As for me, I have an English Conversation school here in Hokkaido, Japan, with around 50 children, and two children of my own (ages 3 and 5). To a certain degree the Jolly Phonics system works out here, but overall, teaching the children the phonetic sounds, and then going on to teach phonemes and sight words is undoubtedly the most successful method out here in the EFL world.
Kate Sato, Sapporo, Japan
I am a teacher and tutor and teach children aged from 5-16 years. I have found that pupils learn by a combination of reading methods. However, I believe that it is essential for phonics to be taught as this method is fundamental to reading ability. Without learning phonics, pupils are unable to sound out words and make sense of them. They do not even attempt to read some. Often they skip words and end up having little comprehension of what they are reading. Spelling is also affected by a lack of phonics teaching. Pupils are unable to split words into syllables. Without a good grounding in phonics, the problem is perpetuated throughout their lives as they do not become fluent readers and they are deterred from reading.
Zennia Esterson, London
I work in a Foundation Stage two class (four and five year olds) in a challenging school. The children find learning to read and write very difficult and their own entry assessment scores are low. I have trialled the synthetic phonics programme with my class and by week two I was amazed by the results, the children were already recognising the letters of the alphabet and were reading three letter words. We finished the programme this week and have assessed the children - most children can read and write three, four and five letter words! I will be running this hugely successful programme again and have spoken to the literacy coordinator about extending the programme to the rest of the school. Children are now choosing to write and use the book area in their choosing time within the classroom which they did not do before. I am in the middle of studying for my masters in early education and synthetic phonics is my chosen focus for my next module, following the success in my classroom. I wish I had found this programme years ago it has made a huge difference to the children I teach, their confidence and self-esteem has grown as they can now succeed in reading and writing.
Joanna Bradford, Sheffield
We, Dr Pauline Dixon and Professor James Tooley from the EG West Centre at the University of Newcastle, have been working in private slum schools in Asia and in Africa for around four years. As part of our research we have carried out a project analysing the effects of synthetic phonics teaching in the slums of Hyderabad India, using Jolly Phonics packages. English is very important to slum parents, who want their children to have better life chances than they did. We decided to test whether using a phonics package would increase the ability of poor children in India to read, write and spell in English. We trained five researchers to teach a programme of "Jolly Phonics" for six months in 14 schools, for one hour a day. 250 children, aged around six or seven years old in class one, participated in this learning group and we also had around 250 children in the control group. We tested both groups at the beginning of the project in August/September 2004 and then at the end in February 2005. We found that the average child in the learning group improved their reading age by 13 months over the six month period and the average child in the control group (not using phonics but their original teaching method) improved by eight months. Not only did the children in the learning group improve more in reading, spelling and pronunciation, but they grew in confidence as they could read everything that was put in front of them by sounding out the letters rather than having to remember whole words taught to them by their teacher. Reading words like "astronaut" was easy to those doing phonics, older siblings and children wanted to know the "secret" of sounding out. Children on the phonics programme often reported they went home to teach their illiterate parents how to start reading using phonics. This indeed is a very exciting time in Hyderabad, as the Educare Trust is promoting "Jolly Phonics" in schools in low-income areas in the city. They are giving them the opportunity to acquire a phonics kit and have teachers trained and mentored in the teaching of phonics. I will be visiting Hyderabad in early June to oversee some of the training and visit schools that take up the phonics challenge.
Dr Pauline Dixon, Newcastle
I learnt to pronounce words using the basic letters, using basic phonics. I am 42. I had read Jane Eyre twice by the time I was seven. We should be ashamed of ourselves for allowing the destruction of an entire generation's future.
Ken Frost, London